The president of a historically Black college in Jacksonville said Monday that he is convinced a group of students and a security officer thwarted a potential campus massacre by the same gunman who is alleged to have killed three people in a racially motivated attack at a Dollar General store near the school.
Dr. A. Zachary Faison, Jr., president and CEO of Edward Waters University in the New Town neighborhood of Jacksonville, called Lt. Antonio Bailey a "hero" for confronting the alleged gunman and chasing him off campus after a group of students flagged him down and informed him about the "unwelcomed and unauthorized intruder on our campus."
"We, of course, now know that individual, motivated by racism, just within a span of a few minutes, later went on a coldblooded mass shooting spree, taking the lives of three innocent members of our New Town community," Faison said during a news conference Monday afternoon attended by Bailey.
But Bailey rejected the "hero" label, praising the students who flagged him down and alerted him about the suspicious campus intruder they spotted wearing a bulletproof vest, latex gloves and a mask.
"We preach if you see something, say something. And they did just that,” Bailey said.
Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters confirmed on Sunday that 21-year-old Ryan Christopher Palmeter, the suspect in the killing rampage that unfolded at the Dollar General store, stopped at Edward Waters University before committing the massacre.
Waters said evidence collected so far leads investigators to believe Palmeter allegedly went to the school only to change into a bulletproof vest and allegedly gear up for the store attack. But Faison said he now suspects the university, a historically Black Christian college, was the suspect's original target.
"He could have gone anywhere. It's not by happenstance, it's not on a whim that he chose to come to Florida's first historically Black college and university," Faison said of the shooter's presence on campus.
Faison noted that the suspect claimed in writings police discovered in the aftermath of the massacre that he wanted to kill Black people.
"He came to where he thought African Americans would be, and that's Florida's first HBCU," Faison said. "It's also not lost on us that he came to the New Town community. This is the heart of the Black community in Jacksonville. I won't take qualms with what Sheriff Waters said, but that is what we believe."
The alleged killer, according to a timeline the sheriff laid out, was spotted at 12:48 p.m. ET Saturday in a faculty parking lot behind the university library, and a video was subsequently discovered on TikTok of him at the college putting on a bulletproof tactical vest.
Bailey, a former Mississippi police and corrections officer, said that about that same time, he was on patrol and was flagged down by a group of students, who told him they had just witnessed a white man in the faculty parking lot putting on a bulletproof vest, gloves and a mask.
Bailey said he immediately drove his campus security vehicle to the parking lot and saw the stranger inside a tan car wearing body armor and a mask. He said he did not see any weapons at the time.
"For you to have on a tactical vest, gloves and a mask, you know, the question raised [was] what are you doing here?" Bailey said.
He said he parked his car and approached the man's vehicle on foot, getting within 10 to 15 feet, before the driver saw him and suddenly fled at a high rate of speed, jumping a curb and nearly hitting a brick column as he left the parking lot.
Bailey said he went back to his car and chased the vehicle, getting the license plate number and noting the direction the driver was headed. He said he flagged down a Jacksonville sheriff's deputy and informed him of the suspect.
On Sunday, Sheriff Waters said the deputy was preparing an alert for officers to be on the lookout for the man Bailey described when the shooting at the Dollar General erupted.
"I just wanted to make sure that everyone was safe and that I got the license plate to where if anything came about, then I could provide that," Bailey said.
Asked if he suspects the man was preparing to commit an attack on campus, Bailey said, "Only the gunman knows that. I just thank God that I was there, that the students were there and able to alert me."
Waters said on Sunday that just minutes after fleeing the university, Palmeter opened fire on a car outside the Dollar General store, killing his first victim, 52-year-old Angela Michelle Carr, before entering the business and gunning down store employee Anolt Joseph "AJ" Laguerre Jr., 19, and customer Jerrald De'Shaun Gallion, 29.
The sheriff said the shooting rampage lasted a little over 11 minutes and that the suspect died from suicide after calling his father from inside the store and directing him to his bedroom at their home in the Jacksonville suburb of Orange Park, where the father found his son's last will and testament and a suicide note.
Bailey said he felt "saddened" when he later learned the same man he chased out of the university parking lot committed the store shooting.
Faison commended Bailey and the students who alerted him for possibly "thwarting" a massacre at the college. But Bailey reserved his praise for the students.
“It was the act of the students that came forth as to why I was able to do what I did," Bailey said. "I’m no hero. This is just an activity that we do on a daily basis to protect our students."