Matt Harris [Photo courtesy of U.S. Marshals Service]

Reports of men with weapons at or near schools in Moab in recent weeks continue to present challenges and raise suspicion in the community, but children at all schools are deemed safe.

On Monday, March 11, the Grand County School District placed all schools on a lockdown sometime between 2 and 2:30 p.m. The lockdown paused school activity; students missed a class once the lockdown was lifted within an hour of being initiated.

The Grand County School District soon posted a social media message saying that the lockdown was caused by a federal law enforcement agency arriving in Moab to conduct an operation, but who had failed to communicate with local police and had been preparing for the operation in the Grand County Middle School’s parking lot. The school district’s announcement was shared by school officials on the district’s public Facebook page.

La Sal resident Lisa Martinez said she and her husband “were quite concerned” when one of their nine children began to call and text them from the Grand County High School. The Martinezes, like all other families, did not receive an emergency call or text message from the school district to notify them of the situation.

“It was my son at the high school that actually called panicking from the classroom because they were on lockdown and they were told it was not a drill, so the kids were very scared inside of the classrooms,” Martinez said.

She said she reassured her son that he was safe, urged him to remain calm and told him that she loved him.

Grand County School District Superintendent JT Stroder said on March 12 that an educator at Grand County High School called him shortly after 2:05 p.m. and asked about a lockdown, but Stroder said he wasn’t aware of one.

“At that same time, I think we had a parent on the phone that had said, ‘I’m just letting you guys know that we saw armed officers going across (the grocery store) parking lot with guns drawn toward the middle school,’” Stroder said.

Stroder said he called the middle school, where he was told that a teacher was seeing “men getting out of a vehicle in the parking lot wearing green body armor and assault weapons.”

When the teacher said the men were in unmarked vehicles, Stroder said he told the middle school educator to place the school on a lockdown and he initiated the lockdown process at the other district schools.

Stroder said he then called the police department to inform them that the schools were going into lockdown and Stroder met with Moab City Police Chief Jim Winder, who had responded to the scene shortly after sergeant Aaron Woodard, who was first to arrive.

“There must have been some citizens that called them,” Stroder said of the police department’s response.

Winder said students were told schools were going into lockdown mode and “it is not a drill.” Winder said there was “straight-up panic from students” whose parents said their children were crying and praying.

Woodard was on scene within 1 minute of the call coming into police dispatch, Winder said. By the time Winder arrived, he said Woodard had already de-escalated the situation somewhat, and had verified that the federal law enforcement officers were not a risk to the school and were unknowingly staging for their operation in the school’s parking lot. Woodard did not respond to a call for comment by press time on March 13. Winder said that when he arrived at the middle school parking lot, Winder himself became upset when he saw the U.S. Marshals “chortling,” and not appearing to understand the seriousness of their mistake.

The middle school campus was nearly empty by 4:30 p.m. that same day when Martinez was picking up one of her children in the parking lot. She said she had heard a rumor that the reasoning behind the lockdown was that law enforcement “forgot to notify everyone it was a training.”

“It was a SWAT training and they just forgot to notify the local police and the schools that they were going to do it so people seen people in vests with guns and so people panicked and called it in,” she said she had heard from her children in the schools.

The U.S. Marshals were not in Moab to conduct a training. They were looking for a fugitive, confirmed Matt Harris, the U.S. Marshal for the District of Utah.

Speaking by phone on March 12, Harris said the U.S. Marshals Service Violent Fugitive Apprehension Team (VFAST) had arrived in Moab from Salt Lake City to conduct an operation and arrest a fugitive in the Moab area. Harris said the fugitive was not arrested by the team on Monday, but said the community should not be alarmed and that there is no threat to public safety.

Harris said it is the agency’s protocol to call local law enforcement to provide advance notice, but locals put the call in to police first.

“Whoever called, they called so quickly and we didn’t have a chance to call local law enforcement,” Harris said.

Winder and Grand County Sheriff Steven White said local law enforcement should have received notice much further in advance by phone or in-person.

“We would never run an operation without calling the local police to notify them of our operation,” Harris said. “We believed our meeting location was in an abandoned building and we would never intentionally stage an operation in a school parking lot.”

The Grand County Middle School building may look nondescript to passers-by, as it dates back to the 1950s, but schools are never used by law enforcement officers for staging an operation to arrest a fugitive, Harris said.

Harris said the team relied on Google Maps for directions in Moab and for finding what they assumed was an abandoned building. Google Maps and GPS are known to be unreliable in the Moab area. Moab area residents say that in 2017, a tractor-trailer driver followed a GPS and took a wrong turn that led him to the edge of the cliffs on the Shafer Trail in Canyonlands National Park.

“Google Maps is a regular way of how we would get somewhere,” Harris explained. When asked if the U.S. Marshals use other types of mapping systems to get to locations to stage operations, he said, “Special maps? No, we’re not as good as they make us sound on TV.”

Google did not immediately respond for comment on its map services in the Moab area, but a spokesperson later sent the following message in an email: “We use a number of different sources to accurately model the constantly changing real world, including authoritative third-party sources, contributions from users, and Street View and satellite imagery. Overall, this provides a comprehensive and up-to-date map, but when there are inaccuracies, we work to address as quickly as possible.”

As for why the U.S. Marshals didn’t recognize that the area was a middle school premises, Harris said the team had arrived in the rear parking lot where “there were no school signs visibly present, little if any cars and no school buses or marking.”

Harris also said the team, although driving unmarked SUVs, were wearing insignia and labels on their vests.

Media specialist Dave Oney at the U.S. Marshals Service Office of Congressional and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., said on March 12 that he had not heard of the U.S. Marshals’ mishap in Moab.

U.S. Marshals spokesperson Nikki Credic-Barrett said Harris is a presidential appointee to the position of U.S. Marshal for the District of Utah and was sworn in by President Donald J. Trump in 2018.

Harris extended an apology to the community and said, “I apologize to the community, parents, children and school district. As a parent myself of young children, I truly understand the anguish of believing your child is in harm’s way. Out intention was and always will be to help make your community safer.”

Sheriff White said on March 13 that despite a rumor that the U.S. Marshals had sent an email in advance to the sheriff’s office to notify local law enforcement of the Moab operation, White said that the sheriff’s office was only contacted by the U.S. Marshals after citizens had called the city police on the team.

“It should not have ever happened,” White said. “Communication would have fixed the problem. We will work it out with the U.S. Marshals Service to where it never happens again. It’s our obligation to make sure the community feels safe and protected.”

In Moab, parents are left wondering why the school district did not send out an official alert to notify parents through email, text or phone call.

Moab resident Josh Green has two children at Helen M. Knight Elementary, but said he didn’t know about the lockdown until his children mentioned it to him when he arrived home after work. He then went to the district’s Facebook page to learn more.

“I was told via Facebook by the Grand County School District that in the case of a real emergency, they would have used email, text and Facebook to notify parents,” Green said. “They did not use all three as they want to reserve that for a real emergency. To me, this would have been a situation where they should have used all three. I did not find out until 4:45 in the evening.”

He said parents like himself are unlikely to check Facebook while at work, but he said he “definitely would answer a phone call from the school’s automated system.”

Stroder, who assumed the role of superintendent in 2018, said there has been no policy in place at the Grand County School District for guiding communication in the event of emergencies. He said the school district has been working on its policies for the past eight months and is continuing to reconsider and revise them.

Winder said criticism of the school district’s communication is “fair,” and said he had personally met with Stroder at the district to formulate a message to the community. Winder said he was surprised the message was shared only on Facebook and not through an email, text or phone call to parents from the district.

Harris said the U.S. Marshals Service is now reviewing its own procedures for operating in rural areas like Moab. He said the team mostly works in the Salt Lake valley.

“When you’re dealing with a rural community and there’s not that much going on, everybody knows everybody and everyone is mostly locals,” he said.

Winder said that he spoke at length with the U.S. Marshals and expressed dismay at the mistake they made, adding that he pointed out Main Street to them from the school’s parking lot and asked them “what in the world they thought they were doing staging an operation near Main Street.”

The Martinezes said they are thankful for the local police response to the incident.

“In this day and age, you’re always concerned because you never know,” Lisa Martinez said. “This is a relatively really safe area and you don’t feel a lot of the stuff like you would in Salt Lake, but it can happen anywhere.”

This incident follows another that happened weeks earlier in Moab when a Colorado man was apprehended by Moab police when he was found to be in possession of a handgun after being escorted off the Moab Charter School premises.

No injuries were reported in either incident.

Lack of communication, Google Maps leads to multi-school lockdown

“This is a relatively really safe area and you don’t feel a lot of the stuff like you would in Salt Lake, but it can happen anywhere.”