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'We got lucky': Police, school officials detail response to East threats

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Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken goes into further detail about last week's lockdown at East High School during a news conference at Duluth police headquarters Wednesday afternoon. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com.2 / 3
Duluth police officer Bill Stauber speaks with a reporter after a news conference at Duluth police headquarters Wednesday afternoon. Stauber was at East High School during the April 5 lockdown. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com.3 / 3

More than 150 students were kept inside the Duluth East High School cafeteria when the building went into a full lockdown Friday.

So was a man authorities say was threatening to commit a mass shooting.

"We got lucky," said Bill Stauber, the school resource officer. "We got really lucky. It's scary stuff."

The situation could have ended with tragedy. It didn't, police and school officials said Wednesday, because of a tip from a concerned citizen, emergency planning measures and a rapid, all-hands-on-deck response.

It took less than an hour from the time police received their first vague report of a man suspected of threatening violence at a school until they were able to arrest 35-year-old Travis Anthony John Warner Busch in the back of the school cafeteria.

A job coach who was supervising a vulnerable adult working in the kitchen, Busch allegedly made a series of threats in messages with a relative, describing how he could shoot up a school or theater and expressing plans to kill police officers.

That relative, who has not been publicly identified by authorities, turned to police for help.

"We are so thankful for the person that made that report," Duluth schools Superintendent Bill Gronseth said. "They're one of the true heroes in this story."

In Busch's car, officers seized a handgun cocked and loaded with hollow-point ammunition, according to a criminal complaint. And in his apartment, they found four additional firearms, including one that could possibly be modified to have fully automatic capabilities.

"I think our response demonstrates the seriousness and the concern we have," Duluth police Chief Mike Tusken said. "We will treat it as real and as serious until we learn otherwise. That's the way we operate with any threats of violence."

How the response unfolded

Police received the 911 call at 12:11 p.m. Even though they didn't initially know where the suspect was, they were able to take him into custody by 1:10 p.m.

"The response was exemplary," Tusken said. "Most of the 59 minutes were finding out enough information to pinpoint where the resources were going to go. And that was the most frustrating part of it, because we want to make sure we're timely in our response and that we're able to secure the suspect."

Tusken called Friday's incident an "anomaly." While police have responded to school threats in the past, he said they have typically been specific in time and location.

This time, they only knew the suspect was at some school in Duluth. That meant initially dispatching a cop to each of the 30 public, private and parochial school facilities in the city. The department's full patrol and investigative units were deployed.

Police quickly narrowed the scope of the response by obtaining location data for Busch's phone. The first ping placed it somewhere in the east end of town. A second narrowed down even further.

Police also had a description of the suspect and his vehicle. That's where Stauber came in.

He said he first learned of the situation when a supervisor told him that someone was making a threat in a school parking lot and wanted to do "suicide by cop." Eventually, a lieutenant showed him a photograph of Busch and told him that the suspect works with vulnerable adults.

For Stauber, who is in the school on a daily basis, that's when things clicked. He knew Busch had been supervising a worker in the cafeteria for a few weeks, so he proceeded to that area of the school.

"He wasn't where he was supposed to be," Stauber said. "They were supposed to be washing dishes. Him and the vulnerable adult weren't there. That kind of threw up a red flag for me. It's like, 'Is he in with these students there in the serving area?' That's when it got really real."

Stauber and officer Russ Bradley, who had some familiarity with Busch, found the suspect, along with the worker he was supervising, in the cold storage room in the far back end of the cafeteria. They arrested him without incident.

Stauber said Busch and the vulnerable adult were the only two people in the storage room. Built of brick, it's the room where the kitchen staff usually goes during lockdowns. But with a crowd of students in the lunchroom, everyone else had remained in the front serving area.

While the situation was resolved peacefully, Stauber said it left an uneasy feeling.

"We're not immune from things happening here," he said. "It just goes to show you things can happen anywhere, anytime."

Review process ongoing

Police and school officials have spent the past several days debriefing — a process that they said will continue, with input to be sought from schools across the city.

Tusken acknowledged a miscommunication over notification to schools at the beginning of the incident. Police initially said all public, private and parochial schools were notified of the situation — but it turned out private and parochial schools did not receive immediate word.

"Part of that equation is how do we move forward and make sure that all of our schools receive timely information that they can connect to," Tusken said. "And there's no doubt that will be a takeaway from our after-action (review)."

The chief said his officers are well-versed in responding to potentially critical incidents and schools. They regularly train in tactics and have in the past done exercises at Marshall School and the former Central High School building.

"They are priority calls," he said. "We are sending resources, we are thoroughly investigating them, we have policies that outline our response. We train in this and are well-prepared should that happen."

Gronseth said the district conducts background checks on all of its employees. For people like Busch, who worked in the school but was employed by nonprofit Choice Unlimited, the district relies on the outside organization to complete that process.

Even so, officials said there didn't appear to be any red flags with the suspect. Busch has no criminal history. And while a few officers were at least slightly familiar with him, Tusken said any past contact "wasn't necessarily negative."

"One thing that I think is important for all of us to remember is that there are significant mental health issues in all of society," he said. "We've got cops, lawyers, doctors — so to be quite honest, yes, we have to do our due diligence on all of our employees in this day and age.

"But recognize that still — despite all of our due diligence, despite all of the best efforts up front — people can be in mental health crises where they can make decisions that certainly impact public safety. Whether that's the case in this case or not, that remains to be seen."

A defense attorney said Tuesday that Busch does have mental health diagnoses and may have been affected by a medication he was using.

Busch faces felony charges of making threats of violence and possession of a machine gun conversion kit. He remains in the St. Louis County Jail on $200,000 bail, with his next court appearance set for April 30.