‘Fight or flight’ — Bridgewater College student recounts horrors of deadly shooting

A makeshift memorial on Bridgewater College’s campus pays tribute to Campus Safety Officer J.J. Jefferson and College Police Officer John Painter. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

By Jessica Kronzer, contributor

Editor’s Note: Adrielle Benner, a senior Bridgewater College student, spoke with Jessica Kronzer on Tuesday evening following a deadly shooting on the college’s campus that sent students into a three-hour long lockdown and left two campus officers dead. The following events are as described by Benner as she witnessed shots fired and her experience hiding from the suspect. 

Correction and clarification: This story was updated to include a comment from the college regarding its active shooter training. And a previous version of the story included an incorrect reference to weather alerts.

Forty minutes of fear and uncertainty. 

Adrielle Benner said she spent those 40 “excruciating minutes” with a plastic chair shoved up against a locked bathroom door to barricade herself and about 10 other Bridgewater College students into the make-shift shelter while fatal violence raged somewhere close by. 

“You could hear every single gunshot,” Benner said. “It was crazy because it just happened so close to us. I never thought I would witness anything like that.”

About a half-hour after the shooting began, police representing departments across the area had apprehended Alexander Wyatt Campbell, a 27-year-old former Bridgewater College student whose last-known address was in Ashland, Virginia. He is accused of killing two campus police officers. Campus Police Officer John Painter and Safety Officer J.J. Jefferson died after being shot when confronting the suspect, according to police.

Classes, which were cancelled for the rest of the week, will resume Monday. And the college has sought to channel some of the grief caused by losing two of its own by establishing the John Painter and J.J. Jefferson Memorial Student Support Fund “to memorialize our fallen officers.”

Those students and employees who were nearby when the shooting began won’t soon forget what they heard and saw. For students like Benner, the experience already has changed them.

Before the lockdown 

Benner, a senior digital media major, was taking an exam on the ground floor of Memorial Hall on Tuesday afternoon. She said it was a bit hot and stuffy, so the professor asked students to pop a window to her right.

The first gunshot went off around 1:20 p.m. 

It didn’t register with Benner at first. 

Could the sound have come from a race starting at the nearby track? Or was it target practice, Benner wondered. 

When Benner turned her head to the right toward the sound, she saw someone on the ground about 20 feet away.  She later learned it was campus Safety Officer J.J. Jefferson. 

Then she saw a figure. 

“A man in a blue jacket standing over him,” Benner said. 

She said the man in the blue jacket shot the officer again two or three times after the victim was already lying on the ground. 

Benner heard the gunshots. She heard screams. 


After the gunshots 

Benner said her friend, Tyler, shut the window. 

“As soon as those subsequent gunshots were fired, it was like fight or flight,” Benner said. “My anxiety went through the roof.”

Students ran out of the classroom, looking for somewhere to hide. Benner referred to it as almost an “every man for himself” scenario. 

The students went to their professor’s office, but Benner quickly noticed issues with their chosen hiding spot. 

“The blinds were up, the door was open, it wasn’t locked,” she said. “And I kind of went into command mode.”

Benner asked people to shut the blinds and lock the door, but her professor stood “frozen.” 

A short time later, Benner moved everyone to the bathroom, which had a smaller window and a door they could lock from the inside. 

Students worked together to shove a plastic chair against the door, although Benner said she wondered what difference that would make. 

Benner, 20, grew up hearing about school shootings around the country. She, like many U.S. students her age, participated in active shooter drills in K-12 schools. Benner wondered if those experiences helped prepare her and other students for the lockdown better than her professor. 

“It’s like my body went into this, like automatic mode of sorts,” she said.  

Police and investigators worked the scene of the deadly shooting at Bridgewater College on Tuesday, Feb. 1. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

Waiting 

Benner said the students were scared. They couldn’t tell if the shooter was coming into the building — or was already inside. Students began calling or texting their parents. Benner had to borrow a friend’s phone to text her mother.

“It was more casual than I wanted it to be,” Benner said. 

“Hey, Mom, this is Adrielle. Well, there was a shooter on Bridgewater campus,” she said she texted her mom, while reassuring her that she was safe and hiding. 

As Benner recalled it, the alert that the campus was in lockdown felt like it came “surprisingly” long after the shots began. Bridgewater College’s first shelter-in-place alert went out at 1:24 p.m. — four minutes after the shots went off.

Shaking and anxious, students reintroduced themselves to one another to pass time. 

“I felt like I was hushing people every two minutes or so,” Benner said. She was concerned loud voices would give up their hiding spot. 

It wasn’t until a bit later she realized no one called 911. She said it was “miraculous” that a classmate who finished her exam early and witnessed the shooting outside ran into the library and dialed 911.

“But our first thought was to call people we love and tell them, just in case something happens,” Benner said. “It wasn’t calling authorities.”

Cranes with a flag pay tribute to the fallen Bridgewater College officers before the procession with their bodies came through Harrisonburg. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

Relief followed by mourning 

Around 40 minutes later, Benner said a professor came knocking on the bathroom door to let the students know they could come out. 

It was a relief for Benner and other students, who worried how they’d know the difference between a police officer knocking or a gunman trying to lure them out. 

Benner said when she looked out the window she saw a sea of police officers. One-by-one, the students told Virginia State Police officers what they saw, heard and remembered. 

“It just gets really nerve-racking to try and recall everything in a sequential order,” Benner said. “Because you’re taking an exam, and then all of a sudden, somebody has been killed, like 20 feet from you. And there’s no way to reconcile that or recall things calmly … because you’re just not prepared for it.” 

In an “aftershock,” Benner said she checked the news and wondered who had died. But it wasn’t until she saw photos of Campbell being arrested she felt the danger was over. 

College’s response to tragedy 

Tuesday’s attack shook the small liberal arts college of more than 1,500 students. Bridgewater’s President David Bushman said the college community was focused on supporting the families of Painter and Jefferson, the fallen officers. 

“Words will never be enough to express our sadness and our grief,” Bushman told reporters Tuesday night before a police briefing on the shooting. 

On Thursday, a procession carried Painter and Jefferson’s bodies north from Roanoke on I-81. The campus also hosted a “service of reflection and remembrance” Sunday night for students, faculty and staff to attend. 

Painter’s funeral is scheduled for 4 to 7 p.m. Monday at Kyger Funeral Home and is open to the public. A private funeral is planned for Jefferson, according to Bridgewater College. 

A public memorial for Jefferson and Painter will be held 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Atlantic Union Bank Center on JMU’s campus. 

A statement from Bridgewater said that letters of condolence can be mailed for Bridgewater College Police Chief Milton Franklin at 402 East College Street, Bridgewater, Virginia 22812. 

The John Painter and J.J. Jefferson Memorial Student Support Fund began collecting donations. And college officials said Bridgewater College Campus Police Department will be consulted in deciding what to do with the money. 

Moving forward

Benner, meanwhile, said she is looking for understanding as she tries to process Tuesday’s shooting.

“I really can’t get the sound of the gunshots out of my head,” she said. “It’s not something that happens to most people, and it shouldn’t, but it did.” 

Benner said she’s not ready for business-as-usual and wants Bridgewater to conduct active shooter drills because the “moments of confusion when we were in the office and then transitioning into the bathroom” could bring added safety risks. 

Abbie Parkhurst, associate vice president for marketing and communications, said the college provides active shooter training to faculty and staff and an active shooter training video is available on the college’s website.

For Benner, though, even the word “safety” doesn’t mean what it used to. 

At a school named the safest college in Virginia in November, Benner used to go on long walks around campus to clear her head and stretch her legs after studying. 

“I don’t think I’m going to do that anymore,” she said. 

She’s forced to reconsider what feels safe.

“It’s probably just going to be a lot of rethinking what safety means, and where you feel safe because anything could happen at any time,” Benner said. “And I don’t think I was prepared for that. Especially not here.”


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