The Hocking County Sheriff is crediting a local gun store owner for his courage and for saving lives. "I believe he did prevent a mass shooting that was probably going to occur at Ohio University in Athens," said Sheriff Lanny North.
John Downs, who has owned Downs Bait and Guns for 28 years, said he was working in the store Monday afternoon when a man came in wanting to buy a long gun. Downs said 25-year-old James Howard passed a background check. But he'd asked some questions and made some statements that Downs found suspicious and indicated he may want to harm himself and others.
"There was red flag for me, I am like , I won't allow that I don't want that to be on me," Downs said. So he refused to sell him the gun or any gear.
Downs said Howard was angry when he left the store and made some threats, but that he told Howard he had a right not to sell him a firearm. "He started cussing me and this and that, before he left he said you don't know who I am. I just said, you know what bud, I have a really bad feeling about this, I just can't sell you the gun."
Deputies said Howard returned to the store about an hour and a half later, so Downs called 911. "I had some customers in here, put them all in a back room and I locked the door, turned the light out and shut my open sign off."
Sheriff North said they tracked Howard to a nearby Walmart where he was buying "survival gear and an enormous amount of ammunition." North said it tells him that Howard had something sinister in mind,"something that was going to take a lot of lives. Apparently he was frustrated about something that happened at OU in Athens."
Howard is a former Ohio University student and hockey player.
Deputies said Howard was purchasing camouflage clothing, gloves, and ammunition when he was arrested without incident at Walmart. They conducted a search warrant on Howard's car and said they found " a .22 Caliber rifle, multiple receipts, miscellaneous paperwork involving medical and mental health." Authorities said Howard had purchased another weapon at an Athens gun store.
Ohio University Police Chief Andrew Powers said he applauds the quick thinking of the gun store owner in Logan to refuse the sale and let authorities know he was concerned about Howard. Powers said Howard had withdrawn from OU on Monday and later shoved a staff member at Bird Arena. Sources said that staff member was an assistant hockey coach.
Powers said Howard had reportedly told a friend he was going to buy a gun.
Police would not discuss possible motives for Howard's alleged altercation with the staff member. Howard was charged in Athens County Municipal Court and was being held at the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail. Police said he had been living in Athens but had recently returned to Canfield - in the Youngstown area - where he had left his cell phone. Investigators had originally pinged the phone hoping to find his whereabouts. Detectives said they believe Howard was trying to throw off police so they would not know where he was after a planned attack.
Records showed Howard had asked Downs "about land that he was able to go walk out into the woods and just live off the land and not be found, however a place where his vehicle could be found by his parents."
"I hope he gets the help he needs, apparently he does have something wrong with him and hopefully he gets some help," said Downs.