On Monday afternoon, the Alexandria Police Department received a phone call saying that a 31-year-old woman in the 500 block of South Columbus Street had a gun and was contemplating suicide. Special operations officers descended upon the Olde Towne West Apartments, and a negotiations team tried to open a line of communication. But no response came from the house, and nobody answered the phone.
Twelve hours later, in the early morning hours of Aug. 16, a team of about 20 special operations officers deployed tear gas and invaded the apartment. After a few minutes, they radioed the mobile command unit and reported back.
Nobody was home.
The 12-hour standoff, which included closing traffic to four blocks during rush hour and preventing residents of Olde Towne West from returning home, turned out to be a misunderstanding that occupied the Alexandria Police Department, Fire Department, emergency-response personnel and other city employees. But the woman at the center of the controversy remains a mystery. Police say that she is now in custody and that a temporary detention order has been issued.
"She is currently in the process of being mentally evaluated and police detectives are assisting staff at mental health," said Capt. John Crawford, commander of the Public Information Office. "No criminal charges have been placed against the woman in custody."
<b>NEIGHBORS DESCRIBE</b> the woman as someone who would often have loud disagreements with her companion — inside and outside the house. The screaming and cursing could be heard late into the night, and several complaints were made to the Alexandria Police Department.
Police say that they have responded to calls for service at the address five times in the past month. The first time was in late July at 6:42 p.m. The other four times were two weeks ago at times staggered from the earliest at 1:20 a.m. to the latest at 7:05 p.m. A police statement reported that "mental health issues were a concern" when officers arrived on the scene.
Neighbors say that the late-night arguments between the women were prompted by recent infidelity.
"I think she got mad and called the police," said Angie Wilborne, a neighbor who could not return to her apartment until 2 a.m. "In my opinion, she blew this whole thing way out of proportion and that's why the police came here."
Crawford said the Alexandria Police Department would not disclose who made the original call or what evidence they had that the woman might be inside, insisting that the police had "reason to believe" that a suicidal woman was in the apartment. He described the original caller a "concerned friend," adding that it was "not a girlfriend, not a lover."
<b>THE ORIGINAL CALL</b> was made at 12:29 p.m. on Aug. 15. The "concerned friend" said that the woman who lived at 527 South Columbus St. had a gun and was suicidal. At 12:33 p.m., a team of about 20 special operations officers set up a perimeter around the apartment and began evacuating adjacent apartments. Another team of about 20 officers worked on a negotiations team, attempting to open a line of communication with the woman.
Officers stopped traffic on the 400 and 500 blocks of South Columbus Street and South Alfred Street, prompting afternoon commuters to find alternative ways to the Capital Beltway. By 3 p.m., police created a second perimeter to prevent walking traffic from entering the area.
Around 5 p.m., the special operations team deployed the police robot to the apartment to drop off a bullhorn. Because the woman was not responding to the door or the telephone, police wanted to give her another way to communicate with the negotiations team. But the bullhorn remained untouched.
Eventually, the robot entered the apartment and gave the mobile command unit — situated in a nearby parking lot — with a live video feed. But two rooms toward the back of the apartment could not be accessed by the robot. So the situation dragged on for hours while police waited to hear from the woman who was not there.
After midnight, the command team was growing weary. In a senior-level meeting in the mobile command unit, the incident commander met with the special operations team commander and the negotiations team commander. The three police lieutenants decided to deploy tear gas and invade.
A few minutes later, the plan unfolded in the Olde Towne West Apartments. When the team radioed that the apartment was empty, the mood in the mobile command unit was upbeat.
"I think there was a moment of relief that we did not find a distraught woman who killed herself," said Crawford. "We did everything by the book. This was a textbook operation."
<b>OLDE TOWNE WEST APARTMENTS</b> is a mixture of market-rate units and low-income housing, known as "Section 8," which is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The complex has 319 units, 104 market-rate apartments and 215 Section 8 units.
"Most people who live here are nice people, and they work hard," said Belynda Wimbish, who has lived in Olde Towne West for more than 20 years. She said that she was appalled by the late-night arguments between the women and the eventual 12-hour standoff. "They do not represent our neighborhood. They represent a very small portion of what the Olde Towne West community is all about."
Wimbush works two jobs, and she was trying to get some sleep when police started using the loudspeaker to communicate with the empty apartment. Unable to sleep, she walked outside to get an update. That's when she noticed that the neighborhood had been transformed by the standoff, which created a festive atmosphere.
"Everyone was sitting out there with their lawn chairs," she said. "It looked like a picnic." In the end, she believes that the Alexandria Police Department acted appropriately. "There were so many variables, you just didn't know what the truth was," she said. "Anything could have happened."