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An unidentified gunman opened fire on a police officer early Wednesday afternoon in the area of Dowling Road and Potter Drive, Anchorage police said, leading to a large-scale search that closed the neighborhood, put schools on alert, and frightened residents and workers in the area. But the suspect got away and by evening the search was largely over.
The officer was not injured in the shooting, which was reported at 12:38 p.m., police spokeswoman Jennifer Castro said.
A massive manhunt involving dozens of uniformed officers, SWAT members in paramilitary garb, police dogs and a trooper helicopter failed to locate the suspect. The search lingered into the evening but the major effort was over about 5 p.m. Castro said investigators were following leads but the extra units were disbanded.
Police described the suspect as a white man who appeared to be in his 20s, about 5 feet 10 inches tall and 220 pounds. He was clean shaven, wearing a red hoodie, white shorts and a white baseball cap.
The officer, whom police aren't naming, had driven to a duplex in the 200 block of East Dowling Road where problems had been reported in the past, Castro said. He "was just doing his regular routine police work that he does and noticed this guy doing suspicious activity" outside, she said. Police aren't specifying what sort of suspicious behavior.
In the residence parking area and outside his patrol vehicle, the officer asked the man what he was doing. The man started to walk away and the officer ordered him to stop, Castro said.
"The male turned at that point at him and shot at him and ran away," Castro said. Several shots were fired, she said. The officer did not return fire, she said.
Officers created a perimeter near Campbell Creek, which flows south-southwest of Dowling Road. The search was concentrated in the woods of the greenbelt along Campbell Creek and extended to 72nd Avenue, Castro said.
Police knew the area behind the residence, on Cordova Street, has been a dumping ground for stolen vehicles, she said. Just the day before, an officer had gone there regarding a stolen vehicle.
With officers searching the neighborhood Wednesday and the suspect still at large, a nearby school, Taku Elementary, was secured in "stay-put mode" with locked exterior doors but normal instruction inside. As school got out for the day later in the afternoon, officials decided to hold children there who ride buses or walk to the north, a School District spokeswoman said.
Parents were able to pick their children up, and those who live to the south of Taku, on East 72nd Avenue south of Dowling, were allowed to walk or ride buses home. By 4:30 p.m., only five or so children were left at school, spokeswoman Heidi Embley said.
Police blocked off Dowling at Old Seward Highway along with other streets in the mixed industrial-residential area. The Campbell Creek bike path was also sealed off by police. All roads were reopened before 5 p.m.
Five schools in the vicinity were originally in stay-put mode, the School District said. The five were Polaris K-12, SAVE High School, the Rilke Schule German charter school, Northern Lights ABC School and Taku.
The new school year began Wednesday and schools haven't yet had a chance to drill for stay-put or complete lockdown, Embley said. But the five schools all did well with the real-life run through, she said.
At Taku, 332 children showed up for the first day; the enrollment tops 375, Embley said. Parents of affected children were being called.
The school principal was kept informed by a police officer who works in the schools, Embley said.
School officials agreed to hold children at school so they weren't released into "a police perimeter," Embley said. Staff members stayed late to watch the children until either police cleared the area or parents picked them up.
Earlier in the day, in the gritty industrial area southwest of the shooting site, Joel Vazquez, 29, had been discussing plans with his partner at the car repair shop they own.
"All of a sudden, we hear two shots, and then three consecutive shots," Vazquez said. "Two minutes later, the sirens went off. I heard tires screaming."
The neighborhood has had serious problems with people he believes are drug users, and someone broke into one of the cars on his lot. He's now living on site in a camper to protect his property.
"As soon as it gets dark, things start getting a little crazy," he said.
Residents of an apartment complex east of the shooting spent an anxious afternoon watching the search unfold in the street and woods outside.
Shannon Reeves, 32, said that a wave of police officers had arrived within three minutes of the shooting, quickly staking out a position on Dowling Road near the duplex. She watched from an upstairs window, fearing for her own safety.
"I'm thinking, 'What happens if this guy comes in here and takes me hostage?' " she said. "I just felt kind of trapped."
Reeves' complex was tidy and appeared well-maintained.
But one of her neighbors, Ben Hightower, 23, said the police had paid the duplex frequent visits.
"Just last week, they had the driveway blocked off, and they were ripping through a guy's truck," he said. "They've had problems with this house like every week, it seems."
He said that after the shooting, police had led several people out of the house and photographed them.
An hour after the search efforts ended, officers were still collecting evidence from outside the duplex. No one answered the door at either of the two apartments.
Castro, the police spokeswoman, said police hadn't linked the duplex and the suspect. But she said cops had previously responded to calls from the residence and nearby.
"It has been an active area with a variety of calls from burglaries and drugs to different things," she said.
Allen Miranda, 27, said he was caught up in the police search, ordered out of his black Chevy Suburban, and held on the ground until police determined he was not their suspect.
Castro said police did stop people whose description matched the suspect's, but none was the right man. She didn't see any reference in the police log to what Miranda described, though.
Miranda works at Re-Bath, a remodeling business on the Old Seward Highway, and was headed to Home Depot on Abbott Road for supplies when he got turned around by the closure of Dowling. He tried to cut through on 64th Avenue, where two unmarked black cars stopped his truck.
Officers pointing their rifles ordered him out and on the ground, he said. "I tried to explain to them my name was Allen Miranda and I worked for Re-Bath." He gave them his work ID and the number to the office.
"They told me not to move so I didn't move. Thank God it was wet outside so they didn't see a huge wet spot on my pants," Miranda said.
Officers held him for about 10 minutes while others checked his story.
"They apologized profusely and let me on my way," Miranda said.
Police warn that the suspect is believed armed and dangerous.
"What we ask or instruct people is not to be the hero necessarily but if they see anything suspicious to just call police and report it," Castro said.
Police ask anyone with information to call 786-8900. Anyone who wants to be anonymous can call Crimestoppers at 561-STOP (7867).
By NATHANIEL HERZ
Anchorage Daily News / adn.com