Townsfolk watching closely vacant Washington College

The common area between Daniel Z. Gibson Center for the Arts and the Casey Academic Center at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, saw little foot traffic on Thursday morning. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

The common area between Daniel Z. Gibson Center for the Arts and the Casey Academic Center at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, saw little foot traffic on Thursday morning. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

CHESTERTOWN, Md. — Life in this typically peaceful Eastern Shore town continued easing back toward normalcy on Thursday, according to residents. But until a possibly armed Washington College student is located, however, it can’t be business as usual.

Said downtown business owner Michelle Timmons, “People are still kind of on edge a little bit because you don’t know where he is and still don’t know what he’s thinking.

“I still don’t know why that if the FBI is looking for him, they can’t find him. He’s a sophomore in college.”

The search for Jacob Marberger, 19, began Monday when his parents alerted Chestertown officials their son had come to their Philadelphia-area home and might have taken a firearm.

Washington College canceled classes immediately, and school eventually was closed through the Thanksgiving holiday, with a tentative restart date on Nov. 30. Roughly 1,450 students at the private liberal arts college founded in 1782 left for home or off-campus quarters in the interim.

The town’s spiritual landscape clearly has a vacancy right now, according to WCTR-AM 1530 radio General Manager Ken Collins.

“Washington College is huge here,” Mr. Collins said. “It wouldn’t be Chestertown without the college, and to see police cars everywhere and helicopters overhead, have the school close, plan to reopen and then shut down, it’s a bit nerve-wracking.”

Chestertown Lumber owner Jim Anthony said the situation has been a “conversation piece” and “with the way the world is, I guess it’s understandable given that they don’t know what’s going on in the young man’s mind.

“I guess he had some trouble and they don’t want to take any chances.”

And how has the situation altered life in Chestertown?

“Other than the police presence and helicopters overhead, it hasn’t affected us a bit,” Mr. Anthony said.

Mr. Anthony said the police presence has thinned out because “there’s nobody left there to protect.”

On Thursday, a rolling presence of campus security and town police still was noticeable as a sparse few people walked through the grounds.

In the morning, Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino said, “Thus far, there is nothing new to report.

“We (town officials) are largely getting the information from the college’s website like the rest of the world since I’m sure it’s very chaotic within their campus.

“I also have been in daily contact with our police chief who is coordinating campus security.

“We are all hoping that this comes to a peaceful resolution in the near future and (are crossing our fingers.)”
Town council member Elizabeth “Liz” Gross said the saga hasn’t had a lasting impact on the community.

“Of course, there was some disruption the first day or two when there was so much police presence around the campus, but there has been little disruption, if any, since then,” she said.

Folks here clearly want to see the search conclude sooner rather than later, though.

“Absolutely, and hopefully without any loss of life, including the boy in question,” said Heather Allspach, an innkeeper at White Swan Tavern on High Street.

With her sister attending Washington College, Ms. Allspach said belief among some students was that “he was never coming back to the college, and whatever he planned to do … would happen somewhere else.”

In the immediate aftermath of the college’s announcement to take caution, Ms. Allspach said she drew comfort when driving through campus and “every entrance had an obvious police presence.

“Most of us don’t feel threatened, I think all the schools here are taking extra precaution and playing it safe.”

Concerns everywhere

At a McDonald’s on the outskirts of town Thursday afternoon, a patron had a strong handshake for an arriving police officer addressing another matter regarding potential counterfeit currency, thanking him vigorously for “all you have done on the campus.”

Ms. Swann said the inn took calls from at least a couple concerned mothers of Washington students regarding their safety.

One stayed at the inn for a night before departing, and another went home to Baltimore without checking in.

Speaking from the Brampton Bed and Breakfast on High Street, assistant innkeeper Kailea Shields said she was in St. Louis when unrest over a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, was ongoing, and being in Chestertown now just wasn’t as stressful.

“I trust the police and the work they do here,” she said.

Ms. Shields would not jump to any conclusions on the continuing saga, saying, “We don’t know the whole story.”

Though public schools remained in session this week, Ms. Timmons said the education of her fifth- and seventh-grade children clearly was disrupted.

On Monday and Tuesday, schools were on lockdown conditions, she said, with students walking to school urged to use extra caution.

George Washington gave the College at Chester a founding gift of 50 guineas, agreed to serve on the board and gave the renamed Washington College permission to use his name. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

George Washington gave the College at Chester a founding gift of 50 guineas, agreed to serve on the board and gave the renamed Washington College permission to use his name. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

Perhaps it wasn’t a surprise then, that Ms. Timmons’ seventh-grader attended class with only four students present, and no iPads were in use — teachers didn’t want kids reading too much into the situation from online reports. Kent County Middle School is just a quick walk from Washington College, and has an address on East Campus Drive.

“Some of the kids were saying they didn’t feel safe and as a seventh-grader that’s just one more thing to worry about,” Ms. Timmons said. “I don’t worry about it because when they go into school and lock the door I feel they are safe.

“My kids ride the bus, but there’s no way I’d let them walk to school (right now).”

Flow of business

So far, Ms. Timmons said her Houston’s Dockside Emporium business in the 300 block of High Street hasn’t seen a significant drop in business.

“Business has been OK,” she said. “People are still out and about.”

When customers do arrive she said, “they haven’t been talking about it too much, which surprises me. People from out of town hear about it and are surprised, but I’m sure the locals are well aware of the situation by now.”

Not faring so well was Houck’s Menswear owner Larry Houck, who said his customer traffic has dwindled to almost nonexistent. Much of his business comes from parents of college students who just aren’t around now.

“The college, the kids are gone,” he said. “I’m not going to have a good week.”

Mr. Houck said he’d give it all up, though, if a safe resolution to Mr. Marberger’s situation is reached. He saluted the teenager’s parents who first notified school officials that something might be amiss.

“It took a lot of courage for those parents to do what they did, which is something that I’m sure a lot of people never could have done,” Mr. Houck said. “They must be going through so much and it’s kind of like weathering a hurricane — they have to wait it out and then pick up the pieces afterward.”

In his area on High Street just a couple blocks from the Chester River, Mr. Houck said there’s a quietness associated with the ongoing search.

“Everyone has gone into hiding, kind of like what you’d see in an old Western movie when a stranger or bad guy is coming to town and every thing is closed up,” he said.

“The merchants are talking, but nobody else is here. I don’t think people have fear, but they are definitely paying attention to what’s going on around them.”

The caution is justified, Mr. Houck said.

“Nobody wants to be a victim and I don’t blame them,” he said. “When the warnings are out there, people are going to leave.”

Mr. Houck is hoping that Mr. Marberger emerges unscathed and the public and be put at ease as a result.

“The kid was doing community service,” Mr. Houck said. “He’s probably embarrassed and over-exposed now. Nineteen is a tough enough age to be anyway …”

Noticing the void

The missing students are noticeable, Mr. Houck said, noting, “You don’t see any younger persons. If you see merchants on the street wandering around, there’s nothing going on in the store.”

Mr. Houck said he’s been catching up on cleaning and construction projects he’s put off for quite some time now but, “I’ve been cleaning this, I’ve been cleaning that. There’s only so much that you can clean.”

Lamenting the seeming regularity of school-related violent incidents nowadays, Mr. Houck said, “It’s unfortunate that the precedent has to be set by elementary schools being shot, junior colleges under attack. I think everybody is watching out for themselves now.”

According to the Associated Press earlier this week, Kent County State’s Attorney Harris Murphy said Mr. Marberger is facing charges including possessing a dangerous weapon on school property, handgun on a person, possession of a firearm by a minor and illegal possession of ammunition connected to him allegedly displaying an antique gun while at his fraternity house in October.

Also, the AP cited reports that Mr. Marberger recently was kicked out of his Phi Delta Theta fraternity, and resigned as speaker of the senate in the school’s student government.

Chestertown Police Chief Adrian Baker told the AP there were no known threats to the college or students made by Mr. Marberger.

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