ST. GEORGE – The Saint George Police held a press conference today to clarify information and to dispel wild rumors circulating online as a result of an alert issued on Monday. Police had alerted the public to be on the lookout for a white minivan with California plates. The alert was issued after police received reports of two men asking questions about elementary schools at a local restaurant and again at Coral Cliffs Elementary School.
The minivan has since been located in Santa Monica, Calif., and the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have made contact with the owner and are investigating the incident.
SGPD Sgt. Sam Despain said in a press conference that around 2 p.m., two men entered Paula’s Restaurant in St. George and asked about the locations and addresses of various local elementary schools. The two men did not dine at the restaurant and they departed after being directed to Coral Hills Elementary nearby.
The men arrived at Coral Cliffs Elementary at some time around 2 p.m., according to one witness who asked not to be named. They pulled up directly to the school, and the passenger of the van tried to enter through several locked doors before entering through the main doorway. School staff did not give any information to the man, instead they told him he could look the information up on the school district’s website. After that, the passenger returned to the van and both men departed.
What made the incident suspicious to those involved was that one of the men was described as wearing a knit hat, a heavy flannel shirt or jacket, and black knit gloves in summer weather. Witnesses also stated that the men wore sunglasses and were possibly of Middle Eastern descent.
Witnesses contacted by St. George News stressed that race was not a factor in their decision to report the suspicious behavior to the police, as some have suggested in discussions online.
“No crimes have been committed and at this point it is being investigated as a suspicious incident,” Despain said. “At this time there is no information that leads law enforcement to believe that anyone in the community, or in our schools, is in danger.”
Witnesses contacted the police and gave a description of a white minivan, as well as the license plate number, which police asked the public to look out for on Monday night.
Due to the suspicious nature of the incident, the St. George Police Department has increased police presence around area schools as a precaution.
Under the direction of the police department, the school district did not release a general statement, although it did post the BOLO alert on its website along with the following statement: “Washington County School District is taking the necessary precautions to ensure student safety. School will be conducted as usual with safety precautions in place.”
The Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have also been contacted by the St. George Police. They have since received word from investigators in Southern California that the minivan has been located and the owner has been contacted, Despain said. “Homeland Security Investigations Investigators and Federal Bureau of Investigations Investigators are questioning individuals associated with the vehicle.”
St. George Police Chief Marlon Stratton said the police and school district decided early on to withhold certain details about the search for the vehicle because they did not want to create a panic among parents.
“Unfortunately, as a result there has been a bit of a panic in the community,” Stratton said, referring to wild speculations made over social media about the BOLO alert and those involved.
Stratton said that he was surprised by the panic, but he also said that he understood, given previous tragedies involving schools across the nation. “Many parents are on high alert.”
Washington County School District Superintendent Larry Bergeson said that some parents did keep their children home from school Tuesday, but that for the most part, things ran normally.
Both Stratton and Bergeson thanked the witnesses at Paula’s and the Coral Cliff’s Elementary for being alert and contacting the authorities.
St. George News reporter Michael Flynn contributed to this article.
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