Student wounds official, shoots himself at small college in St. Louis
(MCT) — ST. LOUIS — A student with a violent past, mental disability and handgun wounded an official at the Stevens Institute of Business & Arts — where he just lost financial aid — early Tuesday afternoon and then shot himself, officials said.
Greg Elsenrath, the financial aid director at the downtown career college, and his attacker were both seriously hurt and taken to St. Louis University Medical Center for surgery. A police source identified the gunman as Sean Johnson, 34.
The source said Johnson had been upset, but not threatening, in a meeting Monday with Elsenrath over loss of aid. Elsenrath reportedly said he would try to find other funds to help him. Monday was the first day of the winter quarter.
The source said it was not certain whether Johnson shot himself in the side of the chest deliberately or accidentally.
Police said Tuesday night that Elsenrath, of Winfield, was expected to survive and that Johnson remained in critical condition.
Officers swarmed the building about 2 p.m., after Elsenrath was shot in the chest in a fourth-floor office. They found Johnson wounded in a stairwell, between the third and fourth floors, with a handgun was near him. A SWAT team searched the structure and found no other victims or attackers.
The suspected shooter was an on-again, off-again student for the past four years, Police Chief Sam Dotson told reporters.
In 2009, Johnson was accused in St. Louis County Circuit Court of trying to slash a taxi driver with a box cutter as the cab drove along Interstate 70 near Lindbergh Boulevard. The driver said his customer reached from the back seat and thrust the cutter downward toward his neck, according to court documents. The vehicle hit a median barrier, and the two men were still struggling when Bridgeton police arrived.
Johnson was charged with first-degree assault and armed criminal action, and pleaded guilty in 2011 of reduced charges of unlawful use of a weapon and second-degree assault. Court records reflect that he has a mental health condition. Judge Tom DePriest sentenced him to five years of probation, with terms requiring him to take his medication and have no contact with the victim.
That probation was revoked and an arrest warrant issued almost eight months ago, with no bail allowed. Available court documents do not reflect the nature of the violation. There also was no indication from officials how Johnson obtained a handgun.
Eric Barnhart, a lawyer who represented Johnson, said his client also cut himself across the chest during the assault. “He was a productive member of society when he was taking his medication, and struggled when he didn’t,” Barnhart said.
In February 2011, Johnson used a brick to smash the window of a St. Louis police car outside the North Patrol Station, and resisted arrest, officials said. The disposition of that case was not available.
A SWAT team stood by Tuesday evening as officers sealed off part of the street and served a search warrant at Johnson’s home, in the 5300 block of Cote Brilliante Avenue. After they left, occupants refused to speak with reporters.
A neighbor, Lakeisha Cummings, 22, said she has seen Johnson walking up and down the streets, often running errands for his mother. Known affectionately as “Miss Kim,” she operates a day care there. She also helps feed needy families and had taken in children in need, adopting several, Cummings said.
Neighbors described Johnson as quiet, seemingly harmless and known to have learning disabilities.
A biography of Elsenrath on the school’s website says he worked in the field for more than 15 years and “takes a special interest in providing individualized assistance to students and parents.” He is a 1985 graduate of Francis Howell High School in St. Charles County and holds a bachelor’s degree from Missouri Valley College and a master’s from Lindenwood University.
Ginger Reinert, head of the tourism and hospitality management department at Stevens, said Elsenrath had been there for about 15 years. “He is a wonderful guy,” she said. “This is simply traumatic for all of us.”
Brittany Warner, who said she rents one of the homes Elsenrath owns in Winfield, said he is married with two young boys. “He’s a wicked nice guy,” she said, “and a very good landlord.”
Stevens, a small for-profit school formerly known as Patricia Stevens College, relocated to the 25,000-square-foot downtown campus in an effort to expand the offerings and appeal of an institution that started in the 1940s as a finishing school for women.
While announcing the opening of its $3 million downtown campus, the school said it was adding bachelor’s degrees in several fields, including business administration, interior design and fashion merchandising. According to 2011 federal education data, it had an enrollment of 195 students, 90 percent of them women. It had seven full-time and 13 part-time faculty members, and a few administrators.
School president Cynthia Musterman could not be reached for comment.
About 40 or 50 students were present when Tuesday’s shooting started, officials said.
Angae Lowery, of Collinsville, said she drove to the school after receiving a text message from her daughter, Britnee Jones, a Stevens student. “The text said, ‘Someone’s shooting. Please help me,’” Lowery said. “I didn’t know what to do. I was so scared.”
As officers secured the building, Lowery stood in tears near the police tape.
Britanee Jones said she was in a fashion merchandising class with instructor Beth Schlegel and nine other students. “I heard a gunshot and got up,” said Jones, 24, also of Collinsville. “We were going to run out of the class, but (Schlegel) wouldn’t let us leave. She stood in front of the door and told us all to be quiet and get under our desk or go into a corner. Then she turned out the lights. Then some of us called 911 to tell police what was going on.”
She said, “I was just wondering if he was going to come into the room and shoot us.”
Jones said she heard another gunshot “about a minute, maybe two” after the first,” she said. “It wasn’t back-to-back.” Then police led them out.
Jameelah Tatum, 27, of St. Louis, has attended interior design classes at Stevens for about four years. She was across the street at a boutique she owns, House of Glam, when she saw a Stevens employee run out of the front door and prevent two young women from entering. “And then I saw police car after police car start pulling up,” Tatum said.
“Greg was the financial aid person, and he helped people out with their loans and things,” Tatum said. “I don’t know what the problem was, but Greg was always a real nice guy. He never showed any bad disposition, ever, to me.”
She noted, “I guess this can happen anywhere, but I’ve got one semester left and I’m thinking about finishing up through independent study.”
(Marlon A. Walker, Robert Patrick, Valerie Schremp Hahn, Susan Weich, Tim Barker and Jeremy Kohler of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.)