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School gunman in Pine Plains upset over GI treatment

November 11, 2009 7:28:50 AM PST
Family members are defending the shotgun wielding man who set off a school hostage crisis in Dutchess County. Chris Craft held a principal hostage for more than two hours before surrendering without firing a shot.

It happened 90 miles north of New York City at the Stissing Mountain Middle School in Pine Plains.

Craft entered no plea at his arraignment on Tuesday.

In an exclusive interview with Eyewitness News, Craft's family insisted no one was in any real danger.

Jeremy Craft said his father didn't want to hurt anyone, but did want to get everyone's attention.

Jeremy says his father was distraught over lack of social services for another son, Christopher, who was injured in the military. He was a motor transportation operator in the Army from December 2006 through June 2009, the Department of Defense confirmed Tuesday evening.

Chris Craft is well known to authorities in Pine Plains. He was shot during a dispute in 2000 and has a rap sheet that dates back 10 years before that, with arrests for burglary, petty larceny, resisting arrest, possession of stolen property, disobeying a court order and criminal mischief.

Still, friends and relatives describe Craft as a family man who, after years of legal woes, reached a breaking point.

Tuesday's school lockdown situation began with a frantic call at Stissing Mountain School.

A gunman was inside. He was holding the principal, Bob Hess, hostage.

Police said Christopher Craft Sr. loaded a single round into the shotgun, walked into the main office and confronted Principal Hess.

Craft ordered Hess at gunpoint into an inner office where he restrained him and threatened to kill him to try to compel school officials and police to talk to media about his message "concerning the wrongful treatment of United States Military personnel," court documents said.

Students and staff were locked in other rooms, part of the school's safety procedures.

As parents rushed to the scene and waited for any news, 12-year-old Zach Pruner was inside the school, not far from the gunman.

"I could hear him in the next room," he said. "I was frozen with fear."

Zach said he hid under a desk for the next two hours. He jumped out a window after getting the attention of the SWAT team by waving his arm, and he held up a sign that said "One guy with gun and four people inside."

As the standoff went on, parents texted with their kids about what was going on. Others were able to sneak phone calls during the lockdown.

Police say Craft got inside by dismantling a long gun, and then putting it back together in a bathroom and starting the confrontation.

Just before 10 a.m. Tuesday, following negotiations with police, Craft surrendered without firing a shot.

Parents nearby breathed a sigh of relief, but they still had to wait for their kids for several hours for that joyful reunion as police made a search of the school.

The school was to be closed Wednesday to observe Veterans Day, but officials said they would consider opening it to provide counseling.

Craft, wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt with an image of a pirate ship on the back at his arraignment, told a judge he was depressed and needed psychiatric care.

"Jail is not the place I need to be," Craft told Pine Plains Town Justice Louis Imperato. The judge didn't respond to his request for psychiatric care.

Craft has two sons who had attended the school, but school officials said neither was currently enrolled.

Friends say Craft was in desperate need of medication. However, he was not on it because he could not afford to take it.

One of Craft's friends spoke to Eyewitness News and described him as, "a good person having a bad day."

"He likes to laugh and have a good time. He's had his ups and downs...I think that he does need help, and a lot of it...," friend Trudy Bulow said.

Craft was charged with first-degree kidnapping and also faces charges of criminal possession of a weapon and criminal trespassing.

Craft didn't enter a plea at his arraignment. A public defender will be assigned before his next court appearance Dec. 2.

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