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Man in custody after vehicle crashes into TV station in Towson

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A man who claimed to be God rammed a stolen landscaping truck into the WMAR television station Tuesday, according to police and employees, barricading himself inside the building for several hours as journalists scrambled to cover their own story from the suburban streets outside.

Baltimore County police identified the suspect on Wednesday as Vladimir Mehul Baptiste, 28, of Parkville. Baptiste faces three charges of attempted second-degree murder in addition to charges that include first-degree assault, burglary and malicious destruction of property.

He is being held in the Baltimore County jail in lieu of $750,000 bail. No attorney was listed for him in court records.

The incident shut down the station's Towson neighborhood, leaving a school and several businesses on alert until Baptiste was captured. Police said they found him armed with a golf club and watching coverage of the incident from inside the station. They said they believe he is mentally ill.

No one was injured, authorities said, but the scene drew national attention as television correspondents found themselves on the other side of the news.

"It's crazy; we do stories on this," said reporter Cheryl Conner, who was on assignment as the incident began to unfold but choked up as she returned to a harrowing scene. "You always feel it when you're out on the scene, even if you don't know the person, but obviously this is my second family."

Nearly all of the employees were ushered out of the station after the truck smashed through the front entrance, investigators said, save for one who waited in the basement until police found the worker safe.

The station could not broadcast during the standoff. Though the station's reporters posted regularly to social media and updated a story online, viewers trying to watch the channel saw a black screen at times.

Police say the suspect stole the vehicle from a work site near the Beltway and York Road, where contractors for the State Highway Administration were removing plants.

The man then drove south toward the TV station, said Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson. He parked and showed up on foot just before noon, police said, shook the front doors of the York Road headquarters of Channel 2 News and shouted "I am God," according to witnesses. A security guard refused to let him in.

Station video showed the man pacing in the vestibule and walking in circles before confronting the security officer.

Michael Marion, a commercial production manager at the station, said he saw the man walk back to a truck in a "purposeful ... agitated manner."

Anchor Jamie Costello said he was sitting at his desk on the first floor working on a story about the Preakness Stakes when he heard "a big thud."

He looked to his right and saw a truck coming through the lobby, he said. News director Kelly Groft and the security guard began ordering all employees out of the building through the back, he said.

"We hightailed it to the back of the newsroom" before evacuating, Costello said.

Police arrived. Station employees huddled together, Costello said, taking a roll call, remembering who was on vacation or off and trying to make sure everyone was safe.

Station employees sent messages to loved ones through text messages and social media, and reporters searched recent emails for threats.

Costello said they found nothing to indicate that the station had been targeted.

Reporters who had been in the field began flooding toward the station to be near their colleagues.

Reporter Roosevelt Leftwich had just finished a shift when he turned around and drove back. "It's just unsettling to have something like that happen," he said. "You don't want to be the news."

Tactical officers went "room to room," not knowing what they were facing, said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

A lone employee was stranded but safe in the basement of the television station, Johnson said. As the afternoon wore on, the employee was able to aid officers in their search.

Police eventually found the suspect watching TV news.

The man was "ranting and raving" and making "incoherent statements," Johnson said, leading officers to believe he was mentally or emotionally disturbed.

Police forced entry into the room in which the man had barricaded himself. Johnson said he was arrested without incident with the help of a K-9 officer and dog.

On a telecast after the arrest, station employees held up objects they said were rubber bullets but police did not elaborate on the tactics they used to detain the truck's driver.

The suspect faces criminal charges, Johnson said. He was taken to an area hospital for treatment.

The nearby St. Pius X school and parish were on lockdown after the crash, though county public schools said facilities in the area were not affected.

Staff members at Little Blessings Child Care across the street from the station said they did not tell children of the unfolding incident but acted as if it were a normal day. Parents were calling frantically to make sure their children were safe, they said.

Fortunato Brothers Pizza, one of several nearby York Road businesses, was rendered largely inaccessible to customers.

"We didn't have lunchtime," said Russ Fortunato, an owner. "The whole road was blocked off."

WMAR journalists, locked out of their building, looked for other ways to tell their story.

Costello, Conner, Brian Kuebler and others did nonstop interviews and stand-ups while they waited for updates from police.

Reporters and other staff members from the ABC news station also detailed the situation on social media.

"A guy has slammed his truck 7 times into our building and is in our building..we've been evacuated..," meteorologist Mike Masco tweeted.

"Those here trying to stay positive about situation," the station posted on its Twitter feed. "Please keep WMAR staffers and visitors in your thoughts."

As evening approached, ABC news reporters were allowed back into their newsroom. They began a live feed giving their viewers the first look at the damage the truck had wrought.

Baltimore Sun reporters Brandi Bottalico, Nayana Davis, Ian Duncan and Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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