PULLMAN – After a suspicious fire at a nursing home was doused Sunday night, a nurse armed with two guns fled the facility and held police at bay for nearly 11 hours.
The standoff at the Avalon Care Center ended at 1 p.m. Monday when Wayne E. Ketchum, 56, set down his gun, stepped away from his truck and surrendered to Pullman officers who had been negotiating with him since the early hours of the morning.
None of the home’s 20 residents was harmed or ever in danger during the incident, police said.
The standoff took place in a secluded parking lot behind the nursing home, well away from the residential area where Ketchum had parked his small gray Dodge Ram pickup.
“He told officers he was not interested in hurting anyone else,” said Glenn Johnson, Pullman’s mayor, who worked as liaison between the media and police.
The incident may have started around 9 p.m. Sunday, when a fire in an office trash can triggered sprinklers and alarms and damaged a back room at the nursing home. The sprinklers had quelled the blaze by the time firefighters arrived. But recognizing signs of arson, they called in the fire inspector and asked the employees to stay. A Pullman Police officer arrived and began questioning employees. About that time, Ketchum fled from the building to his truck, where he had a .22-caliber pistol and a 9mm Derringer pistol. He threatened to take his life, police said.
Officers set up a station in the care center and had SWAT team members on a hill and in the bushes around the parking lot. They were able to see and communicate with Ketchum and had him on a telephone with a negotiator for most of the incident.
About 7:30 a.m., police asked Evan Ellis, a reporter for local radio stations KQQQ and KHTR who had been working from the scene since around 3 a.m., to stop transmitting because Ketchum was listening to his radio reports and was getting agitated.
Ellis and the station agreed.
“We decided if we can do something to help end this peacefully, we should,” said Ellis, who went back on the air at noon.
At midmorning, police called public defender John Snyder to the scene so he could talk with Ketchum over the negotiator’s phone.
“We wanted to reassure him that he had rights and that things weren’t as bad as he thought,” said Police Chief Ted Weatherly. A mental health professional was on hand.
Several times throughout the standoff, Ketchum appeared about to surrender.
He would empty his gun of bullets, place the weapon on the dashboard and open his door, only to reverse direction a few seconds later and put the pistol against his head, officers said.
Ketchum was described as diabetic. Officers worried that without medication, his condition might affect his ability to reason and negotiate. But he did have some fruit in the car, which he managed to eat during the long morning, officers said.
His tearful girlfriend, who told police her name was Judy, came to the scene around noon asking to talk with Ketchum. Instead, officers had her sit in a squad car two blocks away while negotiators tried several more times to talk the man out of the truck.
Finally, at 1 p.m., Ketchum got out of the vehicle and, with one hand holding the phone and the other on his head, walked into the open.
“He’s good to go,” an officer was heard saying over the police scanner.
Police ordered him to lie on the ground while they handcuffed him.
Then they sat him in a white plastic chair at the back of the nursing home building and patted him down for more weapons.
“It concluded very peacefully,” said Pullman Police Sgt. Chris Tennant, crediting the work of Officer Mike Carlton and others who had been negotiating with Ketchum through the dark morning hours and into the day. He said Ketchum was weak and exhausted and would be taken to the hospital for a mental and physical evaluation.
The incident drew on a lot of manpower. Officers from Pullman, Washington State University and Moscow, and deputies from the Whitman County Sheriff’s Office were on the scene.
But it happened in a good location, Tennant said.
In a small lot behind one building and well down the hill from others, it didn’t affect the public much, he said.
While Avalon Care Center wouldn’t talk about the employee, vice president Faye Lincoln said that patients and staff were never in danger and that she believed the police were handling the situation competently. Nurses and staff attending the residents were able to come and go throughout the incident.
Ketchum was first credentialed as a nurse in 1994. He last renewed his RN license with the Washington State Department of Health in May.
Johnson said he heard there may have been medical records and other care-center documents in the trash can where the fire started. Ketchum will face charges of arson in the first degree and second-degree malicious mischief stemming from the events Sunday night and Monday morning, Chief Weatherly said.
The investigation is still under way and other charges may be forthcoming.