Umbrella mistaken for assault rifle sparks manhunt in Olympia
A typical Tuesday morning for 42-year-old Michael Di Marzo quickly became a citywide multi-jurisdictional manhunt for him and what witnesses thought was a assault rifle in his hand.
Three schools were locked down and delayed as police scoured the area by ground and air, looking for a man described by a teenage tipster as wearing black clothes and a ski mask.
It wasn’t realized until hours later what was believed to be something along the lines of an AR-15 or AK-47 was more of a AU-15: a 15-inch compact “assault umbrella.”
The “ski mask” was a pulled-up black turtle neck sweater paired with a black watch cap.
Di Marzo had no idea he was at the center of the hunt as he continued about his day March 12, visiting his mother, who had been suffering from complications with diabetes, and doing errands around town.
He took his usual bus routes through town and returned home around 2 p.m., walking the rest of the way through his east Olympia neighborhood.
That’s when he noticed a helicopter overhead.
“I didn’t know what it was whether police or news or what, but it was circling a lot and seemed to be circling right over me a lot and it was shining this little green light,” Di Marzo said.
Playful and theatrical by nature, Di Marzo gestured his umbrella toward the helicopter.
“I can’t believe I did that now,” Di Marzo said. “It really makes me shake every time I think about it.
“I thought it was this oppressive thing; I don’t like how many helicopters fly over anyway.”
A neighbor shouted over to Di Marzo, telling him about the situation. He learned more after he got home and checked his message machine.
“The helicopter had followed me all the way down Quince to right above the house then flew off,” Di Marzo said.
It didn’t take long for police to come knocking at his door. Police had seen video footgage of Di Marzo riding the Transit City bus in the morning and had tracked him, Di Marzo said.
“That kind of freaked me out,” Di Marzo said.
Roosevelt Elementary School, Reeves Middle School and the Olympia Regional Learning Academy were put on lockdown as police officers searched for Di Marzo.
Schools choose to go on lockdown based on the suggestion of officers.
“Typically, we take our cues from law enforcement in these situations,” said Olympia School District spokesperson Rebecca Japhet. “Police officers are in the best position to know exactly what’s happening in and around the area, and we follow them in what they would recommend to best keep our students safe.”
School districts typically have two types of lockdowns - partial and full lockdowns.
Partial lockdowns are used when police are investigating suspicious activity in the area, such as domestic violence, robberies, suspicious person sightings or a fleeing suspect, according to Courtney Schrieve, spokesperson for the North Thurston School District.
Partial lockdowns mean school doors are locked, but classes run as usual.
Full lockdowns are rare and used typically only in active shooter investigations, requiring students and staff to take cover under desks.
Schools will prompt their own lockdowns in the case of an angry parent or custody issue that could pose a threat to students at the school, Schrieve said.
One of the biggest hurdles in partial lockdowns is keeping parents calm.
“Partial lockdowns are often very quick and we often don’t have time to notify parents until it’s over and that has caused some anxiety amongst our parents at times,” Schrieve said.
Students and parents texting each other during lockdowns can sometimes cause more harm than help if either side is not fully informed of the situation, she added.
“We had a principal go over an announcement one time saying please quit texting your parents, everyone is safe and we are in a partial lockdown,” Schrieve said. “It immediately stopped.
“It’s just that communication of making sure the kids know what is going on and the parents know what is going on.”
Di Marzo said he knows the teen who made the report and says she feels conflicted about her decision to call police.
Police say they would rather respond to a false report than not be there for the real thing.
“We always err on the side of ’give us a call,’ ” said Laura Wohl, spokesperson for the Olympia Police Department. “If you think something is up, we would rather check it out and be wrong than not check it and be right.”
At the end of the day, there isn’t a much better training exercise than what happened March 12. Officers from the Olympia Police Department, Thurston and Lewis county sheriff offices and the Washington State Patrol responded.
“When you consider we were coordinating with four different departments like that, you can’t get much better training than that,” Wohl said.