APPOMATTOX — The night was long and dark off Snapps Mill Road last week.
For the dozens of deputies charged with preventing the escape of the man suspected in the cold-blooding killings of eight people, the darkness fueled tense moments.
Deputies believed 39-year-old Christopher Speight had nothing left to lose and in some ways, was better equipped than they were. He had a high-powered rifle, night-vision capabilities, body armor and the home-turf advantage.
They knew his approximate location and set up an overnight perimeter, but feared that if they stormed the woods where they had him cornered, someone else would die.
“Not knowing where this guy with his long gun is, he could have effectively shot us at will if he chose to,” said Sgt. Chris Edmondson, commander of the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office’s tactical unit. “He definitely had the will and the means to do it.”
Capt. Jerry Stokes of the Lynchburg Police Department’s tactical team said teams were not properly equipped for night operations, and on Snapps Mill Road, it was pitch dark.
“When operating in that environment, you are at an extreme disadvantage,” Stokes said. “This was his home… He knew that area and he knew the terrain. I had never been on Snapps Mill Road in my entire life. We were very much at a disadvantage.”
More than 100 officers took stations in the woods, in the house, blocking roads and informing residents of the danger in their typically sedate neighborhood.
Officers from across the state converged on the narrow road during the standoff that continued for 18 hours until Speight surrendered.
Police apprehension about how well the suspect might be armed was borne out when 16 explosive devices and 12 guns were found on the property after the shootings. Improvised explosives had been planted as traps.
Just after the first police arrived, shots from a high-powered rifle forced a police helicopter to land.
“He posed an immediate threat to other citizens,” Edmondson said. “We put our lives on the back burner to protect what we need to protect. That’s what those guys did.”
The Campbell County Sheriff’s Office’s tactical unit was the second to arrive behind Appomattox’s own unit. The Campbell team had been to another call just hours before — an overnight hostage situation in Altavista that ended in a house fire and a suicide.
Then came the call to assist Appomattox in a shooting. The team members headed toward Snapps Mill Road with no real idea of what they were about to face, said Capt. Kevin Schmitt.
“We had gotten a call telling us briefly that lives had been taken and shots had been fired,” he said.
Schmitt and his team received their assignments from Appomattox deputies and took their positions. Investigator Dwayne Wade and Schmitt went into the house.
“You can’t imagine the carnage,” Schmitt said. “We had a pretty good idea what weapon we were up against.”
Schmitt and Wade had just walked into the house when the Virginia State Police helicopter was hit. He said they were no more than 75 yards away from the shooter. They had been standing on the house’s deck just moments before.
The seven shots that hit the chopper gave deputies a break by revealing the shooter’s location.
“He didn’t display himself even though we thought we knew a general area,” Wade said. “I think after he did that, he knew he gave himself up.”
Wade and his fellow team members worried they didn’t have adequate cover for the type of weapons the suspect had.
“We know we’ve got to be prepared to encounter someone that may be as well-equipped or better-equipped than we are,” Wade said. “We all know our roles and what is about to happen. We’ve got to trust each other and we do on a regular basis.”
Sgt. Chris Clay and Appomattox Deputy Jack Williams set up posts as snipers.
Throughout the night, information kept coming to officers in bits and pieces, about weapons, about training, about traps that the suspect might have set.
Clay managed to call his wife. He told her that he was OK, he would be OK and that he had no idea when he would be home.
“This is a tight-knit group of guys,” Clay said. “My wife trusts Dwayne and Kevin as much as their wives trust me. I would lay my life down for any of these guys.”
The tension eased Wednesday morning when Speight approached a Bedford County deputy. Speight was wearing body armor but was unarmed.
Said Edmondson: “It was, in our minds, a successful resolution because no further violence occurred on his or our parts.”
Dozens of law officers spent last Tuesday night making sure the suspect in the Appomattox shootings could not get away.
Here’s a list of the units that worked with the Appomattox County Sheriff’s Office:
Virginia State Police, Campbell County Sheriff’s Office, Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, Prince Edward County Sheriff’s Office, Farmville Police, Lynchburg Police Department, Bedford County Sheriff’s Office, Amherst County Sheriff’s Office, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Conservation Police, Virginia National Guard, Holliday Lake State Park Rangers, and the U.S. Department of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.