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News / Clark County News

One dead in shooting at Smith Tower in Vancouver; suspect in custody

Alleged shooter is an 80-year-old resident of the senior living apartment complex

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Local News Editor, and
Calley Hair, Columbian staff writer
Published: October 3, 2019, 8:10pm
7 Photos
Law enforcement agencies strategize at the base of Smith Tower during an active shooter situation in Vancouver on Thursday afternoon, Oct. 3, 2019.
Law enforcement agencies strategize at the base of Smith Tower during an active shooter situation in Vancouver on Thursday afternoon, Oct. 3, 2019. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A man was killed and two women were injured in a shooting Thursday afternoon in the lobby of Smith Tower Apartments in downtown Vancouver.

The suspected shooter, identified by police as Robert E. Breck, 80, a resident of the senior living building, was taken into custody after a standoff with law enforcement that lasted nearly 2 ½ hours.

The victims have not yet been identified. However, the two who were injured were transported to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, where a hospital spokesman said both were in satisfactory condition. 

Breck was booked into the Clark County Jail on suspicion of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder, according to the Vancouver Police Department. He will make a first appearance on the allegations Friday morning in Clark County Superior Court.

33 Photos
Police from multiple agencies carry a wounded woman after a shooting at Smith Tower Apartments on Thursday afternoon, Oct. 3, 2019.
Fatal Shooting at Smith Tower Photo Gallery

He allegedly fired shots in the building’s lobby shortly after 2 p.m. A 77-year-old man, who’s a resident and asked not to be identified, said he saw Breck enter the building through the side door. The witness entered through the same door a short time later. 

When he got inside, the witness said he saw Breck standing with a handgun in the lobby and heard “boom-boom.” The witness turned and fled. He went to the dress shop next door and called 911, he said. 

Police were summoned at 2:09 p.m. to 515 Washington St., where they found three victims in the lobby suffering from gunshot wounds. Breck was holed up in his apartment on the building’s 13th floor on the south side.

Armed SWAT officers swarmed the building. Teams of four officers, holding the victims’ arms and legs, carried them out the front door — one appeared to be dead. The injured victims were tended to in the building’s parking lot until paramedics arrived and transported them to the hospital.

Shortly after, witnesses to the shooting were ushered from the building by law enforcement and taken to City Hall to be interviewed.

After police identified Breck as the suspect, a crisis negotiation team started communicating with him via phone before 3 p.m. SWAT officers evacuated the residents who were able to navigate the stairs and told the rest to shelter in place. The elevators inside the 15-story tower were shut off as police worked to contain the gunman to the 13th floor, where a drone hovered outside his window.

At about 4:35 p.m., police led Breck out of the building. He was wearing a gray T-shirt, plaid pajama pants and a baseball cap.

A few bystanders clapped and cheered as Breck was escorted to a patrol vehicle.

“He was taken into custody without incident. … We are continuing the investigation into the whole incident,” Vancouver Police Department spokeswoman Kim Kapp said in a media briefing outside Smith Tower. Police have not released a motive.

“We don’t have any information really related to what precipitated it,” she said. “That will be a big part of the investigation, to figure that out.”

Law enforcement did not fire their weapons during the incident, Kapp said.

A 12th floor resident, who was friends with the man who was killed, said she watched SWAT officers walk past her door through the peep hole.

“They had their guns drawn,” said the resident, who declined to give her name. “They said, ‘Stay in your apartment.’ ” She was later evacuated from the building through the garage. She said she saw her friend lying on the ground.

“I had just been in the lobby with this guy,” she said, adding that he was on his way to sell a motorcycle and was dressed in leathers. “I took his picture. I said, ‘Oh, you’re looking like a stud.’ ”

Trish Gatley, 74, said she was visiting a friend on the 10th floor at the time of the shooting. Unaware of what had happened, she walked downstairs to her ninth-floor apartment to grab her purse before work.

Two officers carrying guns told her to put her hands up, she said. They told her to stay calm and continue down the stairs. When she exited the building, she said she saw a man on the ground, as well as an injured woman being stabilized and put onto a stretcher.

Smith Tower at a glance

  A downtown landmark, Smith Tower opened in 1966 at 515 Washington St. as a retirement home for seniors.

  At 158 feet tall, the cylindrical tower is the second tallest building in Clark County, according to Emporis.com. It has 15 stories, with 13 floors for residential units.

  The 170-unit building is owned by Mid-Columbia Manor Inc., a nonprofit corporation comprised of local labor unions.

  Tower residents were recently evacuated from their homes after a natural gas leak at a construction site across the street.

Evacuated residents were kept warm and dry in a C-Tran bus at Sixth and Washington streets. Some residents who sheltered in place looked down from their windows on the crowd gathering below. Law enforcement cordoned off a three-block radius around Smith Tower, with police vehicles bumper to bumper on surrounding streets. Area C-Tran bus routes were detoured during the response.

Police kept the area of Fifth and Sixth streets from Main to Washington streets closed for several hours after taking Breck into custody. Following a final sweep of the building, residents were given clearance to return to their apartments.

“While we are still learning about what happened surrounding the shooting incident this afternoon in downtown Vancouver, our hearts go out to the victims and their families as they deal with this tragedy,” Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said in a written statement. “I commend our police officers, fire and EMS personnel who quickly responded to the scene. I have the utmost confidence in our officers as they work to resolve the situation.”

Shooting timeline

A man was killed and two women were injured Thursday afternoon in a shooting at Smith Tower Apartments in downtown Vancouver. The shooting prompted a roughly 2½-hour standoff.

The following is a summary of communications between emergency officials from emergency radio traffic monitored at The Columbian.

2:09 p.m.

  Vancouver police officers are dispatched to Smith Tower, 515 Washington St., for a report of a disturbance with a weapon.

2:10 p.m.

  Vancouver Fire Department and medical crews are dispatched amid reports of a shooting with multiple victims. A triage area is set up to receive victims.

2:30 p.m.

  Residents shelter in place on the 13th floor.

  The suspect in the shooting, Robert E. Breck, 80, is confirmed to be alone inside his apartment on the 13th floor. In a phone call with negotiators, he says he is willing to surrender and doesn’t want to hurt anyone else.

  A C-Tran bus stages at Esther Short Park to evacuate residents.

  The tower is cleared up to the 11th floor.

  Two patients are taken to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center.

  An officer requests that power be shut off on the 13th floor and that elevators are stopped.

  A negotiator says they are speaking with Breck about the surrender process.

  Breck hangs up, and a negotiator notes that the man is in the bathroom of the apartment.

  An officer says that anyone still inside their rooms may shelter in place and stay away from openings.

  An officer requests a door charge in case an explosive breach is necessary.

  Breck exits the front door of the apartment, refuses officer commands and re-enters.

  Officers want Breck to crawl out of the apartment on hands and knees. But the man claims he has a sickness “similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease,” making that difficult.

  An officer notes that police have probable cause for murder.

  Officers say that, when he surrenders, Breck should remove his shirt to ensure he is unarmed.

  Breck exits the apartment again, but he didn’t feel comfortable with the exchange and returns. A negotiator notes that Breck is “all about respect,” and officers should go easier on him. But Breck respects law enforcement and wants to surrender.

  Breck admits to shooting subjects on purpose.

  Breck is seen at a window with his hands empty.

  Breck’s daughter keeps calling him, unaware of his involvement, and interrupts negotiations.

•  Breck comes out of the apartment again and returns again.

  Police ask someone to contact the daughter.

3:51 p.m.

  A female neighbor next door is sheltered in place.

  Negotiators attempt to distract Breck as they plan to evacuate her.

  Moments later, negotiators and Breck continue working out a surrender plan.

4:02 p.m.

  Breck confirms that he knows one person is dead.

  An officer notes that “he’s pretty calm and coherent,” and he hasn’t shown signs of impairment.

4:13 p.m.

  A U.S. Homeland Security team is on the 13th floor but not connected with local police communications. They are asked to leave.

  An ambulance is requested to stage outside the tower in case “any more patients are produced.”

4:17 p.m.

  Evacuated residents are boarded onto a C-Tran bus. They are checked for injuries as they board.

  Negotiators note they are “working on some anxiety issues” with Breck.

4:23 p.m.

  A door to the apartment suddenly opens. Moments later, Breck is in custody.

4:26 p.m.

  Police enter the apartment to search for additional victims.

  Breck is led down an elevator and taken to a police vehicle.

4:29 p.m.

  Breck’s apartment is cleared. No other victims are found.

Columbian staff writer