Habersham County officials have charged the father of a female student with assaulting a 17-year-old boy at a church near the Habersham Ninth Grade Academy Wednesday morning.
Dustin Vandegrift, 36, so far is charged with aggravated assault, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, two counts of first-degree cruelty to children, two counts of third-degree cruelty to children, two counts of recklessly causing harm or endangering safety, and simple battery under the Family Violence Act, said Habersham County Sheriff’s Investigator Kevin Angell.
Vandegrift checked his daughter's phone and realized she was not on campus where she should be and went to find her, Angell said.
Deputies initially responded to a reported shooting near the school, resulting in hard lockdowns of both the Ninth Grade Academy and Habersham Central High School campuses.
“It looks like the injury to our male juvenile is not related to the gunshot, even though a gunshot was taken at that juvenile,” Angell said. “The injuries look like they're more related to the fight that occurred between Mr. Vandergrift and that juvenile.”
Asked what caused the altercation that led to the male student’s injuries, Angell said when Vandegrift got to the scene and found the boy and girl, he became enraged at what he believed was going on and assaulted the boy.
A school resource officer at the Ninth Grade Academy was the first to have contact with the boy and provided medical help until the ambulance arrived.
“The entire incident took place off campus across from the Ninth Grade Academy,” Angell said. “After the incident with a shooting occurred, the male juvenile did go seek help. He was bleeding and headed toward the Ninth Grade Academy. However, he was met by our SRO deputies, who again had already placed the school on lockdown.”
At no time did the injured juvenile enter the school, Angell said.
Criminal charges against Vandegrift are pending.
Vandegrift’s white Chevrolet Camaro was taken to the sheriff’s office after the incident.
“When we arrived [at the church] and we found Mr. Vandergrift, we secured him outside the vehicle, but we hadn't located the firearm in question at that time. So, we did write and receive a search warrant, searched that vehicle, and we have recovered the firearm used in this case. At this time, we believe there was just one shot fired.”
Angell said HCSO Criminal Investigators also interviewed the 17-year-old female, Vandegrift’s daughter, who was involved in the incident behind Central Alliance Church.
The girl told investigators that her father appeared behind the church, battered the male juvenile she was with, and then shot at him, Angell said. She also said her father struck her after the incident with the boy.
During the search of Vandergrift’s vehicle, investigators recovered the .45 caliber M1911 firearm used in this incident.
Evidence collected at the crime scene, the hospital, and through interviews has corroborated that the boy was not shot and the injuries suffered were from the physical assault and ricochet debris, Angell said.
Background of the case
Deputies were dispatched to a possible shooting on Ga. 197 just after 10:15 a.m. Wednesday, after a business across from the high school reported hearing a gunshot from behind Central Alliance Church and seeing a young male and female fighting, said Habersham County Sheriff’s Investigator Kevin Angell.
School Resource Officers, after ensuring both Habersham Central High School and the Ninth Grade Academy were secure, located a male juvenile involved in the incident and provided initial medical attention, Angell said.
“The juvenile had left the church and was on the ninth grade academy property, which is where our SROs made contact with him,” Angell said. “He was not inside the school.”
The injured male was taken by ambulance to Northeast Georgia Medical Center for treatment. At last report, he was in stable condition and will be interviewed after treatment, Angell said.
Arriving deputies located 36-year-old Dustin Vandegrift attempting to leave the church in a white 2011 Chevrolet Camaro.
Vandegrift was detained and subsequently transported to the Criminal Investigations Division for questioning, but so far has not been charged with a crime, Angell said.
In the wake of Tuesday’s incident at Robb Elementary in Texas, both the sheriff’s office and school officials stressed that the incident was not a school shooting.
Hard lockdowns initially were in place at the high school and ninth grade academy to prevent anyone from coming onto campus, while soft lockdowns were in place at the county’s other 12 schools.
“The schools have been put back to normal operations because the scene where it occurred, which is the church across the street from the ninth grade academy, has been secured," said Chief Deputy Murray Kogod about 11:45 a.m. “We are currently gathering evidence processing the scene and conducting interviews. We feel like the entire situation is under hand and that we're good. We're good as far as everybody being safe and going back to normal operations.”
While Kogod said he did not have the age of the male victim, he said investigators have received potential good news about him.
“We have been received information that the victim is in stable condition, that there are no life-threatening injuries or anything like that, and that apparently he there's a possibility that he will be released shortly,” Kogod said.
Habersham County School Superintendent Matthew Cooper stressed the incident was not school-related.
“We knew from the very beginning that our schools were safe,” Cooper said. “Nothing happened at a school. It was near a school, but completely off-campus. And so, we immediately locked down every school in the county as a precaution. That’s standard procedure when there's law enforcement activity in the community, and especially when it's near a school.”
Cooper said he and school administrators went to extremes to communicate facts with families following the incident.
“Communication with parents is always so important, so I had the principals immediately notify their parents that their school was in a lockdown as a precaution, that the kids were fine and safe,” Cooper said. “And then, once I had some information about what was going on, I did a OneCall to about 15,000 people in this county: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and gave them some facts. And the facts that I had at the time is there was a shooting; it appeared to be domestic. It was not on campus. It was near a school. I told parents that, but I reiterated again that all students were safe. Schools were locked down as a precaution. And then, once Sheriff Terrell gave us the ‘all clear’ that the shooter was apprehended, everything was secure, we lifted the lockdown.”
Cooper said schools remained open, though some parents chose to check out their students, a decision he respected but did not want to demand.
“Sheriff Terrell and I talked about it and in light of the evil that happened in Texas yesterday -- because that's what that was, that was evil -- we decided it was in the best interest of our students and their mental health to resume normal school day, keep them at school, not have a kneejerk reaction and send everybody home," Cooper said. "We felt like that would actually be harmful to our kids. That's the decision we made jointly. I think it's the right one.”