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Searchers Comb Rural Area For School Sniper

October 4, 1988

MASCOTTE, Fla. (AP) _ Police and sheriff’s deputies searched woods and marshes and manned roadblocks Tuesday, looking for a gunman in camouflage clothing and a punk haircut who fired into a school playground, wounding a 9-year-old girl.

Sheriff Noel Griffin Jr. said officials knew who the gunman was but that they had ″no idea why he did the shooting.″ The sheriff would not reveal the suspect’s identity but said he was not a local resident.

He would not say how the suspect had been identified.

The thin, bearded man, with dirty blond hair shaved at the sides and sticking up in the middle, hid behind bushes near Mascotte Elementary School on Monday morning and fired a .22-caliber rifle three times into a group of about 25 children in the playground.

Third-grader Leah Wilbanks was shot through the upper right arm and chest by a single bullet. The youngster, described as ″brave and tough,″ was reported in good spirits Tuesday in the pediatric intensive care unit at Orlando Regional Medical Center.

Her condition was listed as serious, but no surgery was necessary and ″she is responding well to treatment,″ said hospital spokesman Joe Brown.

Leah’s grandmother, Dolly Chapman, said the youngster asked her late Monday, ″Why would somebody shoot me?″

Lawmen were stationed Tuesday at all elementary schools in the rural area around this central Florida community of 1,600.

Lake County School Superintendent Freddie Garner said children in Mascotte and the surrounding towns of Groveland, Minneola and Clermont would not be allowed on playgrounds for a few days. Doors to all schools were locked, and all the county’s principals were instructed to take extra precautions.

Mascotte Elementary reported more than 150 children absent Tuesday. Normal absenteeism is about 20.

Parents and teachers were advised to take special counsel with the 25 children who saw their schoolmate get shot. Some of the youngsters ran into the main school building, scared and crying, after the shooting, said one teacher, Jack Currie.

″Generally the children were holding together. I was proud of them,″ he said, adding that he did not believe the students will suffer long-term trauma.

Scores of officers and area residents who had joined in the manhunt Monday afternoon and night left the search Tuesday to about 15 deputies and officers from the Mascotte Police Department.

The sheriff discouraged civilians from coming back out.

″They should watch their kids . . . and leave it to us,″ he said. ″We have a good suspect. They might get the wrong man.″

Some of the angry residents, including fathers with children at the school, had spent Monday afternoon and into the night in heavy rains searching the woods and citrus groves, using pickup trucks equipped with CB radios. Some carried arms or had weapons in their vehicles.

Mascotte Police Chief Don Page directed a crew of men chopping down weeds and brush around a small pond near the school Tuesday in search of the weapon used in the shooting.

″It could be that the weapon is in there,″ said Page.

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