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WEST CHESTER — David Widdowson was sitting on a bench across the street from the Chester County Justice Center when he heard shots fired from inside the building. The next thing he knew, police and ambulances were flying to the scene Tuesday morning.
“I just heard three shots ring out and there were cops inside running all around,” he said. “(The police) started directing traffic and blocked off (Market Street).”
At approximately 11:50 a.m. in the lobby of the Justice Center, Curtis Smith, 34, of Coatesville, allegedly came into the building, pulled out a knife and attacked a deputy sheriff before another deputy sheriff shot Smith, said Chester County District Attorney Thomas P. Hogan.
Police swarmed to the building as onlookers began to gather across the street, many of whom were people returning to the building after grabbing some lunch.
“Everybody gathered all around and all those windows (of the Justice Center) were filled up top with the workers looking out the window,” Widdowson said. “It was crazy.”
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Miguel Cortez was one of the people coming from lunch for a 1:30 p.m. hearing at the Justice Center when the shots were fired.
“I was on the side of the building and I saw cops flying up and I heard four or five shots,” he said. “Then I saw cops surrounding the building with their guns.”
Two people, who were supposed to be inside the Justice Center at noon to get their marriage license, ran into some unexpectedly delays.
Enough of a delay to keep them out of the lobby when everything happened.
“My (car’s) lug nuts were coming off and we had to pull over on 202,” said Wendy Hitchens.
Her significant other, Robert Perry, said the delay cost them about 45 minutes, getting them to the Justice Center at 12:30 p.m.
Meanwhile, people who were already inside the Justice Center had no idea what was going on when the attack happened.
“I was on the seventh floor in a divorce hearing,” said Donna Perri. “They shut the hallways down and the guards came through and told us we had to stay where we were.”
The guards didn’t make any mention of what happened in the lobby to the people who were in lock-down.
“We were just sitting there and it was nerve-wracking because you’re a sitting duck in the hallway,” Perri said.
Once deemed safe, Perri said the guards informed people inside they had a choice to stay in the building or leave through the loading dock in the back of the building, which she did.
But once anyone left, they were no longer allowed back in.
Amidst the lock-down, Denise Campos-Horst and Eric Horst were still able to get through their nuptials.
“I work in Adult Probations, so we were locked-down for a while,” Campos-Horst said. “We were called up to the Judge’s chamber, he came and got us through the special elevator and took us all upstairs to our party and we got married.”
The couple were aware of the incident while they were stuck in the office and couldn’t believe it was happening on what is supposed to be their happiest day.
But it certainly will be a day they won’t soon forget.
“We just kept laughing and said, ‘Of course this is happening to us,’” Horst said. “We’ll never forget it. Ever.”
It’s also a day 70-year-old Reiley Aikman will remember for a long time.
The West Chester resident was visiting a longtime friend who worked as a sheriff in the Justice Center.
“I had just gotten (into the lobby) and put my stuff down to go through security,” Aikman said. “This guy burst through the door and goes, “I’m gonna get you!’ I was right there.”
That’s when Aikman heard two or three rounds fired off and saw the suspect on the ground.
“I looked at him on the ground and I thought it was a Taser — I didn’t know,” he said. “All this happened within 25 seconds. If this guy would have had a gun, I probably would be dead.”
Aikman said at that point, all the sheriffs came down to the lobby and closed off the scene and got Aikman out of the building.
Many of the onlookers were stunned that something like this could happen in West Chester.
“This doesn’t happen around here,” Cortez said. “This is very shocking.”
The suspect is believed to be the same person who jumped the White House fence back in March, according to Hogan.
If that’s the case, Aikman is disappointed that he had an opportunity for a potential deadly attack in West Chester.
“Who let him out?” he said. “Put him in a mental institution or put him in jail… If he had a gun, he would have gotten me and maybe a couple sheriffs.”