Drama ends on SMU campus as suspect falls from crane

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by REBECCA LOPEZ, BRETT SHIPP and TERESA WOODARD

WFAA

Posted on May 28, 2012 at 12:14 PM

Updated Thursday, Dec 5 at 12:32 AM

Man on crane

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UNIVERSITY PARK — The man who refused repeated police orders to end his 14-hour occupation of a towering construction crane on the SMU campus fell 150 feet to his death early Tuesday morning.

The man, identified by Dallas police as 43-year-old Lee Dell Thomas Jr., was hanging from the side of the operator's cab when he fell at 1:45 a.m. Dallas police confirmed that he was a suspect in an armed truck robbery in downtown Dallas almost 24 hours earlier.

Early Tuesday morning, police climbed to the top of the crane to try and coax the man down from the cab. The department's helicopter was flying nearby in an attempt to distract the subject. When Thomas spotted the approaching officers, he began spraying them with a liquid.

As tactical officers continued advancing to the cab of the crane, Thomas exited the enclosure and at first was hanging over the edge with two hands; then with one hand; and then he fell.

Earlier, Thomas cryptically told police by radio, "I am waiting for my appointed time."

Shortly before 10 o'clock, he reportedly tossed a fire extinguisher to the ground, followed by smaller objects. That prompted Dallas police to train additional spotlights on the tower.

Thomas climbed up a ladder to the control box of the crane at a dormitory construction site around 11:30 a.m. Monday.  Police started illuminating the top of the crane with spotlights at 8:40 p.m. as the standoff continued into the night.

"His statement to SMU police was that he did have a weapon, so they're treating it as an armed suspect," said Dallas police Senior Cpl. Melinda Gutierrez at a mid-afternoon news conference. "At this time, we cannot confirm whether or not he is armed."

She said Thomas made the threat to SMU police as they approached him.

No weapon was visible from HD Chopper 8 in the sky nearby, and the crane itself never moved from its original position.

After six hours in the confined cab of the crane, negotiators said Thomas sounded  "pretty drained" but was "reluctant to come down because he's afraid the department has a 'hit' on him."

Police were trying to reassure the man he would not be hurt if he moved to come down, and that it was in his best interest to do so.

"The crane does not have power, and there is no air conditioning in it," Gutierrez said.

"I don't know how he can make it up there without air conditioning," said local resident Tyler Good who was watching developments.

Late on Monday afternoon, the suspect told police he was okay and he is from Dallas, but he declined to answer questions about whether he wanted to kill himself.

An SMU spokesman the university's police force worked in a "unified command" with Dallas police and that all campus buildings would be open on Tuesday.

Early Tuesday, Dallas police confirmed that the man in the crane was linked to the armed theft of a box truck  from the parking lot of the Adolphus Hotel in the 1300 block of Commerce Street at 2:20 a.m. Monday. David Cantu was the victim.

"He kind of looked over to his side before he swung his arm at me with a sharp object," he said. "For the most part, I just backed off and let him do his thing, hoping maybe we could get the truck back."

Cantu said he was loading the truck when he saw the suspect in his vehicle. "I said, 'What are you doing?' Crazy. He didn't say anything."

Fearing for his life, Cantu pulled back. The suspect fled in the truck, hitting some parked cars along the way.

"As he's taking off, he turns right on Main Street and you see equipment falling out and you hear a big bang multiple times; he's hit multiple cars at that point," Cantu said. "By the time I get around the turn, he's a good half-mile up the street already."

News 8 sources said the truck theft suspect was wearing the same clothing and fit the description of the man on the crane.

"I feel lucky that I'm still here," Cantu said. "A lot of other things could have happened."

The truck was recovered on Ownby Drive on the SMU campus; from there, the carjacker apparently decided to climb to the top of the towering crane nearby at the site of a new university dormitory facility just east of the football stadium.

A police canine unit led officers to the crane around 11:30 a.m., an SMU spokesman said.

News 8 sources said a Dallas police helicopter with a sniper on board was dispatched to the scene as a precaution.

Dallas police also sent a heavily-armed SWAT team and additional units at the request of SMU police. A crane operator was consulted so law enforcement officers had a better idea of the layout and operation of the machinery.

Shortly before noon, Thomas was seen throwing an unidentified object from the crane's control cab.

Mockingbird Lane and Airline Drive were closed to traffic, although there was no evidence of evacuations in progress at the adjacent shopping center at Mockingbird Lane and North Central Expressway.

An armored personnel carrier was at the scene, and trained negotiators of the Dallas police tactical unit continued an attempt to contact the man in the crane by radio to  talk him down safely.

The incident has had almost no impact on the SMU campus, which is between spring and summer semesters, so no students and only essential staff members are present.

E-mail rlopez@wfaa.com, bshipp@wfaa.com and twoodard@wfaa.com

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