With the deadly shooting that killed 12 people and injured 58 at an Aurora, Colo., theater still fresh in people's minds, authorities in Prince George's Countywere right to waste no time last week investigating the case of a Crofton man who reportedly threatened to "blow up" his former workplace and murder his colleagues. While we can't know whether the prompt action actually saved lives, as police now claim, there's no doubt of the need for vigilance regarding those who threaten violence.
In the case of Neil Edwin Prescott, who had worked at mail services supplier Pitney Bowes in Capitol Heights, it appears he not only had the possible motivation to harm others but the means to do so. Police said he either had been fired or was in the process of being terminated and that after they obtained a warrant to search his apartment they found a cache of at least two dozen firearms, including semiautomatic assault rifles and shotguns, along with thousands of rounds of ammunition.
That's a far larger arsenal than the one assembled by James Holmes, the man charged in the Colorado shootings who reportedly styled himself after the evil "Joker" character in the Batman movies. If Mr. Prescott, who also reportedly referred to himself as a "joker" when he threatened a supervisor over the phone, truly intended to commit murder and mayhem, he had everything he needed to make good on his promise.
Moreover, despite Maryland's gun laws, Mr. Prescott was able to assemble enough weaponry to outfit a small army, apparently without raising anyone's suspicions. At least half the firearms he owned were legally registered in the state. That's he was able to get so far without detection suggests there was a serious possibility he could have pulled off a copycat crime based on the Aurora massacre, if that was indeed his intention.
Prince George's County police took Mr. Prescott into custody Friday and immediately took him to Anne Arundel Medical Center for an emergency psychiatric evaluation. The fact that officials succeeded in having him involuntarily committed to the institution suggests that at least two psychiatrists there were willing to attest that he posed a potential danger to himself or others, as required by Maryland law. No charges have been filed yet, though he could be held for observation there for up to a week.
The circumstances of Mr. Prescott's detention are eerily similar to those surrounding the so-called "lone wolf" suspects in terrorism cases, who federal authorities have described as the most difficult subjects to track because they are not part of any organized criminal group or network. Because they operate in relative isolation from close friends or family members who might become suspicious of their activities, they can plot and carry out extraordinary acts of violence before anyone realizes what they're up to.
Fortunately in this case, Mr. Prescott's former employers had the presence of mind to alert authorities after receiving the threats. A Pitney Bowes spokesman declined to answer questions about Mr. Prescott's employment history, but he indicated that his behavior had raised similar alarms in the past.
If so, one wonders what those incidents involved and whether they were reported to authorities. Most employers have confidentiality polices that protect workers from the unauthorized distribution of potentially damaging personal information, but the flip side of that can be that colleagues and the public are left with no way of knowing when an individual poses a danger.
Mr. Prescott's case should serve as a wake-up call for greater involvement, similar to the heightened vigilance the government asks of the traveling public. If people see something unsettling or out of the ordinary, they should say something rather than assume nothing is amiss. If there's enough smoke to suspect a fire, it's worth checking out. Though we'll never know for sure, that can make all the difference between the relatively peaceful resolution of a potentially explosive situation in Crofton last week and the tragedy that unfolded in Aurora.