East Lyme — Four schools and at least one local bank were locked down for a couple of hours Tuesday after an alleged bank robber, believed to be armed, sprinted from a car stopped by police in the Flanders section of town, near the high school and an elementary school.
No bank was robbed Tuesday, police said. The alleged robber, whom police eventually caught up with, was a suspect in a string of four bank robberies in the region in March and April. Police said they stopped the car because it resembled one they were seeking in connection with the robberies.
Police charged the driver of the car, Kevin Smith, 23, of Old Lyme, with driving with a suspended license. Smith was arrested in a parking lot of the Yummy Yummy Pizzeria Restaurant on Route 161 just north of the Flanders Four Corners.
Police also arrested the alleged robber, Kenneth Buckingham, 44, also of Old Lyme, and charged him with burglary on a warrant from state police Troop F in Westbrook. Smith and Buckingham are both likely to face additional charges.
The search for Buckingham created a stir, as a state police helicopter circled low over the high school property late Tuesday morning and authorities set up a command center in the parking lot behind the Flanders Fire Department. Local police and emergency officials huddled with members of the state police Eastern District Major Crime Squad and the FBI while police cruisers circled the nearby roads.
Yiannis Kapsalas, owner of Yummy Yummy Pizzeria Restaurant on Chesterfield Road, said the parking lot was filled with police cars when he arrived at his business before 11 a.m.
“The whole parking lot was filled,” he said. “They were so many ... it seemed like 50 police cars.”
From 10:15 a.m. to about noon, students remained in their classrooms with the doors locked from the inside and the lights off, though they were allowed to stay at their desks. They were escorted to the bathrooms.
Every school in East Lyme except the Niantic Center School, at the opposite end of town, was locked down.
Paul Smotas, superintendent of schools, said staff tried to keep the school day normal. At the high school and at Flanders Elementary School, however, that was difficult.
“You try, but with no lights, the noise of the helicopter and the obvious action outside, it's tough to keep the kids' attention,” Smotas said.
The Coreplus Federal Credit Union, located in Flanders, was also locked down. Warren P. Scholl, president and CEO of the credit union, said the credit union stations employees at the door in such situations to check identifications and allow people in and out of the building. He described it as a “nonevent” for the credit union.
The lockdown of the schools — for which Smotas was commended by state police — was called off a few minutes after noon when authorities learned that Buckingham, who had gotten into a green Jeep Cherokee after fleeing from the police stop, had been spotted well north of East Lyme on Route 9.
The state police helicopter left to find Buckingham and to follow him.
Detective William Blanchette of the Eastern District Major Crime Squad reached Buckingham on his cell phone and spoke with him repeatedly. Soon, word came that Buckingham was headed back down Route 9 to turn himself in at the fire department parking lot.
He never got that far. Buckingham was arrested in Old Saybrook, near the junction of Route 9 south and Interstate 95.
It was unclear whether police pulled him over or Buckingham surrendered at that point.
Police are expected to release more details of the incident today.
Carole Showalter said her daughter, Sarah, a sophomore at the high school, was out sick when she received a text message from a friend that the school was locked down and that she should lock her house, which is in the neighborhood.
“We were in a panic,” Showalter said in a phone interview, a helicopter audible in the background. “If it weren't for the text message, we wouldn't have known. We got no warning.”
Showalter said she called a neighbor, who lives across the street, and informed her to keep her doors locked.
“This is scary,” she said. “I hate to think that people live like this all the time.”
Day staff writer Izaskun E. Larraneta contributed to this report.