Deputies killed by ‘heavily armed’ gunman may have prevented larger attack, sheriff says

WATAUGA COUNTY, N.C. — A gunman who killed himself, two deputies and his mother and stepfather in a 13-hour home standoff in Boone had a large cache of weapons and may have been contemplating an attack in public, Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman said during a news conference on Thursday.

Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman said George Wyatt Ligon, 58, and his wife, Michelle, 61, were killed Wednesday, and the shooting suspect, Isaac Alton Barnes, 32, died at the scene. Barnes was Michelle Ligon’s son and the man’s stepson.

Hagaman told Channel 9 that family members had expressed worries about the large number of weapons in Barnes’ possession.

“There was familial concern that he might try to do something and he had evidently a fairly large cache of weapons and he was at the house, which we didn’t think he would be,” the sheriff said.

“I’m convinced that the attitude of the suspect was such that he was planning this, not particularly at the officers, but possibly the public in general,” Hagaman added. “The officers, they thought they were going into one situation, and the perpetrator, the suspect was there.”

The sheriff’s office said Sgt. Chris Ward and K-9 Deputy Logan Fox were dispatched to a home in Boone at 9:44 a.m. Wednesday after the homeowner and his family didn’t report to work or answer telephone calls. Both officers were hit by gunfire. Other officers were able to pull out Ward, who died at a hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee. Fox died at the scene, the sheriff’s office said.

Ward was an eight-year veteran of law enforcement who was married with two children. Fox had been with the sheriff’s office for two years, according to the sheriff’s office, and was engaged to be married.

“This is an incredibly tragic situation and our thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved as well as their families and our community,” Hagaman said in a previous statement.

According to Hagaman, the deputies were called to the home to check on Barnes’ stepfather and mother after George Ligon didn’t report to work and telephone calls went unanswered. Officials said deputies entered the house after seeing all the family’s vehicles were still on the property.

The sheriff said the home was two-stories and deputies were making their way down a stairwell, when they were met with gunfire. Ward and Fox were hit, while a third responding deputy was able to escape unharmed.

Hagaman said the deputies were warned that Barnes was having some issues, but they had no idea he was inside the home. The sheriff said his deputies understand the risk of the job.

“We tell our folks, you go in there and the chances of you coming out may not be so good,” he said.

The sheriff said his deputies had been called to the same home over the weekend, but it’s unclear for what reason.

According to Hagaman, when Barnes’ stepfather didn’t show up for work, deputies were called and led to believe Barnes had some sort of plan for violence against the general public. That’s when deputies decided they needed to do a welfare check on the family.

“They were kinda giving us a heads up that this is what he’s thinking about doing and for us to be careful,” he said.

The sheriff said investigators found that Barnes had “a lot” of guns but could not say exactly how many.

Hagaman said he believes the deputies may have prevented a larger-scale act of violence against not only law enforcement, but the community.

“It was not a manifesto but it was, like, ‘I need to do this,’” he said.

When asked to elaborate on what that meant, the sheriff said, “taking people out.”

“The deputies took the brunt for the public,” he said.

When the standoff ended, deputies went inside the home and discovered Barnes’ mother and stepfather had been killed.

Barnes was also found dead inside the home from what deputies believe was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

“They just had a lot of conflict there”

David Byrd, who described George Ligon as his closest friend, heard about the couple’s killing from another friend.

“It was definitely a shock because he was the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back,” Byrd said. “I knew George better than Michelle, but both of them were fantastic people. It’s definitely a loss to everybody in the community, and it has just devastated the whole family in so many ways.”

Byrd, 64, said he met Ligon through work in 1990. Both of them worked in the pest control industry. Byrd said Ligon was the branch manager for Terminix in Boone and had hired him. Although Byrd left Terminix several years ago, he said they still spoke to each other every week.

George and Michelle married over a decade ago, according to Byrd. On Michelle’s Facebook page, she makes note of meeting George Ligon in July 2001

“George was a very devoted and loving husband,” he said. “He would have done anything in the world for her.”

Byrd said Ligon frequently talked to him about how Barnes had a drug problem. But he never heard Ligon express any concern for the safety of him or his wife.

“They just had a lot of conflict there,” Byrd recalled. “He was just concerned about how he was being destructive with his life. He just asked me to pray for him.”

Michelle Ligon also had a daughter in college, according to Byrd.

“George was always telling me how good she was doing and how much of a blessing she was to him and Michelle,” Byrd said.

Michelle Ligon was director of public relations and social media for the Watauga County Tourism Development Authority. Greta Anita Lint, former executive director of the Lexington Tourism Authority in North Carolina, said Michelle Ligon had sought her out to be a mentor. Later, Lint said, Ligon hired her to write stories about downtown Boone.

“She was a very happy-go-lucky person. She had a constant smile on her face,” Lint said. “She was very passionate about her job and very passionate about promoting not only Watauga County tourist attractions, but also attractions in western North Carolina and in the High Country. It’s a huge loss to North Carolina tourism to have someone like that leave.”

Wright Tilley, the authority’s executive director, said Ligon spent 20 years “promoting this wonderful place that she loved.”

Back the Blue NC, a nonprofit organization that advocates for law enforcement officials, launched a pair of fundraisers on Thursday for the fallen deputies’ families, raising a total of nearly $50,000 by early afternoon.

Winkler Knives, a small company in Boone that makes highly specialized edged tools, contributed $2,000 to each of the fundraisers for Fox and Ward. Its co-owner, Karen Shook, said she was devastated when she heard the news that the deputies had died in the line of duty.

“It’s just heart-wrenching, it’s heartbreaking,” Shook said. “These are people that did not take their jobs to get rich. We all hear in the news about the few bad apples that are in law enforcement, but I think in general, law enforcement personnel are people that are driven to serve others. It’s very heartbreaking to know that they put themselves in the position to lose their lives trying to take care of others.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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