Sheriff: Heavily armed gunman among 5 dead in home standoff

In this image taken from video Wednesday, April 28, 2021, law enforcement work the scene of a fatal shooting outside a home in Boone N.C. Two deputies were killed and three other people including a suspected gunman were found dead after the lengthy standoff in North Carolina, a sheriff's office said Thursday, April 29. (WSOCTV via AP)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — A gunman who killed himself, two deputies and his mother and stepfather in a 13-hour home standoff in North Carolina had a large cache of weapons and may have been contemplating an attack in public, a sheriff said 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 reporters 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.

“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.

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.”