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Gunman hoax terrifies campus, fools eager media

A college student sent the small community of Wise, Virginia into a panic Wednesday night by falsely reporting the existence of an active gunman on campus.

The hoax, which affected the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, was then misreported by multiple national news outlets, including CNN and Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren.

The student called 911 shortly after 9 p.m. to alert authorities to the presence of a gunman on campus, prompting police to initiate a search for the suspect. The university’s website was temporarily replaced with a message to students: “The college is currently in a lockdown due to an alleged gunman on campus. Find a safe place and stay put! Lock all doors until further notice!”

Word of the gunman spread quickly via Twitter. Several terrified students tweeted that they had turned out their lights and fled to other buildings. Some asked for prayers.

But shortly before 11 p.m., the university website updated the alert and announced that the lockdown was over. The student who reported the gunman confessed to making up the story, according to police.

“As the searches were being conducted, special agents with the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s Wytheville Field Office were interviewing the student who made the report,” said the Virginia State Police in a statement. “During the course of the interview, the student confessed that it was a hoax.”

It was enough to fool the college, the people of Wise and the national news media.

This hoax comes at a time when the American public is particularly alarmed about mass shootings. The deadly December attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which occurred just months after a gunman went on a rampage in a Colorado movie theater, set off a national debate about gun control. (RELATED: Republican Sen. Rand Paul threatens to nullify President Barack Obama’s executive actions on gun violence)

In one sign of this increased national tension, the story of an armed gunman on the campus of a Texas community college dominated cable news broadcasts on Tuesday — even though the incident arose from an isolated argument and was unrelated to other recent shootings at schools and college campuses.

The College at Wise is a small liberal arts branch of the University of Virginia. It is home to about 2,000 students.

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