By SCOTT WEISSER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
Heather Lock’s shift had started at 10 p.m. Sunday. It was shaping up to be a slow night.
The LaGrange County 911 communications dispatcher had taken a phone call from a newspaper reporter. As per usual in the news business, the reporter asked if anything big was going on.
“‘Nope, our night’s been super quiet,’” Lock recalled saying.
The situation changed about an hour and 45 minutes into her shift.
That’s when Lock received a 911 call from Cheryl Van Wormer, who’d been abducted in her vehicle hours earlier in Michigan by convicted murderer Michael D. Elliot. Elliot had escaped from Ionia Correctional Facility. He was armed with a box cutter and a hammer.
Elliot and his captive had stopped at the Gallop convenience store north of Middlebury at Ind. 13 and C.R. 2. Elliot went inside to pay for gas. Van Wormer took a chance.
“I’m hostage to an escaped convict from Ionia Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich.,” she told Lock, according to a recording of the call.
“When the call came in, my caller was extremely calm,” Lock said during a press conference Tuesday at the LaGrange County Sheriff’s Department. “I did not expect that intense of a situation was going to happen (given) the calmness of her voice.”
You’re being held hostage?, Lock asked the caller. Van Wormer confirmed that she was. Lock looked at her shift partner, Kelly Landers. This was serious.
Van Wormer began explaining to Lock what was going on.
“She said that the male subject (Elliot) was in the gas station paying for gas at the time,” Lock said. “She said that he didn’t realize she had a phone. He’d asked her earlier that night if she had a cell phone. She told him no. So she was being super-secretive with the phone.”
Lock said Van Wormer had no idea where she was at, other than she’d just arrived in Indiana off the Toll Road. She told Lock the name of the gas station where Elliot had stopped. Landers began calling around to other counties to find out if they had a gas station by that name.
A bit nervously, Van Wormer told Lock that Elliot was inside the store paying for gas and getting ready to come back outside.
“At that time my instincts kick in, because I don’t want her to leave the premises of where she’s at,” Lock said. “Then we have to get in contact with cell phone companies, try to start pinging her. So I knew I needed her to stay exactly where she was at.”
Lock told the caller to tell her captor she needed to use the restroom. Van Wormer did just that. She locked herself inside the restroom and stayed in contact with Lock until police arrived. Landers was in contact with Elkhart County emergency personnel, and Lock relayed information to the hostage.
Elliot pounded on the restroom door at one point, telling Van Wormer is was time to go.
“I said, ‘No, you’re not leaving,’” Lock recalled. “‘We have you locked in there. I already have help on the way. Don’t leave.’”
Elliot left the scene — and left Van Wormer behind — before officers arrived. Van Wormer’s Jeep Liberty was found abandoned Monday in Shipshewana. Elliot was apprehended after a police pursuit in LaPorte County that same day.
Lock said Van Wormer’s demeanor over the phone made the process go as smoothly as it could.
“I don’t know how she stayed so calm the entire time, but she was amazing.”
Lock was matter of fact about her own role in the episode.
“That’s what our job is to do,” the LaGrange resident said. “Our job is to help protect and serve our community. And she was somebody who needed my help, and that’s what I was trained to do.”
Elliot was incarcerated in the LaPorte County Jail Tuesday on a $1 million bond. He was taken into custody after an alleged crime spree that spanned two states and two northern Indiana counties.
After fleeing the Gallop store, Elliot at some point abandoned the Jeep Liberty in Shipshewana. According to LaGrange County Sheriff Terry Martin, it’s possible Elliot may have walked from Shipshewana to Middlebury. Middlebury police are fairly certain Elliot stole a vehicle in that town, and also committed a break-in.
According to Middlebury police Lt. Robert Baker, investigators think Elliot broke into Crystal Valley Missionary Church along U.S. 20 early Monday to get warm. Baker said there was blood evidence at the scene — police think Elliot cut his fingers when he broke a window at the church to gain entry.
“We swabbed that and we’ll send it in for DNA,” Baker said. “We’ve got to confirm whether it was him or not.”
Investigators believe Elliot fled the building when church personnel arrived. They think he fled across the road and stole a 2002 Ford Escort parked in the Das Dutchman Essenhaus lot by the maintenance building. Baker said the vehicle was recovered in LaPorte.
Police finally tracked down Elliot after getting a report of a car stolen from a factory in the city of LaPorte, said LaPorte County sheriff’s Maj. John Boyd. A deputy who happened to be nearby spotted the Chevrolet Monte Carlo “within a few seconds,” he said.
Elliot tried to run but he was arrested and taken to jail, Boyd said. He is incarcerated there Tuesday on a $1 million bond.
Elliot was serving life in prison without parole for fatally shooting four people and burning down their Gladwin County house in 1993 when he was 20 years old, according to court records. Elliot and his accomplices were trying to steal money from a drug dealer, police said.
LaPorte County Prosecutor Robert Szilagyi said Tuesday that Elliot refused to waive extradition during a hearing that day in LaPorte. Szilagyi says Michigan has 30 days to issue an extradition warrant.