No threat found after Ocala church evacuated due to bomb scare

Man taken into custody under Baker Act

OCALA, Fla. – An Ocala church was evacuated and a school located on campus was placed under a lockdown for several hours Thursday.

Police initially thought it was a bomb threat, but later determined no direct threat was made.

Ocala police went to Meadowbrook Church around 8 a.m.

Police spokesperson Meghan Shay said a church staff member saw a man acting strangely in their parking lot.

"He was talking to himself, but he was holding a box. Obviously speaking in a way that was alarming to them, so they took that as a potential threat," Shay said. "They were under the impression that he was there making threats against the church and that he may have a bomb in his possession."

Police evacuated the church and put Meadowbrook Academy, a school located behind the church, on lockdown.

The 24-year-old man was taken into custody under the Baker Act. Investigators with the Marion County Sheriff's Office bomb squad also went to the scene to determine if the bomb threat was real. 

"The X-ray of the box was inconclusive, so they did have to detonate the box. However, we have not found any evidence that there was actually a bomb inside and we did search his residence and found that there were no bomb-making materials at his home," Shay said.

Shay said the man was a relative of a church staff member and lived in a nearby apartment complex. 

Ocala police said the man has been on their radar before. Shay said he has a history of mental illness and was taken into custody under the Baker Act four times in recent months. Shay also said he has not been taking his medications. 

Police said they are thankful the church wasn't in any danger and they hope this will be a turning point in the man's life. 

"We're able to use this as the opportunity to get him connected to the help that he needs and we hope that he will continue with treatment so that he won't end up in this situation again," Shay said.

Ocala police said the man is not facing any criminal charges because he did not make any direct threats to the church or a person.

Meadowbrook Church executive pastor Tom Fox sent News 6 a copy of the letter that was sent to staff and parents following the bomb scare:

"Dear MBA Families,

"This morning, our campus was in crisis because of a suspected threat.  Fortunately, many students were in carline and we immediately directed those parents to leave campus with their children.  The students already on campus and inside were placed on Code Red and after the situation evolved the code was reduced from red to yellow.

"We are grateful to our first responders for coming to the scene so quickly.  They immediately took control of the situation.  The person responsible is in custody, and the Ocala Police Department is now handling all aspects of the investigation.  The investigation concluded that there were no direct threats made to any individual or to the church. 

"The safety of our students and staff is always top priority.  As principal of Meadowbrook Academy, I want to say “thank you” for how our parents conducted themselves and for the quick-thinking actions of our staff members to keep our students safe.  Also, we want to say “thank you” to Dr. Maier, Superintendent of Marion County Public Schools for sending her staff to the scene for support.  Mr. Juan Lopez, Director of Psychological& Social Work Services and his staff for being a huge resource in handling this crisis.

"Though we closed for the remainder of today, we look forward to returning to a normal routine tomorrow morning.  We will have counselors, social workers, and psychologists available tomorrow to assist you and any of our students and staff in coping with this situation."