WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — An off-duty West Palm Beach police officer who just happened to be driving by Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts moments after a van crashed through the locked entrance to campus was forced to fire a single shot at the driver who "violently attacked" him, police spokesman Mike Jachles said late Friday.
Roman Phelps, 33, of Palm Beach Gardens, was identified as the van's driver, according to a West Palm Beach police news release.
Jachles said Phelps was driving the van east in the westbound lanes of Banyan Boulevard when it turned onto Tamarind Avenue and then plowed through the locked entrance to the school on Sapodilla Avenue shortly before noon.
Witnesses told police the driver got out of the van, ran past students eating lunch outside and then entered a campus building, where he got into an altercation with a school resource officer before breaking free, Jachles said.
Maia Derrevere is a sophomore at the school. She said she was eating lunch when the incident occurred.
"There were people everywhere outside and we, kind of, didn't know what was going on," she told WPTV.
Derrevere said a school official directed her and other students to safety.
Within a minute after receiving a call for backup, the off-duty officer arrived and located Phelps, who ran inside the auditorium, Jachles said.
That's when Phelps "violently attacked" the officer, who was forced to open fire, Jachles said.
Other officers arrived a short time later and attempted to resuscitate Phelps, but it was too late. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
No students or faculty were injured during the incident.
The officer who fired the shot was placed on administrative leave, which is department policy.
Adam Myers, president of the Fraternal Order of Police for West Palm Beach, released the following statement:
"The Fraternal Order of Police believes any loss of life is unfortunate. The officer who responded to Dreyfoos School of the Arts did so to aid Palm Beach County School District police and protect children and staff. If not for the officer's heroic actions, the resulting tragedy may have been much greater. Upon the conclusion of the investigation when all facts are known, we are confident the public will come to a similar conclusion."
A motive for the incident was not immediately known.