By Greg Bock
A career criminal who slipped into a private school in Altoona was after money, police said.
Calixto Melendez-Herring Jr., 47, of 2627 Broad Ave., second floor, waited outside Great Commission School, a private Christian school for kindergarten through 12th grade at 1100 Sixth Ave., just after 11 a.m. Wednesday until a delivery man exiting the building gave Melendez-Herring a way into the locked facility, police said.
Melendez-Herring's presence outside the school hadn't gone unnoticed, Altoona police Lt. Jeffrey Pratt said Thursday. A parent outside the school saw Melendez-Herring and thought something didn't seem right as he slipped into the building.
"Here you had a heads-up parent who saw a guy walking up and down the sidewalk lurking outside the school, and he thought it looked suspicious and called the school," said Pratt, who added administrators immediately signaled a lockdown of the school as city officers, assisted by state police, responded.
Melendez-Herring, who had appeared earlier Wednesday morning in Central Court on Fourth Street to waive theft-related charges in several other cases to court, wandered through the school and was spotted by a teacher as well as being seen on surveillance cameras, police said.
The classrooms were locked, and the students, some of whom police said were crying because they were frightened, huddled in corners.
Melendez-Herring wasn't there to harm the children, police said. He instead stole about $200 from several purses in the school's second-floor teachers' lounge, police said.
By the time police arrived, Melendez-Herring had fled. Thanks to the surveillance video, police had a face to go with their suspect. After canvassing the neighborhood, a convenience store clerk directed police to Melendez-Herring's former employer, who then told police where Melendez-Herring lived.
When police caught up to Melendez-Herring about a half hour later, he tried to give officers the wrong birth date and name, police said.
"The way the school administrators handled it was a textbook example of what to do when someone who is unauthorized enters a school," said Pratt, adding that there was no mass hysteria or panic after the intrusion.
While students and faculty have practiced locking down the school, Wednesday's intrusion was a first and everyone handled the situation well, Great Commission Superintendent Kim Salyards said.
"We're very, very thankful he was caught," said Salyards, who praised police for their quick work.
The incident was over within 45 minutes, said Salyards, who immediately sent out emails to all parents to tell them what had happened and that everyone was fine.
Melendez-Herring is a multi-state offender with a long rap sheet, Pratt said.
According to court records, one of the cases Melendez-Herring appeared Wednesday in Central Court to face stemmed from an alleged theft of a wallet from an office at the Valley View Nursing Home, 301 Valley View Blvd., in January. Police allege Melendez-Herring then charged $405 to a credit card in the wallet.
Magisterial District Judge Paula Aigner arraigned Melendez-Herring on several charges Wednesday, and Pratt said police would be adding theft charges related to the money stolen from the lounge.
Melendez-Herring remains in Blair County Prison on $85,000 cash bail and is due to appear Wednesday in Central Court.