KEELING — A chaotic nightmare unfolded Tuesday morning in a small Pittsylvania County community when authorities found three people dead and launched an hours-long manhunt for an 18-year-old that ultimately ended with the arrest of a naked man.
At about 8 a.m. Tuesday, a neighbor went to check on residents at 1949 Keeling Drive when she found the body of a woman in the driveway, Pittsylvania County Sheriff Mike Taylor said. When deputies arrived, they found two additional bodies — another woman and a child. Taylor indicated the suspect was likely related to the victims, but he would not say how.
Matthew Thomas Bernard, 18 of Keeling, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder, officials announced Tuesday afternoon.
“This is a shock to our community ... it’s just a reminder of how fragile life is,” Taylor said.
Authorities did not provide a motive for the shooting.
The bodies are being taken to the Medical Examiner’s Office in Roanoke for autopsy.
Earlier in the day, alerts swept through social media and a reverse-911 system warned residents that authorities were searching for Bernard. The alert also stated he was armed with a rifle and “very dangerous.” Schools were also locked down.
Authorities set up roadblocks on both sides of Keeling Drive, where officers were investigating the triple homicide. Armed with assault rifles, officers stood guard and searched through the woods around the area.
Taylor estimated that as many as 100 officers had been on the case, including K-9 units, Virginia State Police and units from other localities.
Shortly after noon, a woman called to warn him that a naked man was running through their yard.
A few seconds later, a man, unarmed and naked, jogged between two houses on Keeling Drive, while a state police trooper backed away and demanded that he stand down.
The suspect — identified as Bernard — didn’t stop.
Even when the trooper sprayed him in the face and chest with pepper spray, he kept jogging along and ran in to the parking lot of Keeling Baptist Church.
After jogging in a circle while the officer sprayed him, the suspect headed toward the church, passing a group of media representatives gathered to cover the unfolding news. Loyd Gauldin, the caretaker and a member of the church, saw the suspect coming right at him and attempted to get back into his truck. Before he could get safely inside, the naked man pushed him away from the truck’s door and put his hands around his neck.
When Gauldin saw the man coming toward him, he later said he thought, “Lord, what’s happening?”
When the trooper caught up, he whacked the suspect with his baton, causing him to leave Gauldin and continue his jog with pepper spray dripping down his face and chest. He traveled through the grass along the side of the church and onto Keeling Drive.
Authorities who were investigating the triple homicide crime scene less than a mile up the road at 1949 Keeling Drive arrived and formed a blockade. Tactical teams and a K-9 successfully corralled the suspect, who initially attempted to run past them.
The whole chase and apprehension lasted four minutes. More officers raced into the area over the next several minutes as the man’s screams periodically pierced the air.
“I would say that the immediate threat is gone,” Taylor said in an afternoon news conference after the suspect was arrested.
“We don’t know what happened to set off this chain of events,” Taylor said.
Neighbors said Bernard was a 2019 graduate of Dan River High School.
Katina Davis, who lives across the street from Keeland Baptist Church and had been keeping an eye out all morning, watched the arrest unfold through her cracked-open front door. She wondered if the man had been hiding in the woods behind her home the entire time.
“It hits this close to home,” she said.
Avery Stevens, the pastor of Keeling Baptist Church, arrived after the arrest and was surprised about what happened.
“It can happen anywhere, even in a place like Keeling,” he said.