Bomb scare has officials pointing fingers

A belligerent driver on the Bainbridge side forces evacuation of Colman Dock.

At the Bainbridge ferry terminal, he was a belligerent, lane-hopping, engine-revving drunk. By the time he disembarked in Seattle, authorities feared he was a bomb-toting madman.

In the end, only the drunken belligerence was alleged to be true, but a 51-year-old man’s cross-sound antics were enough to evacuate Seattle’s Colman dock Wednesday evening, stalling commuters for over two hours and drawing a bomb squad, U.S. Coast Guard vessels and dozens of law enforcement officers.

The incident began around 4:35 p.m. when the man, identified by law enforcement officials as Keith Gilliland of Steilacoom, had an altercation with a tollbooth attendant at the Bainbridge ferry terminal.

“(Gilliland) clearly appeared intoxicated and got into a big argument with the toll operator because he was under the impression that we don’t charge anything on the Bainbridge Island side,” Washington State Ferries spokeswoman Susan Harris-Huether said.

Despite earlier reports from WSF that Gilliland drove his 1995 Honda Passport SUV onto the ferry Tacoma without paying, Harris-Huether later said the man did pay the proper fare.

Gilliland did, though, cut ahead in the vehicle loading lanes, hopping from lane five to lane one in a hurried attempt to load onto the ferry, officials said.

“The folks on the vessel gestured for him to stop, but he swerved like he was going to run them over,” Harris-Huether said.

Ferry deckhands shoved wooden wedges under the wheels of Gilliland’s SUV to prevent him from moving and asked him to step out of the vehicle. Gilliland refused, locking his doors, revving his engine and rolling up his windows.

WSF staff then alerted law enforcement for assistance while holding the ferry at the terminal. Bainbridge Police received a call for assistance at 4:56 p.m., but received a second call a minute later canceling the earlier request, according to Bainbridge Police Chief Matt Haney.

A police officer was dispatched anyway, but found the ferry leaving the dock when he arrived at the terminal.

Ferry officials say the Tacoma left Bainbridge at 4:57 p.m.

“There was some lack of communication from what we were originally told,” Haney said. “We were told there was an unruly subject (and) that he wouldn’t put his cigarette out. We would have gone a few seconds faster with the sirens if we were told it was an emergency. It does ramp up our response if we know more information.”

But within a minute of receiving a request for aid from Bainbridge police, the ferry had already pulled away.

“If the ferry asks us to come, we always do,” Haney said. “For whatever reason, they left before we got there.”

According to Harris-Huether, the ferry’s captain made the decision to leave for Seattle after assessing the situation on the auto deck.

“The captain stopped all loading and went down to the vehicle and tried to talk to (Gilliland),” she said. “The guy just lit a cigarette and gave the captain the finger.”

Incidents such as this are not uncommon, especially for a captain with over two decades of experience piloting WSF vessels, Harris-Huether said.

“As much as I hate to admit it, we have drunk drivers and passengers fairly frequently,” said Harris-Huether. “The captain has had 22 years of dealing with unruly customers and knew he could get assistance at Colman dock. He’s a good captain and saw nothing alarming.”

The captain relayed Gilliland’s license plate number to the Washington State Patrol. A background check revealed a history of mental illness and felony convictions, including car theft, eluding police and threatening to blow up a building. Gilliland was committed to Western State Hospital in Steilacoom after attempting to firebomb a house, according to police.

WSP officers confronted Gilliland at Colman Dock, where he proved increasingly uncooperative and threatening.

“The state patrol knocked on his window,” said Harris-Huether. “He sits there, lights up another cigarette, reaches behind his seat, pulls out a half-gallon of rum and proceeds to have a drink.”

Gilliland then “barricaded himself inside and communicated he was armed and had explosives,” said WSP Lt. Steve McCulley.

Bomb-sniffing dogs also communicated the possible threat of explosives, spurring numerous law enforcement agencies, including the Coast Guard and the Seattle Police bomb squad, to evacuate Colman Dock.

Police dogs were apparently confused by the smell of a handful of fireworks in Gilliland’s car.

Gilliland was charged with drunk driving, reckless driving and disorderly conduct by the WSP. He is now being held under a $50,000 bail at the King County Jail. The Coast Guard may press additional federal charges related to maritime safety and interrupting ferry service. Federal charges could include additional jail time and fines of up to $25,000, according to the WSP.

Hundreds of rush-hour commuters waiting to return to Bainbridge and Bremerton stood along Alaskan Way, trading stories and comparing gossip about the incident before service was restored at about 8:30 p.m. Most took the incident in stride, but doubted the threats would prove serious.

“I suspect it isn’t a bomb because generally it’s not,” said Simon Davies, a bicycle commuter from Poulsbo. “But it’s better to be held up than blown up.”

Blake Teach, an island resident who works as a computer technician in Seattle, is getting used to such delays.

“I’ve been riding the ferry for nine years,” he said. “This has happened a few times recently. So my reaction is ‘c’est la vie.’”

Islander Marianne Wiley sat against a chainlink fence with a stack of newspapers.

“I wish I had been on the previous boat, but I’ve got plenty to read,” she said. “That’s the (ferry) my husband took. He’s cooking supper now, but threatened to eat it himself if I miss the next boat.”

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