By Linda Cicoira –A judge found probable cause Monday to certify two felony charges of possessing firearms at Nandua High School to an Accomack grand jury.
The accused was working at the school as a substitute teacher. A shotgun was found in the trunk of his vehicle and a handgun was under a towel on the backseat, testimony disclosed.
Phillip Gordon Stewart, 63, of Nock’s Landing Road in Atlantic, was arrested and charged on March 27 with “possessing a firearm designed or intended to expel a projectile by action of an explosion of a combustible material upon the property of a public or religious elementary middle or high school, or upon that portion of a property open to the public and then exclusively used for school-sponsored functions or extracurricular activities while such functions or activities were taking place.”
“I cannot accept that these two weapons were not loaded, even though none were in the chamber,” said Judge Gordon Vincent after hearing defense lawyer Tommy Northam’s arguments. Not in “good conscience” or by using “common sense,” the judge added.
The case could turn into an argument about the constitutional right to bear arms. It was unclear why it mattered if the gun was loaded. Ammunition was found in the guns. There was also additional ammo in the vehicle.
Deputy Jessica Young, the school’s resource officer, testified she “received a call from dispatch” that a teacher had a gun on school property. The anonymous caller stated Stewart had a concealed weapon in his vehicle.
She spoke to Stewart outside the school gym and he admitted he had a gun in his car.
“We walked together to the front office” where the school’s two assistant principals joined them. They all went to the lot where his car was parked. Young said the vehicle was in the second row about 50 yards from the building. Route 13 was behind it.
“He consented to the search,” Young said. “He opened his vehicle’s trunk. It was a shotgun. He pulled it out from underneath some clothes.”
Stewart was then handcuffed and Young called for backup. “A handgun was found beneath a towel in the backseat,” the officer continued. “He said he recently moved out of his residence and was keeping them there for safe keeping.”
Northam argued that an unloaded firearm can be kept in a closed container. He said the trunk and backseat could both be considered containers. “Both were locked,” he added. “There were no rounds in either chamber. When you pull the trigger you want it to go bang,” the defense lawyer continued. “None of these were out in the open and they were locked up.”
Commonwealth’s Attorney Spencer Morgan didn’t agree. “That weapon is loaded,” if there is ammo in the gun. Morgan also said did not consider the trunk and backseat as containers.
According to court records, Stewart said, “He put the firearms in (his) car for safekeeping from his ex. He did not realize he could not bring on school property.” He was held in Accomack Jail for about two days without bond due “safety concerns” and “presumption” — a rule of law that allows a court to assume a fact is true until it is rebutted by the greater weight of the evidence against it. Stewart is free on a $2,500 secured bond.