Commonwealth Crossing water tower springs leak

Tiffany and Chris Hall of Ridgeway noted a geyser of water gushing out of a hole or crack in the water tower at Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre in Ridgeway at about 6:40 p.m. Sunday. The water was “pouring out like a waterfall.” Tiffany Hall called 911 to report it. The water leak “was pretty eerie-looking ... the pictures don’t do it justice. I think it’s because you can’t get a feel of the scale of just how large that tower is, and how much water is coming out.” The iconic tower is at the North Carolina/Virginia state line next to U.S. 220. The business center is home to Press Glass manufacturing center and the Commonwealth Centre for Advanced Training.

A North Carolina man has been arrested in connection with the shooting of the Commonwealth Crossing water tower after investigators said he had bragged to friends about pulling the trigger.

Aaron Chase Clayton, 21, of 413 Janet Road in Stoneville, has been charged with one count of felony vandalism and one count of reckless handling of a firearm, a misdemeanor, according to a release from the Henry County Sheriff’s Office.

Rockingham County is holding Clayton on a fugitive from justice warrant based on warrants in Henry County, the release said. He is under a $15,000 secured bond awaiting extradition across the state line.

The charges are connected to an incident the night of Jan. 4, when authorities say a gunshot from a high-powered rifle damaged the water tower at Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre in Ridgeway.

The 1-inch bullet hole caused the loss of between 500,000 and 700,000 gallons of water, according to Henry County officials. The tank can hold 1 million gallons but was not completely full at the time of the shooting.

Henry County Public Service Authority staff initially estimated the total damage at $35,000 but now believe it will be closer to $11,000, including the value of the lost water.

Officials made the original estimate “before we were able to actually get close and see the extent of the damage,” Henry County Administrator and PSA General Manager Tim Hall said.

Just getting to the top of the 150-foot-tall tower to assess the damage was no easy feat. Crews used drones to get a closer look at the bullet hole. Then, making repairs high in the air required a lot of specialized equipment and safety considerations, Hall said.

Repairs were completed in about a week, but “this wasn’t an easy fix,” he said.

Because it involves a public water supply, the process was more complicated than simply patching the hole in the metal. A water-safe epoxy was applied to the inside and outside, and the tank had to be disinfected and tested before coming back online.

“Additional testing was needed on the tank, because the last thing we want is to refill the tank and still have a leak,” Hall said. “We had to ensure that the water quality was up to our standards and the federal government’s standards, too. That’s our job. We aren’t going to short-cut that.”

As part of the investigation, the sheriff’s office conducted “numerous interviews” and used video surveillance footage from the industrial park to identify a suspect in the shooting, the news release stated.

Investigators interviewed Clayton after learning he had told friends he used a sniper rifle to shoot the water tower, court records show. This was after his first attempt, using a smaller weapon, had failed to penetrate the 3/8-inch-thick plated steel tank, according to a search warrant on file in the Henry County Circuit Court Clerk’s office.

The document states that Clayton told investigators “he just said it trying to be funny.”

However, the county officials who had to clean up after the vandalism are not laughing.

“It’s just a nuisance and a nitwit thing to do,” Hall said during a recent PSA board meeting. “You put at risk the water supply, you put at risk the construction and structural integrity of that tank, you put at risk the industrial park. We’re hopeful that it was just a ‘Y’all watch this!’ moment and won’t recur.”

The release from the sheriff’s office credited the “many concerned witnesses and citizens that came forward with information in this case” and continued media coverage for assisting the investigation.

The investigation is ongoing, and anyone having information regarding this incident is asked to contact the sheriff’s office at 276-638-8751 or Crimestoppers at 63-CRIME (632-7463). The Crimestoppers Program offers rewards up to $2,500 for information related to crime.

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