By Stephen Baxter
Santa Cruz Sentinel
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Just as lunch was being prepared on a typical Monday at the Secret Garden Too preschool, an escaped convict smashed a glass door to the infant room and put a gun to a teacher's head, demanding her car keys.
No one was hurt in the 11:45 a.m. incident, but leaders at the preschool said screams of terror pierced the air as at least one parent ran for cover with her child.
Inmate Maurice Ainsworth had been across the street at Dominican Hospital when he overpowered a sheriff's deputy and fled with her .40 caliber, semi-automatic handgun. He took off across Paul Sweet Road to the preschool.
Wearing yellow jail clothing, Ainsworth kicked in the glass door to the infant's room of the preschool at 3205 Salisbury Drive, the force of his blast knocking the wood from the door frame, said preschool owner Cathy LaTorre.
"I got a call from one of the teachers that there was a man with a gun in the infant room," LaTorre said. LaTorre said she didn't believe it at first, but the teacher described how the man shattered the glass door.
There were four infants in the room, and a parent who had just entered the room to pick up her child screamed, LaTorre said. She grabbed her baby, fled and called 911.
LaTorre said Ainsworth grabbed a female teacher and held the deputy's gun to the teacher's head, demanding her car keys, which she handed over.
Sandy Kaplin, who works at the preschool, said she was preparing lunch in the main building when she heard one of the parents yelling that a man with a gun was in the infant room.
Twenty preschoolers were on the playground at the time and seven toddlers were in another room. A teacher in the basement heard the incident and called LaTorre.
"I think she was pretty shook up," LaTorre said of the teacher.
With keys to the teacher's Volkswagen Rabbit in hand, Ainsworth fled.
LaTorre said Ainsworth dropped the car keys in the parking lot, possibly because he spotted authorities, LaTorre said.
He was arrested at 4:30 p.m. a few blocks away on the 100 block of English Drive.
During the manhunt, authorities ordered everyone in the preschool to stay put for several hours while they tried to safeguard the area.
Authorities closed Salisbury Drive and surrounding streets to traffic, and they evacuated the children at the preschool to a building across a parking lot from the Dominican Hospital emergency room.
Parents were notified and picked up their children at that building.
Dacia Pruett was frantic when she pulled up in the Dominican parking lot to retrieve her son.
"They called me at work and said there was a hostage," Pruett said.
After she picked up her son, she said, "I'm glad he's OK, but I'm telling you it scared the crap out of me," Pruett said.
LaTorre, the preschool owner, said her staff did a commendable job during the incident.
"All the things that you think about in terms of emergency plans all worked," she said.
"Everybody was safe. It could have gone another way, but some other force stopped it ... All the teachers did exactly what they were supposed to do," LaTorre said.
Sentinel staff writer Kimberly White contributed to this story.
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