Amid chaos at Bellingham cinemas, couple ‘wasn’t going to let this kid be on his own’

Listen as 911 dispatchers receive calls about the alleged Regal Cinemas bomb threat

Regal Cinemas in Bellingham was evacuated on Sunday, April, 28, 2019, after an alleged bomb threat. 911 operators received 23 calls for help.
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Regal Cinemas in Bellingham was evacuated on Sunday, April, 28, 2019, after an alleged bomb threat. 911 operators received 23 calls for help.

When Ethan Gimse first heard a man stand up and start shouting in the theater during a showing of “Avengers: Endgame” on April 28, he thought it was part of the movie. Gimse, who is 12, thought the man was like a tour guide for the ending scenes.

Gimse watched as the man — who was blocking the entry into the theater — started yelling about God and people worshiping false idols, while he waived his half-unzipped backpack around. Gimse listened as the man repeated the same thing over and over, getting louder each time. A few seconds later, everyone, including Gimse, began running for the emergency exit.

Gimse said he never heard the man say the word “bomb,” but he does remember the fear the man caused.

For Ashley Kettleband, 29, the most terrifying moment was when she saw a woman sitting a few seats away from her tell her son to get down on the ground. In those few seconds, Kettleband thought the man who stood up yelling was going to shoot people inside the theater. Her brain made a plan for how to escape, but in the back of her mind she was worried she might die.

“In that span of time realizing this is happening, it’s happening to me, it’s happening at my theater, it’s like a feeling of (inevitability),” Kettleband told The Bellingham Herald. “Sometimes I have dreams or nightmares … where you fall off a cliff, or you’re about to get into a car accident, and in that dream you have a moment where you know you can’t escape — it’s happening.

“It’s just this feeling of dread, where you’re like, this is it. But then you wake up, it’s fine, it’s just a dream. But that feeling was my life in that moment.”

Both Gimse and Kettleband would later learn that the man with the backpack had made an alleged bomb threat during the time he was shouting at movie-goers. No bombs were found, but the threat caused the panic-stricken people in the theater to run for the emergency exit, thousands to be evacuated from the entire cinema complex and a sweep to be done by Bellingham’s bomb squad.

Kettleband and Gimse would find themselves brought together by the alleged threat, both hiding in the thorn bushes near the Regal Cinemas theater.

Ryan Nolan MacFarlane, 27, appeared in Whatcom Superior Court on Monday, April 29, 2019, after allegedly making a bomb threat during an "Avengers: Endgame" movie showing at the Regal Cinemas theater on Sunday, April 28, 2019.

A pre-planned moment

The man who made the alleged threat was later identified as 27-year-old Ryan Nolan MacFarlane.

MacFarlane, of Florida, was followed out of the theater by an armed bystander who had a concealed firearm. The bystander helped detain MacFarlane until Bellingham police arrived, according to court records.

The Herald reached out to the bystander for comment, but he has not yet been publicly identified.

MacFarlane was arrested on suspicion of threats to bomb property. He is currently in the Whatcom County Jail in lieu of $25,000 bail.

MacFarlane told Bellingham police he had pre-planned the threat. He had attended a showing of the Avengers movie the day prior and picked “a pivotal scene that he decided would be the perfect moment to share his message,” Whatcom County Superior Court records state.

MacFarlane told police he made no mention of a bomb, court records state.

Regal Cinemas has not returned repeated requests for comment.

MacFarlane also was arrested in 2010 in St. Augustine, Florida for intentionally pulling a fire alarm and causing the early-morning evacuation of residents at their condos, according to a story from The Bradenton Herald. MacFarlane admitted to pulling one of the alarms, but not all of them, The Bradenton Herald reported.

The charge was later dropped after MacFarlane sent an apology to the local fire department, underwent a substance abuse evaluation, completed community service and paid fees, according to The Bradenton Herald.

Authorities in Florida also obtained an arrest warrant for MacFarlane for food stamp fraud in 2013, but he was never arrested and the case was closed, The Bradenton Herald reported.

0428 Regal.jpg
The Bellingham Police Department announced Sunday afternoon, April 28, via Twitter that the Regal Cinemas theater has been evacuated and will remain closed until further notice. Bellingham Police Department Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

An objective during chaos

Gimse had come to the theater with his friend, brother and father. Gimse and his friend sat in the middle, while his brother and dad sat up top. It was opening weekend for the movie, and the theater was full.

Kettleband came to the theater for her birthday with her partner. She said she never goes to opening weekend events, mainly because of the crowds, but decided it was a way to celebrate the day.

After MacFarlane allegedly shouted, Gimse said the crowd seemed to move toward the emergency exit all at once. He said they have fire and active shooter drills at school, so what to do became muscle memory.

“I didn’t actually think about running. It was a crowd, and when everyone got up, I got pushed with it,” Gimse told The Herald. “It was like I was sitting in an inner tube and a wave just pushed me away. My mind was on autopilot.”

Kettleband fell, possibly because she was pushed or stepped on, she said. She ended up throwing herself over the seats in the theater to climb back to her feet. In the moment she said she didn’t feel pain due to adrenaline, but she now has bruises stretching from her chest to her thigh.

After coming out of the emergency exit, Gimse said the closest thing he could find was a small nearby hill. He ran up and slid down the other side into some thorn bushes and found a place to hide, still unsure of the possible threat. He had been separated from his family and friend.

Kettleband found the same hill and thorn bushes, and it was there that she and her partner found Gimse alone. She introduced herself, learned he had been separated, and told him he would be okay. She held his hand and patted his back.

“During all of that, it was really scary, and half your brain is in panic and half of it is thinking clearly … but being able to latch on to him and have a purpose really helped clear my mind during it. This is the focus, I’m going to get this kid back to his parents,” Kettleband said. “It was an objective in all the chaos.”

The Bellingham Police Department's Hazardous Devices Unit used a robot to move a backpack that was thought to possibly contain a bomb on Sunday, April 29, 2019 at the Regal Cinemas movie theater in Bellingham, Wash. No explosives were located.

‘Be there for each other in that moment’

Eventually Kettleband helped Gimse find his family and his friend in the gravel parking lot near the theater and the pair parted ways.

Kettleband has a 7-year-old son, who was not with them at the time. She said that if something ever happened where she got separated from him, she would want someone to make sure her son was safe.

“I wasn’t going to let this kid be on his own. I was going to do anything I could to make sure that he at least got away,” Kettleband told The Herald. “The goal is to get him back to his parents, but I’m going to do everything I can to make sure he’s safe because he’s young and he’s innocent and he needs somebody to protect him — because that’s what I would do for my son. It really wasn’t like a conscious choice, it just made sense in the moment.”

Gimse said it was amazing to have Kettleband and her partner there and that he thought they handled the situation well. He said they helped make it less scary and stressful.

Gimse’s mom, Stefanie, later made a post on Facebook searching for and thanking Kettleband for her efforts.

“It was just heartwarming to know people who were possibly in danger in their own lives stopped to put themselves in more danger to help a child,” Stefanie Gimse told The Herald. “It wasn’t even just that they could have possibly saved his life in the moment, but they stayed and cuddled him and made sure he was okay. It means the world to me.”

Kettleband said she hopes others would do the same if they were in her situation.

“This situation was a bad situation. It’s less that I want to share about myself, but I want people to be able to read about something good that happened,” she said. “We’re just doing the right thing. If there’s something happening in your community, an event, even if it’s like a fire or something that just happens, be there for each other in that moment.”

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.