Santa Monica: A man with a semi-automatic rifle killed four people and injured five others Friday as he carried out a deadly rampage across several blocks of a normally idyllic beachfront city. Police shot him dead in the Santa Monica College Library.
The violence began when the gunman, acting alone despite early reports of a possible second shooter, opened fire on a house where two bodies were found, police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks said.
Two officials said the killings began as a domestic violence incident and the victims in the home were the gunman’s father and brother. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to publicly discuss the case.
Only about 20 minutes passed between the first reports of trouble and the gunman’s death, but it led to hours of fear and confusion in the balmy coastal city.
“It’s a horrific event everyone wishes didn’t happen,” Santa Monica police spokesman Richard Lewis said.
As the house burst into flames, the man, dressed all in black and wearing what appeared to be a ballistic jacket, carjacked a woman at gunpoint and directed her to drive to the college campus, having her stop so he could shoot along the way, police said.
He wounded one woman in a car, left three more women with minor injuries after firing on a city bus, and also fired on police cars, bystanders and pedestrians, police said.
In a faculty parking lot on the edge of campus, he fired on two people in a red Ford Explorer that crashed through a block wall. The driver was killed and a passenger critically wounded, police said.
From there, the gunman entered the campus, fatally wounding a woman as he made his way towards the college’s library, where students were studying for final exams.
“We saw a woman get shot in the head,” said administrative assistant Trena Johnson, who looked out the window of the dean’s office, where she works, when she heard gunfire. “I haven’t been able to stop shaking.”
The gunman fired on people in the library, Seabrooks said, but apparently didn’t hit anybody there as dozens ran for the exits.
“I was totally scared to death and I can’t believe it happened so fast,” said Vincent Zhang, a 20-year-old economics major.
Officers entered the library and shot and killed the gunman moments later, Seabrooks said.
About 5km away, President Barack Obama was attending a fundraising luncheon. Secret Service spokesman Max Milien said the agency was aware of the shooting, which began just before noon, but it had no effect on the president’s event.
After the gunman was killed, police combed the campus for a possible second shooter. They detained a man, but he was questioned and released and was not a suspect, Lewis said.
The body of the suspected gunman remained on the campus sidewalk hours later as coroner’s investigators examined the scene. The gunman was found with a canvas bag that included a rifle, a handgun and magazines of ammunition, Lewis said.
ATF agents also responded to the home where fire erupted earlier, to investigate a small cache of ammunition found in a room, Lewis said.
The identities of the dead would be released by coroner’s investigators after relatives were notified, officials said.
Three of the gunman’s victims, the two in the house and the SUV’s driver, died immediately.
The woman near the library died at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Centre about three hours later. Lewis said the woman appeared to be in her 50s and had with her a bag of recyclables she may have been collecting.
Two other women were also admitted to the hospital, said Dr Marshall Morgan, the chief of emergency medicine. One, the passenger from the SUV, was listed in a critical condition after undergoing surgery. The other, who’d been shot by the gunman just after the carjacking, was in critical condition.
The three women from the bus were treated at the hospital and released. One had shrapnel-type injuries and the two others had injuries not related to gunfire.
Nine crime scenes were under investigation by officers from 11 different law enforcement agencies, said Lewis, the police spokesman.
Police were at another place of interest late Friday believed to be linked to the gunman and would likely execute a search warrant, Lewis said.
Police had said earlier that seven people were killed, including the gunman, but they revised the death toll to five at a news conference late Friday. Lewis said there were conflicting descriptions of some victims and they were counted twice.
Jerry Cunningham Rathner, who lives near the house that caught fire, said she heard gunshots and came out onto her porch to see a man shooting at the residence. Soon, the building erupted in flames and was billowing smoke.
She watched the gunman carjack one woman and fire on the other driving by.
“He fired three to four shots into the car - boom, boom, boom, right at her,” said Cunningham Rathner, who went to help the woman and saw she was wounded in the shoulder.
From there, the chaos shifted to Santa Monica College, located among homes and strip malls more than a mile inland from the city’s famous Santa Monica Pier, Third Street Promenade and its expansive, sandy beaches.
The two-year college, spread out across 38 acres, has about 34,000 students.
In the parking lot, college employee Joe Orcutt said he saw the gunman standing calmly with his weapon, looking as though he were trying to determine which people to shoot at.
“I turn around and that’s when he’s just standing there, like he’s modeling for some ammo magazine,” Orcutt said. “He was very calm just standing there, panning around, seeing who he could shoot, one bullet at a time, like target practice.”