A gunman shooting at random people and locations killed four people Tuesday in Northern California, attacking an elementary school and a woman driving her children to school during the rampage, authorities said.
This latest burst of gunfire to terrorize a community – which followed deadly mass shootings in Nevada and Texas – unfolded without an immediate explanation, as the gunman spewed bullets across what police described as “a very widespread area.”
Ten people were injured and taken to area hospitals, including at least two children, one of whom was at the elementary school, police said. No children were among those killed in the shooting, which ended when law enforcement officers, responding to the carnage, fatally shot the attacker.
Even as authorities described a gunman leaving a bloody trail through the rural community, they also warned that the horror, “as tragic and as bad as it is, could have been so much worse,” as Phil Johnston, an assistant sheriff in Tehama County, told reporters.
When the gunman arrived at Rancho Tehama Elementary School on Tuesday morning, he rammed the fence and marched onto the grounds wielding a semiautomatic rifle and wearing a vest embedded with additional clips, Johnston said. But the gunman was unable to enter the classrooms because school officials had heard gunfire and immediately locked down the premises, Johnston said.
The attacker fired dozens of rounds at the school, officials said, shooting out windows and through the walls of classrooms, injuring at least one student with gunfire and others with broken glass. However, because he could not get inside, the shooter abandoned the school after about six minutes and went elsewhere, said Johnston, praising school officials who “saved countless lives and children.”
The bloodshed began shortly before 8 a.m., Johnston said.
Police received “multiple 911 calls of multiple different shooting sites, including the elementary school” in Rancho Tehama Reserve, a small area about 135 miles north of Sacramento, he said.
“It was very clear early on that we had a subject that was randomly picking targets,” Johnston said.
Police did not immediately identify a motive for the attack, though they said it was apparently preceded by a dispute the gunman had with a neighbor.
The sheriff’s office declined to name the gunman, saying his family had not been notified, but the Associated Press and other news reports identified him as Kevin Neal. The Washington Post has not independently confirmed his identity.
A woman the AP Press identified as the gunman’s mother said her son was working as a pot farmer and had recently married his longtime girlfriend. She said he grew up in Raleigh, N.C., before moving to California.
In her last few talks with her son, this woman told the AP he sounded desperate and despairing over his relationship with his neighbors, who he said were cooking meth and creating fumes that were harming his nine dogs.
The gunman was arrested and charged in January with assaulting a neighbor – an unnamed woman – with a deadly weapon. She was among the victims killed Tuesday, said Johnston, who declined to identify her or a man found dead in the same area.
Earlier Tuesday, Johnston had said police were told by neighbors that “there was a domestic violence incident” involving the gunman, who had a residence in Rancho Tehama. A restraining order had been issued against the shooter, Johnston said, but he did not know the specifics of the order.
“This is an individual that armed himself, I think with the motive of getting even with his neighbors, and I think when it went that far, he just went on a rampage,” Johnston said.
The gunman’s wrath was indiscriminate, according to the sheriff’s office. He fired at homes as he passed and, at one point, intentionally crashed into a vehicle with other people in it, only to begin shooting at them as they got out, killing one, Johnston said.
In another apparently random encounter, a woman was driving her children to school when she crossed paths with the attacker. He “opened fire on them without provocation or warning,” severely injuring her and wounding one of her children, Johnston said.
“She told me that she doesn’t know this person, never seen this person, does not know why he started shooting at her,” Johnston said. “She was just passing by him.”
The gunman also did not have any apparent connection to the elementary school or anyone inside it, Johnston said, and “chose the school as a random target.” One boy at the school was shot and wounded when the gunman fired from outside, Johnston said. School officials said that student was in stable condition.
“It’s a very sad day for us here in Tehama County,” Johnston said.
Brian and Tiffany Rodgers, who own the shop Coffee Addiction, can normally hear kids laughing at the elementary school less than a mile away. On Tuesday morning, they heard gunfire.
“When I heard the shots I could tell, I know my guns, I knew it was an automatic rifle,” Tiffany Rodgers said. “I could hear the kids screaming. You could hear the trauma.”
Brian Rodgers said he recognized the shooter, who had been fighting with his neighbors for “a long time over piddly stuff,” such as burning garbage.
Before the attack on the school, Coy Ferreira, 32, whose daughter is a kindergartner there, said he heard what he thought were fireworks. Then the 8 a.m. whistle blew three times, even though it was not 8 a.m., and a school official ordered everyone to rush inside because there was a gunman, Ferreira said.
Still wearing their backpacks, children in one classroom hid under their desks and then were told to huddle in a teacher’s office, Ferreira said. Three students appeared too frightened to run back, Ferreira said.
The gunman – visible out the window, wearing green camouflage, Ferreira said – fired a volley of bullets at the classroom’s windows. When the shooter moved on to the next room, students who had remained under their desks were told to run back to the office with others, but one child wasn’t moving, Ferreira said. He had been shot in the chest and leg.
The other teachers came out to try to stop the bleeding, and the boy was eventually taken to the hospital, Ferreira said.
“That’s when he started crying that he wanted to go home and be with his mommy,” he said. “He didn’t want to go to the doctor . . . this 5-year-old shot twice.”
Ferreira said he told his daughter that she was smart and a good listener for doing what she was told. “She said, ‘Daddy, you told me there would be no bad people at school,’ ” Ferreira recalled, “and how am I supposed to answer her?”
The ages of those killed and wounded were not immediately released by authorities.
Enloe Medical Center said it received five patients from the shooting, three of whom were treated and released Tuesday. Two remained hospitalized by the afternoon, according to a hospital spokeswoman. While the victims’ ages were not immediately available, the hospital had said earlier it was treating at least three children.
When law enforcement officers found the gunman, he was chasing and firing at another vehicle, Johnston said. An officer rammed his car, forcing it off the road, and the attacker exchanged shots with the officers, who killed him, ending his rampage.
After the shooting, Johnston said police recovered a semiautomatic rifle and two handguns believed to be used by the shooter. The FBI dispatched teams to help local authorities respond to the shooting, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also sent special agents.
The shooting rampage in California comes as many are still struggling with the psychic and physical wounds left behind by recent mass shootings at other seemingly safe places across the country.
Last week in Texas, a gunman attacked a small church outside San Antonio during Sunday morning services, killing 26 people and injuring 20 others. A month earlier, a gunman in a high-rise Las Vegas hotel suite opened fire at a country-music festival far below, killing 58 and injuring hundreds more in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.
This latest public attack happened in Rancho Tehama Reserve, a rural subdivision described on its website as “a quiet private country community in the heart of Tehama County, California.”
Gov. Jerry Brown, D, said in a statement that he and his wife were “saddened to hear about today’s violence in Tehama County, which shockingly involved schoolchildren. We offer our condolences to the families who lost loved ones and unite with all Californians in grief.” Vice President Mike Pence posted in a message on Twitter that the White House would monitor the situation, provide federal support and “pray for comfort & healing for all impacted.”
After the gunfire, worried parents were trying to get to their children at the school, according to a reporter with Action News Now, a local news operation.
The school will be closed until further notice, to allow law enforcement agents to complete their investigation and to make repairs. The district will make other arrangements for teaching students.
“There was an active shooter out there earlier this morning,” said Jeanine Quist, an administrative assistant with the Corning Union Elementary School District. “There were some confirmed injuries.”
Speaking at about 10:30 a.m. local time, Quist said parents were able to get to the school to see their children.