A gunman’s deadly rampage through rural Rancho Tehama on Tuesday was stopped when police rammed his vehicle and exchanged shots in a fierce gun battle, authorities said.
“The suspect was actually shooting at the police vehicle, back at them, the officer rammed the vehicle, forced it off the road, an exchange of gunfire — resulting in the shooter’s death,” said Tehama County Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston.
The shooting ended what authorities described as a 45-minute attack through Rancho Tehama, a quiet reserve about 120 miles northwest of downtown Sacramento.
The gunman at one point terrorized a local elementary school. Witnesses said he crashed through the school’s gates with his truck and opened fire, spraying walls and classrooms with bullets. Teachers and other adults on campus frantically got the students under desks.
Before the rampage was over, five people were dead, including the gunman, and at least 10 were wounded.
The violence began just before 8 a.m., when officers received reports of a “man down” on Bobcat Lane near Fawn Lane. Johnston said the gunman killed a man and a female neighbor he had an ongoing feud with. The gunman had been arrested for attacking the woman during a dispute in January, Johnston said.
He said the gunman’s dispute with neighbors may have sparked the violence.
“I think the motive of getting even with his neighbors and when it went that far — he just went on a rampage,” Johnston speculated.
Authorities described a chaotic scene in which the gunman in a stolen car appeared to pick targets at random in the rural Northern California county.
Johnston would not disclose the names of the gunman or victims, pending notification of next of kin. But in a phone interview Tuesday night with the Los Angeles Times, the sister of the gunman confirmed his identity as Kevin Janson Neal, 44.
Sheridan Orr, of North Carolina, said her brother had a history of mental illness and episodes of rage.
“There are certain people that do not need guns, and my brother was clearly one of them,” she said.
Orr said that her brother had long struggled with mental illness and that he would get paranoid and speak of government conspiracies. She said he was also known to have sudden episodes of unwarranted anger.
“It’s like he had been possessed and he would often not remember or he’d feel so horrible about what he had done,” Orr said. “One day he got mad at me because of the way the washing machine sounded.”
Earlier on Tuesday, the Tehama County Sheriff’s Office said that it was dealing with seven crime scenes and that 10 victims were being treated for injuries.
The gunfire awoke John and Ronda Root, who live nearby.
It was a sound they were accustomed to in the rural neighborhood of Rancho Tehama, where lots of people own guns. Neighbors are known to fire them off at night with some regularity, said Ronda Root. Another neighbor, Reta Sweeney, said she's been hearing semi-daily gunfire in the evening and at night for more than a month.
So when the gunfire started, John Root, known as "Big John" to his neighbors, was angry. He stomped onto his porch and started yelling.
"Hey! Don't make me come down there and take that gun away! It's 7:30 in the morning!"
It quickly became clear that the noise wasn't coming from an early morning target practice. The shooting stopped, then started again, then stopped again, then started again. Root said he heard at least three different kinds of firearms.
"Gunfire like crazy. One bang after another," he said.
By the time police arrived, the shooting had stopped and the gunman was gone.
The shooter stole an unoccupied white F-150 pickup truck “and went on a shooting rampage throughout the community,” Johnston said.
Authorities would not say exactly where the man opened fire in the area, but said it was spread across seven crime scenes that included the local elementary school about two miles from where the rampage began. At one point, officials said, the shooter returned to Bobcat Lane with the truck, but crashed it and then carjacked a sedan and continued his assault.
In between the two locations, authorities said the gunman drove down the street firing at random houses and cars and even shot at a mother taking her son to school who drove past him.
“She was transporting her children to school, driving down the road, passed by the [gunman’s] vehicle and he opened fire on them without provocation or warning,” Johnston said.
The boy, who was sitting in the back seat, was expected to survive. His mother, however, suffered “very life-threatening” injuries, Johnston said.
School had not started and students at Rancho Tehama Elementary were still in the playground when staffers first heard the shots ring out, said Richard Fitzpatrick, superintendent of the Corning Union Elementary School District at an afternoon news conference.
"The bell had not rang, roll had not been taken, when the shots were heard," he said.
Staffers immediately began to lock down the campus, rushing students into classrooms and under desks when the suspect came around the corner toward the school.
The suspect crashed through the front gates of the school in a white pickup truck traveling at high speed, Fitzpatrick said.
The man came out of the truck with a semiautomatic rifle, ran into the center of the school's quad and began firing at windows and walls as staffers, including the school's custodian, rushed students into classrooms.
One student was shot in a classroom while under a desk, Fitzpatrick said. That student is in stable condition.
"The shooting came from outside, the shooter was not in the classroom so it went through the wall," he said.
At that time the students and staff were secured in locked doors and under desks.
"All of the staff were absolutely heroic in making sure that students were getting into the classrooms as shots were being fired," Fitzpatrick said. "This was a question of minutes."
Fitzpatrick said staffers described the scene as "horrific," with multiple rounds fired and multiple high-capacity magazines found at the school.
"It was a really horrific scene," he said. "It was a very, very difficult and terrifying situation which could have gone a lot worse," he said.
Fitzpatrick said the school of about 100 students will be closed for the week for repairs. Students were driven out of school after the shooting in a school bus to a local community center.
Counselors were present on campus for students, staff and parents.
"It is a small, rural school, but it means everything to this community," Fitzpatrick said, describing the community where the shootings occurred. "Schools and soccer are the two biggest things going on. We farm olives and walnuts and almonds. It is that kind of community. We stick together, we look out for each other."
No children were among the dead.
A semiautomatic rifle and two handguns were recovered after deputies shot and killed the gunman.
“I have to tell you I am personally grateful to the men who engaged this suspect,” Johnston said. “It’s a tragic event, but I am personally grateful for engaging such a terrible, a mass murderer really. That’s what he is.”
Tiffany Rodgers, 33, said the community of 1,200 is close-knit, coming together even to hold a Christmas parade, decorations not required. She and her husband have lived here seven years, raising four children on a farmstead and running one of the few businesses in the community, a small coffee and sandwich shop behind a thrift store.
Cellphone service is largely nonexistent.
Residents rely on a Facebook group page to share news, make requests to borrow ingredients when cooking, and post what they hear on the police scanner.
While her husband was outside their coffee shop monitoring the path of gunfire beyond the trees across the road, she went to that site and saw the active shooter warnings.
"We heard 20 more shots. We could hear kids screaming, ‘Get down.’ I could hear kids screaming. I could hear commotion and shots," she said. "At that point my husband and the road crew ran across the street, we could see a guy on the airstrip screaming help, about halfway down. We heard a car squeal, some more shots, a dog yelp."
She continued her account: "Silver car flew past us up the hill with a shot-out window. About three minutes past that, sheriff's made it on here.…
"We could hear everything, it is so quiet here.
"Then we could hear the gun battle. Minimal 10 shots. After that main exchange I heard no more."
"I just want to make sure this town doesn't get a bad name. Such a beautiful, remote community and this happens everywhere," she said. "And I'm really hoping they don't go for the gun violence portion of this, either, because it's not a gun. I own guns. I take my kids shooting. It's the person. And sometimes just bad things happen.
"It's not the gun, it’s not mental illness. It’s not anything, it's just life, unfortunately."
Five of the shooting victims were taken to Enloe Medical Center and three have since been released, the hospital said. Dignity Health said its facilities received five victims and two have been transferred to other hospitals.
“We have assembled our resources, including staff and specialists, and are working closely with local facilities and agencies to help during this time,” Dignity Health said in a statement.
Nearby residents and business owners said they heard at least 100 gunshots.
“I thought this only happens to places like L.A. or New York,” Jose Garcia, owner of La Fortune Convenience, told the Los Angeles Times.
Coy Ferreira, a parent at the school, told KRCR-TV that he heard a series of gunshots through a classroom window and saw one young boy shot in the foot and chest and a second student shot in the arm. Both were alert and conscious, he said.
Gov. Jerry Brown released a statement expressing shock at the violence.
“Anne and I are 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,” he wrote.
Sen. Kamala Harris said on Twitter: “Heartbroken by the news of a shooting at an elementary school in Rancho Tehama. Grateful to the officers and first responders on the scene. I am closely monitoring the situation.”