Just before noon Friday in this city nestled along Colorado's Front Range, a shooter carried a long gun and several mysterious items into a Planned Parenthood clinic and opened fire. When a suspect surrendered an hour after sunset, three people were dead, including a police officer, and nine others injured.
A phalanx of first responders arrived from the Colorado Springs Police Department and surrounding agencies, including the nearby police department at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. They fanned out through the area, screaming at motorists to pull over and take shelter, and ordering grocery shoppers at the King Soopers, just steps from the Planned Parenthood clinic, to stay inside.
Shelley Satulla was driving her mother and two young children to the store, located in a strip mall with a handful of open businesses where patrons gathered the day after Thanksgiving, when police ordered her to pull over.
“I didn’t know what to think. It was mass chaos,” Satulla said in an interview. “It was crazy. They were yelling, 'Shelter in place! Shelter in place!’”
Police officers were able to monitor the situation inside via security cameras throughout the building. Even so, much was unknown for hours. Though many people escaped the Planned Parenthood office — shivering in freezing weather because they had fled without their coats — police were not certain whether the gunman had any hostages.
Directing from a command post 2 miles away, Colorado Springs police sent their officers to a location near the shooter, who had cornered himself in a room. He fired on the officers and they fired back. For a time, the shooter would not answer police, responding only with gunfire.
Police were concerned that the items the shooter took inside might be explosives, and that a direct assault on him could prompt him to detonate them, said Colorado Springs Police Department spokeswoman Catherine Buckley.
Thus ensued a prolonged standoff. Police apprised a growing cadre of reporters of a list of casualties that began at four and became five, then eight, and finally 12.
The shooting continued through the afternoon as snow fell, covering lampposts and cars, until police finally got a verbal response from the suspect around 6 p.m.
“The officers were able to shout at the suspect and make contact with him, and they were able to get him to surrender,” Buckley said. “Our officers acted with untold valor to make sure that individuals were safely taken out of the Planned Parenthood.”
For Colorado residents, the day’s events were horrible, and all too familiar.
This is the state where 12 students and a teacher were gunned down at Columbine High School in 1999. After the mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater in 2012 left 12 dead and 70 injured, Colorado lawmakers passed stricter gun laws, including a ban on ammunition magazines of more than 15 rounds and background checks on all gun sales and transfers. How the gunman obtained his weapon, or weapons, is not yet known.
At a briefs news conference Friday night, Colorado Springs Police Chief Peter Carey focused on the lives lost and those touched by the violence.
“We’re still trying to figure out what happened — who our victims are,” Carey said.
Then, his voice cracking, he said, “I have some hurt police officers.”
City officials commended the patience and bravery of responding officers.
“While it’s a terrible, terrible tragedy, the way the police handled this kept it from being an even worse tragedy,” said Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers.
The slain officer was identified Friday night as Garrett Swasey, 44, a six-year veteran with the police department at UC Colorado Springs.
“UCCS officers are sworn, state-certified police officers. Officer Swasey was on duty at the campus and responded in support of Colorado Springs police,” said Pam Shockley Zalabak, university chancellor, in a statement.
“It is with great sadness that I share that the tragic events today at the offices of Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs have touched the campus of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs,” she said.
Police on Saturday identified the suspect as 57-year-old Robert Lewis Dear.
Violence against Planned Parenthood clinics has waned since a spate of shootings in the mid-1990s, though it was unclear Friday afternoon whether the shooter targeted the location because of the clinic.
Before the suspect surrendered, Vicki Cowart, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountains, released a statement noting that the motives were not yet known, but, she added, “we share the concerns of many Americans that extremists are creating a poisonous environment that feeds domestic terrorism in this country. We will never back away from providing care in a safe, supportive environment that millions of people rely on and trust.”
Planned Parenthood has been at the center of a heated national debate that supporters said threatened its very existence after a secretly recorded video emerged this summer, showing executives talking about the donation of fetal tissue from abortions for research. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, has denied any wrongdoing by the organization.
In September, the U.S. House voted to strip federal funding from the organization. In October, Planned Parenthood announced it would continue harvesting fetal tissue for medical research but would no longer accept payment to cover its related expenses.
The incident on Friday was the city’s second public shooting since Halloween, when a man armed with a rifle and a handgun walked the streets of downtown Colorado Springs before fatally shooting a bicyclist and two women on the porch of a sober-living facility. Noah Harpham, the gunman in that incident, was killed in a shootout with police.
Colorado Springs, about 60 miles south of Denver, is the state’s second-most-populous city. The area is well-regarded for its wealth of outdoor activities and low cost of living.
Author Eric Schlosser said of Colorado Springs in his seminal 2001 nonfiction book “Fast Food Nation” that the city embodied the American fast-food ideal: inartfully designed, quickly constructed, mesmerizingly efficient.
The area is home to several military installations, including the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Army base Ft. Carson, and is a reliably conservative bastion in a swing state. Its school district made news in 1993 when, facing growing student numbers and a voter base that was firmly anti-taxes, it became the nation’s first to place ads on its school buses and in its hallways.
For Satulla, Colorado Springs is a place she's called home much of her life. Unable to move after police ordered her to pull over, she sat in her parked car in the frigid temperatures, her windows cracked as she spoke with reporters. “When it happens here it's difficult to grasp,” she said.
Lee reported from Colorado Springs and Duara from Miami.