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New Mexico shooter had carefully planned attack

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ROSWELL, N.M. — He had apparently left little to chance. Just 12 years old, he had his weapon: a .20-gauge shotgun with the wooden handle shaved down to fit inside a duffel bag.

A bright but sometimes distant boy who played snare drum in the school band, he had a plan in the works, interviews with his classmates at Berrendo Middle School here suggest.

In the days before the shooting inside a packed school gymnasium that gravely wounded Nathaniel Tavarez, 12, and injured Kendal Sanders, 13, he had warned friends not to come to the gym that morning.

On Sunday, friends say, he sent a message on social media, anticipating the violence to come: "Tomorrow will be the first Monday that will be fun for me lol never thot I'd say that."

But a plumbing problem closed the school and delayed his plans.

On Tuesday morning, before classes had even begun, he allegedly spirited the gun into a gym, which by then was crowded with 500 students. Everything was set.

"A kid saw him pull out the gun, but he warned him to be quiet or he'd shoot him too," said a 14-year-old classmate who has known the suspect for years and recalled how they often spent time together at the boy's house playing video games.

"He had access to guns," said the teen. "They were a gun family. They hunted."

He also said that although the shooter might have experienced some harassment, it wasn't exactly bullying, more like name-calling.

"He was a good kid; he always had good grades," said the teen, who was among the 1,000 people who attended Tuesday night's vigil at the Roswell Convention Center and whose mother asked that he not be identified. "I never would have thought that he'd do something like this."

On Wednesday, the suspect was in a psychiatric facility in Albuquerque as investigators tried to determine why a child not yet in his teens would resort to such violence.

Late in the day, Chaves County prosecutors charged him as a juvenile with three counts of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, all felonies.

"That boy is just so young, I'm not even sure we can classify him as a juvenile," said a Chaves County commissioner who knows the family but asked not to be identified because of the ongoing investigation. He shook his head. "It's a learning experience. You think it can't happen here, but it did."

New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas confirmed at a Wednesday news conference that the weapon was a .20-gauge shotgun that the suspect obtained from home. The boy fired three times. One shot went into the ceiling, one into the floor and the third into the crowd of students.

"I believe when the incident occurred, the victims were random," said Kassetas, who would not identify the boy because of his age. (Although some news outlets have published the suspect's name, Los Angeles Times' policy is not to identify juveniles accused of crimes unless they are charged as adults.)

The boy's family members issued a statement Wednesday afternoon expressing their sorrow. "We love our young son and grandson dearly, as does everyone in his extended family," the statement said. "His whole family is heartbroken, as are many others in our tight-knit community in Roswell."

Classmates, meanwhile, were still trying to make sense of the shooting.

They say the suspect was an affable but often distant student and described him as a "chubby" kid who wore glasses. Others saw him as bright and outgoing, a talented percussionist who also excelled on the xylophone.

Twelve-year-old Montana Miranda, who knows the suspect, said her older sister played in the band. "She liked him; they talked a lot," the girl said. "She thought he was funny."

Montana said she also knows Kendal, who was shot in her right shoulder.

The shooting victims remained hospitalized Wednesday at University Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas. The boy, whose parents asked for privacy, was in critical condition with wounds to the face and neck. The girl was in stable condition.

Ellen Paiz, 13, was another witness. She shared a second-period language arts class with Nathaniel and the shooter.

"He was really smart," she said. "He talked a lot. He told a lot of jokes."

Over Christmas, Ellen said, she ran into him at a convenience store. He was dressed in camouflage.

"I told him, 'Nice outfit,' and he said, 'I'm getting ready to go duck hunting,'" she recalled. "I said, 'Have fun,' and he said, 'I will.' That was it."

On Tuesday morning, as students came in from the winter chill, the boy put his plan into action. The students were sitting on two sets of facing bleachers; eighth-graders on one side and sixth- and seventh-graders on the other. Then the shooting began: loud pops. Inside the gym, pandemonium.

"I heard the first shot and thought it was fireworks," Ellen said. She pushed up her glasses. Tears started to fall. "I saw [the shooter] with the gun. I looked down on the ground, and Nathaniel was there. There was so much blood."

Authorities credit John Masterson, an eighth-grade social studies teacher, for stepping in and persuading the boy to put down the gun, saying his actions probably prevented more bloodshed.

Berrendo Middle School was closed Wednesday, but officials said classes would resume Thursday.

Still, many students said they had some fears about returning to school.

"Nobody can understand this," said Diego Miranda, 14. "Nobody."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Times staff writer Michael Muskal in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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