A 20-year-old dropout wearing a camouflage coat and a belt of bullets across his chest invaded his old high school Friday and opened fire, wounding at 10 people and holding 60 hostage into the night before giving himself up.
One of the wounded students was in grave condition. An adult staff member also was shot. Students who were released reported that at least one body of a teacher was inside the school.
More than a 1,000 parents and residents of this small Sacramento Valley farming town had gathered in the darkness at a nearby school to await word during the 8 1/2 hour siege. They shouted with joy at the news released about 10:30 p.m.
“He just gave himself up and came downstairs and we took him into custody,” Yuba County Sheriff’s Capt. Dennis Moore announced.
The gunman was identified by authorities as Eric Houston, an unemployed computer assembler who four years ago dropped out of Lindhurst High School. The school is attended by a multi-ethnic student body, most from low-income, blue-collar families.
He “wants to show how badly he was treated” by his former school, Moore said earlier, Yuba County sheriff’s captain Dennis Moore, reporting on telephone communications between deputies and the barricaded assailant.
Officers said Houston was armed with a shotgun, but his sister said he also had a .22-caliber rifle.
The sister, Susan Nelson--interviewed by telephone--said that Houston cashed his unemployment check Friday morning and bought ammunition.
“He buys bullets every payday and goes shooting,” Nelson said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him . . . He was fine this morning.”
Chris Woods, a friend who said he used to target shoot with Houston, described him as a “dead aim shot.” Woods added that Houston lost his job because he lacked a high school diploma.
He said Houston felt, “ ‘If I ain’t going to graduate, these kids ain’t going to graduate.’ That’s just how his mind works.”
The shooting spree began about 2 p.m. while classes were changing. As students began settling into their seats, many could hear the pop of gunfire out in the hallway.
One of the first to encounter the attacker was Daniel Spade, a 17-year-old sophomore, who heard a strange sound while in the lavatory and went into the hall to investigate what he thought was a fight.
Instead, looking down a stairwell, he said he saw a gunman shooting into a wall. Spade said he ran into the nearest classroom, where some girls were crying and yelling. At first, the teenager said, he tried to calm the other students because “I didn’t want them to yell and make him mad.”
Minutes later the gunman entered the room and began pointing a gun at the students, finally swinging around and aiming it at Spade’s head.
“I was so scared,” Spade recalled. “I was just scared and I prayed and I begged him not to kill me. I said, ‘Please don’t kill me. Please do not kill me. Oh, please, God, do not let him kill me.”’
The gunman turned his gun away and began shooting, but hit no one. He left the classroom as suddenly as he came and the frightened students bolted from the school grounds.
“He never said a word,” Spade said. “Never ever that I heard. It was like he got joy out of it. He had kind of a smile on his face.”
As the assailant moved from place to place within the school, leaving victims behind him, most of the 1,200 students were able to escape. Many fled screaming into the normally quiet community.
Ambulance crews managed to remove many wounded. The victims were rushed to Rideout Memorial Hospital in nearby Marysville. Paramedics told nurses at the hospital that there were other gunshot victims they were unable to reach.
The most severely wounded was a 16-year-old boy, shot in the head, who was in critical condition, unconscious and on life support, said a hospital spokeswoman.
Two other 16-year-old boys with lesser wounds were also hospitalized, one in fair condition and one stable. Three 17-year-old girls and a 14 year-old were taken to hospitals, all in either stable or fair condition.
The wounded adult, age 61, was in fair condition, the spokeswoman said.
Because most of the windows in the two-story school building had shades drawn, sheriff’s officers who surrounded the school had difficulty tracking Houston’s movements. Later, it became clear that he was holding his hostages in a classroom on the second floor.
Moore said that the sheriff’s department established phone contact shortly before 5 p.m. and began attempting to negotiate with him. Houston’s mother and brother were on the scene.
Witnesses said that Houston demanded and was given a television set early in the siege. But authorities asked Sacramento television stations to halt their coverage and the stations complied. Later, the sheriff’s officers cut off the television.
As the siege wore on, the gunman asked for food, soft drinks and Advil. The authorities ordered pizzas but held off delivering the food until they negotiated the first release of 10 students. Hours later, Houston let go another 27 students--including one shot in the buttocks--in exchange for two bottles of Advil, keeping about 20 youngsters inside.
At about 10 p.m. a group of 12 students who were hiding in the school but were not believed to be known to the gunman escaped.
Once released, the children were taken a few miles away to Yuba Garden school, which had served as a staging area for hundreds of friends and relatives anxiously awaiting the fate of their loved ones.
“You’re safe! You’re safe! You’re safe!” one woman shouted at her daughter.
The children exchanged tearful hugs with their parents and reassured the relatives of those still held captive that “it’s going to be all right.”
Earlier, students who had been trapped in other rooms within the high school, nearly 50 in all, broke free in groups, escaping from the campus.
One of the witnesses, sophomore Jennifer Thompson, was in her world studies class in the school’s biggest building when she heard several gunshots she describes as coming in bursts. “Bang, bang, bang. Silence. Then again,” she said.
She said students immediately ducked under their desks as they had been taught to do in earthquake emergency preparedness drills.
“Our teacher told us to sit and be calm,” Thompson said. “He peeked around a corner and said, ‘It’s not firecrackers. It’s gunshots.”’
All at once students from two other classes charged into her classroom to escape from the gunman. A few minutes later, a voice over the school intercom directed students to leave the school.
“‘Everybody, hurry and get out,”’ the girl remembered the voice saying.
Another student, Shawna Ries, said she did not hear the gunshots and was shocked when she was suddenly given orders to get into her classroom, shut the door and lie on the ground. She said students remained in that position when word came over the intercom to leave the building and go to the softball field.
The incident took place after officials at the school canceled a planned student sports rally because a number of team members were unable to attend, said Lindhurst principal Ron Ward.
The principal said he was on campus but some distance from the building where the shooting took place when he heard the gunfire. He said he ran over and he and other officials began evacuating the school as quickly they could.
Ward said he was upset by early reports that the incident was in any way connected to the verdict in the Rodney King beating case in Los Angeles.
“It’s not a racial incident or even remotely related to Rodney King,” Ward said.
Times Staff Writers Paul Jacobs, Daniel M. Weintraub, Dan Morain and Virginia Ellis contributed to this story from Northern California. Edmund Newton contributed from Los Angeles.