During regular emergency drills at Deer Creek Middle School in suburban Denver, math teacher David Benke always told himself and his students that, should something dire occur, he would try to protect them.
So when he spotted a rifleman shooting at students who were leaving school Tuesday, Benke didn’t hesitate. “I made a promise,” he said.
The 57-year-old teacher charged the gunman and knocked him to the ground. While an assistant principal grabbed the rifle, Benke and another teacher kept the shooter pinned until police arrived.
On Wednesday, a judge ordered the accused gunman, 32-year-old Bruco Strong Eagle Eastwood, held on $1-million bail on suspicion of two counts of attempted murder. Two students were wounded -- one in the arm, the other in the rib and lung.
The shooting was a few miles from Columbine High School, the site of one of the worst school massacres in U.S. history, where in 1999 two teenage gunmen killed 12 students and one teacher. Authorities said Benke’s heroism may have staved off a similar tragedy at Deer Creek.
Jefferson County Sheriff Ted Mink shook Benke’s hand before television cameras Tuesday night and said, “You’re a fine man.” A new Facebook page titled “Dr. David Benke is a Hero!!!!” had more than 23,000 followers by Wednesday afternoon.
Eastwood is an unemployed ranch hand with a long history of arrests for assault and domestic violence. His father told the Denver Post that his son has mental problems and hears voices in his head.
In the early 1990s, authorities said, Eastwood attended Deer Creek in Littleton. He returned there midday Tuesday and checked in at the office, but it is unclear what happened next.
“There was some dialogue with staff and then he left. Then the shooting began,” Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Jacki Kelley said at a news conference. “He was not asked to leave; he just left.”
Kelley said that Eastwood had been cooperating with authorities, but she declined to say what explanation the suspect gave for the attack. She said Eastwood used his father’s rifle.
Benke was one of four teachers outside the school watching students leave around 3 p.m. when he heard the first shot. Benke said he turned and saw Eastwood. “I noticed he was working a bolt-action rifle,” Benke said at a news conference at district headquarters Wednesday. “I realized I had time to get him before he could chamber another round.”
After Benke, who is 6 feet 5, tackled Eastwood, the two men fell to the ground grappling. Assistant Principal Becky Brown dashed over and pulled the gun away from Eastwood. Brown said that she too didn’t hesitate.
“Those kids are my kids,” she said. “When I saw him [Benke] and saw what he was doing, I wanted to help.”
Another teacher climbed on top of Eastwood, who complained that he was being brutalized and that he would sue the school for excessive force, Benke said.
A laconic, soft-spoken man, Benke on Wednesday brushed off accolades for his actions. “You’re just doing what you can do to try to protect your kids,” he said.