The Saugus High School student suspected of shooting five people on campus — killing two — on his 16th birthday was described by neighbors and classmates as a quiet kid.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department received a call at 7:38 a.m. Thursday and minutes later arrived at the Santa Clarita school to find six students with gunshot wounds, including the suspect. They were all transported to a hospital, where a 16-year-old female student and a 14-year-old male student died.
The suspect, identified by neighbors and law enforcement sources as Nathaniel Berhow, is in the hospital in “grave condition,” according to Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who said a school security camera on the quad shows the boy pulling a .45-caliber handgun from his backpack and shooting the students before putting the gun to his own head.
Sheriff’s Capt. Kent Wegener said he watched the surveillance video and counted how long the shooting lasted. Within about 16 seconds the shooting was over, from the time the shooter drew a handgun from his backpack to the time he was on the ground with a self-inflicted gunshot wound, he said.
The teen seemed aware he was down to his last bullet when he shot himself, Villanueva said. Detectives are working with federal agents to examine papers, hard drives and anything he wrote on social media or in messages to understand his motivation.
Authorities said a message referencing the shooting, thought to have been posted before it occurred, appeared on an Instagram account believed to be linked to the suspected shooter, but an Instagram spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the account didn’t belong to the suspect. The Times could not independently confirm Thursday whether the account was connected to the suspect or the shooting.
A neighbor who said she has known the suspect’s family for years said she was stunned.
“All I can tell you from what I know is they were wonderful, wonderful people,” the woman, who asked not to be identified, said. “I don’t understand it. It doesn’t make sense.”
The woman said the family had lost a loved one recently and that took a toll, but they were good neighbors.
“He was in Scouting, he was in track and a very kind, sweet boy,” she said of the suspect. “I don’t understand the psychology.”
But there were signs of trouble in the home. The suspect’s father, Mark Berhow, was arrested in 2015 on suspicion of attempted battery on a spouse, according to jail records. But citing insufficient evidence, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office declined to file two misdemeanor charges against him — one misdemeanor count each of violation of a domestic relations court order and battery on a spouse or girlfriend.
The father died of a heart attack in December 2017, according to an online obituary that described him as an avid sportsman who “loved big game hunting.” Sources in the Sheriff’s Department told The Times that he was a hunter and owned several weapons.
Jared Axen, 33, a registered nurse, lives next door to the Berhows, who he described as “reserved and nice.” The father hunted elk, and the son would occasionally tag along on those trips, Axen said.
When the teen was in middle school, he and Axen began to play chess, and the pair would sometimes shoot cans with air pistols. The boy had friends and was close to some of the neighbors, Axen said.
“He wasn’t one to usually come up and talk to you right away,” Axen said. “You had to engage him in a conversation.”
The last time he spoke to the teen was two weeks ago, when the two were outside their homes. They spoke briefly about plans for the future, including the boy’s plans to go to college.
Ryan McCracken, 20, who lives next door to the suspect, said he lost touch with him several years ago and mostly remembers him as the little kid he played and grew up with. McCracken said they would often play together in the backyard and in the treehouse of his friend’s home. He said the last time he saw the teen was more than two years ago.
McCracken said he was on his way to College of the Canyons around 7:45 a.m. Thursday when he noticed several police cars heading toward Saugus High School. He said he didn’t think much of it and continued heading to college. But 30 minutes later, his mother called and told him he would be having a hard time getting home. She also told him police were searching the suspect’s home.
“It’s crazy,” McCracken said. “He was a quiet kid, and I didn’t see this coming.”
Aidan Soto, an 11th-grader at Saugus High School, said he had known the suspect for years through their school’s track team and the Boy Scouts, though they weren’t close. The teen was the last person he’d imagine would commit such a horrific act, he said.
“I’m bewildered and looking for answers — the question as to why all this would happen,” Soto said. “So many questions no one has the answers to.”
The senior Boy Scout, Soto said, was someone younger Scouts “really looked up to.”
Brooke Hougo, 18, said she ran cross-country with the suspect and the two occasionally talked. They were also in the same second-period AP psychology class.
“I would have never expected anything like this,” Hougo said. “He was just a quiet kid.”
Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.