What prompted Santa Clarita shooting? Detectives search for a motive

Santa Clarita residents gather at Grace Baptist Church after the shooting at nearby Saugus High School.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Investigators are still trying to determine what led to a deadly attack at Saugus High School on Thursday in which police and witnesses say a 16-year-old student opened fire in the campus quad, killing two classmates and injuring three others before turning the gun on himself.

Detectives have conducted 40 interviews and still have six to go in their efforts to piece together what led up to the shooting in Santa Clarita. It is not clear how the shooter got the weapon, a .45-caliber handgun. However, authorities say that at this point, they do not think the shooter targeted specific students.

Authorities seized several unregistered firearms from the home of the teenager, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is working with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to trace the origins of the handgun used in the shooting, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said.

“We are chasing all the leads available,” Villanueva said. “At this stage, we don’t know the motive.”


Just before the start of second period on Thursday, authorities and witnesses say, Nathaniel Berhow pulled a .45-caliber pistol from his backpack and began shooting his schoolmates. The attack was launched on his 16th birthday. The boy died of his wounds Friday.

A school surveillance camera recorded the 16 seconds of violence, investigators said. The teenager apparently knew how many shots he had fired and reserved the final round for himself, Villanueva said.

Friends and neighbors were stunned, saying the teenager had not shown signs of aggression. He ran junior varsity cross-country and helped younger members in his Boy Scout troop.

“He would have fun with the team and was a good kid,” 11th-grader Aidan Soto said. “The younger Scouts really looked up to him. He was there when they needed him with anything. I’m bewildered and looking for answers.”

Brooke Risley, a 16-year-old junior at Saugus High, has known the teen since elementary school. Last year, the two were together in a group for their engineering class and grew to become close friends.

“He was very smart and really good at history,” she said.

In AP European history class, she said, he would help her study and would often get the highest test scores in the class. She said the teen often planned Boy Scout trips during their free time in class last year.

“He was pretty funny too,” she said. “He had a higher-level type of humor that often I couldn’t even get the joke ’cause it was above my head.”

When word began to spread, a friend reached out and let her know. In shock, she began texting a mutual friend.


“Please tell me it’s not Nathaniel,” she said.

“I heard that too,” he responded. “I don’t want to believe it.”

A senior in their class last year reached out to her Friday, asking whether it was the same Nathaniel who was on their group project “because he couldn’t believe he would do this,” Risley said.

“Everyone who has heard about him being the shooter has said this wasn’t typically him,” she said. “All those who know him are really wondering what the motive was.”

Public records and a high-ranking law enforcement source indicated signs of trouble at home.

His family life in Santa Clarita was upended by his father’s sudden death in December 2017, acquaintances said. More recently, a source told The Times that the boy was having problems with his girlfriend, who was his emotional anchor.

The teen’s father, Mark Berhow, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in 2013 and 2015 and pleaded no contest twice. The second time, he was sentenced to 45 days in jail and five years’ probation.

According to jail records, he was also booked in 2015 on suspicion of attempted battery of a spouse. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office declined to file charges in that case, citing insufficient evidence.

A judge granted physical custody of the boy to his mother in August 2016, even though both parents still appeared to live in the family’s small ranch home on Sycamore Creek Drive.

“He would tell me that he missed his father and that he loved him,” said neighbor Jared Axen, 33.