He is a hardworking student, quiet but friendly, who runs junior varsity cross-country and takes time to help younger members in his Boy Scout troop.
Such descriptions of Nathaniel Berhow, from students and neighbors, are hard to reconcile with the crime authorities accuse the teenage boy of committing: opening fire on his classmates at Saugus High School, killing a 16-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy and injuring three others, before shooting himself in the head.
The suspect, who turned 16 on Thursday, was taken to a hospital with the victims and remained in “grave condition” while those who knew him struggled to comprehend such violence.
Aidan Soto, an 11th-grader, said the suspect was the person he’d “least expect” to commit a mass shooting.
“He would have fun with the team and was a good kid,” Aidan 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.”
Though the boy showed no history of aggressive or violent behavior, his family life in Santa Clarita was upended by his father’s sudden death in December 2017.
Mark Berhow was arrested for driving under the influence in 2013 and 2015, and pleaded no contest twice. The second time he got 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 the 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.
Their next-door neighbor, Jared Axen, 33, a registered nurse, said Mark Berhow struggled with drinking, and that he once had to be resuscitated because it looked like he wasn’t breathing. Axen said the dad was getting his life back on track when he died.
His obituary described him as an avid fisherman and big-game hunter, and neighbors remember him working on various crafts in his garage, including loading his own ammunition for elk hunts.
Axen said the teen was close to his father — tagging along on some of his hunting trips — and grieved when he died.
“He would tell me that he missed his father and that he loved him,” Axen said.
Axen said he occasionally played chess with the boy and shot cans with air pistols, and never felt that he was socially isolated.
“He had friends, people would pick him up and drop him off at the house, and he was involved in other activities,” Axen said. “I would see him go back and forth between scouting. I’d see him do a lot of sports-related activities.
“He wasn’t one to usually come up and talk to you right away. You had to engage him in a conversation. A quiet, reserved person. But an introvert is not uncommon. I’m an introvert.”
Axen couldn’t believe what the teen was accused of doing.
A mile away from their block, students were milling around and studying in the quad Thursday morning, waiting for second period, when the suspect, dressed in black, pulled a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun from his backpack and quickly shot five students. With one bullet left, he turned the gun on himself, sheriff’s officials said. The entire incident took 16 seconds.
Students scattered and barricaded themselves behind doors, some fleeing the school to a nearby park and a church. Many broke into sobs as they texted parents and friends.
Gina Painter, a drama teacher, said that she had been walking through the school’s parking lot when she heard at least three gunshots. “A bunch of students started coming out of the gate,” she said. “They said, ‘There’s a shooter, there’s a shooter.’ And I said, ‘Run, run!’”
She texted a choir and band teacher, and learned that a student who was in the choir teacher’s classroom had been wounded. “No matter how much you prepare, there’s still a part of you that doesn’t think this will happen to you,” she said.
Brooke Hougo, 18, was getting ready to leave for school, which is two streets from her home, when she heard a boy pounding on her door.
“There’s a shooter, can you please let me in,” he screamed. “I need shelter.”
Word began to spread about the suspect and she was stunned. He was in her second-period class — AP psychology — that was supposed to start at 7:57 a.m.
They both ran cross-country and talked now and then.
“I would have never expected anything like this,” she said. “He was just a quiet kid.”
Sheriff Alex Villanueva said the department got a call at 7:38 a.m. Two minutes later, he said, sheriff’s deputies arrived at the school and found six students with gunshot wounds. All were taken to a hospital, where two students died. They didn’t initially realize that one of the six was the suspected shooter and launched a manhunt.
“We are chasing all the leads available,” Villanueva said.” At this stage we don’t know the motive.” The video that captured the shooting does not include sound to reveal if the shooter said anything before or during the attack.
“It’s too early to say” whether the victims were picked at random, Villanueva added. Detectives were working with federal agents to examine hard drives, social media, and any correspondence to understand why this happened.
Ryan McCracken, 20, was heading to College of the Canyons when he noticed police cars rushing toward Saugus High School. Then he got a call from his mother, telling him he might have a hard time getting home: Sheriff’s detectives had cordoned off the street and were searching his neighbor’s home.
He was friends with Berhow when they were younger — playing in their backyards or in a neighbor’s treehouse. The boy was shy but friendly. McCracken couldn’t wrap his mind around the sudden violence.
“I wish I would have known what he was going through,” he said.
Times staff writers Matt Hamilton, Sarah Parvini, Sonali Kohli, Richard Winton and Leila Miller contributed to this report.