On a clear autumn day, students at Saugus High School looked forward to the holidays, to Friday night’s “Cheer-a-thon” for campus spirit squads and to Saturday’s Sadie Hawkins Dance.
The rites of high school remained intact on the 2,500-student campus in Santa Clarita until the arrival Thursday morning of an enigmatic and troubled classmate, dressed in black, who would soon reprise a new American ritual.
It was not long before the start of second period when a student previously known as a cross-country runner and a Boy Scout — who should have been enjoying his 16th birthday — pulled a .45-caliber pistol from his backpack and began shooting his schoolmates.
A 16-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy died at a hospital soon after. Three other students also were taken to Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia, though one of the wounded would be released by afternoon. Suspect Nathaniel Berhow, who authorities said ended the 16-second spasm of violence with a bullet into his own head, was listed in grave condition.
A few hours later, in an evacuation and reunification zone set up in the community’s Central Park, an evacuee in a Saugus dance T-shirt tried to come to grips with what had happened. “We are one of those schools now,” she said. “Just like Parkland.”
Indeed, there have been 92 mass shootings in the U.S. since 17 people were gunned down in February 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. And that’s just counting shootings in which at least five people, other than the shooter, were injured and at least two died. Four of those shootings were at high schools or colleges.
Though investigators were searching the teen suspect’s papers and computer hard drives for any clues as to his motive, none immediately emerged, said Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. A school surveillance camera recorded the incident, but the video did not make clear whether the teen targeted his victims or fired at random.
The teen appeared to know how many shots he had fired and left the final bullet for himself, Villanueva said. It was all over too quickly for anyone to intervene.
The first call to the Sheriff’s Department arrived at 7:38 a.m., and deputies arrived two minutes later, Villanueva said. By then, five victims and the suspect were down — all transported to the Henry Mayo hospital emergency room.
“I regret to inform it’s a sad day in Saugus,” Villanueva said.
“We simply should not have to fear for our kids’ lives when we drop them off at school,” tweeted California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Katie Hill, who recently resigned as the community’s congresswoman, issued a statement expressing condolences to a school she graduated from 15 years ago and expressing her anger that the U.S. Senate had blocked attempts to control dangerous weapons.
No one described exactly when the suspect arrived on campus. If he had kept to his schedule, one classmate said, he would have been due in AP psychology at 7:57 a.m. In the minutes before the day’s second period, many freshmen and sophomores tend to congregate in the quad, students said.
The first shot had sounded so ordinary, something like the pop of a balloon, recalled Lauren Farmer, 17. She thought little of it. But then came three more pops. “That’s when we realized this isn’t normal,” Lauren said. “Something is wrong.”
She and her friend Hannah Schooping-Gutierrez, 15, raced for the school’s front entrance. As others joined in a frenzied rush away from the quad, Hannah saw her schoolmates “fearing for their lives, with facial expressions that I’ve never seen before.”
Inside one classroom, about 30 students had been going over a worksheet in their AP government course when someone opened the door and said, “There’s a shooter on campus.”
The students jumped into action, barricading the door with desks and tables and arming themselves with a fire extinguisher, just as they had practiced. Said Andrei Mojica, 17: “There was just something different about it from a simple drill to real life. That fear made it feel like we were waiting in silence forever.”
The deputies who arrived at the sprawling campus carried shotguns and AR-15s. Before ambulances appeared, they brought at least one victim to a cruiser, speeding to the hospital. Other deputies went methodically through the campus, making sure every room had been cleared.
Recovering a few hours later at the Central Park reunification zone, the two friends Lauren and Hannah appeared remarkably composed, considering they had just run for their lives.
“When I go home, I’m gonna cry,” Hannah said. “Right now, I feel like I need to be strong for my parents.”
With the victims not identified for many long hours, parents and their children lived out another ritual becoming all too familiar in America’s shooting zones: the tense wait for children to be checked in and released by school officials. The vigil that began outside the high school soon shifted to the reunification center established by the William S. Hart Union High School District.
Some parents sobbed. Others paced. All scanned their phones as students slowly assembled in the park, where they were sorted into lines by school officials. Some of the adults joined in a circle inside the park, where just three weeks ago, community members had come together for a news conference during the Tick fire.
One sheriff’s deputy, gripping an automatic rifle, asked a frantic woman whether she was a parent. “Yes!” she said, sobbing. He pointed her away from the yellow tape, toward a group of parents and teens standing in a clump.
One of the adults draped his arm over the shoulder of a teenage boy, dressed in a gray Saugus sweatshirt. The boy was hyperventilating, trying to calm himself by counting his breaths aloud.
“One, two, three,” he said. “One, two, three,” while his father told him: “It’s over, son. It’s over.”
Most parents received texts assuring them that their children had made it through. But even they quaked with anxiety until they were reunited.
Joy Songcuan described how he had been heading for work when his son, Karl, texted that he was OK. The elder Songcuan called his son, a freshman, “a guy of few words.”
But the magnitude of the moment became clear when Songcuan texted that he loved the boy. On a regular day, that wouldn’t receive an answer, but on Thursday morning, Karl’s response — “I love you too” — meant everything.
“He’s a strong kid, but he’s still so young,” Songcuan said, his eyes sparkling with tears. “One thing I know for sure — he needs a hug.”
The suspect was not known for being angry or isolated, according to students and neighbors. He wasn’t a star runner, but he worked hard. An elementary school friend recalled the quiet boy who had a pet rabbit and liked to play in a treehouse in his yard.
“I’m bewildered and looking for answers — the question as to why all this would happen,” said Aidan Soto, a sophomore, who knew the teen from track and Boy Scouts. “So many questions no one has the answers to.”
But public records indicated there had been trouble inside the teen’s home. His mother and father had split, and his father had been arrested in 2013 and 2015 on suspicion of driving under the influence.
Mark Berhow pleaded no contest both times, in the second instance being sentenced to 45 days in jail and five years of probation. Authorities also arrested him in 2015 on suspicion of attempted battery of his wife, but no charges were filed because of insufficient evidence, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office said.
Mark Berhow died in December 2017. “He would tell me that he missed his father,” next-door neighbor Jared Axen, 33, said of the teenager, “and that he loved him.”
Axen, a sometime chess partner of the teen, said the eruption of violence stunned him.
“I think he was hurting and didn’t know how to ask for help,” he said. “It’s terrible about what he did and it’s terrible what he did to those kids.”
Times staff writers James Rainey, Leila Miller, Colleen Shalby, Matt Hamilton, Richard Winton, Alejandra Reyes-Velarde, Dakota Smith, Jaclyn Cosgrove, Sonali Kohli, Nina Agrawal and Joe Mozingo contributed to this report.