The rampage began just as the morning commute was getting underway.
Over the course of about an hour, authorities say, a 20-year-old college student killed a woman at his Ladera Ranch home and embarked on a string of shootings that stretched through the heart of Orange County, targeting random people during their morning routines.
He carjacked a truck at a gas station, police said, then executed a businessman and stole his BMW. A few minutes later, he killed a plumber and took a work truck. He shot indiscriminately at morning commuters on the 55 Freeway, hitting at least three cars.
In the end, authorities say the gunman killed three people and wounded three others before fatally turning his gun on himself.
Authorities were stunned by what they described as the “senseless violence,” which spanned about 25 miles of normally placid suburbia. The gunman, identified as Ali Syed, had no criminal record and left few clues as to any motive, police said.
“I just killed someone,” he told one man during the rampage, according to police. “This is my last day.”
Police discovered the first victim early Tuesday at a beige-and-white stucco condo in an upscale Ladera Ranch community. Syed, who was unemployed and enrolled in a class at Saddleback College, lived there with his parents.
Neighbor Jason Glass said he heard three to five loud bangs in the early morning. He heard doors slam, then a car sped away from the house.
“I just thought somebody was being really loud and obnoxious,” Glass said.
Deputies arrived at the neighborhood of doctors and lawyers about 4:45 a.m., after Syed’s parents called 911.
Authorities found the body of a woman in her 20s who’d been shot multiple times. She was not related to Syed, authorities said. As of Tuesday evening, it remained unclear who she was and why she was at his home.
Meanwhile, Syed had taken off in the family’s black GMC Yukon, armed with at least one shotgun, authorities said. Possibly in his haste to flee, police said, he damaged the vehicle.
He exited Interstate 5 at Red Hill Avenue in Tustin about 5 a.m. and pulled into a Denny’s parking lot. There, a man was sitting in an older-model blue Cadillac, waiting for his son. They’d planned to carpool to work.
Police said the gunman pointed his weapon at the man and yelled “Get out.” Instead the man sped away and Syed fired, shattering the Cadillac’s rear window and striking the man in the back of the head. The man kept going — he was later treated at a hospital — and the gunman dashed to a nearby Mobil station, authorities said, where he spotted a man pumping gas.
“When they made eye contact, Syed started running toward the victim,” said Tustin Police Chief Scott Jordan. “He said to him, ‘I don’t want to hurt you. I just killed someone. Give me your keys. This is my last day.’”
The man obliged.
Syed took the man’s Dodge pickup and headed north on Interstate 5, authorities said. After merging onto the southbound 55 Freeway, he stopped on the shoulder, got out of the truck and opened fire on the cars speeding by, hitting at least three. One driver was injured by flying glass.
Santa Ana Police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said the gunman may have realized that the pickup was low on fuel and was trying to steal a second vehicle.
Damita Cunningham was driving on the 55 Freeway about 5:20 a.m. when traffic suddenly halted. She put her Honda Accord in reverse, thinking she could go around the accident, but a large vehicle backed into her and drove away.
Cunningham followed the vehicle, which pulled off the freeway. She walked over to the driver, whom she described as “sitting there with a blank stare.” He told her a man had pointed a gun at his window. He had been trying to flee.
“He was all shaken up,” Cunningham said.
In the meantime, the gunman had returned to the stolen pickup and exited the freeway at Edinger Avenue in Santa Ana. He hit another vehicle, slammed into a divider and abandoned the truck, authorities said. Then he approached a BMW that was stopped nearby, his gun drawn.
Melvin L. Edwards, 69, was on his way to work at Rubicon Gear, a small family business that manufactures high-precision gears and shafts. Colleagues described the former U.S. Army combat infantry officer who served in Vietnam as easygoing, hardworking and generous with his employees.
Syed ordered Edwards out of the BMW and directed him to the curb, authorities said. He cooperated, but the gunman fired three times anyway, killing Edwards.
Cunningham came across the crime scene before returning to the freeway. She saw a man with a bloodied chest and brown boots. “I’ll never forget those brown boots,” she said.
The gunman was nowhere in sight.
He had sped away in the BMW to a Micro Center computer store in Tustin. Soon thereafter, workers at a nearby Fairfield Inn construction site heard gunfire.
Tom Van Schindel, a project superintendent, said a plumbing supervisor spotted one of his co-workers being chased through an overflow parking lot and drove over to help him.
The co-worker, Jeremy Lewis, 26, of Fullerton, had just arrived for his 6 a.m. shift when, authorities said, Syed shot and killed him.
“He has a good heart. He showed up every day, on time, ready to do his share of work,” Craig Heising, another project superintendent, said of Lewis. “When I saw police pull the yellow tarp over him, I was just overwhelmed by the senselessness of it. It’s a classic case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The supervisor who had gone to his aid was shot in the arm, police said.
The gunman escaped in one of the construction site’s white work trucks. Sometime before 6 a.m., California Highway Patrol officers caught up with him on the northbound 55 Freeway. He exited on Katella Avenue. Near East Katella and North Wanda Road, Jordan said, Syed got out of the vehicle “while it was still in motion.”
He raised a shotgun to his head and fired, killing himself.
About 7 a.m., Kenneth Caplin had made his way to his nearby office, where he had a clear view out his window. He surveyed the investigators at work and the white truck abandoned at the curb. From under a yellow tarp, the shooter’s sneakers peeked out.
“That’s a bad guy,” he said.
Times staff writers Hailey Branson-Potts, Nicole Santa Cruz, Rick Rojas, Mike Anton, Garrett Therolf and Kent Coloma contributed to this report.