Students were playing in the schoolyard at Rancho Tehama Elementary, waiting for the morning bell to ring, when gunshots erupted a quarter mile away.
Teachers and staff immediately rushed the children into classrooms and under desks, locking the doors.
A white Ford F-150 crashed through the front gate as they hunkered down, the driver emerging with a semiautomatic rifle. Wearing a ballistics vest, he stormed into the quad and shot at the walls and windows, but was unable to enter the schoolrooms. After several agonizing minutes, the shots stopped. The gunman got back in the stolen pickup and moved on to other targets in this dusty enclave in the hayfields of Northern California.
At least four people would die at his hands, before the 45-minute killing rampage ended when officers, firing in pursuit on a rural road, rammed his car and shot him to death, authorities said.
“This incident, as tragic and bad as it is, could have been so much worse if it wasn’t for the quick-thinking staff at our elementary school,” said Tehama County Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston. “I really want to say that the quick action of those school officials, there is no doubt in my mind based on the video that I saw, saved countless lives and children.”
No children died at the school, although two suffered gunshot wounds and were airlifted to hospitals, witnesses said.
Johnston would not disclose the names of the gunman or victims, pending notification of next of kin. But in a phone interview Tuesday night with the Los Angeles Times, the sister of the gunman confirmed his identity as Kevin Janson Neal, 44.
Sheridan Orr of North Carolina said her brother had a history of mental illness and episodes of rage.
Johnston said the shooting stemmed from an “ongoing dispute” with a woman on Bobcat Lane, whom the attacker was charged with stabbing in January. She was among the first to be killed Tuesday shortly before 8 a.m.
“I think the motive of getting even with his neighbors and when it went that far — he just went on a rampage,” Johnston speculated.
The Tehama County Sheriff’s Office said that it was dealing with seven crime scenes and that 10 victims were being treated for injuries. One of the victims was 6 years old, witnesses said.
Johnston said there may be other victims because the gunman was shooting randomly into homes as he drove.
Rancho Tehama is a quiet subdivision of less than 1,500 people, carved out of the rolling ranches, oak groves and olive and walnut orchards at the northern tip of the Sacramento Valley, where the white peak of Mt. Shasta looms on clear days. Most residents “on the ranch” are retired or work in nearby Red Bluff or Redding.
Guns are common, and the first reaction among neighbors hearing early morning gunfire was annoyance at being woken up.
When he heard the shots, John Root, known as “Big John,” stomped out on his porch and started yelling.
“Hey! Don’t make me come down there and take that gun away! It’s 7:30 in the morning!”
But the shooting didn’t have the measured pace of target practice. And in the barrage, Root said he heard at least three different types of firearms.
“Gunfire like crazy. One bang after another,” he said.
Brian Flint told the Record Searchlight that a neighbor shot at his roommate and stole Flint’s truck. Flint said the man regularly fired hundreds of rounds from high-capacity magazines, and had threatened him and his roommate in the past.
By the time police arrived the shooting had stopped and the suspect was gone in the stolen F-150.
He motored down streets firing at houses and cars. At one point, a mother driving her son to school was shot and suffered “life-threatening injuries,” Johnston said. The boy was injured too, but was expected to survive.
Tiffany Rodgers, 33, was at her coffee shop near the school when she heard the gunfire. Her husband ran outside while she checked a local Facebook page and saw “active shooter” warnings.
“We heard 20 more shots. We could hear teachers screaming ‘get down,’” she said. She called 911, but the shooter was long gone when deputies arrived.
When the gunman arrived at Rancho Tehama Elementary, he tried and failed to force his way into a classroom. Instead, he fired through the walls, said Richard Fitzpatrick, superintendent of the Corning Union Elementary School District.
One student was shot in a classroom while under a desk, Fitzpatrick said. That student is in stable condition.
“All of the staff were absolutely heroic in making sure that students were getting into the classrooms as shots were being fired,” Fitzpatrick said. “This was a question of minutes.”
Fitzpatrick said staffers described the scene as “horrific,” with multiple rounds fired and multiple high-capacity magazines found at the school.
The shooter then purposefully crashed the stolen truck into a couple driving a car. As they got out, he shot them, killing one and wounding the other. A motorist seeing the crash stopped to help and was shot at too. The motorist fled on foot and the shooter took his car, a silver sedan.
Two officers quickly came upon the sedan.
“The suspect was actually shooting at the police vehicle, back at them, the officer rammed the vehicle, forced it off the road [and there was] an exchange of gunfire — resulting in the shooter’s death,” Johnston said.
“I have to tell you I am personally grateful to the men who engaged this suspect…. such a terrible, a mass murderer really. That’s what he is.”
Orr said Neal moved to California about a decade ago. His mental health had long been a concern of the family.
When she learned the details of Tuesday’s shooting rampage, she said she immediately thought of the students caught in the middle of an act she’s struggling to understand.
“It’s a terrible, terrible situation,” she said. “Those kids will be affected by this and afraid and they should be happy children going to school.”
St. John reported from Rancho Tehama and Mozingo and Vives from Los Angeles.
Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.