Minutes after a school shooter opened fire in an art class last week, killing 10 people and wounding 13, including a local police officer, fellow officers returned fire in a protracted gun battle before isolating the suspect, the local sheriff said Monday.
Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochesset praised first responders as well as Santa Fe Police Officer John Barnes, who was working as a resource officer at the school the day of the shooting. Their actions, he said, prevented the attack from spreading to other classrooms and potentially claiming additional victims.
As officials continue to probe last Friday’s shooting at Santa Fe High School, students are worried about returning to the scene of the attack when classes resume next week.
Barnes underwent several surgeries and was still in intensive care Monday, Santa Fe Police Chief Walter Braun said.
“He’s had ups and downs. Today was a down day,” Braun said.
Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 17, a junior at the high school, was formally charged with capital murder and aggravated assault against a public servant Monday in connection with the shooting. His case is due to be considered by a grand jury within 90 days, prosecutors said. He was being held at Galveston County jail in solitary confinement under suicide watch, the sheriff said.
Trochesset praised officers’ response to the shooting, which he said they had trained for using a program that allowed them to easily coordinate between agencies. More than 200 officers responded from several counties, he said.
“When people were running from the gunfire, the officers that continued to arrive ran to it. Every door they opened they didn’t know what was behind it,” he said.
Two officers isolated the suspect in a classroom, firing at him from the hall, the sheriff said. He said deputies, school resource officers and state troopers responded, but declined to say which agency the officers who fired at the suspect were with. The Texas Rangers are handling an investigation into the officers’ shooting, prosecutors said.
The sheriff said he did not believe that any of the victims who were killed were hit by law enforcement gunfire. But, he added, “I won’t firmly know that answer until after the autopsies.”
Galveston County Medical Examiner staff said those autopsy reports could take weeks. Trochesset said that officers’ isolating the suspect “gave the opportunity for the other officers to continue to evacuate the school” and that “there were minimal shots fired, at least from law enforcement.”
Officers continued to exchange fire and negotiate with the suspect for 25 minutes until he was taken into custody, Trochesset said.
The sheriff, who had hosted at least one of the victims at his home, said he was personally grateful for what he considered a measured police response. He said he listened to recordings of the negotiations, conducted through a classroom door, in which officers could be heard saying, “Come out with your hands up.”
“Three doors down, my granddaughter was in that room. I think they’re heroes, everyone who was engaged with them. I think lives were saved,” he said.
The shooter’s motive remained unclear. Under Texas law, due to his age, Pagourtzis would not be eligible for the death penalty or life without parole.
“He seems like a very scared, confused young kid,” attorney Nicholas Poehl said after meeting Pagourtzis briefly last week.
Poehl also met with the teen’s parents.
“It’s just devastating for them. They’re just trying to process it all and find out where to go from here, and that’s hard when you have such limited information,” he said.
Poehl refuted claims by the mother of one victim that Pagourtzis targeted her after she had spurned his advances.
“I have spoken with the prosecutors’ office, and they don’t have any information to support that. It seems contradictory to the information we have,” he said.
Poehl said he was aware of video in which fellow students said that Pagourtzis had been bullied by football players and a coach, and that after talking to his parents, “there are some suggestions that that was going on.”
“Was he targeting individuals? Was it random? We just don’t know,” he said.
Poehl said he plans to ask the judge to set a bond so that Pagourtzis can be released, and may request a change of venue from Galveston County due to the profile of the case.
Officials announced at a Monday briefing that with two weeks left in the school year, staff will return Wednesday, students on May 29. The local police chief promised added security.
But a parent at the briefing said her daughter witnessed the shooting and wasn’t ready to return. She asked officials if the teen would be penalized.
“She was in the art room when this was all going on, in storage, hiding, and she’s very traumatized,” Brenda Yanez said of her daughter, a freshman. “I don’t want her grades to suffer as a parent. I don’t want her to suffer the risk if she doesn’t go.”
Santa Fe Superintendent Leigh Wall attempted to reassure Yanez.
“I can’t tell you how many people feel that way,” she said. “We’re going to do everything we can to help you heal.”
Outside the high school Monday, students who knew the alleged shooter and his victims said they dreaded returning to the building still cordoned with police tape.
Camden Brown, 16, was in a dance room down the hall from the art class where the shooting started, texted 911 and texted again when it stopped: 17 minutes, he said.
He watched Barnes burst into the class where he was hiding with students in a closet and heard him crying into his radio, “I’ve been shot, officer down!” They did not see or hear him return fire, Brown said.
Brown, who said he is familiar with firearms because he comes from a military family, remembers a distinct sequence of sounds: “Shots, reload, shots, fire alarm, cops arrive around the same time, shots, reload, shots, then he was apprehended.”
After the shooting stopped, Brown was finally able to leave.