Mother driving her boys to school when Rancho Tehama gunman struck shielded her son despite her wounds
Johnny Phommathep was driving home to Rancho Tehama from a quick trip to Sacramento Tuesday morning when he got a text message from his wife, Tiffany, telling him she was dropping their three youngest sons off at school.
He texted her back to ask if she wanted something to eat. When he got no response, Phommathep called. No answer. He called again. Nothing. Again and again he called without a word back from his wife.
A few minutes later, a colleague called to tell Phommathep that there had been a shooting at Rancho Tehama Elementary School.
By the time Phommathep, a former Air Force police officer, got to the main road leading into his rural town, law enforcement officers had blocked it off. Phommathep’s neighbor, Kevin Janson Neal, had gone on a shooting rampage through Rancho Tehama, killing five people.
Phommathep’s wife and their boys were in the hospital.
“I’m prior military,” Phommathep said from the hospital, where his family is recovering, his voice cracking. “I’ve been through combat. It’s just a little different when it’s your wife and kids and you can’t do anything about it.”
A drive to school stopped by gunfire
Authorities say Neal’s violent rampage began at his blue Bobcat Lane trailer house Monday when he killed his wife, Barbara Glisan, 38, and hid her body in a hole he cut in the floor.
The Tehama County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday night released the names of the four other people he killed: Danny Elliott, 38, Diana Steele, 68, Joseph McHugh III, 56, and Michelle McFadyen, 55.
Authorities said an additional six adults and six children — four boys and two girls — were wounded. Neal was killed in a shootout with police.
On Tuesday morning, Neal went on a 25-minute tear through the community, starting on Bobcat Lane, where he killed three people then stole a Ford F-150 pickup truck and drove north, authorities said.
At around 7:40 a.m., Tiffany Phommathep was driving her three youngest sons, ages 2, 6 and 10, to school in their Ford F-250 crew cab.
They were near the intersection of Stagecoach and Rancho Tehama roads when Neal drove up from behind, bumped their truck and pulled up to the driver’s side, firing, Johnny Phommathep said.
Tiffany was hit four times in the back of her left shoulder, with one bullet narrowly missing her heart. Another bullet tore through her torso, lodging in her intestine.
She used her body to shield 10-year-old John Jr., who was sitting in the front seat. He was shot twice in the calf.
Six-year-old Jake, sitting in the backseat on the passenger’s side, was shot in the foot. Sitting behind Tiffany was 2-year-old Nikos, who was cut by glass but was narrowly missed by a bullet that pierced the door beside him.
After being shot, Tiffany, who has a concealed carry permit, reached into her glove box to grab her handgun.
"She was in so much pain, but she had to protect her kids," Johnny Phommathep said. "She said the gun felt like it was a thousand pounds, and it was like there was lava in the back of her shoulder."
Neal drove away. Tiffany and the boys heard gunshots at the elementary school.
Bleeding profusely, Tiffany “floored it as hard as she could,” driving to a gas station where she and her sons screamed for help. Johnny Phommathep said several people looked at them but “did nothing.”
She drove several more miles, until she was able to flag down a sheriff’s car. Tehama County Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston stopped to help.
"She ... crawled out, bleeding," Phommathep said. "If it wasn't for him, my wife wouldn't be here."
When Phommathep first saw John Jr., the boy told him he didn’t realize he’d been shot until he got in the ambulance.
"He said, 'Dad, we were driving to school, and the bad guy started shooting at us.' He was worried about his brothers," Phommathep said.
Jake told him, “Dad, we went to school and someone shot us with paintballs. It hit my feet, and I need new shoes now.”
“Shows how innocent kids are,” Phommathep said.
'I'm gonna kill you, and when your boy's at school, I'm gonna kill him too'
The gunman was no stranger.
Johnny and Tiffany and their four sons moved to Rancho Tehama from Sacramento a few years ago, to get out of the city. It's almost like “we threw a dart in the middle of nowhere” to choose where to live, Johnny Phommathep said.
Neal lived a few hundred feet away. Phommathep had grown used to Neal fighting with his neighbor, Danny Elliott, who had a 7-year-old son.
"In the middle of the night, they'd get into screaming matches," Phommathep said. Neal would say, "I'm gonna kill you, and when your boy's at school, I'm gonna kill him, too," according to Phommathep.
Law enforcement officials have said Neal’s rampage appeared random. But Tehama County Dist. Atty. Gregg Cohen said Friday that, after learning who the victims were and hearing residents say Neal threatened his neighbor’s son, he disagreed with that assertion.
A legal secretary in Cohen’s office said in an email that the district attorney believed that Neal “didn’t pick the school randomly.”
Phommathep said he would hear Neal firing his guns late at night. He and other neighbors complained to authorities and to the homeowner’s association.
Phommathep said it seemed as if Neal was baiting authorities, "testing their response time to see how fast they come."
From his house, Phommathep would see deputies coming up the road in the middle of the night, trying to sneak up to Neal's house. They never were able to contact him.
Elliott’s girlfriend had received a temporary restraining order earlier this year ordering Neal to stay away from her and her family after Neal allegedly stabbed her and hit her mother-in-law.
At one point, Phommathep approached Elliott about the feuding, saying, "You need to record all this. He said he's going to kill your kid."
Neal killed Elliott on Tuesday morning, according to the sheriff’s office.
Phommathep said one of his boys was in the same class as Elliott’s son. He believes Neal knew “exactly which classroom” the boy was in and that he may have targeted the child when he went to the school.
A few days before Neal’s shooting rampage, Phommathep heard Neal’s wife scream, “Why’d you shoot my dog?”
'A tough cookie'
Speaking from the hospital on Thursday, Phommathep said his boys were recovering well. The spot on Rancho Tehama Road where his wife flagged down the assistant sheriff, he said, was right where she went into labor in the car two years ago and gave birth to Nikos.
Phommathep said he was in awe of his wife’s strength. She had been critically wounded in the shooting, but she was conscious and was up and walking.
"I married a tough cookie,” he said. “Those are her baby cubs. I told her, 'You did the best anybody could do.' I love her for that. She protected our kids."
The family has set up a GoFundMe account to collect donations to cover medical expenses.
Times staff writer Joseph Serna contributed to this report.
6 p.m.: This story was updated with information from Tehama County Dist. Atty. Gregg Cohen.
This story was originally published at 10:50 a.m.
The view from Sacramento
For reporting and exclusive analysis from bureau chief John Myers, get our California Politics newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.