By Mark Berman, Lindsey Bever, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Allyson Chiu
A gunman firing seemingly at random killed a dozen people inside a crowded country-music bar late Wednesday in Southern California, authorities said, a toll that included a sheriff’s deputy who had raced inside to confront the attacker.
Authorities said the gunman - identified as Ian David Long, a 28-year-old who earlier this year was cleared by a mental-health specialist after an encounter with police - was found dead inside after apparently killing himself. Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean said Thursday morning that investigators have not been able to determine a motive.
The bloodshed erupted inside the Borderline Bar & Grill, a popular nightspot in Thousand Oaks, Calif., a middle-class city near Los Angeles. When the gunfire began, people were line dancing during the venue’s “College Country Night,” witnesses said.
Police said Long, wearing a black sweater and wielding a .45 caliber Glock handgun, marched up to the bar. He first shot a security guard standing outside, then went inside and shot other employees before turning his fire on patrons inside, Dean said.
“It’s a horrific scene in there,” Dean, who is set to retire Friday at midnight, told reporters. “There’s blood everywhere.”
The gunfire set off a panic, as patrons grimly familiar with stories of shooting rampages at churches, schools, movie theaters, offices and other locations across the country scrambled for safety and shelter.
“They ran out of back doors, they broke windows, they went through windows, they hid up in the attic, they hid in the bathroom,” Dean said. “Unfortunately, our young people, people at nightclubs, have learned that this may happen. They think about that. Fortunately, it probably saved a lot of lives that they fled the scene so rapidly.”
Among the dead was Ron Helus, a veteran sergeant in the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office who was mortally wounded when he responded to the incident just minutes after 911 calls began flooding in, authorities said.
Helus and a Highway Patrol Officer headed into the club and exchanged fire with the attacker, Dean said. Helus, a 29-year veteran of the force with a grown son, had been on the phone with his wife when he got the call about the shooting and headed to the club, Dean said. During the shootout, he was struck several times.
“He died a hero,” Dean said, his voice cracking, “because he went in to save lives.”
The carnage made Thousand Oaks the latest community riven by a mass shooting, and it came just days after 11 people were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue, just months after 17 students and staff were massacred in a Parkland, Florida, high school and a year after rampages in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas, killed a combined 84 people.
Dean alluded to said these earlier attacks and said the violence in California “is part of the horrors that are happening in our country and everywhere, and I think it’s impossible to put any logic or any sense to the senseless.”
When asked by a reporter what it looked like inside the venue, Dean responded: “Like hell.”
California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, said in a statement that “our hearts ache today for the victims of this heinous act” and thanked Helus and other law enforcement officials “who took heroic action to save lives.” President Donald Trump ordered flags to be flown at half-staff until sunset on Saturday in response to the “terrible act of violence perpetrated in Thousand Oaks.”
In addition to those slain at the club, Dean said he believed between eight and 15 other people were injured, mostly with cuts from diving under tables and jumping through windows. One person had a minor gunshot injury, he said.
What could have motivated the attack remained a mystery to authorities, Dean said.
Dean said Long was a Marine veteran who lived in Newbury Park, California, a town near Thousand Oaks. Police have had “several contacts” with Long over the years, Dean said, most of them for minor events including traffic accidents.
In April, deputies were called to Long’s home for a disturbance call, Dean said.
“They went to the house, they talked to him,” he said. “He was somewhat irate, acting a little irrationally. They called out our crisis intervention team, our mental health specialist, who met with him, talked to him and cleared him.”
Part of the discussion among those responding to Long’s home was that “he might be suffering from PTSD,” Dean said, pointing to the 28-year-old’s military service. But “the mental health experts out there cleared him that day,” Dean continued, and no involuntary holds were placed on Long.
Relatives of Long could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.
Reports of a shooting first came in about 11:20 p.m. Pacific time Wednesday, and authorities arrived on the scene at 11:22 p.m., Dean said. After Helus was struck, the highway patrol officer secured the perimeter, Dean said.
Witnesses reported seeing smoke, but it was unclear if those were from smoke bombs, Dean said.
“It was sheer panic,” said Teylor Whittler, 19, who was inside the venue at the time. “Everyone ran and dropped as fast as they could.”
She said she ran to the back door, where people crowded during a pause in the gunfire. “And then all, of a sudden, a couple of guys started running to the back door and said, ‘Get up he’s coming.’”
Some people who were at the venue in Thousand Oaks had also apparently survived the shooting last year in Las Vegas. Chandler Gunn, 23, told the Los Angeles Times that when he heard about the shooting, he called a friend who works at the bar and who was also at Las Vegas festival.
“A lot of people in the Route 91 situation go here,” Gunn told the newspaper about the tragedy in Las Vegas. “There’s people that live a whole lifetime without seeing this, and then there’s people that have seen it twice.”
The Borderline Bar describes itself as Ventura County’s largest country dance hall and live music venue. With a dance floor covering about 2,500 square feet, it is open until 2 a.m. five days a week.
Authorities said more than 100 were inside at the time of the shooting. Scores of colleges lie within a 20-mile radius of the bar, including Pepperdine University, California State University at Channel Islands, Moorpark College and California Lutheran University, which has its own line dance club.
Pepperdine officials said that multiple students from the school were at the bar during the shooting. California Lutheran canceled classes “given the tragedy and uncertainties.”
Matt Wennerstrom, a regular at the bar, described the shooter as a “tall figure,” over 6 feet, wearing “all dark clothing.” He said he saw the gunman open fire on employees working at the front of the bar.
“At that point I grabbed as many people around me as I could and pulled them down underneath the pool table that we were closest to until he ran out of bullets for that magazine and had to reload,” he told ABC.
During the pause, Wennerstrom, 20, said he and others threw bar stools through a window and helped people escape. He told ABC he was able to push “30 or 35 people through that window.”
Rochelle Hammons, 24, told The Washington Post that she heard four shots before she was able to flee.
“All of a sudden we heard four shots, you know, ‘bang, bang, bang, bang.’ Everyone got down on the floor. Everyone ducked and covered each other,” she said. “As everyone crouched down on the floor, I figured that my only chance would be to run out to the nearest exit. I saw the nearest exit, and I ran out as fast as I could.”
From inside her car, she saw the first police officer arrive, she said. She rolled down her window and told him there was an active shooter inside.
“You’ve got to hurry, you’ve got to get in there,” she urged him.