By Lucinda Holt and Manny Fernandez
ODESSA, Texas – The death toll from a shooting spree Saturday afternoon in the West Texas cities of Midland and Odessa increased overnight from five to seven, as investigators continued to piece together the bizarre and violent chain of events that had led a gunman to open fire on motorists and officers while driving on highways and alongside shopping centers.
Devin Sanchez, a spokesman for the city of Odessa, said seven people had been killed, in addition to the gunman. At least 21 others were wounded, including three law enforcement officers and a 17-month-old toddler who remained in serious condition Sunday morning.
The gunman has not been identified, but authorities described him as a white man in his mid-30s who fled from state troopers who had tried to pull him over. The gunman then hijacked a U.S. postal van and indiscriminately fired from a rifle at people before authorities shot and killed him outside a movie theater in Odessa.
The attack on Saturday spread panic and fear for hours across West Texas, hundreds of miles from the border city of El Paso, Texas, where just 28 days earlier a gunman had killed 22 people at a Walmart in an anti-Hispanic attack. The motive behind Saturday’s shooting remained unclear.
Local and state officials said the shooting began with an attempted traffic stop on Interstate 20, a busy artery connecting Midland to Odessa.
At 3:13 p.m. Saturday, state troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety tried to pull over a man driving a gold car, authorities said. The car was headed west and was near the Midland airport. Before it came to a complete stop, the driver pointed a rifle toward the rear window and fired several shots at the state troopers, injuring one, the Department of Public Safety said in a statement.
The gunman then drove west toward Odessa, shooting a person as he sped away on I-20 and east Loop 338.
He then began what officials called a shooting spree in Odessa. At some point, the gunman hijacked a postal van in Odessa and drove to the Cinergy movie theater on Highway 191. He shot an Odessa police officer and a Midland police officer. Officers returned fire, killing the suspect, authorities said.
Cellphone video from witnesses captured the final moments of the attack on the back side of the movie theater.
The videos show police vehicles appearing to block a street outside the theater, around the corner from the entrances and in front of the building’s barren and beige side walls. The postal van speeds into view and the driver turns the van so its side slams into a police cruiser. A burst of gunfire follows as officers who have been chasing the van rush out of their vehicles to shoot at the gunman, who appears to remain inside the van.
On Sunday morning, the white postal van and the Odessa police vehicle remained in the same spot where the shooting had ended. Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were among the officers examining the crime scene on Sunday.
More than a dozen people were being treated at hospitals Saturday and Sunday. The wounded state trooper was in serious but stable condition, and the two officers were in stable condition, authorities said.
The injured Midland officer, Zack Owens, was shot several times in an arm and hand, but relatives said his most serious injury had resulted from having glass shards in one eye.
Owens’ brother, Jake Owens, is also an officer with the Midland Police Department. Abigail McCullough, the wife of Owens’ cousin, set up a donation page on GoFundMe, a crowdfunding site, to help pay the medical expenses for Zack Owens. By Sunday, more than $47,000 had been raised.
Residents in Odessa, a city of 120,000, remained on edge Sunday. Though Odessa and El Paso are separated by nearly 300 miles, the cities share some ties and a Western sensibility.
On Saturday night, at the University of Texas Permian Basin in Odessa, Stephanie Stonecliffe watched as her children played with rocks. She said her friend had been shopping at the Walmart in El Paso when the gunman there opened fire.
“Eventually I knew it was going to happen closer to home, especially with what’s going on in the world,” said Stonecliffe, who moved to the area recently from College Station, Texas. “This just tells me the world’s getting a little bit more dangerous.”