Investigators in Arapahoe High School shooting focus on motive

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CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Police pressed their search for details Saturday explaining the apparent revenge that Karl Pierson sought when he opened fire in his Colorado school while seeking a faculty member.

Pierson, 18, critically wounded a 17-year-old girl and then shot himself, police said. Officials weren't certain whether the wounded student was a deliberate target or not.

Investigators had contacted Pierson's friends and family, and were investigating at least four potential crime scenes, they said. Police seemed to have finished their initial search of Pierson's home Saturday afternoon. The front door of the Highlands Ranch house was boarded up, and the place sat deserted; the only movement an American flag flapping in the breeze.

The faculty member Pierson sought, debate coach Tracy Murphy, was unharmed, though some witnesses said Pierson fired at him and missed. When the school staffer heard the student was looking for him, he left the school — an act Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson said was “tactically the most important decision he could have made.”

“He took himself away from the school in an effort to get the shooter away as well,” Robinson.

Authorities have much evidence on what Pierson did and how he did it, Robinson said.

But a full explanation remained elusive a day after the shooting, which immediately took on greater meaning since it occurred on the eve of the anniversary of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting, the second-deadliest in U.S. history.

Several witnesses in Centennial saw and heard Pierson looking for the faculty member and discharging his weapon.

The halls of the school must have been crowded at the time, the sheriff said. But Pierson's shots hit only the one victim. She underwent surgery and was in critical condition late Friday.

Her blood splattered on another girl, and police initially believed she had been shot as well. But she and everyone else were unharmed -- at least physically. Some of them were treated for panic attacks.

"I'm very grateful for it," Robinson said.

He credited the quick response time for the fact that Pierson stopped firing on others and turned his weapon on himself. Only five minutes passed from the time deputies received the 911 call that they were standing over the teen's deceased body, he said.

Robinson said earlier that first reports indicated a time of 14 minutes or less.

Who was Pierson?

The big question still on Robinson's mind is: "Why?" He has dedicated a team of investigators to answering it.

"That is their key responsibility -- to find out about him, find out what his background was," he said.

Robinson is confident they will find the right pieces to the puzzle, when they execute search warrants Saturday at Pierson's home and at his father's home.

Pierson was a "nice young man," neighbors said. He was an achiever, an athlete, who ran cross country. He had worked on an Eagle Scout project, as well.

Students describe hearing gunfire, hiding

Students said they had been trained to move to corners of classrooms where they would not be visible.

Colton Powers said he heard gunfire while in his English class. His teacher turned off the lights and locked the door, Powers said.

"We ran to a corner so they couldn't see us," Powers said. "I'm just glad to be here with my mom."

"It's hard to see this happening again," Powers' mother said. "It's a terrifying experience as a parent. This is the last thing you ever want to go through."

"You think it's a drill at the beginning," said James Dalrymple. "It's surreal."

Ninth-grader Whitney Riley was getting ready to grab her computer from her locker when the shooting began.

"We were having fun and laughing and then, all of a sudden, we heard a really loud bang," the 15-year-old said.

"My teacher asked what it was and then we heard two more and we all just got up and screamed and ran into a sprinkler system room."

Sandy Hook, Columbine

It was on the eve of the one year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that Pierson walked into Arapahoe High School with its student body of 2,229 who occupy 70 classrooms. He was openly brandishing his weapon.

It was only 10 miles away from the site of the Columbine High School shooting, in which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and one teacher in April 1999 before killing themselves.

Pierson asked other students about the whereabouts of the man he was looking for, Robinsin said.

A school janitor spotted him in his tactical gear, he said.

"It just looked weird," Fabian Llerenas said. "He went in and I heard two pops. That's when I knew. I said, 'They are shooting in sthe school.'"

Llerenas said he called 911, and he then escorted the targeted faculty member out of the school.

Pierson had fired at the man but missed, Llerenas said.

"He was so [shaken] up, he felt the wind hit, out of the shotgun just blew his hair out but it didn't hit him. It was that scary for him."

"In my opinion, that was the most important tactical decision that could have been made," Robinson said. The faculty member "left that school in an effort to try to encourage the shooter to also leave the school."

Pierson's body was found later in a classroom, Robinson told reporters. The student appears to have acted alone, he said.

In addition to the shotgun, authorities found two Molotov cocktails inside the school, Robinson said.

One of the Molotov cocktails was burning when officers ran into the school, he said. "The deputies encountered a large amount of smoke."

The other was "rendered safe," Robinson said.

Ninth-grader Whitney Riley was getting ready to grab her computer from her locker when the shooting began.

"We were having fun and laughing and then, all of a sudden, we heard a really loud bang," the 15-year-old said.

"My teacher asked what it was and then we heard two more and we all just got up and screamed and ran into a sprinkler system room."

Inside the windowless room were five students and two teachers. "We were shaking, we were crying, we were freaking out," Riley said. "I had a girl biting my arm."

They soon heard people yelling, and walkie-talkies crackling, and then they heard police asking someone to drop the gun, put the gun down, and hold his arms up, she said.

She did not hear another gunshot, though the people doing the talking could have moved farther away, she said. Soon, they heard police ordering them out.

Dozens of students could be seen walking away from the school, with their hands in the air. Some stood in lines at what appeared the high school track field, where they appeared to be undergoing police pat-downs.

Students were then taken by bus to a nearby church where they were reunited with their families, Robinson said. They had to leave their cars in the school parking lot and their belongings in the classrooms overnight.

Gov. John Hickenlooper called the shooting an "all-too-familiar sequence, where you have gunshots and parents racing to the school and unspeakable horror in a place of learning."

The sheriff felt it not appropriate to bemoan the shooting as a repeat of the Columbine shooting, but he hinted that the response to school shootings has improved since.

He believes that reaction protocols and communication practices put in place are working.

CNN contributed to this report.



  • Liberal Sanity

    We never see these crazed white kid shootings at schools like Gateway High and Central High, so its obvious that Arapahoe county needs to integrate the lower income students into the upper income schools like Arapahoe High, and bus AHS students to the lower income high schools to integrate these violent white kids into the peaceful Democratic lower income areas so they lose their rage and learn that life is about contributing to the commune; instead of reaching for this false alpha #1 Me Me Me selfish capitalist mentality. Integrate now and end the violence!

  • fast45

    Let’s ask those Newtown teachers just how well it works, to cower in your classroom with the lights off calling 911, and waiting for help. Oh … that’s right. We can’t ask them, because they’re DEAD! Sheep get slaughtered. Wolves fight. Funny how the biggest advocates of gun free zones, have their own armed security details 24/7 … Right, Hickenlooper and Bloomberg?

  • SJ

    The teacher left the school to get the shooter away from the students and school. You are kidding me.

    The teacher left cause they were scared and ran away. No heroism, no altruism. Simple self preservation. No blame and I hold no ill will for that, but please stop trying to make it sound better than it is.

    Teachers say they will protect their students, but we know thats not true.

    What stopped the shooter, himself. Why, because he was confronted by armed security. End of story

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