THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Terrified patrons hurled barstools through windows to escape or threw their bodies protectively on top of friends as a Marine combat veteran killed 12 people at a country music bar in an attack that added Thousand Oaks to the tragic roster of American cities traumatized by mass shootings.
Dressed all in black with his hood pulled up, the gunman apparently took his own life as scores of police converged on the Borderline Bar and Grill in Southern California.
The motive for the rampage late Wednesday night was under investigation.
The killer , Ian David Long, 28, was a former machine gunner and Afghanistan war veteran who was interviewed by police at his home last spring after an episode of agitated behavior that authorities were told might be post-traumatic stress disorder.
Opening fire with a handgun with an illegal, extra-capacity magazine, Long shot a security guard outside the bar and then went in and took aim at employees and customers, authorities said. He also used a smoke bomb, according to a law enforcement official who was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The dead included a veteran sheriff’s deputy who rushed in to confront the gunman, as well as a 22-year-old man who planned to join the Army, a freshman at nearby Pepperdine University and a recent Cal Lutheran graduate.
“It’s a horrific scene in there,” Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean said in the parking lot. “There’s blood everywhere.”
Survivors of the rampage — mostly young people who had gone out for college night at the Borderline, a hangout popular with students from nearby California Lutheran University and other schools — seemed to know what to do, having come of age in an era of active-shooter drills and deadly rampages happening with terrifying frequency.
Several of the survivors said they were also at the outdoor country music festival in Las Vegas last year when a gunman in a high-rise hotel killed 58 people.
Many of the estimated 150 patrons at the Borderline dived under tables, ran for exits, broke through windows or hid in the attic and bathrooms, authorities and witnesses said.
“Unfortunately our young people, people at nightclubs, have learned that this may happen, and they think about that,” the sheriff said. “Fortunately it helped save a lot of lives that they fled the scene so rapidly.”
Matt Wennerstrom said he pulled people behind a pool table, and he and friends shielded women with their bodies after hearing the shots. When the gunman paused to reload, Wennerstrom said, he and others shattered windows with barstools and helped about 30 people escape. He heard another volley of shots once he was safely outside.
“All I wanted to do was get as many people out of there as possible,” he told KABC-TV. “I know where I’m going if I die, so I was not worried.”
A video posted on Instagram after the shooting by one of the patrons showed an empty dance floor with sound of windows breaking in the background. As a silhouetted figure entered a doorway, the camera turned erratically and 10 gunshots rang out.
“I looked him in his eyes while he killed my friends,” Dallas Knapp wrote on his post. “I hope he rots in hell for eternity.”
During a break in the gunfire, Knapp bolted out a door, yelling, “Run, he’s coming out this door.”
The tragedy left a community that is annually listed as one of the safest cities in America reeling. Shootings of any kind are extremely rare in Thousand Oaks, a city of about 130,000 people about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from Los Angeles, just across the county line.
Scores of people stood in line for hours to donate blood for the wounded, and all morning, people looking for missing friends and relatives arrived at a community center where authorities and counselors were informing the next-of-kin of those who died. Many people walked past TV cameras with blank stares or tears in their eyes. In the parking lot, some comforted each other with hugs or a pat on the back.
Jason Coffman received the news that his son Cody, 22, who was about to join the Army, was dead. Coffman broke down as he told reporters how his last words to his son as he went out that night were not to drink and drive and that he loved him.
“Oh, Cody, I love you, son,” Coffman sobbed.
It was the nation’s deadliest such attack since 17 students and teachers were killed at a Parkland, Florida, high school nine months ago. It also came less than two weeks after a gunman massacred 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Democratic Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, in his first public appearance since winning office on Tuesday, lamented the violence that has come again to California.
“It’s a gun culture,” he said. “You can’t go to a bar or nightclub? You can’t go to church or synagogue? It’s insane is the only way to describe it. The normalization, that’s the only way I can describe it. It’s become normalized.”
President Donald Trump praised police for their “great bravery” in the attack and ordered flags flown at half-staff in honor of the victims.
Authorities searched Long’s home in Newbury Park, about 5 miles from the Borderline bar, for clues to what set him off.
“There’s no indication that he targeted the employees. We haven’t found any correlation,” the sheriff said. “Maybe there was a motive for this particular night, but we have no information leading to that at all.”
Long was in the Marines from 2008 to 2013, rose to the rank of corporal and served in Afghanistan in 2010-11 before he was honorably discharged, the military said. Court records show he married in 2009 and was divorced in 2013.
Authorities said he had no criminal record, but in April officers were called to his home, where deputies found him angry and acting irrationally. The sheriff said officers were told he might have PTSD because of his military service. A mental health specialist met with him and didn’t feel he needed to be hospitalized.
Tom Hanson, 70, who lives next door to Long and his mother, said Thursday that he called the police about six months ago when he heard “heavy-duty banging” and shouting coming from the Longs’ home.
His wife, Julie Hanson, said they consulted a neighbor before deciding to make the call and were concerned Long would harm himself or his mother.
“Somebody has missed something here,” she said. “This woman has to know that this child needed help.”
Long was armed with a Glock 21, a .45-caliber pistol designed to hold 10 rounds plus one in the chamber, according to the sheriff. But it had an extended magazine — one capable of holding more ammunition — that is illegal in California, Dean said.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus and a passing highway patrolman arrived at the club around 11:20 p.m. in response to several 911 calls, heard gunfire and went inside, the sheriff said. Helus was immediately shot, Dean said.
The highway patrolman pulled Helus out, then waited as a SWAT team and other officers arrived. Helus died at a hospital.
By the time officers entered the bar again — about 15 to 20 minutes later, according to the sheriff’s office — the gunfire had stopped. They found 12 people dead inside, including the gunman, who was discovered in an office, the sheriff said.
“There’s no doubt that they saved lives by going in there and engaging with the suspect,” said Dean, who was set to retire Friday. He praised the slain officer — a close friend — as a hero: “He went in there to save people and paid the ultimate price.”
One other person was wounded by gunfire, and as many as 15 others suffered minor injuries from jumping out windows or diving under tables, authorities said.
Five off-duty police officers who were at the bar also helped people escape, authorities said.
For several hours after the violence, survivors gathered in the dark, some sobbing and hugging as they awaited word on the fate of friends as ambulances idled nearby. Several men were bare-chested after using their shirts to plug wounds and tie tourniquets.
Nick Steinwender, Cal Lutheran student body president, told KTLA-TV he immediately started receiving messages about the shooting, and he and his roommate went to the scene to offer rides back to campus or moral support.
“It’s going to be a very somber day,” Steinwender said. “I know we don’t have all the details in yet, but you know, it just feels like it’s an attack on our community.”
Around midday, the body of the slain sheriff’s officer was taken by motorcade from the hospital to the coroner’s office. Thousands of people stood along the route or pulled over in their vehicles to watch the hearse pass.
Helus was a 29-year veteran of the force with a wife and son and planned to retire in the coming year, said the sheriff, choking back tears.