HESSTON, Kan. — A gunman burst into the Kansas lawn care company where he worked Thursday, spraying bullets that killed three people before police shot him dead.
The shooter wounded 14 people, all but two of them on the grounds of his employer Excel Industries, which makes lawn care equipment in Hesston, Kan., authorities said.
Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton said one of his deputies served the shooter with a “protection from abuse” order around 3:30 p.m. CST Thursday.
While it wasn’t immediately clear what led to that, Walton said, “I believe that probably is the trigger, and it went from there.”
The first shots rang out around 5 p.m., first on streets around Hesston and then on the grounds.
“We heard a pop, pop, and we thought it was just metal falling on the ground, and then the doors opened, people started screaming, coming out,” a worker at the lawn care company identified as Dylan by KSNW. “We really didn’t know what was going on.”
As he spoke, Dylan rubbed his hands, which had blood on them. He said he’d tried to help a man who’d been shot.
The carnage left many grasping for answers in Hesston, a small city of about 3,700 people located about 35 miles north of Wichita.
“Everybody says it can’t happen here,” Walton said. “And here we are. It happened here.”
‘A mellow guy’
Matt Jarrell, a painter at Excel, said Cedric Ford — a co-worker and friend — was the suspected shooter.
“Never in a million years” would he have expected his friend to do something like this, Jarrell said to KSNW.
“He was a mellow guy,” Jarrell said. “He was somebody I could talk to about anything.”
Moments before the two clocked in at work at the same time Thursday, they were talking about Ford’s new truck, Jarrell said.
About two hours into his shift, it was time for Jarrell’s break. Ford was supposed to relieve him, he said, but he was nowhere to be seen.
Jarrell went outside, and the new truck was gone. A few minutes later, Ford returned in a different car, he said.
“He just parked and then opened up the door, hopped out with the gun on, strapped-up and everything,” Jarrell said.
Ford yelled “hey” at a bystander nearby and then shot that person.
“I witnessed him shoot the shots. I saw the shell casings come out of the assault rifle,” Jarrell said. “I mean, that vivid. I can still see it.”
Authorities confirmed the shooter was an employee at Excel, but did not release a name or a motive. Walton said terrorism is not a factor.
“There was some things that triggered this particular individual,” he said, declining to get into details.
Dispatchers got the first call at 4:57 p.m. local time with reports of a male in a gray Dodge opening fire, according to Walton.
A man was shot in the shoulder, the sheriff’s office said in a news release.
About two miles north, another person was reportedly shot in the leg.
Minutes later, authorities received multiple reports of shots fired from Excel, where an estimated 150 people were working at the time, according to Walton.
Matt Gerald told The Hesston Record newspaper that he was outside on break when he saw the shooter.
“I saw the shooter get out of his truck, shoot someone down and go into the building,” Gerald said. “I was flabbergasted. I was at a loss for words.”
The gunman had a long gun and a pistol, according to Walton. He said the victims appear to have been randomly targeted.
Authorities were on the scene at 5:06 p.m. local time — minutes after the first reports came in, according to a timeline shown to reporters.
The first officer to arrive on the scene was alone, and single-handedly took down the shooter.
“Even though he took fire, he went inside of that place and saved multiple, multiple lives,” Walton said. “[He’s] a hero, as far as I’m concerned.”
Walton said authorities are expected to release the name of the officer later in the morning.
No law enforcement official was injured.
‘This will take some time’
A witness told KWCH that outside the shooting, many cried, hugged and tried to find answers.
“I’ve never experienced that before,” he said as he choked up. “You think you’re safe at work and you’re not. It’s just scary.”
Gov. Sam Brownback offered his condolences to the people of Hesston, which is 35 miles north of Wichita. He ordered flags flown at half-staff Friday.
“This will take some time to work through,” Walton said.
“This is just a horrible incident that’s happened here,” the sheriff said. “It’s going to be a lot of sad people before this is all over.”