Three young children attending a summer camp and two staff members were badly wounded here this morning when a gunman burst into the lobby of a Jewish community center, fired indiscriminately about 70 shots with a submachine gun and then fled as soon as the victims fell.
The brazen attack, the latest in a spate of random mass shootings across the nation in recent weeks, prompted a massive door-to-door search for the gunman in the neighborhood around the center, which is in the San Fernando Valley on the city's northern edge.
Late tonight, Police Cmdr. David Kalisch identified the suspect as Buford O. Furrow Jr. and said Furrow has had addresses in the state of Washington. Hundreds of police officers surrounded a motel in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Chatsworth where they thought Furrow, 37, might have been hiding. But police officials also said he could have fled the area.
The shootings caused hours of chaos and grief at the community center. Firefighters and police officers raced inside to rescue dozens of unharmed children and escorted them out hand-in-hand. Frenzied and tearful parents rushed to the site all day, fearful that their children were among the wounded.
Kalisch said police knew of no motive for the shooting and noted that they have found no link between Furrow and the Jewish community center. Officials at the center, which has no security, said they, too, were stunned by the attack.
"We've had no reason to think that something like this could happen," said Jeff Rouss, the executive director of the center, which has about 300 children participating in its summer programs.
The attack could have been much worse. Only about two dozen children were at the center when the gunman opened fire shortly before 11 a.m., police said. The rest had just left in buses for a field trip to exhibits on the Holocaust at the Museum of Tolerance near downtown Los Angeles.
But many parents arriving at the scene had no way of knowing whether their children had been inside the center when the violence erupted. And even those who were relieved to find them safe seethed with anger.
"There is no excuse for this," said Beth Schwartz, whose teenage daughter is a counselor at the summer camp. "How can anyone shoot defenseless women and children?"
President Clinton, speaking on the White House lawn, called the shootings "another senseless act" and offered federal assistance to local law enforcement agencies.
"Once again, our nation has been shaken and our hearts torn by an act of gun violence," Clinton said. "It calls on all of us not only to give our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families, but intensify our resolve to make America a safer place."
Police said that Furrow apparently used a 9mm automatic weapon, possibly an Uzi, in the attack. Eyewitnesses who were in the community center at the time of the shooting said that the gunman said nothing before he opened fire in every direction.
"I looked up and I suddenly saw this person in the lobby, and then I heard the sounds, the popping, and I just hit the floor," said a secretary at the center, who asked not to be named. "He just started shooting out the windows. There were bullet holes everywhere. The water bottle on my desk was shot in half."
Los Angeles authorities have not released the names of the victims, but the most seriously wounded was a 5-year-old boy who was shot in the abdomen and leg. He was listed in critical condition tonight after eight hours of surgery. Two boys, 8 and 6, were in stable condition with gunshot wounds, as was a 16-year-old girl who worked at the community center's summer camp. A 68-year-old woman identified by her daughter as Isabel Shalometh also was seriously wounded in the attack.
Shalometh, a longtime receptionist at the center, was the first to encounter the gunman because her desk sits in the front lobby. "She's like the mom for everyone here," said Elaine Wynstock, a parent.
FBI officials said they are investigating whether the attack was a hate crime, but as yet have no evidence to support that suspicion. Similar incidents have not occurred recently in metropolitan Los Angeles. In Northern California, however, three synagogues were set on fire a few months ago in Sacramento, and neo-Nazi propaganda has been left outside schools. Those incidents are still being investigated.
Last week, a disgruntled employee shot and killed three people at two businesses in Pelham, Ala. That shooting happened a week after a stock trader in Atlanta killed nine people and wounded 13 others in a shooting rampage at two day-trading firms.
By dusk, the search for the community center gunman had been extended across the sprawling San Fernando Valley, by helicopter and patrol car. Officers said Furrow abandoned a van in a lot a few miles from the community center and that they found in it "an incredible amount" of ammunition and other items, including a bulletproof vest and survivalist gear.
After abandoning the van, which was bought three days ago in Washington state, police said Furrow hijacked a Toyota about 20 minutes after the shooting just a few miles from the community center.
Police found the hijacked vehicle parked with its lights on outside a motel in the San Fernando Valley, leading them to believe that the gunman could be hiding there. Several hundred officers closed nearby streets and surrounded the motel. About 9 p.m., SWAT teams went in, but police said they had not found him by 11 p.m. and were unsure whether he was in the motel or had fled. Kalisch said police found weapons in the hijacked Toyota but did not describe them.
At the center, parents drove up all day to find their children. Those not harmed in the attack had been moved to a synagogue on the same block as the community center. One father was so determined to reach his child that he ran through police lines before the area had been deemed safe and was tackled by officers. But as shaken as they were, many parents said they would return to the center with their children as soon as it reopens.
"We have a lot of faith," said Richard Macales, who was holding his 3-year-old son, David, tightly in his arms. "Everyone is going to pull through."