Inside the race to find the gunman raining bullets on a D.C. school

Students were inside this glass walkway at the Edmund Burke School when a gunman started firing at them from above.
Students were inside this glass walkway at the Edmund Burke School when a gunman started firing at them from above. (D.C. police)

When the first booms ripped along the line of bumper-to-bumper cars waiting for students leaving the Edmund Burke School for the day, William James Peterson thought construction scaffolding had collapsed.

But a deafening second round of blasts left the military-trained, veteran D.C. police officer with no doubt: It was gunfire. He sprinted from a garage to a lane between buildings where the line of parents picking up their children forms.

Throwing on his protective vest, drawing his firearm and breathing heavily, he keyed up an alert tone on his radio:

“4101 Connecticut Avenue,” he told a dispatcher at 3:18 p.m. “I believe we have an active shooter here. Get me units to respond.”

Peterson, starting his off-duty security job at the school in the Van Ness area of Northwest Washington, crouched behind a pillar as bullets crashed into cars in front of him and shattered the glass on a walkway above that links the middle and high school buildings.

Even if he didn’t know where the bullets were coming from, the 49-year-old officer knew immediately what was happening.

The school was under attack.

D.C. police released police dispatch audio from officers describing the April 22 shooting in Van Ness that injured four people. (Video: D.C. Police)

Shards of glass showered the alley, as terrified drivers cowered in their vehicles or jumped out and sprawled facedown on the pavement to take cover from the barrage of rifle rounds that tore chunks of concrete from pillars and curbs.

The April 22 shooting cast a pall of terror across the nation’s capital and plunged the area into lockdown. Students and staff launched into a well-rehearsed drill, racing for offices, barricading doors, hiding in closets and diving under desks.

Scarred by school shootings

Secret Service officers, SWAT teams, ambulances and tactical vehicles swarmed the largely affluent strip of Connecticut Avenue in a neighborhood that includes a college campus, embassies and a Metro station. The terror separated children at Edmund Burke and at other schools from their parents for several agonizing hours and added the private, progressive college prep institution with 305 students to an ever-growing list of schools targeted across the country in mass shootings.

No one died, but four people were struck and one remains hospitalized. The school reopened the first week of May. Now, nearly three weeks after the shooting, new details are emerging about how the day unfolded, both on the ground and in the instant investigation law enforcement launched to find the shooter.

That Friday afternoon, Peterson, who had been on the force more than two decades, gripped his firearm with both hands, trying to trace the gunfire. He thought a gunman might be standing in the open sunroof of an approaching vehicle.

“I really felt that if this guy rolls down this alley,” Peterson said, “I have one chance to try to take him out.”

The gunman, however, was not on the street.

Perched above it all, according to police, was Raymond Godfrey Chambers Spencer. In a fifth-story apartment furnished with not much more than a mattress on the floor and two folding tables, the 23-year-old had amassed four legally purchased high-powered rifles mounted with scopes, two handguns and more than a thousand rounds of ammunition. Police would later call the apartment a “sniper’s nest.”

van ness st. nw

AVA

VAN NESS

Van Ness

D.C.

1

2

EDMUND BURKE SCHOOL

Middle school

High school

connecticut ave. nw

3

4

upton st. NW

1. Shooter fires at least 239 rounds from Apt. 511

 

2. A D.C. police officer working security at the

school hears shots and takes cover by a pillar

as he calls in an active-shooter alert

3. A security guard and two women in vehicles

are shot in the alley

4. A 12-year-old girl wounded in the elevated

walkway

Sources: D.C. police, Post reporting,

Pictometry International

HANNAH DORMIDO/THE WASHINGTON POST

van ness st. nw

Shooter fires at least

239 rounds from Apt. 511

Van Ness

D.C.

AVA VAN NESS

A D.C. police officer working security at the school hears shots and takes cover by a pillar as he calls in an active-shooter alert

A security guard

and two women

in vehicles are

shot in the alley

EDMUND BURKE SCHOOL

connecticut ave. nw

Middle school

High school

A 12-year-old girl is wounded

in the elevated walkway

upton st. NW

Sources: D.C. police, Post reporting, Pictometry International

HANNAH DORMIDO/THE WASHINGTON POST

van ness st. nw

Shooter fires at least

239 rounds from Apt. 511

Van Ness

D.C.

AVA VAN NESS

A D.C. police officer working security at the school hears shots and takes cover by a pillar as he calls in an active-shooter alert

A security guard and two women

in vehicles are shot in the alley

EDMUND BURKE SCHOOL

connecticut ave. nw

Middle

school

High

school

A 12-year-old girl is wounded

in the elevated walkway

upton st. NW

Sources: D.C. police, Post reporting, Pictometry International

HANNAH DORMIDO/THE WASHINGTON POST

From his bedroom window, where a tripod to balance a long-gun stood, Spencer could look straight down the alley 160 feet to Edmund Burke’s glass walkway, which students and staff call “The Bridge.”

In the span of a few minutes, he showered at least 239 bullets through that bedroom window and a sliding screen door in the apartment’s living room.

He hit a 12-year-old girl in the glass walkway, a mother sitting in her SUV and a security guard helping Peterson. One bullet grazed the shoulder of another woman in her SUV.

School was in sniper’s ‘crosshairs,’ but link is unclear, D.C. chief says

Random gunfire hit two storefronts nearly a mile down Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park.

He then stopped shooting and retreated to his bathroom with about 800 rounds of ammunition remaining. Authorities believe he may have realized countersnipers had quickly located his apartment, and felt it was too dangerous to return to the window.

In a final message posted on the 4chan social media platform at 3:36 p.m., Spencer wrote: “Waiting for police to catch up with me.”

Five hours later, police did.

Spencer fatally shot himself in the head as officers breached the gray door of Apt. 511 that night. Officers found him on his back in his bathroom, slumped against the tub, one handgun by his side. He lay partially atop an assault rifle set to fire on fully-automatic, along with a second, bloodied handgun. Hundreds of spent shell casings littered the floors.

Peterson, who grew up in Southeast Washington, was stunned that there weren’t more casualties. The gunfire seemed timed for the school’s 3:15 p.m. dismissal. Five more minutes and the alley would have been filled with students.

“He literally started this minutes before the kids were to walk out this school.”

‘I need to get out of this alley’

Raymond Spencer had never been arrested.

He wasn’t on law enforcement’s radar, or anyone else’s as far authorities can tell. He hadn’t spoken to his family in about a year, police said, and he didn’t seem to have a job. No partner or significant other has turned up.

“This guy was just an absolute loner,” said D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III.

In a way, Spencer was a police department’s worst nightmare.

“A lone, motivated person,” Contee said, with “no history of law enforcement contact, decides to go off the rails. How do you prevent something like this?”

The Washington Post was given early access to the investigation as D.C. police sought to answer that question and others. This account is based on interviews with nine D.C. police officials and others who were at the shooting or are involved in the ongoing inquiry.

Shortly before midnight on April 22, Spencer left one of his apartments, off Interstate 66 in Fairfax County, Va., and took a ride-share into the District.

At 12:43 a.m., surveillance video captured him wheeling a suitcase into the lobby of AVA Van Ness, where he had begun leasing a 765-square-foot one-bedroom apartment in January. Inside the suitcase, police believe, were at least some of the firearms, ammunition and other supplies used in the attack.

About 10 a.m., Spencer went to a Giant Food and bought two frozen Stouffer’s dinners — meatloaf and lasagna — and returned to his apartment about a two-minute walk away on Van Ness Street near Connecticut Avenue, just north of the school.

Though his apartment was sparsely furnished, police said he was well prepared for a mass shooting, with items that included mitts to protect his hands from the heat of continuous shooting and headphones to shut out the noise.

At 3:18 p.m., a police lieutenant with news of Peterson’s alert burst into the office of D.C. Police Cmdr. Duncan Bedlion, who runs the 2nd District station on Idaho Avenue NW.

As Bedlion raced to the school, uniformed officers with the U.S. Secret Service, patrolling nearby embassies, were already there, running toward Peterson, shouting “blue, blue, blue” to flag that they were police. They had rifles and took over for the outgunned officer.

Patricia Termini, in her SUV, was fourth in the line of parents, waiting to pick up her neighbor’s 15-year-old son and headed toward the walkway when shots shattered its windows.

The sophomore she was picking up ran to an office.

“They were so loud,” Termini, 63, said of the gunshots. “They stopped. Then they started again.”

She doubled over in her SUV and called her neighbors.

“I don’t know if it’s explosions or gunfire, but something is happening here,” she told them.

She sat up for a moment and saw the “glass walkway riddled with bullets.” She ducked again and felt a bullet graze her shoulder.

“I thought, ‘These are bullets and I need to get out of this alley.’ ”

Raymond Spencer left an online footprint after D.C. shooting

Termini honked and the vehicle in front of her moved. She sped out to Upton Street, on the south side of the school, and onto Connecticut Avenue, where she climbed out, screaming. The rear window of her SUV had been blown out, and some of the tires were flattened.

Peterson, the D.C. officer who had taken cover behind the pillar, ran back into the school and saw the 12-year-old girl who had been struck as she crossed the walkway. Her right arm was bleeding, and she was crying.

But she was also walking.

Peterson put his hand on her back and gently guided her toward the Connecticut Avenue exit, and to an ambulance, as she pressed the wound with her left hand.

“I asked her for her name and she told me her name,” he said. “I’m trying to keep her calm.”

He went back into the building and tried to call the other school security guard, a retired D.C. police officer he knew from working together at the 2nd District. Peterson couldn’t get through, and an administrator who overheard the call told him the other guard had been shot and rushed to a hospital.

‘Dear God please forgive me’

By this time, the gunfire had stopped.

But the panic of not knowing the shooter’s exact location and whether the shooting would start again hung over everyone.

The Secret Service officers tried to identify the source of the gunfire and helped victims, including a woman found gravely wounded and unconscious in her car. They carried her to an ambulance on Connecticut Avenue.

Tactical officers formed active-shooter teams, hoping to eventually confront the shooter. Detectives went into the school to interview students and staff about potential threats, while officers began evacuating apartment buildings, including AVA Van Ness, worried that the shooter might try to escape by blending in with evacuees.

A person who lives in the area identified the AVA apartments as the source of the gunfire.

“We were able to use this information and identify and isolate a window,” Bedlion said.

The Secret Service deployed members of its countersniper unit, a spokesman for the agency said, and two members pinpointed the shooter’s location to a corner apartment on the fifth floor.

Authorities said the countersnipers were on a rooftop across from the apartment building and could see the tripod in the open bedroom window but not a shooter. D.C. police said officers also were able to see into the apartment, observing the tripod and two rifles on a table. But they still weren’t sure which apartment he was in — 511 or the one next door.

By then, police believe, Spencer had hunkered down in his bathroom, a makeshift command center where he had a baby monitor synced to a small camera at the base of a hallway door to track visitors; a keyboard in the sink; bullet clips on the counter; and pillows piled in the tub.

The Secret Service spokesman said the agency believes the countersnipers’ efforts “likely prevented the shooter from reengaging because he realized his location was known to law enforcement.”

Contee said that he had not given an order for the countersnipers to shoot because no one had appeared at the window, but that he was prepared to reevaluate if circumstances changed.

Meanwhile at police headquarters, Carolyn Montagna, the director of the D.C. police department’s Joint Strategic and Tactical Analysis Command Center, coordinated with federal agencies and the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force to unearth intelligence.

Her team saw one of the first clues to the shooter’s identity — a 3:20 p.m. post to 4chan by user Raymond Spencer reading: “School shooting!”

The post linked to a shaky video that appeared to show the shooting from the gunman’s perspective. A red target is in the center, the Burke school’s glass walkway visible behind it. In the video, which Montagna’s office saw when someone tagged D.C. police in a tweet, the sound of gunfire erupts and one of the walkway windows shatters.

The hours of a fearful lockdown at Edmund Burke school

At 3:24 p.m., the same user posted: “Dear God please forgive me.”

Another message, at 3:30, read: “They’re in the wrong part of the building right now searching XD.”

Then, at 4 p.m., a user named Raymond Spencer updated the Edmund Burke School’s Wikipedia page, writing: “A basedman shot at the school on April 22, 2022. The suspect is still at large.” Shortly after, the user swapped “basedman” for “gunman” and added, “(Hope they catch him soon!)”

A Wikipedia profile page for Raymond Spencer, since removed, has a picture of an assault rifle followed by, among other descriptors, “I’m an AR-15 aficionado.”

Inside Apt. 511

Montagna and the team were thrown. People often mask their identity on the Internet with pseudonyms.

Was Raymond Spencer a real name? Were these entries from the real shooter?

By 5:30 p.m., police were instructed to search every apartment at AVA Van Ness, even as units were being evacuated, according to court documents. Occupants could be seen walking out under police escort with their hands in the air.

As intelligence officials were still trying to confirm if Spencer was behind the posts, tactical officers had reached the fifth-floor hallway. They saw his camera setup, and it was disabled.

But officers didn’t immediately storm the apartment, worried that the door might be booby-trapped. And they were still unsure who the shooter was and if he was still inside.

Soon Montagna learned that the online posts had come from a computer with an Internet Protocol, or IP address, linked to an account set up by Raymond Spencer, using his address at 2950 Van Ness St. NW.

At 7:36 p.m., Assistant Police Chief Stuart Emerman, filling in for Contee, who had flown to Boston that morning for a conference and was rushing back, stood before television microphones with the mayor and identified Raymond Spencer as a person of interest.

Police released two pictures of Spencer, one with long hair, one with short hair.

“We would like to speak with Mr. Spencer,” Emerman told the city.

Behind the scenes, police were closing in, now locked on Apt. 511.

At 8:36 p.m. — five hours after the first gunshots — police battered the door, a refrigerator blocking the entrance. Police heard a single gunshot as they rushed inside. They found Spencer’s body in the bathroom.

At 9:37 p.m., Contee, who had just returned to D.C. and sped from the airport to the scene, walked to a scrum of media in his street clothes.

The shooter was dead, he announced, adding, “Our communities are now safe.”

‘An isolated kid’

The publicly known details of Spencer’s life are scant. He attended Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, Md. He ran track, once finishing 20th in a 5,000-meter race, and was a lifeguard at a public pool. It is still unclear what, if any, connection Spencer had with the Edmund Burke School.

He signed up for the U.S. Coast Guard in 2017 but did not graduate from basic training, the service said without providing an explanation. His family has not spoken publicly and has not returned inquiries from The Post. Neighbors in the Van Ness apartment building had infrequent encounters with him, and efforts to reach friends or acquaintances were largely unsuccessful.

Detective Joshua Branson, an investigator in the homicide unit’s major-case squad, which investigates mass shootings, said Spencer’s family is helping police, but many questions remain.

“There was nothing that stuck out about Raymond, to [his parents] or to his siblings, that indicated that he had any type of trouble,” the detective said.

Spencer lived with his parents until about a year ago, when he moved into the apartment in Virginia and lost all contact with his family, Branson said. Authorities said they are trying to determine how he paid for his two apartments and his firearms.

“He was kind of, you know, an isolated kid,” Branson said. “None of his neighbors knew who he was at either apartment complex. … He came and went as he pleased and really didn’t have any social interaction with anybody that anyone would alert us to.”

In the 10 days before the shooting, it appears Spencer searched Wikipedia on subjects that included David Hogg, who survived a deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and has become an outspoken advocate for gun control. There are also searches for Wheaton High School and the recent shooting attack on a New York subway.

Police said they are investigating some cryptic postings on Spencer’s Wikipedia profile, including what might be a reference to conspiracy theories involving child pornography, and a poster on a wall of the Van Ness apartment that appears to be a meme of a Black scientist who some in the Nation of Islam believe created the White race.

Branson and Contee said detectives are aware of the posts and the poster on the wall but do not yet know or understand the significance. Police said they have not located Spencer’s phone but do have some phone records and are seeking more. Branson said that so far in the review, “there is nothing that stands out” or points to a motive.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is examining the weapons — two handguns and four assault rifles — found in the D.C. apartment. Police said parts of two other rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition were found in his Virginia apartment.

Authorities are particularly interested in how the assault rifles were apparently modified to fire fully automatic, allowing continued firing with one pull of the trigger, at roughly 600 to 900 rounds per minute.

Contee said investigating Spencer’s finances, operations and motivation will take time.

Added Branson: “We have the same questions you have.”

About this story

Story editing by Lynh Bui. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Adrienne Dunn and Jordan Melendrez. Design by Chelsea Conrad. Audio production by Amber Ferguson. Graphics by Hannah Dormido. Jasmine Hilton, Ian Shapira, Perry Stein and Emily Davies, Alice Crites, Jennifer Jenkins and Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.

Loading...
Loading...