Gunfire still crackled at the Borderline Bar & Grill when Sgt. Ron Helus arrived.
Emergency calls flooded 911 after a gunman entered the Thousand Oaks, Calif., bar on Wednesday night, and he methodically killed people on a dance floor scuffed by cowboy boots at college country night, witnesses later said.
Within minutes, Helus, a veteran sergeant with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, responded to the calls along with a highway patrolman. They were prompted by their training that changed after the Columbine High School massacre: Don’t wait. Confront the shooter.
“One subject advised she didn’t see him come out,” Helus told a dispatcher, according to audio obtained by The Mercury News. “We’re making entry.”
A few seconds passed. “We got multiple people down,” Helus said. “We need a lot of ambulances.”
More time ticked by. Another officer radioed: “Be advised there are multiple shots being fired, the back northwest area.”
A burst of gunfire raked Helus multiple times. The patrolman with him rescued Helus “out of the line of gunfire,” Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean told reporters early Thursday morning, and helped secure the scene for more officers to arrive.
Dean announced the deaths of 11 people in the news conference.
His voice cracked. Helus, he said, was the 12th. He died at a hospital — a year before he was set to retire with 30 years of service.
“He was totally committed, he gave his all, and tonight, as I told his wife, he died a hero,” Dean said. “He went in to save lives — to save other people.”
At a second briefing, Dean said the Ventura County community had “lost a hero. It’s lost a great human being.”
Helus was on a call with his wife when he responded to the incident, and told her he loved her, Dean said.
President Trump praised the “great bravery shown by police,” adding in a tweet: “God bless all of the victims and families of the victims.” Trump later ordered the flag to be flown at half-staff.
Helus was a resident of nearby Moorpark and is survived by a wife and son, Dean said. Helus was an avid outdoorsman who traversed the serene waters of the San Joaquin River. On some backcountry trips, he would see more bald eagles and deer than people, he said on Facebook.
“I’ve probably had 200 bear and 3 mountain lion encounters,” Helus told a Facebook friend who jokingly asked if he were part animal.
His age was not immediately clear Thursday.
Helus did what he was trained to do, Dean said. The 1999 killings at Columbine transformed the way law enforcement respond to active shooter incidents, he explained. Before then, officers and first responders secured a perimeter and waited.
Now training has emphasized aggressive pursuit of suspects before they kill more people or target those already wounded.
“When you get to a scene, and there’s two of you, or even just one of you and there’s shooting going on, you go in,” Dean said.
The gunfire briefly quieted, the sheriff said, as people scrambled to hide in restrooms and in attics.
Investigators were still working to determine the motive and other details.
“I saw three people get shot by him,” said Teylor Whittler, 19, describing the shooter. She was raised in a military family and is familiar with firearms, she told Fox News.
“He had perfect form,” Whittler said. “He looked like he knew what he was doing.”
Authorities identified the gunman as 28-year old Ian David Long.
In addition to the dead, Dean estimated that there were upward of 10 to 12 shooting victims who were “rescued from the scene and taken to local hospitals.” Additional victims with minor injuries fled the scene on their own, he added.
Dean, whose own retirement as sheriff is effective on Friday, choked up again when he was asked how the department would honor Helus.
Deputies, he said, will close down roads for a morning procession, where they will escort Helus’s body from a hospital to the county medical examiner’s office.
“It’s so tragic losing Ron,” Dean said. “We go to the gym together, work out together. It’s horrific and terrible and it saddens our hearts.”
Issac Stanley-Becker, Mark Berman, Lindsey Bever, Allyson Chiu, Antonia Noori Farzan, Meagan Flynn, Kyle Swenson, Fred Barbash, Amar Nadir and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.