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A grisly checklist and a sickening rampage: Inside the Uvalde massacre

Law enforcement officers confer on May 25 outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex., where 19 children and two teachers were killed a day earlier in a mass shooting. (Eric Thayer/Bloomberg News)
14 min

UVALDE, Tex. — The gray Ford pickup truck veered into a ditch with such force that people who live on the block assumed it was an accident and rushed over to help the driver.

Instead, according to witness and police accounts, Salvador Rolando Ramos emerged wearing tactical gear and carrying an AR-15-style rifle he bought this month, just after his 18th birthday. Bystanders scattered as Ramos hopped a fence, exchanged gunfire with a school police officer and entered through a side door to Robb Elementary. Inside, he embarked on a deadly rampage that brought the national scourge of school shootings to a fourth-grade classroom in this southern Texas town.

“That’s where the carnage began,” Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at a news conference Wednesday. On Thursday, police officials said their first account of what happened was inaccurate and the gunman entered the school unobstructed and did not exchange gunfire with a school police officer outside.

What we know about the victims of the school shooting in Texas

Authorities say the attack was part of a grisly checklist Ramos had shared in private social media messages early Tuesday. The first item was to kill his grandmother, who lives near the school. He shot her in the face, authorities said, then left her for dead as he drove off in her truck. “I shot my grandmother,” Ramos wrote in an update. The next threat, according to the messages, was to “shoot an elementary school.” Within minutes of pressing send, shortly after 11:30 a.m., Ramos was barricaded inside a classroom with the 19 students and two teachers he would kill.

Those are the central elements of the timeline, pieced together from law enforcement statements, witness accounts and social media posts by families of victims. In the hours after the shooting, associates of Ramos shared disturbing exchanges or observations about him that suggested he was in a downward spiral, with a miserable home life, no chance of graduating with his senior class and a history of being bullied for his speech and attire.

Politicians pleaded for “common sense” gun laws after at least 19 students and two adults were killed in a mass shooting in Uvalde, Tex., on May 24. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post, Photo: Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

Family, friends say Uvalde shooter had troubled home life, was bullied for a speech impediment and lashed out in recent years

Still, much of the way events unfolded remains unclear, including whether authorities missed warning signs or could have intervened earlier to prevent Ramos from reaching the classroom. Likewise, talk of motives remains speculative, with Texas officials invoking “mental illness” and biblical notions of good and evil to make sense of the violence.

On May 12, Ramos began messaging a California girl via Instagram, asking if she would repost photos of his gun. The teen, who has since shared the exchanges publicly, described the messages as scary and strange because she didn’t know Ramos.

Early Tuesday, hours before his attack, Ramos again messaged the girl, writing, “I’m about to” without finishing the thought. He told her he had “a lil secret” he wanted to share. She blew him off, saying she was sick and might be asleep. “Ima air out,” he wrote, a slang term that means to shoot a group of people, or “air out” a space. By the time the girl responded to his final message to her, Ramos probably was dead, according to the authorities’ timeline that says he was killed around 1 p.m.

On Tuesday morning, Miguel Cerrillo’s 11-year-old daughter Miah arrived late to school after a doctor’s appointment. Less than an hour later, the shooting began. When the parents heard the news, Cerrillo said, his wife got to the school first to check on their two daughters. He said his wife watched parents trying to break windows to help students escape.

When he arrived just after noon, Cerrillo said, he joined a crowd of law enforcement officers, journalists and a growing group of terrified parents. Some time later, he saw an officer exit the school carrying two children. One of them was Miah, alive but covered in blood. She was loaded onto a yellow school bus.

“I panicked,” Cerrillo said, describing how he ran toward the bus but was prevented from retrieving his daughter. They could only speak through the window, with Miah describing some of the violence she witnessed. Cerrillo said his daughter saw her teacher, Eva Mireles, shot and the phone slip from her teacher’s hand. Miah grabbed it and called 911.

One of her classmates also was shot, Cerrillo’s daughter said, and bleeding. She decided to lie on top of the girl so the gunman would think they were both dead. At first her friend was still breathing, but she died before help arrived, Miah said, according to Cerrillo’s account.

His daughter’s left side, from her neck all the way down her back, was lacerated by small bullet fragments, and her hair was singed by gunfire. At Uvalde Memorial Hospital, doctors disinfected and bandaged the cuts but decided against removing the fragments. Miah was discharged late Tuesday evening and spent the night seized with fear, telling her father to get his gun because “he’s going to come get us.”

On Wednesday, the parents took her to another medical checkup and then to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in search of peace. They lit a candle. Two priests “prayed over her and prayed over us,” Cerrillo said. He said he still hadn’t come to terms with the tragedy.

“We figured Uvalde was safe,” he said. “Now we know it’s not safe.”

The latest revelations show the horror of a massacre so big in a town so small. The daughter of a sheriff’s deputy was among the dead. A cumbia DJ, an aviation mechanic and a pastor were all grieving slain children. Two members of a girls’ basketball team were killed and another injured. One Uvalde man lost three relatives in the shooting.

In addition to the dead, at least 17 people were wounded or injured, according to state authorities.

On Wednesday morning, Cathy Gonzalez did what she does every day — take people’s orders for coffee, sodas and tacos at Ofelia’s and cash them out — but one thing was missing.

“These kids, we knew them. We know their parents, we know their grandparents,” Gonzalez said. “We’d see them every day.”

Mireles, the slain teacher, “was a regular,” Gonzalez said. So was Mireles’ husband, a police officer who works at the high school. Other victims came in often, and Gonzalez said she often gave them quarters for the restaurant’s gumball machines.

“We bought their plate sales for baseball teams, or whatever fundraisers for school they had going on,” she said. The shooter “hurt all of us.”

More than 311,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine

According to the timeline authorities offered publicly, a first alert came from Ramos’s 66-year-old grandmother, who survived and was able to call police. She remains in critical condition after surgery. A woman who identified herself as Salvador Ramos’s mother said in a brief phone conversation that the grandmother was expected to recover.

Within minutes of shooting his grandmother, Ramos had driven the couple of blocks to Robb Elementary, where students and people in the neighborhood were on lunch break.

One lingering question is when exactly the shooting began. Authorities agree that the gunman was dead by 1 p.m. but have offered conflicting accounts as to whether the attack began around 11:30 a.m. or closer to noon. By 11:43 a.m., the school announced on Facebook that it was under lockdown, citing gunshots in the area. “The students and staff are safe in the building,” it said.

In public transmissions on a radio channel used by local EMS workers, someone said at 11:53 a.m. that a lieutenant had requested a response to the area of the school. As the response was discussed, one official was heard telling first responders: “Please, just stay back.”

The Post reviewed recordings of the channel that were published on the website Broadcastify. The public channel for EMS did not capture the transmissions for all law enforcement at the scene but indicated when information was relayed to local EMS crews.

When the attacker crashed the truck, it prompted a 911 call from a resident who added that the driver apparently had a rifle, said Travis Considine, spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety. The gunman encountered a school police officer and “they exchange gunfire,” Considine said, with the shooter wounding the officer and heading inside. On Thursday, Victor Escalon Jr., the Department of Public Safety’s South Texas regional director, said there was no encounter outside the school between the shooter and a school police officer. “He walked in unobstructed initially,” Escalon said.

The side entrance to the school should have been locked, but it was unclear whether it was or if Ramos forced it open. Escalon said Thursday that the door was apparently unlocked.

Two Uvalde police officers then showed up, Considine said, and tried to get inside, exchanging more gunfire with Ramos. Both officers were wounded, he said. The attacker then went to a fourth-grade classroom, where he barricaded himself in and “does most, if not all, of his damage.” A Border Patrol team responded to the scene, as did other law enforcement officials, who “were breaking windows and getting kids out,” Considine said.

By 12:10 p.m., a Facebook live stream recorded out the front of the school showed that police cars had established a perimeter, helicopters were flying overhead and onlookers had gathered. Seven minutes later, school authorities announced on social media there was “an active shooter at Robb Elementary.”

Shots were still being heard at 12:52 p.m., according to radio recordings. “Do not attempt to get closer,” a voice warned on the EMS channel.

After hearing gunfire, authorities said, a tactical team formed a “stack” formation and eventually breached the classroom door and killed Ramos in a shootout. Ramos was in the room for some time before police officers entered, and it was unclear whether he killed the students when he first barricaded himself inside or just before the police breached the room.

At 1:06 p.m., Uvalde Police announced on social media that the attack was over.

“We saw a little girl full of blood and the parents were screaming,” said Derek Sotelo, 26 — who runs Sotelo’s Auto Service and Tire Shop, a family-owned business that’s been in downtown Uvalde since 1950 — of a student exiting the school after Ramos was killed. “It was an ugly scene.”

Flanking Gov. Greg Abbott (R) at a news conference Wednesday, Texas law enforcement officials acknowledged a “failure” in preventing the shooting but repeatedly emphasized that quick reaction by authorities probably saved lives.

In Uvalde, population around 16,000, news of the shooting spread so quickly that dozens of people had gathered outside the cordoned-off school before the shooting was over. Most were parents or relatives of students, desperate for word that they were safe. Pleas for information popped up on Facebook, alongside photos of smiling children holding certificates from an award ceremony earlier that day.

“My son’s name is Rogelio Torres,” one father said, his face drawn, speaking to a local TV reporter. “Please, if you know something, let us know.” Within hours, Torres’s son became one of the first children confirmed dead.

Javier Cazares was on an errand a half-mile away from his 9-year-old daughter’s school when he heard about a commotion near Robb.

Within minutes, Cazares said, he and at least four other men who had children in the school were huddled near the building’s front door. Then the fathers started hearing gunfire coming from the building.

“There were five or six of [us] fathers, hearing the gunshots, and [police officers] were telling us to move back,” Cazares said. “We didn’t care about us. We wanted to storm the building. We were saying, ‘Let’s go’ because that is how worried we were, and we wanted to get our babies out.”

It wasn’t until several hours later, after his daughter never emerged from the building, that Cazares learned Jacklyn had been shot and later died at the hospital.

Maker of Uvalde shooter’s rifle posted image of child with gun before massacre

As the day wore on, the details became excruciating. Outside a local civic center that became a gathering place for families, witnesses described hearing screams as families received confirmation of children’s deaths. Some relatives were asked for DNA samples to help investigators verify identities. Images from outside the center showed red-eyed families wailing and embracing.

As the sun started to set Tuesday evening, John Juhasz stood inside the gymnasium at the Getty Street Church of Christ, welcoming people who came in to pray.

“We’re just trying to encourage each other and trying to get through this,” he said.

About a dozen people sat around plastic tables, under the fluorescent lights, to talk about what still seemed impossible to many of them. Miguelina Olivarez, 37, a nurse, said she heard about the shooting from her son and daughter, a high school senior and freshman.

“My daughter called me and said she was hiding, that they were on lockdown for an active shooter,” she said. Olivarez said she then heard that the shooting was at the elementary school.

“And I immediately thought about all of the little cousins that we have at that school,” she said. One of her cousins, a 10-year-old, was wounded and was rushed to a San Antonio hospital for surgery.

Erika Escamilla, 26, said that waiting for news about her niece and two nephews who attend the elementary school was like torture. Within a couple of hours of the shooting, they were reunited. Her niece, age 10, told Escamilla the shooting happened in the classroom next to hers.

The girl’s class was just coming in from recess when they heard a man cursing and yelling, and then gunshots. Their teacher pushed them into the classroom and told them to get down, Escamilla said. The teacher then turned off the air conditioner and the lights, and started to cover the windows with paper. When the children eventually were led to safety, Escamilla’s niece glimpsed the horrific scene in the classroom next door.

“She’s traumatized. She said she felt like she was having a heart attack,” Escamilla said. “She saw blood everywhere.”

Marcela Cabralez, a local pastor, received two calls not long after the shooting began around midday Tuesday. The first was from her daughter, who works at the school, speaking so frantically that the only decipherable message was: Check on the kids.

Cabralez was able to confirm that they were safe, but shaken — her 9-year-old granddaughter was eating lunch when the shooting began and is now fearful of sudden attacks; her grandson hid in a bathroom during the ordeal.

“They just don’t feel safe anymore,” Cabralez said.

The next call Cabralez received was from a fellow pastor who runs Hillcrest Memorial funeral home, a gathering place for traumatized children and teachers who escaped the shooting. The call was a request for help with counseling.

When she arrived at the funeral home, Cabralez said, she saw survivors rocking themselves, holding one another, covering their ears with their hands, and screaming. Others stared blankly in silence. Cabralez said she started to pray, with some of the children repeating after her.

“I tried to let them know they were safe,” she said.

Allam and Nakhlawi reported from Washington and Slater from Williamstown, Mass. Tim Craig and Eva Ruth Moravec in Uvalde; Annie Gowen in Lawrence, Kan.; Jon Swaine in New York; and Mark Berman, Silvia Foster-Frau, Devlin Barrett, Marissa J. Lang and Joyce Lee in Washington contributed to this report.