NEWTON, Kan. — A gunman who fatally shot three people and injured 14 others on Thursday began his rampage not long after he was served with a restraining order aimed at barring him from contact with someone he had abused, authorities said Friday.
Police believe the order may have led to the bloodshed that erupted on Thursday afternoon, when a lone shooter fired for nearly half an hour — first on a highway here in Newton, then at the lawn mower factory in nearby Hesston, where he worked — before he was killed in a shootout with a police officer.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton said during a news conference Friday. Walton said the gunman here was not aiming at any specific co-workers. “He was randomly shooting people,” he said.
Authorities have identified Cedric Larry Ford, 38, of Newton, as the shooter, Walton said. Later on Friday, Walton named the three people killed in the shooting: Renee Benjamin, 30; Joshua Higbee, 31; and Brian Sadowsky, 44.
Walton said that the shooting spree was only stopped when a lone police officer headed inside the factory and killed the gunman, helping avoid a far greater loss of life.
About 90 minutes before the first shots were fired, Ford was served with a “protection from abuse” order while he was working at Excel Industries, Walton said.
The Harvey County Sheriff’s deputies who gave him the order said Ford seemed “upset, but nothing greater than anybody else who gets served” with such an order, Walton added.
Protection from abuse orders are restraining orders issued in cases where there is a prior relationship between two people and abuse was involved, and they are generally used in domestic violence incidents, said Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
These orders can prohibit a person from contacting a victim of abuse or their children and, in some cases, bar someone from their home. Walton said he could not go into detail about what was in this particular order.
Hesston Police Sgt. Chris Carter said Friday that he served Ford with a temporary protective order from neighboring Sedgwick County on Feb. 5 at the plant.
Officers serving similar orders are largely unaware of the contents of a case, Carter said, but the orders are required by law to be hand-delivered. When he was served, Ford “was as normal as anyone I’ve ever served a [protective order] to,” Carter said. “Nothing unusual.”
The shooting spree came just five days after a gunman in Kalamazoo, Mich., killed six people in an apparently random rampage. It added this small, blue-collar community just north of Wichita to the ranks of American communities shaken by a mass shooting, a list that in the last year has grown to include San Bernardino, Calif.; Roseburg, Ore.; and Charleston, S.C.
“Everybody says it can’t happen here, but … it happened here,” Walton said at an earlier news conference. “This is a fairly peaceful community. And to have something like this is tragic.”
— Chris Haxel (@ChrisHaxel) February 26, 2016
Investigators were initially unsure how Ford obtained the weapons, given his criminal record in Kansas as well as Florida; as a convicted felon, he could not possess guns.
On Friday, federal authorities filed a criminal charge against Sarah T. Hopkins, 28, of Newton, Kan., alleging that she transferred the guns to Ford last year despite knowing he was a convicted felon.
She bought the Glock semi-automatic handgun and the Zastava Serbia, AK-47-type semi-automatic rifle that Ford had when he was killed, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said in an affidavit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas.
Hopkins told law enforcement officers after the shooting that she and Ford had been in a relationship and lived together in Newton before she moved out last July, the affidavit said. She told authorities that she went to the home the following month with police officers to get the guns, but said she returned them to Ford after he threatened her.
Hopkins, who could face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, could not be reached for comment Friday.
A day after the gunfire, there was a lone memorial sign in front of the Excel facility and the plant remained closed.
Employees who witnessed the shooting told The Post that Ford worked on the plant’s paint line and, according to co-workers, he was worried about getting fired.
Ford had a history of run-ins with the law, including a recent allegation of assaulting a live-in girlfriend, and a Facebook page that appeared to belong to him showed a fondness for guns, cars and children. Neighbors said they had heard rumors about domestic disputes at Ford’s home and described him as unnervingly quiet.
A timeline offered by police showed a violent wave veering inexorably back to the plant that Ford had left after being served with the order.
Police were first told about a shooting in Newton, where a man driving a car was shot in the shoulder, Walton said.
Edna Bartel Decker, a Hesston resident, said she was in her car driving home when the gunman drove past her, hit his brakes and got out of his car with a gun.
“I was blocked and couldn’t go around,” she wrote in a message to The Post. “He motioned me to get out, I refused, so he lifted up the gun to shoot. I immediately laid down on the seat as he shot. It went through my driver window and exited out the back passenger window.”
The gunman then drove onto Highway 81 and toward oncoming traffic, causing a car to veer off the road and into a ditch, where he shot and injured the driver before climbing into that vehicle and driving toward Excel, Walton said.
After taking that car, Ford shot someone in the parking lot before heading inside and shooting another 14 people, killing three of them, Walton said. Some of these people remained in critical condition Friday, Walton added, though he did not specify the number.
A Hesston police officer went inside the facility and shot and killed Ford during an exchange of gunfire near the front offices of Excel.
Walton said the rampage could have been worse, because Ford was carrying an assault rifle and a pistol when he entered a building with as many as 300 people inside.
“This man was not going to stop shooting,” Walton said of Ford. “The only reason he stopped shooting is because that officer stopped the shooting.”
Authorities say the first call about gunshots came in just before 5 p.m. on Thursday about the initial shooting. The gunman was fatally wounded at 5:23 p.m. by a Hesston police officer who has not been identified by law enforcement officials.
“Our hearts go out to our employees and their families who are enduring this tragedy,” Paul Mullet, chief executive of Excel, said at the news conference Friday.
The other workers at Excel were in the middle of an otherwise routine factory shift, employees recalled.
Michael Dellinger, 20, said he and his co-workers had just gotten out of a safety meeting when he heard an unfamiliar popping noise.
Dellinger works on an assembly line in the plant’s large, open main room and is accustomed to loud sounds, so he didn’t think anything of it. But then he said he saw Ford standing in the open doorway to the parking lot, holding a gun.
Ford started firing at the paint line, Dellinger said, and then at the assembly line next to Dellinger’s.
“Then he turned toward our line,” Dellinger recalled in a telephone interview. “I grabbed the guy next to me and said, ‘Run, there’s a gun.’ ”
He and his co-worker ran toward the closest door. Dellinger said he could hear people yelling, and felt bullets ricochet off of factory equipment around him. At some point, he removed the safety earplugs he wore to protect his hearing from ordinary factory cacophony. He wanted to be able to hear what was going on.
When John Burnett, another assembly line worker, saw people running toward the plant’s back door, he sprinted after them. As he ran toward the exit, however, he stopped to help an injured co-worker who was clutching his back in pain.
“I could tell there was blood,” Burnett said in a phone interview. “He was a painter, so he was wearing a paint suit, and they are white, and I noticed there was red all over his paint suit.”
Burnett helped the injured man outside, where others worked to stop the bleeding and called 911.
Austin McCaskill, who works on motor hydraulics at Excel, described the shooter “running through the plant just going crazy with a gun … just randomly shooting people.” After running outside with others, McCaskill, 40, said they saw “probably two or three people laying in the road.”
“One guy got shot in the back,” he said. “There was one guy who was shot in the leg. There were random people everywhere who had gunshot wounds.”
Brian Johnson, who said he worked with Ford in the paint department at Excel, said he had gotten into an argument with Ford over the phone on Wednesday night and he believed that Ford was trying to kill him.
The two fought about “stupid stuff” after Ford called Johnson on the phone Wednesday, Johnson said — mostly related to Ford believing that he was going to get fired. Johnson said he expected them to work out their differences when he got to work on Thursday.
“But when I got there at 4:30 p.m. he was gone. Went to go pick up his guns, I guess,” Johnson said while sitting in the waiting room at Via Christi Hospital-St. Francis in Wichita and awaiting word on the conditions of friends.
About half an hour after arriving at work, Johnson said, he heard gunshots and his boss yelling that someone had a gun. He dashed for the entrance, and as he ran he saw Ford firing his weapon, he said. While police said Ford appeared to be firing randomly, Johnson said his co-workers told him that Ford fired at him repeatedly, missing every time.
“Every foot track that I took, he was right behind me,” he recalled “all the way through the plant.”
Asked if he thought Ford had targeted him, Johnson replied, “Absolutely. I do.”
Public records show that Ford used to live in Florida and had an extensive criminal record, including convictions for burglary and carrying a concealed firearm.
Earlier this month, Ford was accused of assault by a live-in girlfriend.
“He placed me in a chokehold from behind,” she wrote in a request for a protection order filed Feb. 5, according to the Wichita Eagle. “I couldn’t breathe.”
She added, in all capital letters: “He is an alcoholic, violent, depressed. It’s my belief he is in desperate need of medical & psychological help!”
Ford lived alone, according to Ernie Carson, the property manager at his home, and other neighbors.
When Ford filled out a rental application, he was asked about his criminal history and “admitted that he had done wrong, but that was all back in Florida and he came up here to turn his life around,” Carson said.
“Everybody makes mistakes, but you can’t expect something like this,” Carson said Friday.
Carson said that shortly before the shooting, a neighbor of Ford’s called him to complain that he was playing his music too loudly. When Carson went to her unit before heading to Ford’s, he saw Ford walk out of his front door with two guns — the long gun and pistol authorities would later say he had with him during the shooting.
“She said it was the biggest gun she’d ever seen,” Carson said. “I told her to call the police, but I don’t know if she did.”
Before Ford lived in his last home, he lived with a woman and their daughter, according to Andrea Jaso, who said she lived across the street from him until he left without warning in November 2015.
She said her boyfriend was friendly with Ford, saying that the man they knew “would never have done something like this.”
Jaso’s oldest daughter and son-in-law work the first shift at the plant, and she has friends and cousins who work during the second shift, when the rampage occurred.
“Newton, Hesston, they’re small towns,” Jaso said. “Everyone knows each other or where people work or live.”
Dellinger, his former coworker, said he used to take smoke breaks with Ford, who he described as a smiling, laughing man who nevertheless gave Dellinger “a bad gut feeling.”
“There was something that was real off on him,” he said. “I couldn’t quite point it out.”
This article ran in the local Hesston newspaper literally the morning of Thursday's shootings. pic.twitter.com/e1ntPvE1Jq
— Chris Haxel (@ChrisHaxel) February 26, 2016
In some ways, the violence in Kansas seemed to fit a pattern established by other mass shootings. A lone gunman targeting a place he knew — in this case, his workplace — eventually slain by police officers.
But in other ways, this latest rampage differed. The media attention that has been so overwhelming during and after shootings in Colorado Springs or Oregon was vastly lessened here.
No mention was made of the attack during the CNN/Telemundo Republican presidential debate Thursday night in Houston, where the five remaining candidates sparred while Walton was outlining the death toll for reporters.
On Friday, President Obama mentioned the shooting in Kansas as well as the gun violence in Michigan last weekend.
“These acts may not dominate the news today but these are two more communities in America torn apart by grief,” Obama said during remarks in Florida.
Obama said he wanted to comment on the shootings “because otherwise these sorts of shootings become routine.”
“We cannot become numb to this,” he added. “This happens far too many times and affected far too many innocent Americans.”
Life along this stretch of Interstate 135 in Hesston was stalled by the outbreak of violence. Hesston College, located just blocks from the plant, was locked down for several hours on Thursday.
The local high school became a staging area for a few hundred plant employees who needed to be interviewed by police. Family members and friends thronged outside the hospitals in Newton and Wichita where victims had been taken, anxiously awaiting word that their loved ones were safe.
— Will Kunkel (@KWCHWill) February 26, 2016
McCaskill said he did not know Ford personally, but had also heard that he “was having problems, like his girlfriend broke up with him,” McCaskill said.
“He was having a bunch of problems,” McCaskill continued. “But you don’t need to go blasting up a plant because you’ve got problems.”
Haxel reported from Newton. Berman reported from Washington. Steve Mufson in Jacksonville, Fla., Jacob Bogage in Newton and Adam Goldman, Sarah Kaplan, Michael Miller, Yanan Wang and Justin Wm. Moyer in Washington contributed to this report.
[This story has been updated.]