Three people, including a teacher and an 8-year-old boy, died Monday in an apparent murder-suicide at an elementary school in San Bernardino, Calif., police said, dealing another shock to a community still reeling from a terrorist attack two years ago that claimed the lives of 14 people.
Police say the gunman, Cedric Anderson, 53, entered a classroom at North Park Elementary School on Monday morning, raised a large caliber revolver, and, without saying a word, opened fire on the teacher, Karen Elaine Smith, also 53, who was his estranged wife.
Police said they arrived at the scene about 10:30 a.m. to find that Anderson had turned the gun on himself, as well.
Fifteen students and two aides were also in the room, a special education class with a mix of first- through fourth-graders. Two were near Anderson when she was shot and were struck by the gunfire. One of the students, 8-year-old Jonathan Martinez, was airlifted to a nearby hospital but died from his injuries. The second student, a 9-year-old boy whose name was being withheld, was in stable condition at a hospital, police said.
Capt. Ron Maass of the San Bernardino police said the children are not believed to have been targets but rather they were “unfortunate recipients of injuries.”
The incident comes as school shootings have faded from the headlines but remain a concern for parents and school administrators. There have been a dozen incidents involving the discharge of a gun at U.S. schools and colleges this year, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that tracks gun violence, although this appeared to be the first murder.
The shooting is reminiscent of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, when a gunman killed 20 children and six staff members before killing himself. But for the San Bernardino community, the flashback was to 2015, when two terrorists opened fire at the Inland Regional Center there, killing 14 and wounding 22 in one of the deadliest such attacks since Sept. 11, 2001.
Joshua Smith, Smith’s 30-year-old son from a previous relationship, said in an email to The Washington Post that his mother was a “genuinely loving and caring person” who was devoted to her Christian faith.
Anderson, he said, seemed “a bit different” at first, but later revealed himself to be “paranoid and possessive.” The behavior led his mother to leave Anderson just months after the couple married in January.
“She loved life, her career, and especially her children,” said Joshua Smith, one of Karen Smith’s four children. “It seems surreal that she is gone, that I will no longer hear her voice and that she won’t see her granddaughter grow up. It hurts, but I know she is with God now.”
San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said Anderson had a criminal history that included domestic violence, weapons and drug charges. It’s not clear if any of those charges involved Smith.
Anderson’s recent Facebook posts centered on religion and his relationship with Smith. “Date Night!!!” he wrote above a photo of him smiling with Smith. In other posts, he called her “an angel” and “a pure spirit.”
In one post about “Greenleaf,” a drama about a corrupt black pastor and his scandal-plagued family on the Oprah Winfrey Network, he wrote about his disillusionment with the church.
“After watching Greenleaf with my wonderful little wife,” he wrote, “she finally understands me and why I feel the way I do about many Black Churches and so called Pastors, especially those to whom Church is their entitlement to the family business and community money pot.”
He concluded the post by saying he prays for such people “and keep my guns close!”
A school district spokeswoman said that the city’s schools increased security measures after the 2015 terrorist attack. In that incident, a married couple entered a venue hosting a Christmas party for county public health workers and opened fire. The two were later killed in a shootout with San Bernardino police.
“Once the school bell rings, the only entry point into a campus is the main school office, where visitors have to sign in and receive a visitor’s pass,”said district spokeswoman Maria Garcia.
Anderson stopped by the school office after he entered the school Monday morning and told administrators he needed to drop something off to his wife, Burguan said.
“That is not uncommon for a spouse to be able to gain access to a school campus to meet with their other spouse,” he said.
Authorities said there was no indication that the gun was visible when Anderson entered the classroom.
A frantic scene unfolded at the school Monday, as information trickled out about the incident. Parents were told not to come to the school but rather to wait at a nearby high school, where they were told to present identification to police in order to reunite with their children. But the children were evacuated to a third location, a college campus, as police interviewed potential witnesses and notified the victims’ families.
Television stations in Southern California carried aerial footage showing children emerging hand in hand from North Park, then boarding school buses destined for a local college campus.
Eleven-year-old Jeanette Adams said students were rushed out of her sixth-grade class after they were told there had been a shooting. She wasn’t able to call her mother until later when she borrowed a friend’s cell phone.
Her mother, meanwhile, had been panicking as news spread about the attack.
“I was scared; I was crying; I was angry,” her mother, Jeanette Gordan, said. “But when I got that phone call that my daughter was alright, it was like having her again for the first time.”
North Park Elementary enrolls about 530 children, the majority of whom are Latino and three-quarters of whom are poor, according to data from the San Bernardino City Unified School District. Officials said the school will be closed for two days.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has said it should be up to states and local governments whether guns should be banned from schools, issued a statement Monday condemning the recent shooting as a “horrible act.”
“As a mother and grandmother, today’s senseless violence is a tragedy no parent should ever have to face,” DeVos said. “I ask everyone to join me in keeping all the victims and those impacted in your prayers.”
In a news conference early in the day, San Bernardino Mayor R. Carey Davis somberly recalled the way San Bernardino residents united after the 2015 terrorist attack. In the wake of another violent tragedy, the community will again show that it is “resilient and can deal with tragedy, disaster, just as effectively as any other community in the United States,” he said.
There have been 220 school shootings in the United States since 2013, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. The group reported that, on an average day in the United States, seven children and teenagers ages 19 or under are killed with guns.
There were 48 school shootings in the United States in 2016, an average of just under one incident a week, according to statistics compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety. The shooting in San Bernardino is the 12th in 2017.
Peter Holley, Wesley Lowery and Alice Crites contributed to this report. William Dauber reported from San Bernardino, Calif.