Parents were dropping their children off at Rancho Tehama Elementary School, a tiny building in a rural stretch of Northern California, when they heard the first shot. Almost immediately, two more gunshots cracked through the morning air.
It was just minutes before school was supposed to begin on Tuesday. The secretary made a snap decision: Lock down the school. She quickly ushered nearly 100 children inside from the quad and the playground, along with teachers, aides and parents, said Rick Fitzpatrick, superintendent of the Corning Union Elementary School District.
Children were still hurrying in when the gunman’s white pickup truck came tearing down the street and crashed into the school’s locked gate at 7:56 a.m. A man later identified as Kevin J. Neal jumped out, wielding a semiautomatic rifle and wearing a vest packing ammunition, authorities said.
As the head custodian looked around a corner of the building toward the sound of the crash, Neal raised his rifle and pointed it in the custodian’s direction. But video of the incident shows that the shooter struggled with the gun, which appeared to have jammed, Fitzpatrick said. By the time Neal had fixed his weapon, the last student was inside and the school was locked down.
Within 10 seconds of the last lock going into place, Neal was standing in the quad where, moments earlier, children had been playing. He began to fire.
Police said that in the hours leading up to that moment, Neal had killed his wife and hidden her body beneath the floorboards of their home. He later began a bloody rampage across this community about 135 miles north of Sacramento, ultimately killing five people and injuring several others.
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As bullets shattered the school’s windows, 32-year-old Coy Ferreira, who was dropping his daughter off and took shelter inside a classroom, said he quickly ran toward the door.
“If he’s going to come in, he’s going to come in killing me first,” Ferreira said. “It’s going to be me, and hopefully not the students . . . and I was just praying to God he wouldn’t be getting to the door.”
Neal tried to get inside the school but wasn’t able to open the doors.
Instead, he fired at the building for six agonizing minutes, shattering windows and shooting through wooden walls, authorities said.
People inside the classroom with Ferreira soon realized that one child had been shot in the chest and leg. Others were wounded by broken glass. Neal eventually became frustrated and abandoned the school, said Phil Johnston, an assistant sheriff in Tehama County.
The secretary’s decision to lock down the building — a call usually made by law enforcement officials — helped keep the bloodshed from escalating into something even more horrifying: Another mass shooting at an elementary school, one that would have erupted just weeks before the country marked five years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that left 20 children and six adults dead.
“It is monumental that that school went on lockdown,” Johnston said Wednesday. “I really, truly believe that we would have had a horrific bloodbath in that school if that school hadn’t taken the action when they did.”
Police say Neal drove around the small community of Rancho Tehama Reserve, firing for at least 25 minutes at vehicles, homes and people in his path, targeting those he had quarreled with and complete strangers alike.
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During his rampage, Neal intentionally crashed into a car and then fired at passengers as they got out, killing one, Johnston said. At another point, he shot a woman driving her children to school, seriously injuring her and wounding one of the young children in her back seat. School officials believe those were the shots heard at the nearby elementary school, triggering the lockdown.
“I really don’t know what his motive was,” Johnston said Wednesday. “I think he was just on a rampage. I think he had a desire to kill as many people as he could.”
The attacks stopped when officers rammed Neal’s car and killed him during an exchange of gunfire.
Two women embrace outside Rancho Tehama Elementary School. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
Neal’s family had long worried about his mental state, and he had a number of run-ins with law enforcement in North Carolina before moving to California a decade ago.
Relatives had sought to get him treatment for what they believed was a mental illness, according to his sister, Sheridan Orr. She described the tragedy of the past two days as her worst fear come to life.
“If you could’ve seen him in those rages,” Orr, 46, said in a telephone interview. “Anything was possible.”
Neal’s behavior escalated from a bad temper as a teenager to something more uncontrollable as he got older, Orr said. When he would call family members in a rage, they would tell him that he needed to go to a mental health facility and that he needed medication. He would always refuse and never received an official diagnosis, Orr said.
“He never should have had guns, and he should’ve been able to get mental health care,” she said.
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Their mother would break down and tell Orr that she didn’t know what else to do or how to help her son, whom she talked to every day, Orr said.
“Her life’s work has been to try to get Kevin some help and to find a way for him to be happy,” Orr said. “He had a very erratic and uncontrollable temper that made it difficult to deal with him, and so it fragmented and fractured our family for many years.”
Neal’s mother did not respond to messages seeking comment, and Orr said she was too upset to speak further about the incident. Neal’s mother had told the Associated Press that he called her Monday to say “it’s all over now” and that he was “fighting against everyone who lives in this area.”
Orr said she had not seen Neal in a decade and last spoke with him months ago. But when they were together, she said, it was horrifying to watch him spiral out of control. Something as simple as using the washing machine while he was trying to sleep could set him off.
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Police in Tehama County said neighbors had alerted them to sounds of gunfire coming from Neal’s home in the past but that he did not open the door for officers.
“He was not law enforcement-friendly,” Johnston said. Officers watched the house for a period but did not see Neal emerge.
At the time of Tuesday’s attack, Neal was out on bail for assaulting a neighbor with a deadly weapon in January, police said. That neighbor, whom police did not identify, was among those Neal killed during his rampage. Authorities have not released the name of the neighbor or other victims, although they have said no children were among the dead.
Johnston said officials recovered two semiautomatic rifles that they believe Neal illegally manufactured at his home, but it is unclear if Neal built them or modified existing weaponry. Neal was prohibited from owning, possessing or buying firearms, according to a judge’s order issued after the alleged assault. In addition to the assault, Neal was charged with other felonies including false imprisonment by violence and discharging a firearm in a “grossly negligent manner,” court records show.
When police searched Neal’s home after the incident, they found his wife’s body hidden under the floor of their home, Johnston said, shot several times.
During the investigation, neighbors told police that they believed “there was a domestic violence incident” at the home Monday, Johnston said. It was not reported to police at the time, he said, adding that such incidents were “a very common thing with this couple.”
Neal is the latest in a long line of mass shooters with histories of domestic violence charges or allegations. He is also the latest to target children, according to people who track mass killings.
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According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control advocacy group, 1 in 4 victims of mass shootings is a child. One reason, they say, is that such attacks are often rooted in domestic violence, with attackers often victimizing their own children. But as these incidents grow deadlier, some observers say killing children is a shooter’s way to increase the shock value of the attack.
Perpetrators seem to try to kill “with the highest impact, the most extreme form of violence and the biggest splash in their twisted way of looking at things,” said Ken Trump, a school security consultant. “And one of those ways, unfortunately, is looking at children and looking at schools.”
Still, it’s a sign of the times that even a tiny school in a remote area has a plan for an active shooter. Since the Columbine shootings in 1999, people take such planning seriously, having drills and procedures in place.
When Don Bridges, president of the National Association of School Resource Officers, started working in security in the mid-1990s, the majority of schools had no crisis plans, he said. At schools today, he said, “it is just a very natural process, and everyone knows that it is something we absolutely, positively have to do.”
After the shooting ended, Ferreira said, he praised his daughter for doing what she was told during the attack at the school.
“She said, ‘Daddy, you told me there would be no bad people at school,’ ” Ferreira said, “and how am I supposed to answer her?”
Julie Tate, Sandhya Somashekhar and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.