ODESSA, Tex. — The death toll in a mass shooting in West Texas continued to rise Sunday, as officials struggled to understand why a man would open fire on strangers miles apart on a quiet Labor Day weekend.
But they’re still trying to understand what sparked the violence, the second mass shooting in Texas during August.
According to officials, police attempted to pull over Seth Ator’s vehicle on Saturday afternoon for a routine traffic stop after receiving several complaints about his erratic driving on Interstate 20, a highway that connects the two cities.
When Texas Department of Public Safety officials signaled for Ator to stop, he opened fire.
Ator used a military-style rifle and shot one of the troopers. He then fled the scene, driving west on the highway while shooting at people on foot and in vehicles.
He appeared to fire randomly at the pedestrians and drivers he encountered.
Among the victims was Edwin Peregrino, 25, slain on his parents’ front lawn in Odessa. According to his older sister, Peregrino heard gunshots and ran outside to investigate. He was killed as the gunman sped past.
Another victim, 15-year-old Leilah Hernandez, was out shopping for a truck with her parents and brother when she was killed. Joseph Griffith, 40, was shot and killed while waiting at a traffic light with his wife and two children.
“This maniac pulled up next to him and shot him, took away his life, murdered my baby brother. Like nothing,” said Carla Byrne, Griffith’s older sister. “We are so broken.”
At one point, Ator hijacked a U.S. Postal Service vehicle in Odessa, killing driver Mary Granados.
After a chaotic several minutes, police pursued Ator to the parking lot of the Cinergy movie theater in Odessa, where he exchanged fire with officers and was killed. On Sunday, officials suggested that he might have been planning to continue his attack at the theater.
Skyler Flores, 22, was inside the theater when the shootout occurred. She said moviegoers were evacuated from the back of the theater and into an open field, then told to get down onto the dirt.
“It felt insane,” Flores said.
Investigators are searching for a motive in the shooting. Ator lost his job on the day of the attack, but investigators do not necessarily view that as the motivation, said one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.
They are exploring whether Ator’s mental health might have played a role, the official said. It was not immediately clear whether Ator had a diagnosed condition. He previously had been charged with criminal trespass and evading arrest, according to a public records search, plus two traffic misdemeanors.
At a Sunday news conference, Odessa Police Chief Michael Gerke said officials are investigating how the shooter acquired his weapon.
Gerke declined to identify Ator by name. “I am not naming the subject,” Gerke said at the news conference held at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin on Sunday. “I refuse to. I am not going to give him any notoriety.”
He said officials don’t think this was an act of domestic terrorism.
The police chief also refused to describe a timeline of events. “It’s a very chaotic situation,” he said, that is “all being pieced together.” Police and FBI officers are investigating at least 15 crime scenes. Amid the mayhem, the Midland Police Department warned about two possible shooters. Officials said that error was caused by the gunman switching vehicles.
Among those injured were at least three police officers and 17-month-old Anderson Davis, who was hit in the chest by shrapnel. Family members say she has a hole in her lower lip and tongue and that her front teeth were knocked out. The child is in stable condition, according to Haylee Wilkerson, a friend of the family.
“She did come out of surgery and she is doing great, and they may let her go home today,” Wilkerson said. She said the child’s mother is “still in shock.”
“They’re an amazing family. You don’t ever think something like this will happen to somebody you know personally,” Wilkerson said. “All they want was for their baby to be better.”
On Saturday, Odessa and Midland were gripped by fear. By Sunday, the mood had shifted from anxiety to mourning. Across the state, flags were lowered to half-staff. In Odessa, neighbors donated blood and restaurants offered free meals to first responders.
On Sunday night, about 1,000 people gathered for a prayer vigil at the university, including Odessa Mayor David Turner and Midland Mayor Jerry Morales. The spot was near one of the intersections where shots were fired.
Turner thanked the first responders and assured the crowd that both cities are doing everything they can to ensure residents’ safety. He confirmed that Permian Basin law enforcement officials were working 15 scenes on Saturday. “At that time, we saw the very worst of humanity, but we also saw the best … as citizens ran into danger to help their fellow man.”
Morales told the crowd that Midland and Odessa had shown that they could come together and that Midland was there to provide support. “We are one … we are Permian strong!” he said before leading the crowd in the Lord’s Prayer.
Several clergy members from various faiths led prayers in English and Spanish.
Several hundred people stood in line to get #PermianStrong T-shirts that were being made by art students at the university. “This was our response to the last 24 hours of tragedy,” professor Chris Stanley told The Washington Post.
Saturday’s mass shooting was Texas’s second during August. A gunman killed 22 people and injured dozens in a massacre at a shopping area in El Paso on Aug. 3.
At Sunday’s news conference, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) made a reference to the El Paso attack and other mass shootings that have rocked the state in recent years. In 2017, 26 people were killed by a gunman at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history. He also mentioned a school shooting in Santa Fe and a 2016 shooting of police officers in Dallas.
“The status quo in Texas is unacceptable,” he said Sunday. “Action is needed.”
The scene after a gunman shoots over 20 people in Odessa, Tex.
Christopher Combs, a special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Antonio Division, said nearly 200 federal agents are on the ground in the area, assisting local officials.
He said they would stay as long as they are needed and “we will then get ready to go to the next active shooter.”
It’s “an unfortunate statement to make,” he said, “but it seems like that’s what we do. We respond to one after another of these horrible events.”
Matt Zapotosky, Wesley Lowery, Michael Brice-Saddler, Hannah Knowles, Julie Tate and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.