People took cover under tables and smashed windows in a desperate attempt to escape from a crowded Southern California bar where a gunman opened fire Wednesday night, killing 12 people, including a sheriff’s sergeant who responded to the call for help.
The gunfire began about 11:15 p.m. during a college night party at the Borderline Bar & Grill, said Capt. Garo Karedjian, a spokesman for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office. Many in the crowd came from local colleges such as Pepperdine, Moorpark and Cal State Channel Islands.
The attacker, identified as a 28-year-old Marine Corps veteran from the area, was found dead in an office at the bar after shooting himself, investigators said.
Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean said his agency received multiple calls of shots being fired at the bar, which has a large dance hall, pool room and eating and drinking area. About 150 to 200 people were inside at the time, Dean said.
“It’s a horrific scene in there,” Dean told a news conference in the parking lot of the bar.
Minutes after the first rounds were fired, sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus, 54, and a California Highway Patrol officer went in to respond to the gunshots. Helus, a 29-year veteran looking forward to retirement soon, was speaking with his wife on the phone when he told her he needed to respond to an emergency.
“He went in to save lives,” Dean said, his voice cracking. “He went in to save other people.”
There were about six off-duty police officers inside the bar from several different agencies. Dean said it appears they took action to protect others and help them escape.
“I’ve already talked to a parent who came up and said, ‘They stood in front of my daughter,'” said Dean.
Witnesses told The Associated Press the hooded gunman used a smoke bomb and was wearing all black with his face partly covered. He first fired on a person working at the door, then appeared to open fire at random.
The shooter was identified as 28-year-old Ian David Long, who served in the Marine Corps from August 2008 to March 2013 and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. Deputies were searching his Thousand Oaks house early Thursday in connection with the shooting. Neighbors told NBC4 he lived at the home with his mother.
The weapon was a legally purchased Glock 21 .45-caliber handgun equipped with an extended magazine, which is illegal in California, Dean said. He added that the department has had “several contacts” with Long over the years. The most recent was in April when he was irate and acting irrationally, prompting a mental health crisis intervention team’s involvement, Dean said. He was not taken into custody.
It is believed the gunman shot himself, he added. The body was found in an office next to the entrance.
Some witnesses reported breaking through windows and ducking under tables to escape the fusillade. Sarah Rose DeSon of Whittier, a communications major at Cal State Channel Islands in Camarillo, was celebrating a friend’s birthday at the bar when she heard the gunfire and noticed what appeared to be a smoke bomb.
“All I remember was standing there with my friend and I heard the shots,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I saw him. I’ll never get that picture out of my head. We dropped, heard gunshots, a lot of gunshots.
“Everyone was under the table so it was hard to get under there. By the grace of God I got to the front door.”
She ran down the stairs, got in a car, and circled the area, yelling her friend’s name. She found her friend safe, hiding in the bushes.
A bomb squad was combing through the scene after some reported smoke bombs going off during the gunfire. There was no word on what motivated the shooting.
Mitchel Hunter, 19, from Simi Valley, said he saw the gunman. He said he had a short-barreled semi-automatic pistol with a big magazine.
He said he emptied the magazine and reloaded. The shooter was armed with a single handgun, according to a law enforcement source.
“I saw him walk in,” Hunter said. “And he started shooting.”
Hunter said his friend, Tim Munson, 19, also from Simi Valley, was hospitalized.
He didn’t know his condition. Hunter said he heard some 20 shots and it seemed to take awhile before the police arrived.
“It took forever to get the cops there,” he said.
Carl Edgar, a regular at the bar, said his mind was spiraling out of control.
“I’m grateful I wasn’t there, but at the same time I wish I could’ve been there to help,” Edgar said. “I don’t have enough hands to count how many friends I have in there tonight.
“It’s been a bad night. Wednesdays (are) the most popular because it’s college night, just a bunch of lively kids, different colleges all the way from Ventura, all the way down to the Valley.”
Edgar said his friends are OK, but other family members were still waiting for word on their loved ones, including Jason Coffman. His 22-year-old son Cody was still missing Thursday morning.
“I’m in the dark. They don’t have any information here,” Coffman said at a family reunification center. “We’re all freaking out. I don’t think his mom could do the waiting thing here. Hospitals are saying nothing. They’re chaotic right now, too.”
Coffman said he plans to visit hospital, searching for his son.
The shooting came one day before Sheriff Dean planned to retire after 41 years of service. Bill Ayub will assume the post Saturday.
The massacre was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States since 17 classmates and teachers were gunned down at a Parkland, Florida school nine months ago. It also came less than two weeks after a gunman killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.