Even as mass shootings become more common across the nation, the rural community of Aztec in northern New Mexico never believed one would happen at their own high school, but they did prepare for the possibility. And even though the attack was stopped before it could claim many victims, it has still shaken the residents of the town — 140 miles northwest of Albuquerque — to their core.
But as more details emerge about the attackers’ actions in the school Thursday morning, the two students who were killed, and the police’s response, stories of heroism are coming out, too. Officials from various agencies gave the details at a Friday morning press conference.
The shooter had a brush with the law less than two years ago that alerted the FBI to the fact that he was a potential mass shooter. The suspect was a high school dropout, worked at a local gas station, lived with his parents, and enjoyed playing video games that involved shooting.
FBI SAC Terry Wade spoke to the press, saying, “We did have contact with the subject in March of 2016. The FBI opened an assessment after we received a tip about comments that he made on an online gaming forum…. The FBI undertook extensive database reviews to find information on him at that time. We then coordinated with local law enforcement and interviewed him, along with some of his family. The assessment was subsequently closed after it was determined that no crime had been committed and there was no lawful justification to undertake federal investigative steps.”
Asked for clarity on what the comments were that the suspect made on the gaming forum, Wade replied, “Generally speaking, it was, ‘If you’re going to conduct a mass shooting, does anybody know about cheap assault rifles?’”
Authorities could not find any ties between him and other organizations. When questioned by the FBI at his home, the shooter said he was merely trolling people on the internet in order to get a reaction. Family members said he was known “for making outlandish statements.” The shooter, who had no criminal record, did not have any guns when interviewed by the FBI and didn’t give them any reason to arrest him. He legally purchased a Glock 9mm handgun at a later date.
Investigators have discovered a message — on a thumb drive on the shooter’s body — that he wrote early in the morning before the shooting.
The message said, “If things go according to plan, today would be when I die. I’ll wait until the school buses are detected and head out on foot disguised as a student. I’d go somewhere and gear up, then hold a class hostage and go ape----. Then blow my brains out.”
The shooter followed most of his plan to the letter. According to New Mexico State Police Chief Steve Kassetas, the shooter went to the second-floor bathroom where he got ready for the attack. Student Francisco “Paco” Fernandez walked in on the shooter and was immediately killed. That’s when the shooter left the bathroom, running into student Casey Jordan Marquez, and “immediately shot her dead.”
Authorities think the victims were not targeted but were just “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Both Paco and Casey were considered top students, and Casey was preparing for a trip to Florida to be one of the national cheerleaders for the Orange Bowl. Staff sprung into action after hearing the initial shots. Heal explained that the shooter next “walked up and down the hallway firing randomly.”
San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christensen read a statement saying, “Aztec Schools did an amazing job of locking down the rooms and following the training of an active shooter. Their swift action saved a whole bunch of lives and a lot of devastation.”
According to KOAT 7, student Garrett Parker heard a loud banging outside his class. As soon as the class realized what they were hearing was gunshots, the students did what they’d been taught to do and ran to a corner of the room that was not in line-of-sight of the locked door. The shooter was later found dead right outside that classroom’s door.
Christensen spoke about other heroes who saved students’ lives, saying, “One person, in particular, her name is Cathleen Potter. She’s a 74-year-old substitute teacher. She had 16 kids in the classroom with her. When she heard the shooting going on, she didn’t have a key to lock the door because she’s a substitute. So she took all the kids and put them in an office area...and they barricaded the door with a couch. The shooter came into that room, was hollering “I know you’re in there,” and fired multiple, multiple rounds through the walls, hitting no one.”
The teacher had sufficiently sheltered the students down on the ground as the bullets flew over their heads.
“We’re blessed. The good Lord was watching with angels over those kids and that teacher,” Christensen said. “Thomas Hill, the custodian, he heard the shots, spotted the shooter, and followed him, screaming at the shooter as he pursued him, yelling to teachers to lock down. He continued to yell and to follow and to warn others. These people are true heroes that are right here in our community. These are just a couple of them.”
After the shooter left Potter’s classroom, he walked down the hallway and appears to have taken his own life by shooting himself in the head. Aztec Police Department Chief Mike Heal and three other officers were entering the school at that time by shooting through a glass window because the front door was locked.
Investigators believe the shooter wanted notoriety, which is why they are not releasing his name. They have also not released more details for fear that they will taint the interviews they’re still conducting with witnesses.
Please continue to pray for this community and for the families of the victims as they try to heal from this incident. In other news, President Trump has announced steps he’s taking to help California fight their devastating wildfires.