THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Using a smoke bomb and a handgun, a hooded former Marine dressed all in black opened fire during college night at a country music bar in Southern California, killing 12 people and sending hundreds fleeing in panic before apparently taking his own life, authorities said Thursday.
Authorities said the motive for the attack Wednesday night was under investigation.
The killer was identified as Ian David Long, a 28-year-old veteran who authorities said had an episode of erratic behavior last spring that was thought to be post-traumatic stress disorder because of his military background.
Patrons at the bar screamed in fear, shouted "Get down!" and used barstools to smash second-floor windows and jump to safety as gunfire erupted at the Borderline Bar & Grill, a hangout popular with students from nearby California Lutheran University. The dead included 11 people inside the bar and a sheriff's sergeant who was the first officer inside the door, Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean said.
"It's a horrific scene in there," Dean said in the parking lot. "There's blood everywhere."
The killer deployed a smoke device and used a .45-caliber handgun, a law enforcement official told The Associated Press. The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
It was the deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. since 17 students and teachers were killed at a Parkland, Florida, high school nine months ago. It also came less than two weeks after a gunman massacred 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. That, in turn, closely followed the series of pipe bombs mailed to critics of President Donald Trump.
Trump praised police for their "great bravery" in the California attack and said, "God bless all of the victims and families of the victims." He ordered flags flown at half-staff in honor of the victims.
Dean said his department had several previous contacts with Long, including a call to his home in April, when deputies found him angry and acting irrationally because of what authorities said might have been PTSD. The sheriff said a mental health crisis team was called at the time and concluded Long did not need to be taken into custody.
Dean said the other prior encounters were a traffic accident and an incident in which Long was the victim of a battery at a bar.
As for why he attacked the bar, "there's no indication that he targeted the employees. We haven't found any correlation," the sheriff said. "Maybe there was a motive for this particular night, but we have no information leading to that at all."
The gunman was tall and wearing all black with a hood and his face partly covered, witnesses told TV stations. He first shot a security guard standing outside, then went in and opened fire inside the nightclub, the sheriff said.
"I dropped to the floor," Sarah Rose DeSon told ABC's "Good Morning America." ''A friend yelled, 'Everybody down!' We were hiding behind tables trying to keep ourselves covered."
Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Helus and a passing highway patrolman arrived at the Borderline around 11:20 p.m. in response to several 911 calls, heard gunfire and went inside, the sheriff said.
Helus was immediately hit with multiple gunshots, Dean said. The highway patrolman pulled Helus out, then waited as a SWAT team and scores more officers arrived. Helus died early Thursday at a hospital.
By the time they entered the bar again, the gunfire had stopped, according to the sheriff. They found 12 people dead inside, including the gunman, who was discovered in office and had apparently shot himself, the sheriff said.
"There's no doubt that they saved lives by going in there and engaging with the suspect," said Dean, who was set to retire on Friday. He praised the slain officer — a close friend — as a hero: "He went in there to save people and paid the ultimate price."
Shootings of any kind are extremely rare in Thousand Oaks, a city of about 130,000 people about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Los Angeles, just across the county line.
The Borderline, which includes a large dance hall along with several smaller areas for eating and drinking, was holding its regular "College Country Nights" Wednesday night when the attack took place.
The bar is also close to several other universities, including California State University Channel Islands in Camarillo, Pepperdine University in Malibu and Moorpark College in Moorpark.