A gunman dressed in black killed five people in a string of shootings through the seaside California town of Santa Monica on Friday before he was shot dead by police in a community college library, law enforcement officials said.
Five other people were wounded, one of them critically, in the shooting rampage that unfolded just a few miles from where President Barack Obama was speaking at a political fundraiser elsewhere in Santa Monica, west of Los Angeles.
As the gunman lay dead on a sidewalk outside the Santa Monica College library, a second individual was taken into custody near the campus and described by police as a “person of interest” in the case. He was later released.
Police initially said six people were killed by the gunman, who was described only as a man between the ages of 25 and 30.
Obama completed his remarks at his event without interruption and left for a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping near the desert resort community of Palm Springs. The bloodshed did not appear to be related to Obama's visit and the Secret Service called it a “local police matter.”
The killing spree marked the latest in string of high-profile mass shootings over the past year, including a December attack in Connecticut that killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school and a shooting last July at a suburban Denver movie theater that killed 12 people.
Those attacks have helped reignite a national debate over gun violence in America that spurred Obama and his fellow Democrats to push for expanded background checks for gun buyers – an initiative defeated in the U.S. Senate.
Santa Monica Police said the carnage began at a home east of the college, where the gunman shot two people dead before apparently torching the home. The Los Angeles Times, citing law enforcement sources, reported that the first two victims were believed to be the gunman's father and brother.
“I was in my apartment when I heard five to seven shots, then a pause, then two shots and I knew it was guns,” neighbor Janet Carter told Reuters.
Carter said she walked outside and saw a woman sitting in her car with blood trickling from her head. One of the windows in the car had been blown out, and the woman was lucid and on her cell phone talking to her husband.
Carter said she and another neighbor placed cold compresses around the woman's shoulder area, where there was blood, and she noticed in the meantime that an old wood house across the street was consumed by flames.
Santa Monica Police Sergeant Richard Lewis said that after leaving the home, the gunman carjacked a woman and ordered her to drive. Along the way he fired at least several rounds at a city bus, wounding three people.
Arriving at the college, the gunman opened fire on a red sport utility vehicle in a staff parking lot, killing the driver and critically wounding his passenger, Lewis said.
The gunman, who was armed with an AR-15 style rifle and at least one handgun, then shot and killed another person at the college before he died in an exchange of gunfire with police, Lewis said.
He said investigators had not yet determined a motive for the rampage, adding: “It's a horrific event that everybody wishes never happened.”
Students at the campus library described a scene of pandemonium as the sounds of gunfire rang out, sending some scurrying for cover.
One student inside the library, Cyrus Jabari, 19, said that through a window he could see a man dressed in black with a buzz-style haircut carrying what appeared to be an assault rifle.
“The only thing between me and him was a glass door,” he told Reuters.
Rabbi Eli Levitansky, who runs Santa Monica College’s Chabad club, said he has been in touch with student locked down on campus and had not heard of any Jewish students wounded in the attacks as of 2:30 Friday afternoon.
“I am actually in contact with them [the Jewish students on lockdown] right now. I’m on the phone with them, pretty much every other minute, speaking to them, calming them,” Levitansky told the Journal this afternoon.
When the shooting occurred, Levitansky was walking en route to campus from his home as part of a regular ritual he does four times a week to help students on campus wrap tefillin. He lives only two blocks away. The sight of students running and the swift arrival of campus police alerted him to the shooting. He said he did not hear gunshots.
Levitansky described seeing SWAT teams, sheriff helicopters, ambulance trucks and dozens of police officers. “It’s like a warzone,” said Levitansky, who also serves as rabbi at the nearby Chabad of Santa Monica.
Natasha Nemanim, 24, tried to get onto the campus to turn on a final paper early Friday afternoon but turned back after seeing helicopters in the air and heavily armed security personnel at the entrance to the campus on Pico and 18th street.
“It was stressful definitely; those guns are pretty big and they make you wonder what’s happening in there,” Nemanim said. She spoke to The Journal on Friday from Kehillat Ma’arav, a Conservative synagogue about a mile from the campus.
“It appears to be controlled as long as you’re not on campus,” said Nemanim, who spent two years as a student at SMC before transferring to UCLA, where she studied psychology. “But if you were on campus, I have to imagine your cortisol levels would be through the roof.”
Police officers during a search at Santa Monica College following a shooting on campus on June 7. Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters
Reporting and writing by Steve Gorman; Additional reporting by Jonah Lowenfeld (Jewish Journal) Ron Grover (Reuters), Alex Dobuzinskis(Reuters); Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh