Parents were dropping their children off at Rancho Tehama Elementary School, a tiny building in a rural stretch of Northern California, when they heard the first shot. Almost immediately, two more gunshots cracked through the morning air.
It was just minutes before school was supposed to begin on Tuesday morning. The school secretary made a snap decision: Lock down the school. She and other staff members ushered children from the quad into the school, quickly urging nearly 100 young students inside, along with four teachers, aides and parents, said Rick Fitzpatrick, superintendent of the Corning Union Elementary school District.
Children were still hurrying in when the gunman’s white pickup truck came tearing down the street and crashed into the school’s locked gate. A man later identified as Kevin J. Neal jumped out, wielding a semi-automatic rifle and wearing a vest packing additional ammunition, authorities said. Children were still hurrying into classrooms, Fitzpatrick said, when the head custodian looked around a corner.
Neal raised his rifle, targeting the custodian, but it apparently jammed, Fitzpatrick said. By the time Neal cleared the jam, the last student was inside and the school was locked down.
Within 10 seconds of the lockdown going into place, Neal was standing in the quad where, moments earlier, children had been playing.
Children, school staff and parents huddled inside under desks and in offices. Outside, Neal raised his rifle and began to fire. Police said in the hours leading up to that moment, he had killed his wife and hidden her body before beginning a bloody rampage across this community about 135 miles north of Sacramento.
Neal, who also tried to open doors and get inside, fired at the school for six agonizing minutes, shattering windows and shooting through wooden walls, authorities said. One bullet struck a child, while others were wounded with broken glass. Neal eventually “became frustrated” and gave up, abandoning the school, Phil Johnston, an assistant sheriff in Tehama County, told reporters.
The decision to lock the building down — a decision that normally comes from law enforcement officials, and a security step that has become commonplace for schools across the country adopting new protocols since the massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School — helped keep the bloodshed Tuesday from escalating into something even more horrifying: Another rampage at an elementary school, one that would have erupted just weeks before the country marks five years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, one of the darkest moments in modern American history.
“It is monumental that that school went on lockdown,” Johnston said Wednesday. “I really, truly believe that we would have had a horrific bloodbath in that school if that school hadn’t taken the action when they did.”
Unable to march into the school, police say Neal continued driving around the small community of Rancho Tehama Reserve, firing at people who happened to cross his path. Neal killed five people during his attacks Monday and Tuesday and injured several others, police said, targeting those he had quarreled with and complete strangers alike.
About 25 minutes after the first 911 call came in, police stopped the attacks when officers rammed his car and killed him during an exchange of gunfire.
Authorities and people who knew Neal said he had a volatile, sometimes violent past. His relatives had long worried about his mental state, and he had a number of run-ins with law enforcement in North Carolina before moving to California a decade ago.
Police said they had been called to Neal’s home before after neighbors reported gunfire coming from his home, but “he was not law enforcement friendly” and did not come to the door, Johnston said. Officers, unable to determine from outside if he was there, watched the house hoping he would emerge, but they did not see him.
One of the people killed during Neal’s rampage was a neighbor he was charged with assaulting with a deadly weapon in January, police said. Neal was out on bail for that attack. Authorities have not released the name of this neighbor or identified the other people killed or wounded, though they have said no children were among the dead.
Johnston said officials recovered two semi-automatic rifles that they believe Neal illegally manufactured at his home, though it is unclear if Neal built them or modified existing weaponry.
Neal was prohibited from owning, possessing or buying firearms, according to a judge’s protective order issued after the alleged assault. In addition to the assault, Neal was charged with other felonies including false imprisonment by violence and discharging a firearm in a “grossly negligent manner,” court records show.
When police searched Neal’s home after the rampage, they found another victim. Authorities were looking for Neal’s wife, who has not been publicly named, concerned that something had happened to her. They found her body hidden under the floor of their home, Johnston said. Police believe Neal shot her several times on Monday.
During the investigation, neighbors told police they believed “there was a domestic violence incident” at the home on Monday, Johnston said. This episode was not reported to police at the time, he said, adding that such incidents were “a very common thing with this couple.” He did not elaborate.
Neal is the latest in a long line of mass shooters with histories of domestic violence charges or allegations. He is also the latest to target children, according to people who keep track of mass killings.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy groups, 1 in 4 victims of mass shootings is a child. One reason, they say, is that such attacks are often rooted in domestic violence, with attackers often victimizing their own children. But as these incidents grow deadlier, some observers say killing kids is just an easy way to up the shock value.
Perpetrators seem to try to kill “with the highest impact, the most extreme form of violence and the biggest splash in their twisted way of looking at things, and one of those ways unfortunately is looking at children and looking at schools, because our children are there every day,” said Ken Trump, a school security consultant.
Neal’s family said they worried for years about his mental state. His relatives had sought to get him treatment for what they believed was an apparent mental illness, according to his sister, Sheridan Orr. She described the tragedy of the past two days as her worst fear come to life.
“If you could’ve seen him in those rages,” Orr, 46, said in a telephone interview. “Anything was possible.”
Neal’s behavior escalated from a bad temper as a teenager to something more uncontrollable as he got older, Orr said. When he would call family members in a rage, upset about something, they would tell him that he needed to go to a mental health facility and that he needed medication. He would always refuse and he never received an official diagnosis, Orr said.
“He never should have had guns and he should’ve been able to get mental health care,” she said.
Their mother would break down and tell Orr that she didn’t know what else to do or how to help her son, whom she talked to every day, Orr said.
“Her life’s work has been to try to get Kevin some help and to find a way for him to be happy,” Orr said. “He had a very erratic and uncontrollable temper that made it difficult to deal with him, and so it fragmented and fractured our family for many years.”
Neal’s mother did not respond to messages seeking comment, and Orr said she was too upset to speak further about what happened. Neal’s mother had told the Associated Press that he called her Monday to say “it’s all over now” and that he was “fighting against everyone who lives in this area.”
Orr said she had not seen Neal in a decade and last spoke with him months ago. But when they were together, she said, it was horrifying to watch him spiral out of control. Something as simple as using the washing machine while he was trying to sleep could set him off.
What may have triggered the attacks on Monday and Tuesday remained unclear. Police believe Neal killed his wife, “cut a hole in his floor” and hid her body there, Johnston said. He also killed the neighbor who he had assaulted earlier in the year, Johnston said.
Shortly before 8 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Neal began to storm through the community, shooting at vehicles and homes alike. His wrath was seemingly arbitrary. As with other mass killings that have erupted in places such as Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Tex., the bullets targeted whoever had the misfortune to cross the gunman’s path at that moment in time.
During the rampage, Neal intentionally crashed into a car and then fired at the passengers when they got out, killing one person, Johnston said. At another point, he shot a woman driving her children to school, seriously injuring her and wounding one of the young children in her backseat. School officials believe these are the shots that were heard at the nearby elementary school, triggering the lockdown.
As was the case after the recent mass shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, concrete answers about what prompted the attack were scarce.
“I really don’t know what his motive was,” Johnston said on Wednesday. “I think he was just on a rampage. I think he had a desire to kill as many people as he could.”
Since the attack, Johnston stressed that school officials kept the rampage from being “so much worse.” At the elementary school, the first shot was heard at 7:53 a.m., school officials said. Coy Ferreira, 32, whose daughter is a kindergartner there, was dropping her off when he heard what he said sounded like fireworks.
Children still wearing backpacks rushed inside and hid under desks, said Ferreira, who also went into a classroom. The teacher urged children to hide in her office, but three students were too frightened and remained under their desks, Ferreira said. The gunman blasted out the windows, and Ferreira said he quickly ran to the door.
“If he’s going to come in he’s going to come in killing me first,” he said. “It’s going to be me, and hopefully not the students … and I was just praying to God he wouldn’t be getting to the door.”
The gunman never got inside. He moved on to the next room, firing into the wooden walls, and people inside the classroom with Ferreira soon realized one child had been shot in the chest and leg. He was later taken to the hospital.
“This is a situation that is every educator’s nightmare,” Fitzpatrick said. “Looking at how it went down it could not have possibly gone better.”
Still, it’s a sign of the times that even a tiny school in a remote area has a plan for an active shooter. Since the Columbine shootings in 1999, people take such planning seriously, having drills and procedures in place.
When Don Bridges, president of the National Association of School Resource Officers started working in security back in the mid-1990s, the majority of schools had no crisis plans, he said. At schools today, he said, “it is just a very natural process and everyone knows that it is something we absolutely, positively have to do.”
After the shooting ended, Ferreira said, he praised his daughter for doing what she was told during the attack at the school.
“She said, ‘Daddy, you told me there would be no bad people at school,’ ” Ferreira said, “and how am I supposed to answer her?”
Julie Tate, Sandhya Somashekhar and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.