The sound of gunfire was in the air, and school officials ordered an immediate lockdown. Their decision most likely prevented what was already a deadly rampage in this rural hamlet southwest of Red Bluff from becoming a bloodbath on the scale of Sandy Hook in Connecticut.
Apparently infuriated by a longstanding dispute with neighbors, a gunman armed with a semi-automatic rifle and two handguns shot four people to death in the tiny community of Rancho Tehama Reserve early Tuesday. Clad in a military-style assault vest capable of storing multiple rounds of ammunition, the man wounded at least 10 others before officers rammed into the stolen vehicle he was driving, shot him and killed him.
The Tehama Sheriff’s Department said the number of fatalities might grow. Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston said officials are worried because they’ve had trouble locating several of the gunman’s relatives.
As bad as the spree was, Johnston said he was thankful it wasn’t worse. Although two young boys were shot in the early morning rampage, including one inside Rancho Tehama Elementary School, the assistant sheriff said no students or teachers were killed. He credited school officials with locking down the campus without even waiting for the customary notification from the Sheriff’s Department.
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The incident “could have been so much worse if it wasn’t for the quick thinking (of) staff at our elementary school,” Johnston said at a late afternoon press conference. “He couldn’t make access to any of the rooms; they were locked....This saved countless lives.”
Multiple sources told The Sacramento Bee that the dead suspect was Kevin Janson Neal, 43.
Johnston refused to confirm the identification, pending notification of family members. But he said one of the fatalities was a woman who lived near the suspect and was the victim of a late January assault that ended with the suspect in jail. Johnston added that he believed the suspect was slapped with a restraining order following the January arrest that would have prevented him from owning firearms for at least a period of time, although he had no details on that.
Neal was initially jailed in late January in the assault case and was being held on $160,000 bail, according to the Red Bluff Daily News. In April the district attorney’s office charged him with assaulting a second woman, also in late January, according to Tehama County Superior Court records.
Gregg Cohen, the Tehama district attorney, told The Bee that his office was prosecuting Neal on charges related to a stabbing and assault with a deadly weapon involving two of his neighbors.
Neal’s mother told the Associated Press that her son called her on Monday, the day before the shooting, and indicated he was fed up with his neighbors, whom he said he suspected of making methamphetamine.
“Mom, it’s all over now,” she said he told her. “I have done everything I could do and I am fighting against everyone who lives in this area....All of a sudden now I’m on a cliff and there’s nowhere to go. No matter where I go for help here, I get nobody who will help me. All they are doing is trying to execute me.”
The mother, whom the AP identified only as “Anne,” said she posted Neal’s $160,000 bail and also spent $10,000 on his legal fees after his January arrest. The woman lives in Raleigh, N.C., where Neal was raised.
Johnston said the gunman had one and possibly two rifles during the spree, including one that “appears to be an AR-type weapon,” as well as two handguns. He was wearing the type of vest worn by soldiers for carrying ammunition, Johnston said.
Tuesday’s rampage, which lasted about 45 minutes, began on Bobcat Lane in Rancho Tehama, a rural community of 1,400 residents southwest of Red Bluff. That’s where the gunman killed his first two victims, including the woman victimized in the January assault. Brian Flint of Corning told The Record Searchlight newspaper that his roommate was one of those killed by the gunman, whom he identified only as “Kevin.” Flint said the suspect, who lived nearby, frequently shot hundreds of rounds from high-capacity magazines and had threatened him and his roommate in the past.
After the shootings on Bobcat Lane, the gunman stole a white pickup truck that belonged to one of the victims and began making his way toward the school, firing shots at random passers-by along the way.
“This is an individual that armed himself, I think with the motive of getting even with his neighbors,” Johnston said. “And when it got that far, (he) went on a rampage....He was driving up and down the street shooting at passerbys.”
Other than the first two victims, “we know of no real connection to any of the victims,” Johnston said. “Most of the victims in this case appear to be random selections.”
Several of his shots struck a car carrying a mom and her three children. The mother was severely injured and one of her sons was injured as well, although his wounds weren’t considered life threatening, Johnston said. “She was trying to drive herself to the hospital when I encountered her on the road,” Johnston said. “She told me that she doesn’t know this person.”
Eyewitness Mariana Aguiniga said she was driving to Red Bluff when she heard shots and came upon a minivan driven by the woman. “She wanted to know if I could take her to the hospital. Then she showed me,” Aguiniga said, motioning to her back. “It was covered in blood.”
By the time the shooter got to within a quarter mile of the school, school officials ordered the lockdown, Johnston said. The gunman crashed the vehicle, a pickup truck, through the gate of the school and prowled the yard for several minutes, able only to get inside a bathroom.
Stephanie Turner, who was dropping off her 6-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, told The Sacramento Bee she saw the white pickup “rammed through the bus gate,” and then noticed a man stalking the school grounds.
“I thought there was a car accident,” Turner said. “I pulled into the school and heard gunshots. I told my kids to get down onto the floor. Then I saw a guy in the back of the school with a rifle. As soon as he saw us, he started shooting at us. I just took off.”
At some point he shot out several classroom windows, striking one of the students, before leaving the school grounds. School officials, in a statement released by Corning Union Elementary School District, said some students were injured by shattered glass. The student who was struck by gunfire was reported in stable condition, the district said.
A cousin and uncle of the 6-year old boy shot at the elementary school identified him as Alejandro Hernandez. Arlene Monroy, 17, said she had been told her cousin was shot in the chest and leg, but was recovering and expected to be all right.
The district said Rancho Tehama Elementary “is closed until further notice in order for law enforcement to complete its investigation and to make necessary repairs. The District will make alternate arrangements for student instruction.”
Parent Coy Ferreira told Redding TV station KRCR that he was dropping his daughter off at kindergarten when he heard a shot. A school employee ran out and told the children to get in the classroom. “It sounded like a firecracker went off and we all stopped and were stunned. Then, like a minute later, there were three more shots fired,” Ferreira said.
In the chaos, Ferreira said it appeared two children had been shot.
Ferreira said he ran into a classroom with 14 students. He said a series of shots came through the classroom windows, hitting one student. Ferreira said a young boy was shot in the foot and the chest. He said another student in an adjacent classroom was shot under the arm. Both students were conscious, he said.
“He became frustrated at not being able to get into the classroom,” Johnston said. “He went mobile again.”
Getting back in the stolen pickup, the shooter drove along Stage Coach Road, one of the main thoroughfares of Rancho Tehama, and then rammed the truck into another car. He shot the two passengers as they tried to flee their vehicle, killing one and wounding the other.
Johnston said he couldn’t provide details on the fourth death attributed to the gunman.
The ordeal began to finally wind down when another passerby who was following the shooter stopped his car and asked if everyone was alright. The gunman then shot and wounded that man, grabbed his vehicle and took off. At that point law enforcement officers finally caught up with the gunman. Johnston said two officers rammed into his stolen vehicle, forcing him off the road. Shots were exchanged and the suspect was dead.
Seven different shooting locations were being treated as separate crime scenes, and much of the Rancho Tehama community was locked for hours after the incident was over.
Rancho Tehama Reserve, located 12 miles west of I-5 between Red Bluff and Corning, is a rural, wooded subdivision that boasts views of Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen. It’s about 2 1/2 hours north of Sacramento.
The 11-square-mile community has its own airstrip. Until Tuesday, the biggest controversy in Rancho Tehama came four years ago, when residents of the subdivision complained to county supervisors about marijuana being grown illegally throughout the subdivision.
The county’s drug task force said it fielded hundreds of complaints about pot gardens in the area.
“There’s a lot of druggies living out here,” said community resident Mel McNeil. “But there’s lots of druggies living everywhere.”
Former Tehama County sheriff’s deputy Kyle Pflager, who runs a Facebook page that monitors local emergency services, said the area around the school is secluded. It was originally meant to be a retirement community but has evolved into a haven for marijuana growers.
“It does not surprise me that it happened in Rancho Tehama,” Pflager said. “There is violence there … The whole area is just cluttered with marijuana gardens, everywhere. Pretty much when we went out there on patrol, you’d have to have two units at least. There is not much law enforcement presence out there. We don’t patrol there often.”
Pflager said the school serves about 90 to 100 children.
Plfager also said the area around the school was known to the department for lawlessness.
“If you are trying to pull a car over, one out of every two cars would run,” Pflager said. “That’s the type of community out there.”
The shooting drew the attention of elected officials across the state and the nation.
“Anne and I are saddened to hear about today’s violence in Tehama County, which shockingly involved schoolchildren,” Brown said in a statement. “We offer our condolences to the families who lost loved ones and unite with all Californians in grief.”
Vice President Mike Pence tweeted: “Saddened to hear of the shooting in N. California, the loss of life & injuries, including innocent children. We commend the effort of courageous law enforcement. We'll continue to monitor the situation & provide federal support, as we pray for comfort & healing for all impacted.”