ROSEBURG, Ore. —Investigators including cyber-experts and hate crime specialists peered Friday into the life of a 26-year-old gunman whose massacre across an Oregon campus may have been driven by religious rage and a fascination with the twisted notoriety of high-profile killers.
What is known so far about the attacker — identified by a U.S. law enforcement official as Chris Harper Mercer — appear only as loose strands that suggested an interest in firearms and the infamy gained by mass shooters.
Witnesses also said he seemed to seek specific revenge against Christians, and police examined Web posts that hinted of wider antipathy toward organized faith.
But authorities still struggled to build a clearer picture at what drove the California-raised Mercer to stalk rural Umpqua Community College — armed with three pistols and a semiautomatic rifle — and methodically pick off students and professors Thursday on the fourth day of the fall semester.
Who was the Oregon shooter?
A law enforcement official has identified the Umpqua Community College gunman as Chris Harper Mercer. Here’s what we know about him so far. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
At the end, nine people were dead, plus Mercer, and the college joined the mournful roster of America’s mass shooting sites.
At least 10 others were admitted for treatment at the Mercy Medical Center, said the chief medical officer, Jason Gray, on Friday. Three patients were transferred to larger facilities for more intensive care, he added.
“The days and weeks ahead will be the most challenging” as the small community copes with the aftermath, Gray said.
The names of those killed and wounded were not yet released nor would Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin name the shooter publicly, more out of rage than discretion. “I will not name the shooter,” he said at a news conference Thursday night. “I will not give him credit for this horrific act of cowardice. Media will get the name confirmed in time … but you will never hear us use it.”
A gofundme fundraising page was started for one man believed to be a victim of the shooting, Christopher Mintz, an Army veteran who was shot seven times. The page, which includes a photo of Mintz lying in a hospital bed, was established by a man who identified himself as Derek Bourgeois, a cousin of Mintz’s. Bourgeois said he grew up with Mintz in Randleman, N.C.
Relatives told CNN that Mintz tried to block the door of a classroom and was shot three times. When the shooter made his way in, Mintz told them that Thursday was his son’s sixth birthday and was shot at least twice more. Mintz was wounded in the back, stomach, hands and legs, according to the report.
The gofundme page says that “yesterday my cousin Chris Mintz was shot 7 times while trying to protect others from the gunman at Umpqua Community College.” It adds that “during the shooting both of his legs were broken and he is going to to have to go through a ton of physical therapy.”
The transition from the anonymity of “before” to the notoriety of “after” took just about 10 terrifying minutes, during which the shooter strode through a school building armed with three pistols and a semiautomatic rifle. Clad in a dark shirt and jeans, driven by a motive that is still unknown, he methodically sprayed bullets into classrooms full of students, who hid behind desks and desperately tried to block doors that didn’t lock.
In one classroom, he appeared to single out Christian students for killing, according to witness Anastasia Boylan.
“He said, ‘Good, because you’re a Christian, you’re going to see God in just about one second,’” Boylan’s father, Stacy, told CNN, relaying his daughter’s account while she underwent surgery to treat a gunshot to her spine.
“And then he shot and killed them.”
Another account came from Autumn Vicari, who described to NBC News what her brother J.J. witnessed in the room where the shootings occurred. According to NBC: “Vicari said at one point the shooter told people to stand up before asking whether they were Christian or not. Vicari’s brother told her that anyone who responded ‘yes’ was shot in the head. If they said ‘other’ or didn’t answer, they were shot elsewhere in the body, usually the leg.”
The violence stopped only after authorities exchanged gunfire with Mercer. At 10:47 a.m. local time Thursday, the end was announced over the police scanner: The suspect was down.
The scraps of information about Mercer uncovered so far did not fit together easily and much remained unconfirmed, including reports that he had forecast some act of violence in Oregon in a dark corner of the Internet known as 4chan, a report being investigated by federal authorities, according to the New York Times. But a murky portrait was emerging of a quiet and withdrawn young man who struggled to connect with other people, instead seeking attention online, and who harbored anger against organized religion.
Thursday’s rampage was the latest in a series of mass shootings that have produced national revulsion, even as they have left Republicans and Democrats divided over whether such violence should lead to stricter gun laws. The campus shootings came three months after nine people were gunned down at a historic African American church in Charleston, S.C.
One group that tracks gun violence, the Mass Shooting Tracker, said it was the 294th death or injury from a shooting involving four or more people in the United States this year — a rate of more than one victim a day.
School shootings have figured prominently in this series of tragedies, including the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings and the deaths of 20 children in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
From Washington, a visibly frustrated President Obama offered prayers for the victims and their families and quickly pivoted to repeat his call for stricter gun-safety laws, something he has done throughout his presidency to no avail.
“Each time we see one of these mass shootings, our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” he said. “It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel. It does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America.”
But in Douglas County, a rural region where hunting is popular and crime rates are low, support for gun rights is strong.
“I carry to protect myself — the exact same reason this happened,” Casey Runyan, a disabled Marine Corps veteran who now lives in the area, told the Associated Press. He told the AP he brings a Glock-29 pistol wherever he goes.
Hanlin, the Douglas County sheriff, sent a letter to Vice President Biden in 2013, after the shootings in Newtown renewed the debate about gun control. Hanlin said that proposed restrictions would be “irresponsible and an indisputable insult to the American people,” and he and his deputies would refuse to enforce them.
For Thursday night, at least, attention was mainly on the victims. In a ritual that has repeated itself many times in other places over the past few years, people gathered at the Douglas County Fairgrounds where evacuees from the school had been taken to meet their families. With darkness falling, the site of reunions became a base for an anxious vigil. A chaplain led a group prayer. Families missing a member clung to one another. Friends stood by and struggled to stave off dread.
“It’s agonizing to be here and just wait,” said Sarah Cobb, 17, a UCC student who had survived the shooting by ducking under her desk but was still waiting to hear about some of her classmates and friends.
“The longer people sit in there, the more they know it is going to be bad,” she said, referring to a gathering of investigators and FBI agents in a small building at the fairgrounds. “But you’re just praying and hoping that it’s not.”
All day Thursday, local and federal law enforcement officials swarmed Umpqua’s small campus, a modest collection of about a dozen buildings largely unprotected by gates or walls.
Umpqua, one of 17 community colleges in Oregon, has about 2,000 students and about 200 full- and part-time faculty members. Federal data suggests Umpqua is a quiet campus; the only crimes reported there in recent years have been an occasional burglary and, in 2013, an aggravated assault.
After a 2006 incident in which one student was shot by another at Roseburg High School, local institutions — including UCC — hired security guards, according to the Eugene Register-Guard. Those security guards are unarmed, interim college President Rita Calvin told the newspaper. The campus is a gun-free zone.
Investigators also fanned out across two states where Mercer lived, questioning family members and former neighbors, sifting through social media postings and obscure Internet forums in search of some clues about what happened, and why.
Public records showed no previous brushes with law enforcement by Mercer. Social media accounts attributed to him, including a MySpace page and an online dating profile, offer hints of his interests — the Irish Republican Army, punk rock music, an antipathy toward religion — but little real insight.
According to reports, authorities are investigating a conversation on the message board 4chan posted Wednesday evening. The site is notorious for staging online hoaxes, in addition to cat memes, hackings and Internet attacks. But the conversation, if authentic, appears to show a gunman’s plans for a shooting. “Don’t go to school tomorrow if you are in the northwest,” the post reads.
Mercer grew up in California, where he attended the Switzer Learning Center for students with disabilities. Rick Rada, a former classmate, recalled Mercer as quiet, cheerful and non-violent.
“To me Chris was just an ordinary guy, really. He was one of the silent types like me,” Rada told The Washington Post. “… But we got along with our teachers. He opened up with the teachers, talked to them, had fun.”
Former neighbors in Torrance, Calif., a beachside city just south of Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times that Mercer liked to practice target shooting and tended to act “anxious or nervous,” as Rosario Espinoza put it. He and his mother, Laurel Harper, mostly kept to themselves, except for occasional disputes over bugs or loud noises. Espinoza’s mother, Rosario Lucumi, recalled thinking it “strange” that Harper referred to her son as “baby.”
[Umpqua, Ore.: Where unemployment is high and gun rights are precious]
Mercer moved to Oregon with his mother a year or two ago, according to public records. It’s not clear if and how he may have been affiliated with Umpqua Community College, though a student told CNN that she took a theater class with Mercer, and a “Chris Harper-Mercer” is listed as a production assistant on the Facebook page of a UCC fall show.
Alleged Ore. shooter’s father: ‘Shocked. Shocked is all I can say’
The father of a man who a U.S. law enforcement official identified as the Oregon community college gunman says he’s shocked at the deaths of 10 people including his son. Ian Mercer spoke to reporters in Tarzana, Calif., the night of Oct. 1, and asked for privacy. (Associated Press)
His father, Ian Mercer, still lives in Los Angeles. He stepped outside his home there briefly on Thursday night to say that he had spent the day speaking with law enforcement and could not answer questions about his son or the shooting.
“Shocked is all I can say,” he told reporters. “It’s been a devastating day.”
Gloria Buhring, a neighbor at the Winchester, Ore., apartment complex where Mercer appeared to have lived, said police officers swarmed the area Thursday, blocking much of the complex off with police tape.
Buhring didn’t know Mercer. But on Wednesday, she returned home to find a previously empty dumpster “overflowing with stuff that looked like it had been moved from an apartment,” she told The Washington Post. “It looked like somebody had gotten rid of a lot of stuff and left.”
Another Winchester neighbor, Bronte Hart, told Seattle TV station KIRO that Mercer would “sit by himself in the dark in the balcony with this little light.”
Hart said a woman she believed to be Mercer’s mother lived with him and was “crying her eyes out” Thursday.
Steven Fisher, who also lives nearby, described Mercer as “skittish.”
“His demeanor, the way he moved, always looking around,” Fisher told CNN. “I got a bad vibe from him.”
Those words — “silent,” “skittish,” “strange” — come up a lot in answers to questions about Mercer. But not “violent.” No one interviewed who knew him said they suspected that he might be the type of person to fire into a classroom full of college students.
The attack started just after 10:30 a.m. local time, when students in Snyder Hall — a modest building in the southeast part of campus where science and English classes are held — heard a sudden popping noise.
Some were bewildered by the noises. But Cobb, a 17-year-old who heard the sound from her Writing 121 class in Snyder, recognized them immediately.
“I grew up hunting, so by then I knew what it was,” she told The Washington Post. Cobb screamed to her teacher that they all needed to get out, and the instructor opened the door onto chaos: students running, a teacher crying, a man screaming for someone to call 911. Cobb left her phone, her backpack and all of her belongings in the classroom and then ran out of the building, tripping her way down the stairs.
“There was so much screaming you knew it was serious,” she said. “I was terrified. I was sprinting. You could hear the gunshots echoing in the hall.”
Cobb had just moved to Roseburg from Eugene a few months earlier, and she didn’t know anyone in her class.
“I think everyone in my room escaped,” she said. “But you know right away that wasn’t going to be the same next door.”
One of Cobb’s classmates, 19-year-old Hannah Miles, told the Eugene Register-Guard that she followed her instructor and several other classmates to the school bookstore, where an employee called 911.
The report came in at 10:38 a.m: “Active shooter at UCC,” the dispatcher said.
While police, paramedics and first responders went into action, Mercer continued his rampage on campus.
Anastasia Boylan, the witness being treated for a spinal injury, told her family that the gunman entered her classroom firing, according to CNN.
“I’ve been waiting to do this for years,” he told the professor. Then he shot the man point blank.
According to Boylan’s account, as retold by her family, everyone in the classroom dropped to the ground. Mercer reloaded his weapon, then asked students who were Christian to stand up.
They did so. That’s when he told them “you’re going to see God,” and fired, choosing to shoot others in the legs.
Boylan, 18, survived by pretending to be dead. She’d been hit in the back and lay on the floor bleeding, according to CNN. When Mercer said, “Hey you, blonde woman,” she did nothing.
Eventually, Boylan was rescued and airlifted to a Eugene hospital, where she is being treated for her injuries, her grandmother told the LA Times.
In a room nearby, Cassandra Welding heard the percussive sounds of gunshots with horror. A classmate opened the door to look at what was happening, Welding told the LA Times, and was shot.
“We were screaming, ‘Close the door! Close the door!’” Welding said.
Someone dragged the injured woman back into the room and locked the door. Taking turns, classmates performed CPR on the woman, who had been shot in the torso. Her broken glasses lay on the floor near her, Welding told the LA Times. Blood was splattered on the walls.
The students crawled toward the back of the room, away from the door.
“I was so terrified for my life and I was shaking,” Welding said. While another classmate called 911, the 20-year-old phoned her mother. She wasn’t the only one.
“I just heard other people in tears, crying, calling their loved ones and telling them, ‘I love you.’” she told the Times. “It was such a heart-wrenching thing.”
Minutes after the initial 911 call, police arrived on campus.
Their quick, deadly confrontation with gunman was reported over the police scanner.
“We exchanged shots with him; he’s in a classroom on the east side of Snyder Hall,” an officer hurriedly informed the dispatcher.
Then, minutes later: “The suspect is down. We’ve got multiple gun shot wounds. We’re going to need multiple ambulances on scene,” an officer urged. “… As many ambulances as possible. We have upwards of 20 victims.”
Later in the day, that figure was revised down: 10 dead, including the gunman, and seven more wounded.
Hanlin, the Douglas County sheriff, said at a Thursday night press conference that the victims likely won’t be identified for another 24 to 48 hours. Officials want to ensure that all families have been notified before releasing the names of those killed.
Officials at Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg said the hospital had received 10 patients from the shooting.
PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend, a hospital about 70 miles north of the school, said it had three female patients, one in critical condition and the other two in serious condition.
The UCC campus will remain closed Friday, as officials continue to catalog and investigate the aftermath. Around Oregon, flags are being flown at half-staff.
“Today was the saddest day in the history of the college,” Cavin said at a news conference Thursday.
That evening, with their friends in the hospital, their campus a crime scene and the dead still nine nameless unknowns, hundreds of people gathered at a park in downtown Roseburg. Cheeks wet, candles clutched in their hands, mourners listened as professors, public officials and the college president urged them to think of the victims, and not the man who killed them.
When the speeches were over, a chant went up: “We are UCC.”
“After” was underway.