Los Angeles is not unfamiliar with gun crime, and on Friday the city made its entry into the recent history of mass shootings, when a gunman killed four people in the beachfront suburb of Santa Monica, before being cornered and shot dead by police near the library of a local college.
The suspect’s rampage began shortly before midday at a home in a residential neighbourhood beside the busy I-10 freeway, where he reportedly killed two men before leaving the house engulfed in flames. The authorities later said they believed the killer’s first victims were his father and brother. It was not clear how the blaze had begun.
Neither the gunman nor his motive had been publicly identified by late Friday evening, but witnesses described him as a white man of between 25 and 30 years old, with corn-rows in his hair, dressed in black and wearing a bullet-proof vest and ammunition belt. He is thought to have been armed with an AR-15 assault rifle.
Mike McCaffrey, a father who lives in the immediate vicinity of the house, said, “It’s a great neighbourhood. Santa Monica is pretty safe, so this was a shock. At about noon I was driving home and I saw the fire billowing. I thought it was my friend’s house, but it was the place across the street. Somebody had been shot in a car just outside and taken to the hospital.”
After leaving the burning house, the gunman had walked west towards the ocean along Pico Boulevard, where witnesses said he opened fire at random, spraying bullets at a bus and a police car. He reportedly hijacked a Mazda, and then ordered its driver to take him towards the leafy campus of Santa Monica College, where he was pursued by police.
Many students were on the premises at the time, taking or preparing for their annual finals exams. Blake, 20, a sports medicine student, was close to the end of an exam when, he told The Independent, “There was a commotion, people running past the classroom. We heard people screaming, and gunshots from the library. We waited in the classroom until a SWAT team came in. They told us to put our hands in the air, patted everyone down and escorted us out.”
Several people were in the library as the suspect entered, and afterwards recounted how they had scrambled for cover when they heard gunfire. One witness told AP: “I heard a girl screaming. She said, ‘No, no please no’”, while another recalled, “Everybody kept saying, ‘Get out of here, run, run’”.
The initial death toll of seven was downgraded last night to four, plus the gunman, who was confronted and ultimately killed by police on the college campus. Officials said one further victim was still in critical condition at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Centre. Several others had sustained minor injuries during the incident.
All the city’s schools were placed on lockdown following the violence. A second “person of interest” had been taken into custody in connection with the shootings, but later released. Police said they were now satisfied that the gunman had acted alone.
Santa Monica College, which has around 36,000 students, is a mere three miles from where US President Barack Obama was attending a Democratic Party fundraiser. Mr Obama, in California for a weekend of talks with the Chinese President Xi Jinping, had just finished addressing the event at the Santa Monica home of media mogul Peter Chernin when the shootings occurred. A secret service spokesman said the day’s events would not affect the President’s schedule.