Tennessee governor reveals Nashville shooting victim was friend and was due to have dinner with him that night

The Republican governor has loosened gun laws in the state since taking office

Rachel Sharp
Wednesday 29 March 2023 13:11 BST
Nashville shooter owned seven firearms, police discover after school shooting

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has revealed that two of the staff members killed in the Nashville school shooting were family friends of his – and that one of them had been due to have dinner with him and his wife on the night that she was killed.

The Republican governor – who loosened gun laws in the state – released a video statement on Tuesday saying that his wife Maria’s best friend was among the six victims of the mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee.

Cynthia Peak, 61, was working as a substitute teacher at the Christian elementary school that day.

Peak had plans to come to the governor’s house that night for dinner with the family.

“Some parents woke up without children. Children woke up without parents, without teachers,” Mr Lee said in the video.

“Spouses woke up without their loved ones.

“Maria woke up this morning without one of her best friends, Cindy Peak. Cindy was supposed to come over to have dinner with Maria last night after she filled in as a substitute teacher yesterday at Covenant.”

Mr Lee said that he and his wife were also friends with Katherine Kooce, the school’s headteacher who died heroically running towards the shooter.

Kooce, Peak and Maria – who trained as a teacher – had all worked together at a school and had been close for many years.

“Cindy, Maria and Kathy Koonce were all teachers at the same school and have been family friends for decades,” he said.

As well as Peak and Koonce, another staff member – school custodian Mike Hill, 61 – was also killed in the mass shooting.

Three nine-year-old students – Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney – were also killed.

The governor called on Tennesseans to “pray” for all those impacted by Monday’s horror attack and said that “there will be a time to talk about the legislation”.

Bill Lee revealed his family knows two of the victims
Bill Lee revealed his family knows two of the victims (Bill Lee)

“I am calling on the people of Tennessee to pray. For the families of victims, for the Covenant family, for those courageous officers, for the family of the shooter, for those who are hurting and angry and confused,” he said.

“Prayer is the first thing we should do, but it’s not the only thing.”

Mr Lee said that there is a need to “strengthen schools” but insisted that the battle is “against evil itself”.

“There will be a time to talk about the legislation and budget proposals we’ve brought forward this year. And clearly there’s more work to do,” he said.

“But on this day after the tragedy, I want to speak to that which rises above all else,” he added.

“The battle is not against flesh and blood, it’s not against people. The struggle is against evil itself.”

Since taking office, Mr Lee has loosened gun laws in the state.

In 2021, he signed a bill into law allowing most people aged 21 and over to carry handguns openly or concealed without a permit.

Just weeks before Monday’s mass shooting, Republican lawmakers in the state moved to loosen gun laws further introducing legislation to lower the age for residents to carry handguns without a permit to 18.

Other proposals would allow residents to openly carry any firearm, including shotguns and AR-style rifles, without a permit, and would recognise similar permits issued in other states.

Cynthia Peak (centre) in a photo shared by a family friend
Cynthia Peak (centre) in a photo shared by a family friend (Family friend/KALB)

Nashville police revealed on Tuesday that accused shooter Audrey Hale had been able to legally purchase seven firearms in the run-up to Monday’s mass shooting – despite receiving mental health treatment at the time.

In a press conference, Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake said that Hale – a 28-year-old former student at the Christian school – was under care “for an emotional disorder” and that her family “felt that she should not own weapons”.

The police chief said that Hale’s parents were aware the the suspect had purchased one firearm, but believed it had since been sold.

In reality, the 28-year-old had legally purchased seven firearms and hid them in the family home.

Three of those firearms – two assault rifles and a handgun – were used in Monday’s shooting.

Even if Hale’s parents had been aware of the stash of weapons and contacted law enforcement, there is no red flag law in Tennessee that could have been used to take away the firearms.

Police have identified the suspected shooter by their name at birth; Hale reportedly was a transgender man who used he/him pronouns, though law enforcement officials initially described the suspect as a woman in the aftermath of the shooting. Police did not provide another name but on the suspect’s social media accounts they refer to themselves as Aiden.

Just after 10am on Monday morning, Hale allegedly drove to the elementary school heavily armed.

There, Hale broke into the school building by shooting through the glass side doors and climbing inside.

Once inside, the shooter stalked the corridors, killing three small children and three staff members.

Responding officers fatally shot the assailant at 10.27am – 14 minutes after the first 911 call reporting an active shooter came in at 10.13am.

Minutes before the shooting, Hale had sent some chilling final messages to a friend warning that “something bad is about to happen”.

People pay their respects at a makeshift memorial for victims at the Covenant School building at the Covenant Presbyterian Church
People pay their respects at a makeshift memorial for victims at the Covenant School building at the Covenant Presbyterian Church (AFP via Getty Images)

Averianna Patton said that Hale sent the messages via Instagram at 9.57am on Monday morning, revealing plans to die by suicide and saying that she would soon be reading about the upcoming events “on the news after I die”.

“One day this will make more sense,” Hale wrote.

“I’ve left behind more than enough evidence behind. But something bad is about to happen.”

Ms Patton said she later learned what her friend had done.

Investigators are still working to determine the motive for the attack, which was both planned and targeted.

The killer left behind a manifesto and a detailed map of the building, with police also finding evidence suggesting Hale was planning other attacks including on a local mall and targeting family members.

Hale – an illustrator and graphic designer who attended Nossi College of Art – had no criminal record prior to Monday’s massacre.

If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, the Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.

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