Sheriff Says Shooting Was Planned, But Victims Were Random at Saugus High

Two students were killed Thursday at Saugus High School, where mourners left notes in the shape of a heart on a fence outside the school

What to Know

  • Two students, ages 14 and 15, were killed Thursday when a classmate opened fire at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita
  • Three other students were injured. One remained hospitalized Saturday afternoon in good condition
  • Investigators say they're working to determine a motive in the shooting north of Los Angeles as mourners prepare for a Sunday vigil

A day after lives were shattered by another shooting on a school campus, investigators are trying to piece together events that led up to the tragedy at Saugus High School as a grieving community mourns victims and two wounded students recover at a hospital.

"It was a planned attack; it was deliberate. He knew how many rounds he had, for example," Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said at a Friday news conference. "The motive – we don’t have that yet."

Patrol cars remained at the Santa Clarita campus north of Los Angeles Friday morning as the investigation continued into Thursday morning's shooting. On a fence surrounding the parking lot, there were notes of support for the students that formed a heart shape.  

It's one of the ways people are remembering the two students, ages 15 and 14, who were killed when a classmate who had just turned 16 Thursday pulled a gun from his backpack and opened fire. The shooting at the start of the school day lasted 16 seconds. 

School Shooting Incidents Since 2013

Everytown.org defines the incidents mapped below as any time a firearm discharges a live round inside or into a school building or on or onto a school campus or grounds, as documented by the press and, when necessary, confirmed through further inquiries with law enforcement or school officials. Incidents in which guns were brought into schools but not discharged are not included.

Source: Everytown.org, NBC Staff Reports
Last updated on Nov. 14, 2019

One of the victims killed was identified Friday by the coroner's office as Gracie Anne Muehlberger, 15. 

Later in the day, the coroner's office identified the second victim as Dominic Blackwell, 14.

The morning of the shooting, the teen gunman's mother dropped him off at school. 

At the time, students were greeting each other in an outdoor quad area. Surveillance video showed the shooter standing still while "everyone is active around him," said sheriff's homicide Capt. Kent Wegener. 

In the surveillance, the shooter was standing by himself and not interacting with others, when he walked to the center of the quad, dropped his backpack, and began firing. 

At one point, the weapon malfunctioned.

Sheriff Villanueva said the teen was familiar enough with the gun to clear it and continue. 

"In 16 seconds, he cleared a malfunction and was able to shoot five people and himself, so he seems very familiar with firing the weapon," Villanueva said. 

Villanueva also said based on the video, witness accounts, and the fact that the teen brought the weapon with him to school, it was a planned attack. 

"It wasn’t a spur of the moment act," he said. 

Two of the five students who were shot are recovering in a hospital. The two girls wounded in the attack were both doing well, doctors said Friday. 

"Once we were done, they were both sitting up, smiling and talking," said Dr. Boris H. Borazjani. "They held their composure, despite being shot. And, being shot in the torso is a big deal."

The mother of one of the victims told NBC4 her daughter was struck by a bullet in the leg. The round was removed, she said.

A third student was treated and released from a hospital Thursday.

On Thursday night, students were among those who gathered at Central Park in Santa Clarita for a vigil. Just hours earlier, the park was used as a reunification site for students and their families, many of whom shared tearful embraces. 

The shooter was hospitalized after shooting himself in the head on the school campus. He was brain dead and not expected to survive. Authorities said he was taken off life support Friday evening.

The school remained closed Friday. Another vigil is planned for Sunday night in Central Park, located at 27150 Bouquet Canyon Rd. 

As for the investigation into why the group of students was ambushed by an armed classmate, everyone on the campus of about 2,300 students at the time is a potential witness who might have information sought by detectives. One of the main focuses has been social media and anyone who might have commented on the shooter's posts or reacted.

"We're combing through everything to find any motive to solve this mystery," Villanueva said Friday. "That's going to haunt us for a while."

The sheriff said a biography on an Instagram account possibly belonging to the teen contained the posting: "Saugus, have fun at school tomorrow." The message was discovered Thursday morning after the shooting.

It was later determined to not belong to the teen after working with Facebook overnight, Wegener said. Authorities couldn't determine where it originated, but said it was not created in the U.S. 

It's not clear how the 16-year-old obtained the .45-caliber pistol used in the shooting. Detectives with assistance from SWAT and a bomb squad searched the home of the shooter Thursday and found other guns.

All six guns were traced by the ATF, and were determined to not be registered to the teen shooter's deceased father. Agents were working with the sheriff's crime lab to determine its origin. 

According to court records, the 16-year-old's mother and father took a dispute to court in 2016 over who should have custody of the teen. That case was resolved in August 2016.

Around the same time, several law enforcement sources have told NBC4 that deputies detained the teenager’s father on an involuntary hold for a mental health evaluation. As a result of that, deputies seized a number of firearms from the home. Those guns were eventually destroyed by the county.

Wegener said the sheriff's department had not received any recent calls to the boy's house "that would indicate that there was turmoil" there.

"At this point in time, we have no indication of motivation or ideology," said Paul Delacourt, the agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office.

The shooter appeared to be acting alone, Delacourt said.

"Suffice it to say, we did not find any manifesto, any diary that spelled it out, an suicide note or any writing that will clearly identify his motive," Wegener said.

The school campus had been cleared Friday after crews took a 3-D scan to document the crime scene. The scene was also cleaned, but it wasn't immediately clear when district officials would reopen the school.

Heather Navarro contributed to this report. 

Copyright A
Contact Us