RANCHO TEHAMA RESERVE, Calif. — 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 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 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.
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 after 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.
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 passer-bys.”
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 woman 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 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.