Aztec school shooter reached out to other school shooters, planned killings online
AZTEC — In school, he was known as the quiet boy with a stutter who wore a trench coat and played video games. Some teased or ignored him, while others tried to befriend him.
But during his time at Aztec High School — and beyond — William Atchison had a secret life.
Years before he opened fire at his old school, he was in contact online with other school shooters, including a young man who committed a mass shooting in Germany. He also practiced "dry runs" of the shooting in a video game.
And the date of the shooting may have had special significance as well: Dec. 7, the anniversary of the 1941 attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor. Investigators learned a possible relative of the shooter had been killed during the Pearl Harbor bombing.
Authorities have delved into the details of Atchison's life as part of their investigation into the shooting. They have reviewed their past contacts with him, including an FBI visit to the house where he lived with his parents.
WHAT HAPPENED: Aztec High School Shooting
The San Juan County Sheriff's Office, New Mexico State Police and the FBI are starting to wrap up their inquest, according to Detective Lt. Kyle Lincoln of the Sheriff's Office.
As for a motive, Lincoln said investigators believe Atchison's main motivation was notoriety, but added it is possible law enforcement officials might not be able to "truly" determine his motivation.
"We just think he wanted to attach that shooting to a day already infamous to carry on his personal agenda," Lincoln said referencing the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Even as they delve into the whys and hows, authorities are searching for ways to prevent future school shootings. For Aztec Police Chief Mike Heal, that mission has become a passion.
Buildup to a tragedy
Atchison, 21, entered Aztec High School on the morning of Dec. 7, 2017, and shot and killed 17-year-old students Francisco "Paco" Fernandez and Casey J. Marquez before he shot and killed himself.
That event didn't just happen out of the blue.
For years the shooter gained social support for his violent thoughts about school shootings and racial and social prejudices from online communities that discuss — and even celebrate — those topics.
In seeking his fame he befriended other budding murderers. His extreme words in online rants, including a threat to shoot up his old school in 2012, alarmed some chat participants online — but didn't bring authorities to his door until years later, when he convinced agents in March 2016 that he was a harmless online troll.
Lincoln said Sheriff's Office investigators discovered that Atchison had been in contact with other school shooters.
Atchison was in contact with and talked with Ali David Sonboly, the 18-year-old who shot and killed nine people in a Munich, Germany, mall on July 22, 2016, according to Lincoln.
He practiced his attack in an online video game designed to practice a mass shooting event.
Atchison liked to play an online video game in which players build versions of malls or schools to establish a "timeframe" for a shooting.
"He was having a lot of dry runs, basically, is the way I would look at it," Lincoln said.
A little more than a month before the shooting he bought a gun and additional magazines.
With the help of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, investigators determined Atchison purchased his Glock 9mm handgun legally at the Sportsman's Warehouse store in Farmington in on Nov. 3, 2017.
Lincoln added Atchison could purchase the handgun legally because he was an adult with no criminal history. Atchison also purchased ammunition and high-capacity magazines from a website.
About 82 shell casings were recovered from Aztec High School, which leads investigators to believe that many shots were fired by Atchison, Lincoln said.
Law enforcement officials also are investigating a theory as to why Atchison chose to shoot himself. Investigators believe Atchison shot himself after hearing an Aztec officer fire shots through a window to breach the building, which was on lockdown, Lincoln said.
One thing is clear in hindsight: The shooter left an unmistakable and alarming online trail pointing to future violent acts.
A day before the shooting he posted on the online community Kiwi Farms the words "praise be to Allah."
Classmates reached out to future shooter
Tanner LeBlanc was taken aback when he found out Atchison was the shooter who committed the murders at Aztec High School.
The teen director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Aztec, LeBlanc found out about the shooting when a friend called and told him "Billy" was the shooter.
LeBlanc said he and Atchison became friends in math class during LeBlanc's sophomore and junior years. During those classes, LeBlanc said he and another friend tried to befriend Atchison.
"When Billy was in class, no one would ever talk to him," LeBlanc said. "That was our mission every day in class was to break Billy out of his shell."
LeBlanc said Atchison's habit of wearing a trench coat and his stutter led other students to shun him and become judgmental toward him.
"It was like he was only comfortable talking to us in math class," LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc has no idea what Atchison's home life was like, but he described him as a shy kid who always had a smile on his face and was nice. Atchison liked to play video games and read science-fiction books.
It was between spring 2011 and spring 2012 LeBlanc noticed a change in his friend. He said Atchison began to show up to school with eraser burns, and burns from placing salt and ice on his skin.
LeBlanc has kept Atchison's family in mind as he heard people make negative remarks about his former friend.
He said he understands a tragedy occurred with the death of Fernandez and Marquez. Still, he doesn't want people to forget that another family not only lost their child, but must live with the knowledge that their child killed two people. LeBlanc hopes people don't punish Atchison's parents for his actions.
LeBlanc said he drifted away from Atchison after his junior year and didn't even know he still lived in Aztec when the shooting occurred.
LeBlanc said it was his friendship with Atchison that influenced him to begin working at the Aztec Boys & Girls Clubs and run the after-school teen program at Koogler Middle School.
Attempts by The Farmington Daily Times to contact the shooter's parents were unsuccessful.
Aztec police chief discusses his school safety efforts
Aztec Police Chief Mike Heal has a list scribbled on a dry erase board behind his desk.
The date December 7, 2017, is written in red marker at the top of that board, along with the names Casey and Paco, which are written in orange and black marker to reflect the school colors.
"My heroes Casey and Paco died that day," Heal said. "I don't want anyone to go through that again."
The list is a collection of ideas to address school safety he has been developing since the school shooting.
Heal is focused on several items on the list he believes could have an impact on school safety and prevent another tragedy.
"It's not just take away guns, and the kids are going to be safe. I don't think that's going to happen," Heal said. "It's not just one thing, it's a whole list of things that need to change, and if we don't start somewhere, we'll never get there."
One item on the list is upgrading a misdemeanor charge of interference with the educational process to a felony charge for suspects accused of making a threat toward a school. Aztec High School was one of several area schools that received a threat toward students or staff members at a school in the months after the shooting.
Heal is interested in learning how so-called "red flag" laws in other states are working and if they need to be adopted in New Mexico. A "red flag" law allows family members or law enforcement officials to seek a court order to remove guns from the possession of a person they believe to be in crisis, according to nonprofit organization Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for gun control and against gun violence.
Heal believes hiring retired police officers at reduced pay could be a viable way to get school resource officers in more schools.
Another idea is as simple as putting a piece of red tape on a classroom floor. The tape would serve as a marker to let staff members and students know if they are visible to anyone looking into the classroom from a window in the hallway.
Heal has been speaking to state legislators about his experience and advocating for more funds for school safety.
"I really got a fire inside of me," Heal Said. "It's something I'm pretty passionate about right now, and I just don't want to let it go."
Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at email@example.com.