2 students killed, shooter dead after Aztec High School shooting
AZTEC — Two Aztec High School students were shot to death Thursday morning by a gunman who later died at the scene, county authorities said.
Senior Casey J. Marquez and junior Francisco I. Fernandez were identified by authorities as the victims in the attack, killed in a classroom in what had started as a routine school day.
The gunman remained unidentified by authorities in the chaotic hours after the shooting.
In Makenzie Rezac's first-period world-history class, shortly after 8 a.m., students heard they were on lockdown, she said. They stayed in their seats, assuming it was a drill.
When they heard an announcement that it was serious and that doors should be locked, students scrambled to a corner and hid, staying silent.
They heard gunshots far away, then getting closer.
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"I’ve never heard gunshots before in person," Rezac said. "We all thought maybe someone was going around banging on lockers, trying to scare us, or moving furniture."
Soon, the sounds were right outside the door.
"When it came closer, I was like, 'Oh God, what’s going to happen? Is someone going to break in or shoot through the walls?' I was terrified. I was crying," she said. "I didn’t have my phone with me and the only thing I wanted to do is text my mom and tell her, 'Things are going on and if something happens, I love you.' "
Officials throughout the day worked to dispel rumors about the attacks but released little confirmed information by early Thursday evening.
At a 3 p.m. news conference, officials had still not publicly identified the shooter or victims of the tragedy. Despite an earlier assertion that all families have been notified, officials on Thursday afternoon said that was not the case.
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They also refuted rumors that "dozens" of students were injured in the attack. No other individuals were harmed, according to New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas,
They confirmed that the shooter was male, but did not disclose whether the suspect was killed by his own hand or taken down by another. They also would not confirm whether the shooter was a student at the school, despite earlier reports that he was.
The slayings happened shortly after the beginning of school, after 8 a.m.
Acts of bravery
Aztec Police Chief Mike Heal said two officers responded to and entered the school within a minute of the first reports, and before the school was locked down.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said there were several acts of bravery and heroism on behalf of school staff, students and first responders.
Their actions, she said, “were amazing (and) that actually saved lives.”
Martinez said the New Mexico Public Education department will make $120,000 in emergency funding available immediately to Aztec School District in the aftermath of the shooting.
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“Healing and peace will take time; it just will,” Martinez said. “It will take time, but this is a small community where everyone knows everyone else, and we’ve got to lift those who need to be lifted. ... I want the people of Aztec to know that New Mexicans stand with you.”
The San Juan County Sheriff's Office is leading the investigation into the shooting in partnership with Aztec Police Department, New Mexico State Police and the FBI.
All Aztec schools will be closed tomorrow as investigations continue, according to Aztec Schools Superintendent Kirk Carpenter.
Christensen said investigators will release more information on Friday. Social workers and counselors will be available to local students and families in need.
Christensen noted the importance of relying on official reports for information about the shooting and ongoing investigation, as rumors and gossip have spread misinformation in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.
Officials condemned the shooting, with Martinez calling the shooting “heinous and horrific.”
“I was hoping in 28 years that I’d never have to do this, but unfortunately we’re here today,” Christensen said.
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Carpenter called the shooting "a tragedy ... (that) hits you in the heart.”
“You hope that nothing ever happens at a school," Carpenter said, shaking his head and fighting back emotion. "But when it does it’s reaction, and our staff, even substitutes, reacted in a way that honestly saved a lot of lives."
“We lost lives," Carpenter continued. "But to see the way people came together... the response from law enforcement and this community is amazing."
A frantic search for answers
Shortly after the shootings, students and staff were cleared from the campus as police searched the school room by room. School buses transported students to McGee Park in Farmington.
The FBI also arrived on scene.
The shooting stunned the community and left parents racing for answers about their children.
Lacy Cross waited anxiously by the school for news about her daughter. The last she had heard was a text message from her daughter telling her, “I love you,” and that they could hear the shooter approaching.
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As parents and their children initially gathered at Aztec City Hall, authorities detailed little about what had happened. They did, however, quell rumors about other shooters in different locations.
Current told the crowd that the gunman had been identified and “is no longer with us.”
Many families at city hall had heard from their students, but communications were sporadic for some.
Mary Tom said she first heard about the shooting from her son, who is a freshman at the school.
“I guess it was all over Snapchat,” Tom said.
Tom said she came to city hall after a family member who lives near the school told her that many emergency response vehicles were heading to the school. Tom said around 10 a.m. that her son had not yet responded to her text messages or calls.
“I haven’t heard from him” since he sent the Snapchat, Tom said. “I tried calling him, texting him but he’s not responding back. ... I still don’t know if my son’s OK or not, but I hope he is,” Tom said.
Dean Jones, who was at city hall with his family to find information about his nephew, an AHS freshman, said the morning was “very traumatic.”
MORE:'I think someone is dead': Student heard gunshots during New Mexico school shooting
“He is safe, but there’s a lot of confusion. Nobody knows anything else,” Jones said. “Nobody thinks this stuff is going to happen in a small town, especially our little small town. We grew up here. We know everybody in town, seems like. ... Nobody in this town expects anything like this to happen.”
Latanya Johnson, who was at city hall on Thursday morning waiting for instructions on where to pick up her younger sister, who is a freshman at the school, shared Dean’s disbelief.
“I didn’t think this would actually ever happen. It’s too close to home. It’s too surreal,” Johnson said.
Johnson also emphasized the importance of the community coming together in the aftermath of the shooting.
“What’s really powerful is that we pray together as a community. ... We came (to city hall) as a community and as a family. We’re all a big family here,” Johnson said.
As authorities tried to establish control of the situation, New Mexico officials began offering their condolences.
“Our hearts break for the victims and their families. We pray for the survivors, and are grateful to the brave first responders for their heroic actions on the scene,” said Attorney General Hector Balderas in a statement. “We have offered Office of the Attorney General resources to support the victims, the Four Corners community, and first responders during this horrific tragedy.”
Current said the children were bused to Farmington, and asked parents to pick up students at other schools before meeting those students.
Schools in Farmington and Bloomfield also placed their schools in lockdown Thursday morning as precautionary measures.
The Central Consolidated School District placed all schools and district buildings in Kirtland and Shiprock in lockdown, according to a post on Facebook from the district.
Thursday's deadly shooting appears to be the most serious incident in New Mexico schools in years, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, which tracks shootings nationally.
In January 2014, a seventh grader severely wounded two students at the gym at Berrendo Middle School in Roswell.
That shooter, Mason Campbell, who is now 17, was sentenced to the custody of the Children, Youth and Family Department up to his 21st birthday. His parents recently sued state officials, saying their son has suffered poor physical and mental health in their care.
Aztec has fewer than 6,000 residents and is about a half-hour from the Navajo Nation.
Arizona Republic reporter Kaila White contributed to this report.
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