A quiet New Mexico town tries to make sense of violence after school shooting
AZTEC, NEW MEXICO — Leonard Trujillo passes the tan-colored, 1,000-student high school campus here every day on his commute to work, which covers seven-tenths of a mile.
He’s precise about that distance, and he’s proud to manage one of the only Main Street restaurants and catering companies in town.
Ask him about the clientele at Rubia’s Fine Mexican Dining, and he’ll paint you a picture akin to "Cheers." People come for a dish or a drink. They hug the wait staff. They stick around for conversation at the hot spot down the street from Aztec High School.
It was different Thursday, after a 21-year-old gunman disguised himself as a student and tried to take a classroom hostage, the latest episode of mass violence in a country increasingly numb to horrors.
As the small-town rumor mill churned, those who went to the restaurant for reprieve were met by profound silence.
“You could hear a pin drop,” Trujillo told The Arizona Republic late Thursday, describing the way everyone gathered around televisions for the intermittent breaking-news updates. “Everyone knows someone (at the school). It’s the only high school in town.”
That desperation for information slid slowly into answers even more terrifying on Friday as authorities detailed what occurred the previous day — and what could have happened.
The shooter could have killed so many more, law-enforcement officials said.
He plotted the attack, writing down a plan and then tearing up the paper.
He was on the FBI’s radar after making concerning statements about mass shootings.
He likely crossed paths with hundreds of people every day while working at a nearby gas station, although it was unclear late Friday how many people actually knew him.
But there were two locals whose names were even more ubiquitous in the hours and days after the shooting. Casey Marquez and Francisco “Paco” Fernandez, whose chance encounters with the shooter on Thursday cost them their lives, were being heralded as heroes in their own right by law enforcement and elected officials alike.
Details emerged in a torrent, shifting disbelief into horror.
This sort of thing was reserved for big cities, said Trujillo, who has lived in Albuquerque and near Phoenix.
It didn’t happen in places like this.
Until it happened midway through first period Thursday.
‘I didn’t want to see anything’
Heaven Hughes, 15, was late when she took her seat in the back of her freshman class. She was pulling out a class project to turn in — it was about fish tanks, basically an “easy A,” she said.
Then “banging” started.
Seconds later, bullets whizzed through the room, shattering a nearby window and sending her classmates to the floor, huddled near Heaven’s desk.
“Our teacher was telling us to get down and stay down,” Hughes told The Republic, describing the minutes that passed before the banging noise of gunshots ceased and law-enforcement officers led them out of the room.
“I didn’t want to see anything,” she said. “I put my head down.”
A foiled plot
William Atchison’s attempt at infamy started in a bathroom a few doors down.
Atchison had purchased a Glock 9mm handgun at a local store about a month earlier, investigators said Thursday during a news conference. A former Aztec High School student, he worked at the gas station and lived with his parents in town.
It’s not believed any one person was his direct target when he disguised himself as a student and walked into the school as the buses off-loaded high school students, authorities said.
He isolated himself in second-floor bathroom and outfitted his small arsenal — a handgun and an untold number of magazines.
“He was determined to create as much carnage as he possibly could,” San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen said Friday.
As the shooter prepped, Francisco "Paco" Fernandez excused himself from class to use the bathroom. He opened the door, apparently taking the shooter by surprise, investigators said. Fernandez didn’t stand a chance, but the junior forced the shooter’s hand and set the wheels in motion for everybody else to heed warnings.
The shooter walked out of the bathroom and immediately encountered Casey Marquez. He shot and killed her and then walked down the hall, raining bullets indiscriminately through walls, toward students.
A custodian gave chase, shouting to nearby faculty that they needed to take shelter.
A substitute barricaded a door — she didn’t have a key and couldn’t lock it.
“These people are true heroes,” Christesen said. “They’re right here in our community.”
But the shooter was on the loose.
On the radar
Atchison didn’t have so much as a speeding ticket on his rap sheet, but the small-town gas station clerk was on the FBI’s radar.
The bureau opened an assessment into Atchison in March 2016 after someone reported a suspicious comment he made in an online video game chat, according to Terry Wade, special agent in charge of the Albuquerque field office.
It wasn’t a direct threat. But its content — something about buying a cheap assault rifle for a mass shooting — was enough to bring FBI agents to Aztec.
“It was very generic. Not a specific threat, but disturbing enough that we wanted to find out who put it up there and follow through,” Wade said. They interviewed him at home, but Atchison said he was merely "trolling" other gamers.
He didn’t have any weapons at the time. His family corroborated his story, and the case was closed.
Law-enforcement officers arrived at the school about a minute after the first shot was fired, the sheriff said. Officers from neighboring jurisdictions descended on other schools in the area in case the shooting was part of a larger plot.
Many of the first responders had sons and daughters who attend the school.
Confronted by law enforcement — and met by determined teachers who barricaded doors and foiled his plan — the shooter turned the gun on himself, investigators said.
Investigators quickly found a USB drive that contained a message written at 6:51 a.m.:
“If things go according to plan, today would be when I die. I wait until the school buses are detected, then head out on foot disguised as a student. I go somewhere and gear up, then hold a class hostage and go apes--t, then blow my brains out. Work sucks, school sucks, life sucks. I just want out of this s--t. F--k this state, it really it bad. Think I’m insane? I’m actually more rational, peaceful and less loony than a majority of the citizenry of this entire region.”
His plan was cut short.
But the damage had been done.
‘Would have been somebody’
David Stone, 16, was huddled in a closet with his 17 classmates. The sophomore’s teacher told them to keep the door locked until they heard the distinct knock — three raps on the door.
When the cops came, they cleared the area.
“We all got out of the room,” Stone said. “I looked to my left and I saw two bodies. I didn’t know what to think. I just started freaking out. We were outside, and I saw the bullet holes, the windows were broken. It was just scary.”
He didn’t know it then, but one of those bodies was that of his cousin, Marquez.
Stone said he’s still numb, trying to process what happened.
His uncle, Steven Selph, was doing much of the same Thursday night.
Between drags on a cigarette in the bitter nighttime air and sobs, with tears streaming down his face, he talked about how they had drifted apart in recent years. Selph had taken jobs hauling crude oil across the country, and he didn’t see Marquez as much. But he knew she was the cheerleader that everyone loved.
“She was happy. She would have been somebody. She would have got out of this little town. She’d love what she was doing and have the money to do what she wanted,” he said.
“She would have been way better than all of us.”
Emptiness before the holidays
The silence was deep on Main Street as 10 p.m. approached on Thursday.
White Christmas lights wrapped around a tall tree. Multi-colored strands raced around the edges of a home down the street from the school and Mexican restaurant.
A hundred yards away, a single set of flashing red and blue lights illuminated the walls of Aztec High School.
An illuminated "Happy Holidays" decoration was hanging over the street, but few were around to see it.
The only people milling around the downtown streets were law-enforcement officers near the A&W fast-food restaurant and the reporters in town.
Aztec's main drag, like most Main Streets in small towns, shuts down about 8:30 p.m., locals said. It’s part of the charm. It’s why people live in places like this, where horrific acts of violence don’t happen.
This sort of thing doesn’t happen in places like Aztec, everyone kept saying.
Except when it does.