Oregon college shaken by massacre reopens with counselors, comfort dogs

Leanne DiLorenzo, 48, leaves flowers at a memorial outside Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, United States, October 3, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Eric M. Johnson and Emily Flitter ROSEBURG, Ore. (Reuters) - Students still shaken from a shooting rampage days earlier that claimed 10 lives were welcomed back on Monday by grief counselors and comfort dogs to their community college in southern Oregon, but classes remained canceled through the week. The campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, about 180 miles (300 km) south of Portland, was reopened to students and staff to allow them to retrieve vehicles and other belongings left behind in the pandemonium of Thursday's massacre. The reopening also was aimed at helping restore a sense of normalcy on campus before classes and other activities at the college of some 13,000 students - about 3,000 enrolled full time - were set to resume next Monday, school officials said. The bucolic college, situated on a bend in the North Umpqua River, was peaceful as staff and students milled about in the sunshine. Three deer were even seen bounding onto the campus lawn from behind a line of woods. But an atmosphere of trepidation prevailed among some of those venturing to school on Monday. "The anxiety of walking back on campus is very real," student Jared Norman said in a text message to Reuters, adding that his campus visit "begins the road to recovery." He and others met with college officials on Sunday night in preparation for their return - the slayings of a professor and eight students in a hail of gunfire still vivid in their minds. The rampage, which also left nine people wounded, ended with the gunman taking his own life. Those arriving on Monday were greeted by teams of volunteers with six golden retrievers from the national K-9 Comfort Dogs network run by Lutheran Church Charities. Emotions were readily apparent in the occasional hugs and tears students and staff shared with one another across campus. A SHRINE AND A CRIME SCENE The college bookstore also reopened, and college staff converted a portion of an outdoor amphitheater on campus into a shrine - adorned with flowers, candles, balloons and the names of the fallen professor and students, as well as a banner with the message: "UCC Strong / We will prevail together." A short distance away stood Snyder Hall, the brown, single-story, tile-roofed building where last week's carnage unfolded, now partly veiled behind a barrier of chain-link fencing and black tarp erected around the crime scene. Law enforcement was not readily visible in the center of campus, but a mobile command post of the Douglas County Sheriff's Department remained set up in the parking lot. The sunny, quiet tranquility stood in stark contrast to the fear that gripped the campus last Thursday in the midst of the deadliest U.S. mass shooting in two years. A gunman, identified as Christopher Harper-Mercer, 26, stormed into his writing class to shoot the professor at point-blank range, then began picking off cowering classmates one at a time as he questioned them about their religion, according to survivors' accounts. Parents of two survivors revealed over the weekend that the assailant had handed an envelope to one of the male students in the class, whose life the suspect deliberately spared. CNN reported on Sunday that the envelope contained a computer flash drive that the surviving student turned over to authorities immediately afterward. ENIGMATIC FIGURE Authorities said Harper-Mercer, who moved from the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance, California, to Oregon with his mother in 2013, carried six guns, five magazines of bullets and body armor with him to campus the day of the killings. Another eight firearms and a stockpile of ammo were recovered from the apartment he and his mother shared a short distance from the college, officials said. Authorities have revealed little of what they may know about Harper-Mercer's motives. The FBI and local sheriff have declined to comment on media reports that he left behind racist writings. People who knew him casually have described Harper-Mercer as a withdrawn, socially awkward loner. After a brief, failed stint in the U.S. Army that ended with an administrative discharge, he graduated from a nonprofit school in Torrance that catered to students with learning and emotional disabilities. He was by all accounts preoccupied with guns, a passion he was reported to have shared with his mother, who spent time with her son at target ranges. The head of a private firearms academy in Torrance has said Harper-Mercer sought to register for classes there in 2012 or 2013 but was turned away because he was found to be "weird" and overly eager for high-level weapons training at his age. The first funeral stemming from the tragedy was scheduled for Jason Johnson, 33, set to take place at Church on the Rise in Roseburg on Thursday. With tensions running high in the aftermath last week's violence, authorities in two nearby Oregon counties ordered all three campuses of Rogue Community College - in the towns of Grants Pass, Medford and White City - evacuated in response to a bomb threat at the Grants Pass campus. Classes were canceled for the day for all 17,500 students, though Josephine County Emergency Manager Jenny Hall said, "There is no reason to believe there is any credible threat at this time." (Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)