Texas shooting: Gunman was fired from job hours before rampage, officials say

Lucinda Holt, Mary Fernandez
Friends of a high school student among the seven killed in a Texas mass shooting gathered to mourn: AP
Friends of a high school student among the seven killed in a Texas mass shooting gathered to mourn: AP

The 36-year-old man who terrorised two West Texas towns with an assault-style rifle on Saturday had been fired from his trucking job a few hours before he led authorities on a chaotic high-speed chase that ended with his death and the deaths of seven others.

Along a 15-mile stretch between the sister cities of Midland and Odessa, the aftermath of the gunman’s rampage — in which he indiscriminately fired at motorists and police officers with an AR-15-style rifle while driving — clashed with the typically serene and dusty rural landscape of the region.

On Sunday, authorities continued to collect evidence from more than 15 crime scenes, scattered along highways, car dealerships and shopping malls, marked by police tape, bullet-riddled cars and a wrecked postal van the gunman had hijacked.

Authorities initially refused to name the gunman on Sunday, not wanting to give him “any notoriety for what he did,” said Michael Gerke, the police chief of Odessa. But they later issued a statement identifying the gunman as Seth Aaron Ator, of Odessa.

Police officers shot and killed Ator in the parking lot of a movie theatre in Odessa, ending a shooting rampage that began after authorities had tried to pull him over for failing to signal a left turn.

Although officials said in interviews that the gunman had been fired from his job with a trucking company on Saturday morning, authorities stressed that they had not yet established a clear motive to explain the level of violence and firepower.

“There are no definite answers as to motive or reasons at this point,” Mr Gerke said, “but we are fairly certain that the subject did act alone.”

The chief said it was not immediately known whether the gunman had legally purchased the rifle. Similar assault-style weapons have been used in most of the deadliest shootings this decade, including at a country music festival in Las Vegas, a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio, last month.

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Military-style assault weapons were largely banned from 1994 until 2004, and remain at the centre of a continuing national conversation about gun control.

While the gunman in the latest attack had a criminal record, there were no open warrants for his arrest when police tried to pull him over Saturday afternoon, Mr Gerke said.

Ator had been arrested in August 2001 in McLennan County near Waco on misdemeanour charges of criminal trespass and evading arrest, according to state records.

“This is a different type of active shooter that we were involved with, because he was mobile, and that creates some very special type of issues,” Mr Gerke said.

The gunman sped away from the state troopers who had tried to pull him over, and then hijacked a US Postal Service van, killed its driver and began firing at people randomly as he drove.

In video from witnesses that captured the final moments of the shooting rampage, the postal van speeds into view and slams into a police cruiser outside the movie theatre in Odessa.

A burst of gunfire followed as officers who had been chasing the van rushed out and shot the gunman, who appeared to still be inside the van.

Police surround the area behind Cinergy in Odessa (AP)
Police surround the area behind Cinergy in Odessa (AP)

Authorities said on Sunday that the seven people killed in the attack ranged in age from 15 to 57, including Mary Granados, 29, the driver of the postal van.

The Postal Inspection Service said Ms Granados was a letter carrier, that it was “shocked and saddened” at her death, and that it was working closely with other agencies on the investigation.

A total of 22 people were wounded, officials said, including three law enforcement officers and a 17-month-old toddler who was recovering Sunday from injuries that included shrapnel in her chest.

The attack Saturday spread panic and fear for hours across West Texas, hundreds of miles from the border city of El Paso, Texas, where four weeks earlier a gunman had killed 22 people at a Walmart in an anti-Hispanic attack.

On Sunday afternoon, federal agents executed a search warrant at what appeared to be Ator’s residence, in a remote area of mobile homes at the western edge of Ector County, which includes Odessa.

A neighbour, Rocio Martinez, 29, described Ator as a “loner” who sometimes frightened her because he was always firing guns outside.

“Although I feel bad about the situation, I feel at ease knowing that he was killed,” Ms Martinez said. “That tells me the threat has been removed, and my family is safe again.”

Local and state officials said the shooting had begun at 3:13pm on Saturday with the attempted traffic stop on Interstate 20, a busy artery that connects Midland and Odessa. Authorities said Ator was driving west in a gold car and was near the Midland airport.

Before his vehicle came to a complete stop, the gunman pointed a rifle towards the rear window and fired several shots at the state troopers, injuring one, the Department of Public Safety said in a statement.

The gunman then drove west towards Odessa, shooting a person as he sped away on Interstate 20 and then on East Loop 338, a connecting highway.

Friends of a high school student among the seven killed in a Texas mass shooting gathered to mourn (AP)
Friends of a high school student among the seven killed in a Texas mass shooting gathered to mourn (AP)

The shooting continued, and bodies were left in its wake as the gunman continued driving, eventually speeding into the parking lot of the Cinergy movie theatre on Highway 191. He shot an Odessa police officer and a Midland police officer before officers returned fire and killed him, authorities said.

On Sunday morning, the white postal van and the Odessa police vehicle remained where they were when the shooting had ended.

Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were among the officers examining the crime scene on Sunday.

Christopher H Combs, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Antonio office, said the shooting was not connected to either domestic or international terrorism.

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CBS7 News anchors evacuated from studio live on air due to threat of active shooter in Odessa Texas

Mr Combs and Governor Greg Abbott, both of whom spoke at the news conference Sunday, expressed sadness, frustration and a kind of exhaustion over the series of mass shootings in Texas in recent years.

Beginning with a rampage that targeted police officers in downtown Dallas in 2016, killing five officers and wounding another nine, there have been five mass shootings in Texas in a stretch of three years.

“I’m heartbroken by the crying of the people of the state of Texas,” the governor said. “I’m tired of the dying of the people of the state of Texas.

"Too many Texans are in mourning. Too many Texans have lost their lives. The status quo in Texas is unacceptable and action is needed.”

Mr Abbott, a Republican who has been a longtime advocate for gun rights, said the state must keep guns out of the hands of criminals like the gunman in Odessa, “while also assuring that we safeguard Second Amendment rights, and we must do it fast.”

A spokesman for the Medical Center Health System in Odessa said Sunday evening that a total of 10 people injured in the shooting spree remained at its hospital — one in critical condition, two in serious condition and seven in fair condition. One patient had been released.

The wounded state trooper was in serious but stable condition, and doctors were optimistic he would make a full recovery, officials said. The two Midland and Odessa police officers were in stable condition.

The injured Midland officer, Zack Owens, was shot several times in an arm and a hand, but relatives said his most serious injury had resulted from having glass shards in one eye.

The wife of his cousin set up a donation page on GoFundMe, a crowdfunding site, to help pay his medical expenses. By Sunday evening more than $57,000 had been raised.

The 17-month-old girl who was shot was identified by family friends as Anderson Davis. A GoFundMe page for Anderson, which had raised more than $145,000 Sunday evening, said the toddler had been wounded by a bullet fragment.

In Washington, president Donald Trump praised the police and emergency workers in West Texas on Sunday and called the gunman a “very sick person.”

“It’s tragic, but they did an incredible job under the circumstances,” Mr Trump said after stepping off Marine One on his return to the White House.

“Another very sick person. So I just want to thank everybody involved. And always, you say, as bad as it was, it could have been worse. But it was certainly bad. A very, very sad situation.”

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The president said a package of legislation was being prepared in response to the recent spate of mass shootings and would be presented to Congress, but he declined to discuss details.

“This really hasn’t changed anything,” Mr Trump said, adding, “We’re looking at a lot of different bills.”

Regarding proposals to tighten background checks on gun purchases, he said: “I will say that for the most part, sadly, if you look at the last four or five, going back even five or six or seven years — for the most part, as strong as you make your background checks, they would not have stopped any of it. So it’s a big problem. It’s a mental problem.”

Residents in Odessa, a city of 120,000, remained on edge Sunday. Though Odessa and El Paso are separated by nearly 300 miles, the cities share some ties and a Western sensibility.

On Saturday night, at the University of Texas Permian Basin, Stephanie Stonecliffe watched as her children played with rocks. She said her friend had been shopping at the Walmart in El Paso when the gunman there opened fire.

“Eventually I knew it was going to happen closer to home, especially with what’s going on in the world,” said Mr Stonecliffe, who moved to the area recently from College Station, Texas. “This just tells me the world’s getting a little bit more dangerous.”

New York Times

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