Uvalde gunman, isolated and bullied, was teased about being 'school shooter.' Then he bought guns.

·10 min read

UVALDE, Texas – Living across the street for nearly a decade, Ruben Flores watched Salvador Ramos grow up. He’d often come over to play video games and sports with his son, a quiet kid who would respond in quick and short answers.

“When he was here, he was a normal kid. But once he hit high school freshman year, he totally changed,” Flores told USA TODAY, speaking at his home in a modest neighborhood of the community of 16,000 about 75 miles from the Mexico border.

Some of that made sense, Flores said. Teenagers change, sometimes a lot. But even after he stopped coming over, he could see the growing tumult in Ramos’ life from across the street. He didn’t get along with his mother. Flores sometimes heard yelling. Ramos’ grandmother, a regular presence, confided about their family tensions and hardships.

The last time Ramos came over was about three years ago, Flores said, when he was left alone on New Year’s Eve. He came over and stayed with them to set off fireworks.

Now, Flores and others who spoke to USA TODAY, including Eduardo Trinidad, whose son attended the same high school, are struggling to reconcile past impressions with the 18-year-old who wounded his grandmother before walking into Robb Elementary School and shooting fourth grade students and teachers. The death toll stands at 19 children and two adults.

“I hate to say it, but Salvador deserved what he got. I mean, little kids. You don't kill kids, you know?” Flores said.

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MaryAnn Garza, 37, completes a sign showing community support in Uvalde, Texas, on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, outside the Sno-Ink restaurant she owns with her husband.
MaryAnn Garza, 37, completes a sign showing community support in Uvalde, Texas, on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, outside the Sno-Ink restaurant she owns with her husband.

'Forgive me, forgive my son'

In the wake of the worst U.S. school shooting in nearly a decade, interviews and published reports portray a teen, largely scorned by peers, who may have spiraled as he approached his 18th birthday – leaving his mother’s home after a fight, unable to graduate after dropping out, and leaving his fast-food job.

But what sparked Ramos to buy two AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles just after his 18th birthday, wounding his grandmother before the school massacre, remains unclear. Officials said Ramos had no known history of mental illness, and it’s also not yet known if attempts at intervention were missed.

Texas Department of Public Safety officials said Friday that in September 2021, Ramos asked his sister to buy him a gun, a request she refused. He also discussed buying a gun in online chats in March. Investigators are examining whether anyone helped him.

Ramos lived for years near Flores with his mother, Adriana Reyes, in Uvalde, a majority-Latino town 85 miles west of San Antonio. They lived in a working-class neighborhood on a long, narrow dirt road with pooled water and mud and lined by mobile homes. Whether his father played a role in his life wasn't clear.

In March, he moved to his grandmother’s house in another part of town after an intense fight over Wi-Fi, the latest fight in a tumultuous relationship, said Juan Alvarez, 62, who told NBC he was in a relationship with Reyes for about a year and lived with her.

Alvarez said he didn’t get along with Reyes’ son. “When you try to talk to him, he’d just sit there and walk away,” he said.

His mother said her son could be aggressive if he got mad – giving her an “uneasy feeling” at times, according to  ABC. But he wasn’t a “monster,” he said. And she told the Daily Mail she had a good relationship with her son, who wasn’t violent even though he kept to himself and didn’t have many friends. She said she was surprised by the attack.

"Forgive me, forgive my son," she told CNN.

Rose Conner, a substitute teacher in Uvalde, hugs a woman outside of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Uvalde, Texas, before a 10 a.m. mass on May 25, 2022. Conner was subbing at the high school when a gunman entered Robb Elementary School and killed at least 19 people. She said she the school was in lockdown until around 5:30 p.m.
Rose Conner, a substitute teacher in Uvalde, hugs a woman outside of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Uvalde, Texas, before a 10 a.m. mass on May 25, 2022. Conner was subbing at the high school when a gunman entered Robb Elementary School and killed at least 19 people. She said she the school was in lockdown until around 5:30 p.m.

Isolation and ridicule

At the 1,100-student Uvalde High School, Ramos faced isolation and ridicule and was often alone, according to interviews with former friends and classmates in various news outlets.

Students made fun of him when he was a freshman, Jeremiah Munoz, who has since graduated, told The New York Times. Another student said he heard people call him a homophobic slur but thought Ramos was provoking people rather than being bullied.

One former classmate who sat with Ramos in high school and played Xbox with him said he "would get severely bullied and made fun of a lot" for the clothes he wore and his family's financial situation, CNN reported. "People would, like, actually call him school shooter and stuff like that," he said.

Others who knew him cited instances of troubling behavior. Santos Valdez Jr., 18, who once played video games such as “Fortnite” and “Call of Duty” with Ramos, suggested his behavior deteriorated, The Washington Post reported. He once showed up to a park with cuts on his face, claiming a cat had scratched him but eventually admitting he had cut his face with knives "for fun."

Not fitting in

Eduardo Trinidad, who lives two blocks from Robb Elementary, told USA TODAY his son Abelardo, 18, went to high school with Ramos. He said Ramos didn’t seem to fit in.

Trinidad stressed he didn’t know the shooter personally but said he urged Abelardo to always talk to fellow students and engage them – even those who were picked on, like Ramos.

“I said, ‘Be friendly with everybody, don’t ignore him like the others,’” Trinidad said.

Trinidad wouldn’t speculate about Ramos’ home life, but he said he knew the attacker’s grandmother well and said any family in the neighborhood was probably struggling financially.

“That kid, how he was living, where he was at, of course, he was in poverty,” Trinidad said. “Everyone wants money, everyone wants to get out of this small town and make a life for themselves, but it’s hard here in Uvalde – being Hispanic here in Uvalde is really hard.

“The media is saying, ‘Oh it’s a really nice little town, but there’s a lot of dark secrets behind all this.”

Several former friends told the Daily Beast that Ramos had stopped showing up at school and was not going to graduate with the senior class this year.

He was working five days a week at Wendy’s. Evening manager Adrian Mendes told CNN he was quiet, while other co-workers told the Daily Beast he had an "aggressive streak" and sent inappropriate messages to female employees.

He moved in with his 66-year-old grandmother  in March, officials said. Rolando Reyes,  her husband, told ABC he lived in a front room and slept on a mattress on the floor and was quiet. Reyes would take him to work and urge him to finish school, he said.

Ramos was so quiet that Wendy Arrillos, 40, a convenience store worker who lives three doors down and said she has known the grandmother casually for more than five years, told USA TODAY she never saw him.

But around that same time, online chats suggested Ramos planned to buy a gun, Texas DPS officials said at a news conference Friday.

Victor Escalon, Regional Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety South, speaks to the press during a news conference outside of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Thursday, May 26, 2022.
Victor Escalon, Regional Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety South, speaks to the press during a news conference outside of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Thursday, May 26, 2022.

'Are you gonna shoot up a school or something?'

On March 3, Ramos was part of an online four-person Instagram chat that included the line "Word on the street is you're buying a gun," Texas DPS Director Steven McGraw said at the news conference.

Ramos replied, "Just bought something rn." On March 14, he referenced "ten more days" in a social media post, McGraw said. A user replied, "Are you going to shoot up a school or something?" Ramos replied, "No. And stop asking dumb questions. And you'll see."

Two weeks before the shooting, Ramos stopped showing up to his job at Wendy’s, according to an employee who declined to give their name to the Los Angeles Times.

Ramos' mother said that the last time she spoke with him was last Monday, on his 18th birthday. She had a card and a Snoopy stuffed animal to give to him, she told the Daily Mail. 

A day after his 18th birthday, Ramos legally bought an AR-style rifle from Oasis Outback, a federally licensed gun dealer in Uvalde, according to a state police briefing given to Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire. He bought another on May 20.

Ramos shared hints of the plans and guns on social media. A school friend said he sent him the photos of his guns, too. "He would message me here and there, and four days ago he sent me a picture of the AR he was using … and a backpack full of 5.56 rounds, probably like seven mags," the school friend told CNN.

"I was like, 'Bro, why do you have this?" and he was like, "Don't worry about it."

​​The gunman also sent messages to a 15-year-old girl in Germany he met online before the attack saying he’d bought ammunition, CNN reported. Asked what he was going to do with it, he replied, "Just wait for it.”

Ramos' grandfather said his family had no idea he bought guns. 'I didn't know he had weapons. If I'd have known, I would have reported it,” he told ABC.

No warning signs

The morning of the shooting, Ramos' grandfather said there were no warning signs.

A neighbor, Gilbert Gallegos, 82, said he was in his yard across the street and heard the shots, according to The Associated Press. The gunman then got into a truck and sped away, and his grandmother came out of the house covered in blood. She had been shot in the face but survived after being flown to a hospital in San Antonio.

Ramos sent social media messages that day. "I'm going to shoot my grandmother,” then, "I shot my grandmother” and then "I'm going to shoot an elementary school," officials said.

Flores told USA TODAY that when his son texted him about the shooting, he rushed to the high school to get him. Students were placed on lockdown, he said, so he had to wait several hours. When he finally picked up his 15-year-old, Flores said, his son was also in disbelief that Ramos had been the shooter.

Officials said Ramos was not among two Uvalde juveniles, ages 13 and 14, who were arrested in 2018 on suspicion of planning to target students in a mass casualty event.

It’s not known whether Ramos or his family ever sought mental health support, but Uvalde Justice of the Peace Eulalio Diaz, who helped identify some of the bodies of the children after the shooting, lamented the lack of mental health resources in the city.

"This child was probably suffering from something that was never diagnosed," he said. "The way you get diagnosed here is you end up in jail. This kid never made it to jail."

Flores is now left sifting through those memories while also mourning the lives cut short by someone he watched grow up in front of him. “I don't think a kid should be able to go buy a rifle at 18, especially an assault rifle,” Flores said.

More coverage of Texas school shooting from USA TODAY

Contributing: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY, and Martha Pskowski, El Paso Times

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Uvalde shooter isolated, angry, teased before Texas school massacre