THOUSAND OAKS, California, United States — Twelve people were killed when a gunman opened fire on a crowd at a country dance bar holding a weekly “college night” Wednesday in Southern California, sending hundreds fleeing in terror including some who used barstools to break windows and escape, authorities said.
The dead were 11 people inside the bar and a sheriff’s sergeant who was the first officer inside the door, Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean said.
The gunman also died at the scene, though it was not immediately clear how.
“It’s a horrific scene in there,” Dean said at a news conference early Thursday in the parking lot of the Borderline Bar & Grill. “There’s blood everywhere.”
“We have no idea if there is a terrorism link to this or not. As you know, these are ongoing investigations and that information will come out as soon as we are able to determine exactly who the suspect was and what motive he might have had for this horrific event.”
It was the second mass shooting in less than two weeks, after a gunman killed 11 Jewish worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue on October 27.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it was checking to see if any Israelis were among the victims.
The gunman was tall and wearing all black with a hood over his head and his face partly covered, witnesses told TV stations at the scene. He first fired on a person working the door then appeared to open fire at random at the people inside, they said.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus and a passing highway patrolman were responding to several 911 calls when they arrived at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks at about 11:20 p.m., the sheriff said. They heard gunfire and went inside.
Helus was immediately hit with multiple gunshots, Dean said. The highway patrolman cleared the perimeter and pulled Helus out, and waited as a SWAT team and scores more officers arrived.
By the time they entered the bar again the gunfire had stopped, and they found 12 people dead inside, including the gunman.
Authorities do not yet know his name or have any idea of a motive, Dean said.
Many people had minor injuries, including some that came from the attempt to flee, Dean said.
It was college night and country two-step lessons were being offered Wednesday at the Borderline, according to its website.
When the gunman entered, people screamed and fled to all corners of the bar, while a few people threw barstools through the windows and helped dozens to escape, witnesses said.
Tayler Whitler, 19, said she was on the dance floor with her friends nearby when she saw the gunman shooting and heard screams to “get down.”
“It was really, really really shocking,” Whitler told KABC-TV as she stood with her father in the Borderline parking lot. “It looked like he knew what he was doing.”
Matt Wennerstron, a 20 year old college student and regular at the bar, said the shooter fired a short-barreled pistol that apparently had a 10-15 round magazine.
“It was just semi-automatic, as many shots as he could pull, and then when it started to reload that’s when we got people out of there and I didn’t look back.”
He said he and others smashed their way out of the bar onto a balcony and then jumped down to safety. “One bar stool and straight through a window,” he told reporters.
Shootings of any kind are very rare in Thousand Oaks, a city of about 130,000 people about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Los Angeles, just across the county line.
Helus was a 29-year veteran of the force with a wife and son and planned to retire in the coming year, said the sheriff, who choked back tears several times as he talked about the sergeant who was also his longtime friend.
“Ron was a hardworking, dedicated sheriff’s sergeant who was totally committed,” Dean said, “and tonight, as I told his wife, he died a hero because he went in to save lives.”