A student opened fire on his classmates, killing two and injuring three more, before shooting himself in the head at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita Thursday — the day of the shooter's 16th birthday, authorities said.
The gunfire erupted at 7:38 a.m. and prompted a massive law enforcement response to the campus at 21900 Centurion Way, with some first responders being off-duty officials who had just dropped off family members for school, according to officials with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Deputies found six students with gunshot wounds in the school's quad, among them the suspected gunman, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said.
Several students were transported to local hospitals, where two of them — a 16-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy — later died, according to officials.
Neither victim has been identified.
The suspect remained in critical condition at Henry Mayo Hospital, the Sheriff's Department said.
Two other gunshot victims, girls age 14 and 15, were in good-to-fair condition at Holy Cross Providence Hospital, according to authorities and a hospital spokeswoman.
The sixth student wounded, a 14-year-old boy, was released after being treated at Henry Mayo Hospital.
Authorities have not released the suspect's name, saying only that the shooting took place on his birthday. But multiple sources have identified him as Nathaniel Berhow, and the Los Angeles Times cited law enforcement in providing his name.
Early reports of the number of victims from the shooting ranged from four to as many as seven. The L.A. County Fire Department later confirmed seven patients total were taken to hospitals, including one not wounded by gunfire.
The shooting left students, parents and campus staff distraught in the Saugus area, a suburban area of Santa Clarita about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.
Suspect allegedly shot 5 others, himself
The shooting triggered a massive response and shelter-in-place order as law enforcement combed the area for the gunman. But the gunfire lasted only a matter of seconds, and the shooter did not roam campus looking for targets, sheriff’s Capt. Kent Wegener said.
“From the time that he withdrew the handgun from his backpack to the time that he was on the ground with a gunshot wound to his head was about 16 seconds,” Wegener said.
Authorities realized the suspect was among those hospitalized after interviewing witnesses and looking through video, one of which showed the incident unfold.
“Detectives have reviewed the video at the scene, which clearly shows the subject in the quad withdraw a handgun from his backpack, shoot and wound five people and then shoot himself in the head," Wegener said.
A weapon was recovered. Villanueva described the gun as a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol.
Investigators were also gathering evidence at the suspect's home in the 22900 block of Sycamore Creek Drive after serving a search warrant there, according to Wegener. The captain said there were no recent calls to the Sheriff's Department that would indicate turmoil in the house.
The suspect's mother and girlfriend were being interviewed as detectives try to determine a motive, according to Villanueva.
So far, investigators "have not established a motive or a nexus between the suspect and his victims, other than to say that they were all students at the high school together," Wegener said.
A neighbor who has known the suspect all his life told KTLA the teen's father had died two years ago and he had been going through a tough time.
"I've known the whole family my whole life. It's so surprising," said the neighbor, Jared. "You hear about things like this in the news; you don't expect it to be your own community."
The FBI is assisting with the investigation, and so far agents don't believe the shooter was acting on the behalf of any group or ideology. “But this is day one,” and further investigation could change things, said Paul Delacourt, the assistant director in charge at the bureau’s L.A. field office.
Wegener said Thursday afternoon that officials are also looking into an Instagram account tied to the gunman — since taken down — that had a bio stating, “Saugus have fun at school tomorrow,” prior to the shooting. But that text has since been changed, indicating the account was hacked or someone else had access to it.
Instagram later confirmed to KTLA that the account did not, in fact, belong to the suspect. It was disabled for violating Instagram policies, company spokesperson Stephanie Otway said.
Wegener told BuzzFeed News — which first reported the discrepancy — officials “will not know definitively” who owns the account until they can obtain a search warrant for it.
Otway said she couldn't comment on whether Instagram has identified any accounts that do belong to the suspect.
'We ran as fast as we could'
Students described a chaotic scene when gunfire erupted on campus before the start of classes. An 11th grader told KTLA she was outside of the library with friends when they heard five or six gunshots ring out.
“I heard a bullet hit the wall right next to where we were standing. … We ran as fast as we could," said the student, who identified herself as Riley. "There were hundreds of us just running as far away as possible."
Braden, a 10th grader, told KTLA the situation unfolded right after his mother dropped him off at school.
“As soon as I found out, I saw the kids running," he said. "I knew it was serious, so I just ran back to my mom’s car."
Frightened students barricaded themselves inside classrooms while concerned parents frantically rushed to campus.
"They’re texting us that they’re hiding in closets, they’re scared to die," one mother said as she held her daughter, who was among the first wave of students to leave campus.
Another parent told KTLA she received a text message from her daughter as she was preparing to head to work.
"She told me, 'Mom, I’m so scared. I love you guys so much. Please come, please come,'" the woman told KTLA. "That just killed me."
Several students told KTLA that for years they had done practice drills — "even when we were little," one said — to prepare for the possibility of such an incident.
“It’s so different when it actually happens. You don’t think it ever will — you hope it won’t," said a student who identified himself as Jacob. “I’ve been living here my whole life and never thought here it would happen. And today shows it can happen anywhere.”
Classes canceled Friday districtwide
All campuses in the William S. Hart Union High School District will be closed Friday "out of respect for the victims and their families," Deputy Superintendent Mike Kuhlman said.
"Please join me in keeping these families in your hearts and prayers," Kuhlman wrote in a statement. "Today’s events took the life of their children; words are utterly inadequate when we think about their loss."
Despite canceled classes, Kuhlman said administrators are encouraging students and staff to convene off-campus "to process their feelings with counselors, with their teachers, and with one another."
Counselors would be available 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Santa Clarita Activities Center, at 20880 Centre Pointe Parkway, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday at Grace Baptist Church, 22833 Copper Hill Drive.
Earlier Thursday, all the district's schools were on lockdown amid the search for the gunman. The lockdowns have since been lifted. The Castaic Union School District also temporarily placed all of its campuses on lockdown as a precautionary measure.
Students were interviewed by investigators before being released to their parents, Undersheriff Tim Murakami tweeted.
The Department of Mental Health dispatched support teams to the campus to work with students and family members, according to Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the county's 5th District.
“As you can imagine, the impact that this is going to have, not only on this school but on this community, is tremendous," Barger said.
KTLA's Nidia Becerra, Anthony Kurzweil, Kristina Bravo and Erika Martin contributed to this story.