Gunman in West Texas shooting rampage had just been fired from job, police say

Authorities say the gunman in a deadly West Texas rampage on the weekend was fired from his job and called both police and the FBI before the mass shooting began.

Odessa Police Chief Michael Gerke said Monday that 36-year-old Seth Aaron Ator had been fired over the weekend from Journey Oil Field Services.

He said both Ator and the company called 911 after he was fired Saturday, but that Ator was gone by the time police showed up. Ator also called the FBI.

FBI special agent Christopher Combs said Ator had gone into work that day “in trouble.” The agent described the gunman’s statements as “rambling.”

“He showed up to work enraged,” Combs said of the suspected shooter.

Combs said the place where Ator lived was “a strange residence.” He didn’t elaborate.

Ator was stopped 15 minutes later by a Texas state trooper on an interstate highway for failing to signal a lane change. Authorities say Ator opened fire on the troopers and fled, shooting at random passersby and vehicles. Seven people were killed and 22 others injured before police gunned down Ator at a movie theatre in Odessa to end the chase, which covered more than 16 kilometres.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that Ator’s criminal history means “we must keep guns out of criminals’ hands.”

Two women embrace as people gather for a vigil Sunday following Saturday’s shooting. (Callaghan O’Hare/Reuters)

Abbott’s tweet was similar to his comments that followed another mass shooting in El Paso last month, when the Republican governor said firearms must be kept out of the hands of “deranged killers.”

But Abbott, an avid gun rights supporter, has been noncommittal on tightening gun laws in Texas.

2001 misdemeanour arrest

Court records show Ator was arrested in 2001 for a misdemeanor offence that would not have prevented him from legally purchasing firearms in Texas.

Authorities have not said where Ator got the “AR-style” weapon he used.

Abbott tweeted that Ator failed a previous gun background check and didn’t go through one for the weapon he used in Odessa. But the governor didn’t elaborate on when Ator failed the background check or the reasons why.

His spokesperson referred questions to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Authorities said those killed were between ages 15 and 57 but did not immediately provide a list of names. But family and employers said the dead include:

  • Edwin Peregrino, 25, who ran out of his parents’ home to check out the commotion.
  • Mary Granados, 29, a mail carrier slain in her U.S. Postal Service truck.
  • Leilah Hernandez, a 15-year-old high school student, who was walking out of an auto dealership with her family.
  • Rodolfo “Rudy” Arco, 57, the owner of a trucking company who moved to Texas from Las Vegas after a 2017 mass shooting at a music festival.
  • Joseph Griffith, 40, a former math teacher who was killed while sitting at a traffic light with his wife and two children. 
  • Kameron Brown, an army veteran.

Hundreds of people gathered at a local university in the Permian Basin region known for its oil industry Sunday evening for a prayer vigil, to console each other and grieve the loss of life.

“We’re out here in the middle of nowhere,” Midland Mayor Jerry Morales told the crowd. “All we’ve talked about is oil forever. And then this happens.”

A man raises his hands in prayer at a vigil in Odessa. (Callaghan O’Hare/Reuters)

Gerke said there were still no answers pointing to a motive for the attacks, which began when Texas state troopers tried pulling over a gold car on Interstate 20 for failing to signal a left turn.

Before the vehicle came to a stop, the driver “pointed a rifle toward the rear window of his car and fired several shots” toward the patrol car stopping him, according to Katherine Cesinger, spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety. The gunshots struck a trooper, Cesinger said, after which the gunman fled and continued shooting. He fired at random as he drove in the area of Odessa and Midland, two cities more than 480 kilometres west of Dallas.

Police used a marked SUV to ram the mail truck outside the Cinergy Movie Theater in Odessa, disabling the vehicle. The gunman then fired at police, wounding two officers before he was killed.

“Local law enforcement and state troopers pursued him and stopped him from possibly going into a crowded movie theatre and having another event of mass violence,” FBI special agent Christopher Combs said.

An already violent month in Texas

Police said Ator’s arrest in 2001 was in the county where Waco is located, hundreds of kilometres east of Odessa. Online court records show he was charged then with misdemeanour criminal trespass and evading arrest. He entered guilty pleas in a deferred prosecution agreement where the charge was waived after he served 24 months of probation, according to records.

Gerke refused to say the name of the shooter during a televised news conference, saying he wouldn’t give him notoriety. But police later posted his name on Facebook. A similar approach has been taken in some other recent mass shootings in an effort to deny shooters notoriety.

The shooting ended an already violent month in Texas, where on Aug. 3, a gunman in the border city of El Paso killed 22 people at a Walmart. Sitting beside authorities in Odessa, Abbott ticked off a list of mass shootings that have now killed nearly 70 since 2016 in his state alone.

Authorities look at a U.S. Mail vehicle that was involved in Saturday’s shooting outside the Cinergy entertainment centre, on Sunday in Odessa. (Mark Rogers/Odessa American via AP)

“I have been to too many of these events,” Abbott said. “Too many Texans are in mourning. Too many Texans have lost their lives. The status quo in Texas is unacceptable, and action is needed.”

But Abbott, a Republican, remains noncommittal about imposing any new gun laws in Texas at a time when Democrats and gun-control groups are demanding restrictions. Even as Abbott spoke, a number of looser gun laws that he signed this year took effect on the first day of September, including one that would arm more teachers in Texas schools.

‘What’s the world coming to?’

Saturday’s shooting brings the number of mass killings in the U.S. this year to 25, matching the number in all of 2018, according to The AP/USATODAY/Northeastern University mass murder database. The number of people killed this year has already reached 142, surpassing the 140 killed last year. The database tracks homicides where four or more people are killed, not including the offender.

Daniel Munoz, 28, of Odessa was headed to a bar to meet a friend when he noticed the driver of an approaching car was holding what appeared to be a rifle.

“This is my street instincts: When a car is approaching you and you see a gun of any type, just get down,” said Munoz, who moved from San Diego about a year ago to work in oil country. “Luckily I got down … Sure enough, I hear the shots go off. He let off at least three shots on me.”

He said he was treated at a hospital and is physically OK, though bewildered by the experience.

“I’m just trying to turn the corner and I got shot — I’m getting shot at? What’s the world coming to? For real?”

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