Texas gunman who killed seven had previously failed background check for firearm

A man holds flowers and a candle as people gather for a vigil following Saturday's shooting in Odessa, Texas, U.S. September 1, 2019. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – The gunman who killed seven people and wounded 23 others in a rolling rampage across West Texas obtained an assault-style rifle despite failing a background check, state and law enforcement officials said on Monday.

The gunman, identified by police as Seth Aaron Ator, 36, carried out the shooting spree in the neighboring cities of Midland and Odessa on Saturday, a short time after he was fired from his trucking job. He called local emergency 911 responders and then an FBI tip line to make rambling statements, officials said.

In those calls, Ator did not threaten to commit violence, they said.

But he would soon go on to open fire on civilians and police officers in a roving series of shootings, at one point hijacking a U.S. Postal Service truck before dying in an exchange of gunfire with law enforcement, police said.

It was the second mass shooting in Texas in four weeks, and the state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, expressed frustration on Monday the suspect had a firearm.

“We must keep guns out of criminals’ hands,” Abbott said on Twitter.

Ator was rejected when he tried to buy a gun and his name was run through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, John Wester, assistant special agent in charge of the Dallas office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told a news conference.

Authorities could not immediately say how he obtained a firearm, Wester added.

It also was not immediately clear when or why he had failed the background check. Online court records showed Ator had convictions in 2002 for criminal trespass and evading arrest.

But Odessa Police Chief Michael Gerke told a news conference on Monday that Ator’s past interactions with police in that area, where the gunman lived, were not serious enough to have legally prevented him from having a firearm.

President Donald Trump over the weekend called the Odessa-Midland shooter “a very sick person,” but said increased background checks on gun buyers would not have prevented many mass shootings in the United States in the past few years.

Democrats in Congress want to close loopholes that under federal law, allow certain people to sell firearms without requiring background checks, such as in sales conducted online, at gun shows or out of their homes.

Trump said last month he had spoken to the National Rifle Association gun rights group about closing loopholes in background checks but he did not want to take away the constitutional right to own guns.

PULLED OVER

Hours after he was fired from his trucking job and 15 minutes after he called the FBI tip line, Ator was pulled over in a sedan by Texas state troopers on Interstate 20 in Midland for failing to use a turn signal, police said.

Armed with an AR-type rifle, Ator fired out the back window of his gold-colored car, wounding one trooper. Then he drove away spraying gunfire indiscriminately, the Texas Department of Public Safety said.

At one point, Ator abandoned his car and hijacked a U.S. postal van, mortally wounding the letter carrier, identified by officials as Mary Grandos, 29.

He shot seven people to death, leaving behind a trail of 15 crime scenes with 23 other people wounded in the rampage, officials said.

Three police officers were shot and wounded – one from Midland, one from Odessa and one state trooper – all in stable condition at hospitals.

Ator was later cornered by officers in the parking lot of a cinema complex in Odessa where he was shot and killed.

The FBI has scoured Ator’s home, Christopher Combs, special agent in charge of the FBI office in San Antonio, told a news conference on Monday.

“I can tell you the conditions reflect what we believe his mental state was going into this,” Combs said.

“He was on a long spiral of going down. He didn’t wake up Saturday morning and walk into his company and then it happened. He went into that company in trouble. He’s probably been in trouble for a while,” Combs said.

The rampage came about a month after a gunman from the Dallas area killed 22 people on Aug. 3 at a Walmart store about 255 miles (410 km) west of Midland in El Paso, Texas.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)

Five killed, including gunman, 21 injured in West Texas rampage

People are evacuated from Cinergy Odessa cinema following a shooting in Odessa, Texas, U.S. in this still image taken from a social media video August 31, 2019. Rick Lobo via REUTERS

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – A white male in his 30s who was known to police killed four people and wounded 21 others on Saturday in a gun rampage between the West Texas cities of Midland and Odessa that started with a traffic stop and ended when he was killed by officers, authorities said.

The suspect hijacked a postal van and opened fire on police officers, motorists and shoppers on a busy Labor Day holiday weekend before being shot dead outside a multiplex cinema complex in Odessa, police said.

Authorities originally thought there were two shooters driving two vehicles, but Odessa Police Chief Michael Gerke told a news conference on Saturday evening that he believed there was only one.

The gunman was heading from Midland to Odessa on Interstate 20 when he was stopped at 3:17 p.m. local time, Gerke said. He shot the police officer, took off west on I-20 and then exited at Odessa. There he drove to a Home Depot and opened fire on passersby.

“At some point, the suspect stole a mail truck and ditched his car,” Gerke said. He drove the mail truck back east, pursued by police, before crashing into a stationary vehicle behind the Odessa Cinergy multiplex complex, where he engaged in a gun battle with police and was shot dead, Gerke said.

Video shown by a local CBS affiliate showed the white postal van crashing into a vehicle at high speed outside the movie theater complex before the man believed to be the shooter was swarmed by police. Screaming theater goers ran from the complex.

Gerke said the suspect was known to him but declined to comment on a motive for the shootings.

The Medical Center Hospital in Odessa took in 13 victims, including one who died, the hospital’s director, Russell Tippin, told reporters. Seven were in critical condition, two serious, and two were treated and released. One “pediatric patient” under the age of 2 was transferred to another facility, he said.

“Grab onto your loved ones, pray for this town, stop and give your prayers for the victims,” Tippin said.

People are evacuated from Cinergy Odessa cinema following a shooting in Odessa, Texas, U.S. in this still image taken from a social media video August 31, 2019. Rick Lobo via REUTERS

People are evacuated from Cinergy Odessa cinema following a shooting in Odessa, Texas, U.S. in this still image taken from a social media video August 31, 2019. Rick Lobo via REUTERS

Midland Mayor Jerry Morales said hundreds of people were enjoying the holiday weekend inside the Cinergy complex when the gunman was confronted by officers who boxed in his vehicle in the parking lot before shots were exchanged.

He said the suspect used a rifle to shoot the Texas Department of Public Safety officer who had stopped his vehicle but did not know any more details about the weapon.

Morales said three police officers – one from Midland, one from Odessa and the Department of Public Safety officer – were wounded by gunfire. At one point, Midland police barricaded the highway to stop the suspect leaving Odessa, about 20 miles (32 km) away in the Permian oil boom area of West Texas.

“It was very chaotic,” Morales said by telephone. “There were rumors flying that the shooter was at shopping malls, the movie theater.”

Retail stores, a shopping mall and the University of Texas Permian Basin were locked down as rumors spread of the shootings and sightings, he said.

The Texas Department of Public Safety said that as two state troopers made the initial traffic stop on I-20, the suspect pointed a rifle toward the rear window of his car and fired several shots toward their patrol vehicle, hitting of them.

The wounded trooper is in serious but stable condition, and two other wounded police officers are in stable condition at a local hospital, the department said in a statement.

At one point armed police ran through the Music City Mall in Odessa, forcing anchors for television station CBS 7, located inside, to duck off-screen as the building went into lockdown.

Saturday’s shooting came after 22 people were killed at a Walmart store about 255 miles west of Midland in the city of El Paso, Texas on Aug. 3.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Additional reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston and Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Dan Grebler)