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Without saying a word, a mysterious man in black clutching a semi-automatic pistol opened fire on a California bar packed with college students celebrating “country night” Wednesday — claiming the lives of at least 12 patrons, including a veteran sheriff’s sergeant nearing retirement, before officers found the gunman dead.
Hundreds of people — including students from California Lutheran University, private Christian school Pepperdine University and California State University Channel Islands — were inside Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif., for the country music event when shots suddenly rang out at about 11:20 p.m., Ventura County police said. Police said at least 30 shots were fired and the gunman, armed with a .45-caliber handgun, used a smoke device to disorient and confuse his targets.
Deputies and highway patrolmen arrived at the bar within minutes of receiving multiple 911 calls and began assessing the grim, gruesome situation, Sheriff Geoff Dean said during an early Thursday press conference.
“It is a horrific scene in there. There is blood everywhere,” Dean said.
It was not immediately clear if the gunman, who the Associated Press reported to be 29 years old, was shot and killed by police or if he died from a self-inflicted wound.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus, a veteran of 29 years, arrived first on the scene and immediately entered the bar with a patrolman after hearing gunfire. But as the two made their way inside, Helus was shot several times. The patrolman pulled the sergeant from the line of fire, and Helus was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead early Thursday.
“Ron was a hardworking dedicated sheriff sergeant,” Dean said while holding back tears. “He was totally committed. He gave his all. And tonight, as I told his wife, he died a hero because he went in to save lives. To save other people.”
Witnesses inside the bar — which bills itself as “Ventura County’s largest country dance hall and live music venue” — told reporters how some patrons used chairs to break windows in a bid to escape the chaos while others scrambled between shots to hide in the establishment’s attic.
“We all just kind of froze for a split second and then everyone booked it and dove to the floor,” said Teylor Whittler, who was on the dance floor when the shooting started. “After the first round it was quiet for about five seconds, and then some guys who were next to me on the floor got up and started sprinting toward the back door and yelled at everyone, ‘Get up! Run! He’s coming!”
Whittler, a daughter of a military veteran, told “Fox & Friends” she was at the bar celebrating a friend’s 21st birthday when shots rang out. She said of the 11 people she was with, there are still five friends who she hasn’t heard from yet. She recalled getting trampled on and hit in the head with a barstool when patrons made a dash to the door. A man eventually pulled her up and helped her escape.
She described the gunman as wearing all black clothes, a black baseball cap and a ski mask-type item partially covering his face. Several other witnesses offered a similar description, telling reporters the tall gunman first shot at a bouncer working the bar’s door and then opened fire — seemingly at random — at those inside.
Whittler said the gunman “knew what he was doing.”
“While I was inside I would say [I heard]…about a good 30 seconds [of gunshots]…he had two [magazines] that I know with him. He changed them within about six seconds, which was really fast,” she said.
“As soon as he walked in he had perfect form…he looked like he knew what he was doing. He had practiced, he had been shooting [before],” she told “Fox & Friends.”
Aside from the college students filling the bar, survivors of the 2017 Las Vegas massacre — which occurred during a country music festival — were also in Borderline.
Chandler Gunn, 23, of Newberry Park, said a friend who works at the bar was also at Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017, when a gunman fired a barrage of bullets from a hotel room perch, The Los Angeles Times reported.
“A lot of people in the Route 91 situation go here,” Gunn said. “There’s people that live a whole lifetime without seeing this, and then there’s people that have seen it twice.”
Josh Coaly, 27, had been to Borderline several times with his friends — including one who also survived the Vegas shooting, The Times reported. Coaly said the unidentified friend was in good condition.
Carl Edgar, 24, of Tarzana, told The Times he had about 20 friends inside the bar, which he also frequents.
“As far as I know, all of my friends are OK, safe,” he said. “There are a few people we can’t get a hold of, but in these situations, people usually turn off their phones to be safe so I’m not gonna get too worried. A lot of my friends survived Route 91. If they survived that, they’ll survive this.”
President Trump said he was briefed on the “terrible shooting” and offered his condolences to the 12 people who died.
“I have been fully briefed on the terrible shooting in California. Law Enforcement and First Responders, together with the FBI, are on scene. 13 people, at this time, have been reported dead. Likewise, the shooter is dead, along with the first police officer to enter the bar,” the president tweeted. “Great bravery shown by police. California Highway Patrol was on scene within 3 minutes, with first officer to enter shot numerous times. That Sheriff’s Sergeant died in the hospital. God bless all of the victims and families of the victims. Thank you to Law Enforcement.”
Police said additional units from the California Highway Patrol, Simi Valley and the F.B.I. were on the scene at Thousand Oaks, which is about 40 miles up the coast from Los Angeles.
Borderline Bar and Grill opened in the late 1980s and boasts “2,500 square feet of wide-open dance floor,” according to its website.
The site adds: “Borderline has provided a haven for country line dancing folks of all ages.”