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Wednesday 18 September 2019

Texas gunman ‘violent, aggressive person on downward spiral’

Seth Aaron Ator killed seven people and injured two dozen more after being sacked from his job, US authorities said.

Odessa High School students and families remember their 15 year-old classmate Leilah Hernandez (The Abilene Reporter-News/AP)
Odessa High School students and families remember their 15 year-old classmate Leilah Hernandez (The Abilene Reporter-News/AP)

By Paul J Weber and Jake Bleiberg

A gunman who killed seven people in West Texas “was on a long spiral of going down” and had been sacked from his oil services job on the morning of his rampage, US authorities said.

The FBI also revealed that Seth Aaron Ator called 911 both before and after the shootings began on Saturday.

Officers killed the 36-year-old on Saturday outside a busy cinema in Odessa after a spate of violence that spanned 10 miles, injuring around two dozen people in addition to the dead.

FBI special agent Christopher Combs said Ator called the agency’s tip line as well as local police after being fired from Journey Oilfield Services, making “rambling statements about some of the atrocities that he felt that he had gone through”.

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Seth Aaron Ator (City of Odessa/FBI/AP)

Special agent 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 to that company in trouble.”

Fifteen minutes after the call to the FBI, the agent said, a Texas state trooper unaware of the calls to authorities tried pulling Ator over for failing to signal a lane change.

That was when Ator pointed an AR-style rifle toward the rear window of his car and fired on the trooper. This led to a terrifying police chase as Ator sprayed bullets into passing cars and shopping plazas before killing a US Postal Service employee while hijacking her mail truck.

Special agent Combs said Ator “showed up to work enraged” but did not point to any specific source of his anger.

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Crime scene tape surrounds the home of Seth Aaron Ator (AP)

Ator’s home on the outskirts of Odessa was a corrugated metal shack along a dirt road surrounded by trailers, mobile homes and oil pump jacks.

On Monday, a green car without a rear windshield was parked in the front, with the entire residence cordoned off by police tape.

Special agent Combs described it as a “strange residence” that reflected “what his mental state was going into this”. The FBI agent said he did not know whether Ator had been diagnosed with any prior mental health problems.

A neighbour, Rocio Gutierrez, said Ator was “a violent, aggressive person” that would shoot at animals, mostly rabbits, at all hours of the night.

She added: “We were afraid of him because you could tell what kind of person he was just by looking at him.

“He was not nice, he was not friendly, he was not polite.”

The daylight attack over the Labour Day holiday weekend in the US came just weeks after another mass shooting killed 22 people in the Texas border city of El Paso.

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Officials continue to work at the scene where the gunman was killed (AP)

Authorities have not said how Ator obtained the gun used in the shooting, but Ator had previously failed a federal background check for a firearm, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent John Wester said. He did not say when Ator failed the background check, or why.

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

Federal law defines nine categories that would legally prevent a person from owning a gun, which include being convicted of a felony, a misdemeanour domestic violence charge, being adjudicated as a “mental defect” or committed to a mental institution, the subject of a restraining order or having an active warrant. Authorities have said Ator had no active warrants at the time of the shooting.

Texas governor Greg Abbott tweeted on Monday that “we must keep guns out of criminals’ hands” – words similar to remarks he made after the El Paso shooting on August 3, when he said firearms must be kept from “deranged killers”.

But Mr Abbott, a Republican and avid gun rights supporter, has been non-committal about tightening Texas gun laws. The governor tweeted that Ator did not go through a background check for the weapon he used in Odessa.

Odessa police chief Michael Gerke said Ator’s company also called 911 on Saturday after Ator was sacked, but that Ator had already taken off by the time police showed up.

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Odessa police chief Michael Gerke (AP)

“Basically, they were complaining on each other because they had a disagreement over the firing,” Mr Gerke said.

He said he believes Ator had also been recently fired from a different job.

On Monday, Odessa officials released the names of those killed, who were between 15 and 57 years old.

Among the dead were Edwin Peregrino, 25, who ran out of his parents’ home to see what the commotion was; mail carrier Mary Granados, 29, who was shot in her US Postal Service truck; and 15-year-old high school student Leilah Hernandez, who was walking out of a car dealership.

Ator fired at random as he drove in the area of Odessa and Midland, two cities more than 300 miles west of Dallas. Police used a marked SUV to ram the mail truck outside the Cinergy Movie Theatre in Odessa, disabling the vehicle.

The gunman then fired at police, wounding two officers before he was killed.

The shootings bring the number of mass killings in the US so far this year to 25, matching the total for the whole of 2018. A database shows that the number of people killed in such incidents in America this year has already reached 142, surpassing the 140 people who were killed over 2018 in total.

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