Masked Couple Kills 14 at Government Agency's Holiday Party

by | December 3, 2015 AT 11:20 AM

By Paloma Esquivel, Louis Sahagun and Richard A. Serrano

Masked assailants armed with assault rifles opened fire on a holiday banquet for county employees in San Bernardino on Wednesday, killing 14 people and plunging a nation already on edge about terrorism and mass shootings into hours of tense uncertainty.

The massacre at the Inland Regional Center set off a surreal day in which hundreds cowered in their offices, schools went on lockdown, SWAT teams swarmed neighborhoods and a four-hour manhunt played out on live TV. The finale was a gunbattle on a residential street that left two suspects dead.

San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said investigators had not determined a motive for the shooting, but an official at the FBI, which is working with local agencies, said he could not rule out terrorism as a motive.

"It is a possibility, but we don't know that yet, and we aren't willing to go down that road yet," said David Bowdich, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles office.

Two law enforcement sources identified one of the dead suspects as Syed Farook, 28, a U.S.-born citizen and a five-year employee of the government agency holding the holiday banquet. His co-workers said Farook, a Muslim, had traveled in recent years to the Middle East. The second person killed by police was identified as Tashfeen Malik, 27. Burguan said she was either Farook's wife or girlfriend.

Burguan said he could not rule out that a personal conflict led to the shooting. During the banquet, "there was some type of dispute," and one person left the gathering, the chief said.

"But we have no idea if that is the person that came back," he said.

Farook worked for the San Bernardino County Public Health Department as a health inspector, according to public records and co-workers. One co-worker, Patrick Baccari, told the Los Angeles Times that Farook was present when the banquet began but disappeared before a staff photo was taken.

"I guess he's missing the photo this year," Baccari recalled thinking.

In an exchange on a law enforcement radio channel, an official told a dispatcher that Farook "was acting nervous" at the banquet and left the building about 20 minutes before the shooting.

By the time scores of officers arrived at the shooting scene, the assailants had fled. Witnesses said they left in a black SUV. Another tip led police to a home in nearby Redlands. As officers arrived about 3 p.m., a black SUV drove away.

Officers pursued the vehicle to San Bernardino, where, according to Burguan, it stopped on San Bernardino Avenue near Mountain View Street. An exchange of gunfire left an officer injured and two occupants of the vehicle dead.

Both the man and the woman were dressed in what the chief called "assault-style clothing," and both were armed with assault rifles and handguns.

Police saw a third person running from the area and detained him for questioning, Burguan said. He said it was unclear whether he was involved in the shooting.

Investigators said they were concerned about possible explosives or booby traps at the Redlands home and near the SUV. An object hurled from the vehicle was initially believed to have been a pipe bomb, but on closer inspection it was not, Burguan said.

The FBI's Bowdich said investigators searching the Redlands home were also on guard for explosives.

"We are certainly going to proceed very cautiously into that house to preserve life and limb of our employees."

The shooting Wednesday was a grim marker: It was the deadliest shooting since the massacre of 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. It stood apart from many other mass murders in that there were at least two assailants and one was female.

President Barack Obama said the killings were yet more evidence of the need for stricter gun laws.

"The one thing we do know is that we have a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world," he said in an interview with CBS.

Late Wednesday, Farhan Khan, introduced as Farook's brother-in-law, appeared at a news conference called by the Los Angeles-area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"I just cannot express how sad I am for what happened," Khan said. "My condolences to the people who lost their lives. ... I am in shock that something like this could happen." When asked if his brother-in-law had been religious, he declined to comment.

The shooting began at about 11 a.m. in a building on the campus of the Inland Regional Center, a nonprofit that serves people with developmental disabilities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The county public health department had rented a large conference room for its annual holiday potluck. Employees were gathered for lunch when suddenly the doors burst open.

Banquet attendee Denise Peraza, 27, said two people in black clothes and black masks entered brandishing "big ol' guns."

"Everyone dropped to the floor," Peraza said in a phone call from Arrowhead Regional Medical Center. "The guys opened fire for 30 seconds, randomly, then paused to reload and began firing again."

Peraza, who was hiding under a desk, was hit in the lower back. The gunfire eventually stopped. The conference room, scattered with the bodies of the dead and injured, was eerily silent, Peraza said. Then, after what seemed like five minutes, the doors opened again and police officers yelled out: "Anyone who can move, leave immediately and find cover behind vehicles."

Seventeen people were wounded and taken to area hospitals, authorities said. Some were reported to be undergoing surgery Wednesday night.

While stunned survivors rushed from the conference room, others in the building were laughing at what they assumed was yet another safety drill. In her second-story office, Dorothy Vong trained her cellphone camera on a swarm of heavily armed police officers sprinting across parking lots and vaulting hedges.

"They're all geared up!" a colleague remarked, according to Vong's video. "Rifles and everything!"

Then the reality set in.

"Well it's real," Vong texted her husband, adding later, "We're in a locked office."

The shooting rippled across San Bernardino. All county schools, as well as city government buildings and courthouses, were locked down as police searched for the assailants.

Hundreds of people on the campus grounds at the time of the attack were evacuated in stages, some on buses to sites where they were interviewed by police and reunited with relatives.

As night fell, some family members were still waiting for news. Mindy Velasco called phone number after phone number for hospitals, police, evacuee centers _ for anyone who might have information about her niece, Yvette Velasco, who was at the banquet.

No one knew anything.

"I'm fearing the worst," Velasco said, her voice breaking. "She would definitely be in contact after something like this."

(Times staff writers Ruben Vives, Rong-Gong Lin II, Rosanna Xia, Christine Mai-Duc, Tony Barboza, Hailey Branson-Potts, Taylor Goldenstein, Brian Bennett, Jack Dolan, Joel Rubin, Kate Mather, Kate Linthicum, Ben Poston, Zahira Torres, Laura J. Nelson, James Queally, Lauren Raab, Javier Panzar, Sarah D. Wire, Stephen Ceasar, Joseph Serna, Veronica Rocha, Matt Hamilton, Richard Winton, Doug Smith and Harriet Ryan contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times