Ambulance outside high school
An ambulance outside the high school north of Los Angeles. Courtesy OnScene.TV

On his 16th birthday, a Saugus High School student walked into the campus quad Thursday, pulled a semiautomatic handgun from his backpack and shot five classmates, two fatally, then fired a bullet into his own head.

The shooting, which occurred about 7:40 a.m. at the school at 21900 Centurian Way, sent other students scrambling for cover — some fleeing from the campus and others barricading themselves inside classrooms or offices.

“It’s a sad day in Saugus, it’s a sad day in Los Angeles County and the nation for another tragic shooting at a school,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in a late-morning news conference.

Sheriff’s deputies responding to the school found six people in the campus quad suffering from gunshot wounds. One of them was later determined to be the suspect, whom Villanueva said was hospitalized in grave condition.

Sheriff’s Capt. Kent Wegener said detectives reviewed security video that shows the gunman reach into his backpack, pull out a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun and open fire. The weapon, which had no bullets remaining, was recovered at the scene.

“There are no other subjects who are outstanding as part of this incident,” Wegener said.

It was unknown what prompted the violence, with Wegener saying Thursday afternoon, “We have not yet established a motive or a nexus between the subject and his victims” other than they were all students at the school.

Wegener said the shooting, which occurred in a span of 16 seconds, appeared to be completely random, with the gunman firing at anyone in his vicinity. Paul Delacourt, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, said there was no early indication the suspect “was acting on behalf of any group or ideology.”

Of the five victims who were shot by the suspect, a 16-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy died at Henry Mayo Hospital in Valencia.

Also wounded were a 14-year-old boy, a 14-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl. One other person was taken to Olive View-UCLA Medical Center with a minor, non-gunshot injury, county Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

The two injured girls were being treated at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills. A surgeon at the hospital told NBC4 one of the girls was shot in a shoulder and would not require surgery. The other girl had a gunshot wound just above the belly button, with the bullet lodging near her hip. She was expected to undergo surgery later Thursday.

Henry Mayo Hospital officials said one person who was brought to the hospital in good condition — believed to be the 14-year-old boy — was treated and released early Thursday afternoon. Henry Mayo officials confirmed earlier that a total of four patients had been brought to the hospital — two have died and one now released.

Hospital and sheriff’s officials refused to confirm that the remaining patient at Henry Mayo is the shooting suspect, but that person is a male listed in critical condition.

Gov. Gavin Newsom visited some of the injured students at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center.

“A remarkable experience, being with 14-, 15-year-old survivors, that are consoling you, not the other way around,” Newsom told Fox11. “They had this remarkable resilience, smiles on their face, one just coming out of surgery, the other one with two gunshot wounds and just remarkably blessed that they are alive, their families with them.”

Newsom called the spirit of the wounded students “amazing.”

Sheriff’s deputies swarmed the Saugus High School campus in response to the shooting, and fanned out through the neighborhood, initially uncertain whether a shooter was still at large.

Villanueva noted that three off-duty law enforcement officers — one with the sheriff’s department and officers from Inglewood and Los Angeles — were the first people on scene because they have children who attend the school.

At one point, deputies positioned themselves around some bushes behind nearby Santa Clarita Elementary School in response to a report of a possible suspect hiding in the area. Residents in the neighborhood were told to remain inside with their doors and windows locked.

But as it turned out, the shooting suspect actually never left the campus.

After learning the suspect’s name by interviewing eyewitnesses and reviewing surveillance video, deputies went to his family’s home in the 22900 block of Sycamore Creek Drive and conducted an initial search to ensure there were no additional victims there, but none were found. Villanueva later said the teen’s mother and girlfriend were being interviewed by detectives.

The student was not officially identified by sheriff’s investigators, but multiple broadcast reports said the shooter is Nate Berhow.

“Today was his 16th birthday,” Villanueva told CBS2. “(He) was involved in student athletics, so doesn’t fit the bill of someone you would associate with this type of event.”

A cross-country teammate of Berhow’s was shocked he could be capable of such a violent act.

“He was such the nicest person… I don’t know why he would ever do this, especially on his birthday,” the teammate told Fox11.

Neighbors told reporters the family was mostly quiet, noting that the teen’s father had died two years ago, possibly from a heart attack.

“From what I understand, the suspect had been the one who had found his father’s body inside the house,” Jared Axen, a neighbor and lifelong acquaintance of the teen, told KTLA5.

“… He was a very quiet person, a kind person. He was respectful, how he talked about others. It could be just the relationship that he and I had together, but, you know, I just wish he was willing to say that he needed some help.”

After the shooting, the high school and all other schools in the William S. Hart Union High School District were placed on lockdown as a precaution, along with two neighboring elementary schools, as deputies searched for a possible suspect. All lockdowns were lifted by mid-morning, however, district officials said all of its campuses will be closed Friday, reopening on Monday.

Shaken parents, many in tears over the safety of their children, flocked to the area. Central Park, at 27150 Bouquet Canyon Road, was used as a reunification point for parents and students.

As students filtered out of the campus, some parents ran to the line of teens and hugged their children in tears.

One parent waiting to be reunited with her child told KNX-AM (1070) that she had been in touch with her 16-year-old daughter, who was in a choir class when a wounded student stumbled into the classroom. Her daughter and at least one other teen worked to staunch the bleeding, she said, but had no other information about the condition of the injured student.

Sheriff’s officials confirmed that the suspect had written a note on his Instagram page saying, “Saugus have fun at school tomorrow.”

However, that posting was deleted after the shooting occurred and the suspect was hospitalized. Wegener said it appeared someone else had either hacked the account or had access to it. Instagram said the account did not belong to the shooter and has since been disabled “for violating our policies.”

“We have checked for recent threats involving Saugus High School,” Wegener said earlier Thursday. “We identified two, which were both investigated and have no nexus to this subject.”

One female student told reporters after the shooting she heard the first gunshot and thought it was a balloon popping.

“The second and the third one is when everyone knew … it was gunfire,” she said, adding that students began scrambling for cover.

“I felt like I was running for my life,” she said. “… At that moment I just prayed and prayed that everyone was OK and safe.”

The girl said students had not heard of potential threats targeting the campus.

“We never heard of any threats or any problems,” she said. “This just suddenly happened. Yesterday was a normal day, and now we’re here getting evacuated from our school.”

President Donald Trump wrote on his Twitter page Thursday afternoon, “We continue to monitor the terrible events at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California, through our ongoing communications with local, state and federal authorities. We send our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those tragically lost, and we pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded.”

In response to the shooting, police patrols were stepped up at some other Southland school districts. Los Angeles, Long Beach and La Verne police were among the agencies announcing increased patrols.

A prayer vigil was held at Grace Baptist Church and a community prayer service was held at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, both in Santa Clarita.

A community vigil is being planned at 7 p.m. Sunday at Santa Clarita’s Central Park.

Villanueva lamented that the Southland is now home to the latest in a string of school shootings that have occurred nationally.

“I hate to have Saugus be added to the names of Columbine, Parkland, Sandy Hook, but it’s a reality that affects us all throughout the nation, something we’re going to have to deal with,” Villanueva said. “… We’ve got to figure out what are we doing wrong and how can we stop this from happening in the future, so we’ll figure that out over time.”

Delacourt also decried the violence.

“… We’re talking about something that no parents should ever have to go through, no high school students should ever have to worry about, yet we’re here to talk about it again.”

Out of respect for the victims and their families, all Hart district schools will be closed Friday and district counselors and support will be available to students and staff Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Grace Baptist Church at 22833 Copper Hill Drive, according to Mike Kuhlman, deputy superintendent of the Hart district.

Updated at 11:35 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019

— City News Service

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.