Gunman Kills 5 Students Before Shooting Himself in Illinois Campus Rampage

February 15, 2008

A gunman opened fire on a large lecture class at Northern Illinois University on Thursday, killing five people and wounding 16 before taking his own life.

The university's president, John G. Peters, described the incident as a "very brief, rapid-fire assault," and said the campus would be shut down until further notice. He and other officials briefed reporters on the incident at two news conferences on Thursday evening.

According to their account, just after 3 p.m. on Thursday, the shooter, a former graduate student in sociology at the university, emerged from behind a curtain onto the stage of an auditorium in Cole Hall. Armed with a shotgun and two handguns, he stood where a graduate assistant was teaching "Introduction to Ocean Science" and began firing at students in the auditorium. About 160 students are enrolled in the course.

University officials did not release the gunman's name, but said he had been a student at Northern Illinois, which has about 25,000 students, in the spring of 2007 and was later enrolled at another public institution, which they did not identify.

In several news reports, witnesses described the shooter as a thin white man wearing a black trench coat. He had no police record, Northern Illinois officials said.

"At this time, we have no known motive," the university's police chief, Donald Grady, said at the first news conference on Thursday.

Mr. Grady said he did not know whether the incident was related to threats scrawled on a bathroom wall on the DeKalb, Ill., campus two months ago. Those comments, which included a racial slur against African-Americans, prompted the university to close on December 10, a date the graffiti mentioned.

"For me to tell you at this point that there is a connection or there is not would be premature," Mr. Grady said.

Echoes of Other Tragedies

The Northern Illinois incident occurred less than a week after a woman shot two classmates to death and then killed herself on the Baton Rouge campus of Louisiana Technical College, and it came nearly 10 months to the day after 33 people were shot dead at Virginia Tech, in the biggest mass shooting in modern American history.

The fatal victims of the Northern Illinois gunman were one male and four female students, Mr. Peters, the university president, confirmed on Thursday night. He did not identify the victims by name.

Others wounded in the shootings included the instructor who was teaching the class.

The local Kishwaukee Community Hospital reported on Thursday night that six victims were in critical condition and had been flown to other facilities, three had been admitted there, and eight had been discharged. (The numbers of victims reported by the hospital and the university did not match up on Thursday night.)

A Lockdown and Alerts

The shootings and the university's response were both rapid.

"This thing started and ended within a matter of seconds," said Mr. Grady, the police chief. Officers were on the scene within two minutes, at 3:03 p.m., and locked down the building by 3:07.

At 3:20 the university issued a campuswide alert on its Web site: "There has been a report of a possible gunman on campus. Get to a safe area and take precautions until given the all clear." It instructed students and employees to avoid the area of campus where the shooting had taken place.

In addition to that warning, the university also issued e-mail and voice-mail alerts, and activated its alarm system, a siren that ran for about 30 minutes, a staff member reported.

"The notifications went out, the plans worked as we had put them in place," said Eddie R. Williams, the university's chief of operations and executive vice president for business and finance.

By 4 p.m. police officers had conducted a sweep of the campus and determined that the gunman, who killed himself on the auditorium stage, had acted alone."We determined that the immediate crisis was over at that point," Mr. Peters said.

At 4:10, another update appeared on the university's Web site: "Campus police report that the scene is secure," it said, telling nonessential employees to leave campus, students to report to any residence hall for counseling, and students and parents to call any of six crisis hot lines.

Between the first online alert and the all-clear, the university posted two other updates: one at 3:40 to announce that classes had been canceled through today, and another at 3:50 to confirm that there had been a shooting, with several victims taken away by ambulance.

Cell-Phone Networks Jammed

Despite assurances, people on the campus were shaken. Students and faculty and staff members scrambled to gather more details and call friends and family members. Cell-phone networks were overloaded, and some carriers brought extra equipment to the scene.

"People have been dumbstruck," said Jonathan H. Berg, chairman of the department of geology and environmental geosciences. "People don't know what to do."

Very quickly helicopters buzzed overhead, and reporters swarmed the campus, said Jim Killam, an adviser to the campus newspaper, the Northern Star. "We've been descended upon," he said.

On Thursday night, most students were still on the campus, said Mr. Killam. But he assumed many would leave, at least for the weekend. "A lot of parents are coming to pick up their kids," he said.

Many students were talking about December's threats, but no one saw an immediate connection to the shooting, Mr. Killam said. "It comes to mind," he said, "but nothing's really been verified."

The previous incident had stirred racial tensions on the campus and raised alarm. The bathroom graffiti told black students, for whom it used the N-word, to "go home," and it referred to the Virginia Tech shootings. "Die Sem Burr 10th ... Hmz Sdn Cr," the scrawls said, according to news reports.

The abbreviated message apparently referred to December 10 and the campus's Holmes Student Center. Northern Illinois informed all students and employees of the threats, began an investigation, increased security, and closed the campus on December 10.

A campuswide message from the president the following day said: "Today, we resumed operations under heightened security ... I ask your continued vigilance and cooperation."

But on Thursday night, Mr. Peters said he did not see a link between the threats and the shooting. "I do not know for sure that it was not connected," he said. But "it seemed spontaneous," he added. "We don't think there was any warning."

Difficulty of Protecting an Open Campus

On Thursday night, Mr. Peters responded calmly to questions about whether the university could have prevented the shootings.

"We've put in place so many security measures, and we are always reviewing our security," he said. But Northern Illinois, like most college campuses, is open, he said. "Unless you lock every door, I don't know how you really keep people out."

"I don't know if any plan can prevent this kind of tragedy," Mr. Peters said.

Many elected officials and universities issued statements of support and offers of assistance to Northern Illinois on Friday.

Charles W. Steger, president of Virginia Tech, sent special condolences. "Our university community was bolstered and comforted by the outpouring of support from campuses around the nation and the world" last year, he said in a written statement.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and state, local, and campus police officials are examining the crime scene at Northern Illinois, Mr. Peters said.

The university is posting frequent updates about the shootings on its Web site and will continue to do so as often as there is new information, he said.

"Our thoughts and our prayers and our hearts go out to the families" of the victims, Mr. Peters said. "We're doing all we can right now" to reach out to them, he said.

Beckie Supiano contributed to this article.