By Eric M. Johnson and Victoria Cavaliere
A student shot dead a female classmate and wounded four others when he opened fire in the cafeteria of his Washington state high school on Friday, apparently after a fight with fellow students, officials said.
The shooter, a homecoming prince at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, took his own life as his classmates scrambled to safety in the latest outburst of deadly violence at an American school.
A school district official, who declined to be named, said the shooter was Jaylen Fryberg, a freshman described by classmates and parents as a popular member of both the wrestling and football teams.
“He came up from behind and had a gun in his hand and he fired about eight bullets … They were his friends so it wasn’t just random,” student Jordan Luton told CNN, adding that the gunman fired several more shots.
“Then he turned and looked at me and my girlfriend … and kind of gave us a smirk and turned around and then shot more bullets outside,” Luton said.
Police would not confirm the gunman’s identity or discuss possible motives for the shooting, but the school district official and several witnesses said he had been previously involved in a fight with another student.
Rebecca Cooley, whose son played sports with Fryberg and was approaching the cafeteria when the shooting erupted, said an altercation broke out on an athletic field following football practice in recent days and that one boy involved was among those shot.
Students who knew Fryberg described him as outgoing and unlike the loner personality that is often associated with school shootings.
“He seemed totally normal,” said Gladis Jimenez, 15. “Yes, he had a lot of friends.”
There were no indications on Fryberg’s social media accounts that he had been planning such a rampage, but on Tuesday he posted his feelings of despondency, apparently over a romantic split, on Twitter.
“It breaks me… It actually does… I know it seems like I’m sweating it off… But I’m not.. And I never will be able to,” he wrote.
All of the victims of the shooting were under 18, and three of the wounded were in critical condition with gunshot wounds to the head, said Joanne Roberts, chief of medicine at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett. The fourth wounded victim suffered less serious injuries.
Two of the wounded were boys and two were girls, hospital officials said.
The boys, 15-year-old Andrew Fryberg, shot in the head, and 14-year-old Nate Hatch, shot in the jaw, were both in intensive care at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, a spokeswoman said.
Local media reported the boys were cousins of the shooter.
The violence at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, some 30 miles (48 km) north of Seattle, marked the latest in a series of deadly shooting rampages at American schools that have played a central role in a national debate over gun laws.
In 2012, a 20-year-old gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed 20 children and six adults before taking his own life in one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
At Marysville’s The Grove Church, hundreds of parents, students and community members overflowed aisles during a vigil on Friday evening, holding flowers and crying audibly throughout a prayer service.
Outside the vigil, 9th grader Bella Panjeli said she attended a different school but was friends with one of the female victims, calling her “a beautiful girl and so, so sweet.”
She also said Fryberg was in an ongoing dispute with his cousin over the victim’s affections.
“I heard he asked her out and she rebuffed him and was with his cousin,” Panjeli said, adding that she learned of the connection after talking to the victim’s family and friends. “It was a fight over a girl.”
Police would not say what kind of weapon Fryberg, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, had used. U.S. media reported the weapon was a .40-caliber Beretta handgun.
A spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told reporters the gun had been legally acquired.
Local television stations showed images of students running from buildings and crossing a field with their hands up as officers with rifles ran across the schoolyard. The students were taken to a nearby church by bus.
“I heard these two big noises, and I see kids running and they looked so scared. Then the fire alarm went off and we thought it was a fire,” Jimenez, a 10th-grader who was in class during the shooting, told Reuters.