Police Seek Motive in Deadly Campus Shooting

Police are trying to determine a motive for the deadly shooting Thursday at Northern Illinois University. Authorities say a former student opened fire into a packed science class. At least five students were killed before the gunman killed himself.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The campus of Northern Illinois University is waking up this morning, trying to make sense of how it came to be the fourth school within a single week to be involved in a school shooting. Five students died and 16 were wounded when a former graduate student opened fire yesterday in a lecture hall there. The gunman then killed himself.

Investigators are trying to piece together what led the former student to open fire. NPR's David Schaper reports from DeKalb.

DAVID SCHAPER: Right around 3:00 in the afternoon, sophomore Dan Monahan was sitting in his geology class in a large lecture hall in NIU's Cole Hall.

Mr. DAN MONAHAN (Sophomore, Northern Illinois University): Class was going to be out in about five, 10 minutes. You know, there's a big stage, a guy, and then there's two doors on either side. And a guy opened a door on the right, and he had a shotgun and didn't say a word and he just walked up and opened fire.

SCHAPER: Monahan says at first he didn't think it was real, then he saw the first shots and he took off running, hearing gunshots every step of the way.

Mr. MONAHAN: It was like the sound of hell. It was, like, people screaming everywhere. It was insane. It was just the loudest, most, like, hellish sound I've ever heard. Just, like, 200 kids screaming and running. And it's, like, just the sound you don't want to hear, you know?

SCHAPER: Northern Illinois University President John Peters says the gunman carried a shotgun and two handguns, and the assault didn't last long.

Mr. JOHN PETERS (President, Northern Illinois University): Eyewitness accounts describe a very brief rapid fire assault that ended with the gunman taking his own life.

SCHAPER: Peters says 21 students, including the instructor, a graduate teaching assistant, were hit by the gunfire. He says the gunman had been enrolled as a graduate student in sociology in the spring of last year, but was enrolled in a different state institution this year. And Peters says he apparently had no arrest record or history with the police.

Mr. PETERS: We have no motive at this time.

SCHAPER: John Peters says campus police officers were on the scene two to three minutes after the first call came in, and the entire campus was quickly locked down as the school activated its emergency action plan, newly revised, in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings last year. Sophomore eyewitness Dan Monahan says police were quick to react.

Mr. MONAHAN: The response time was awesome. They got there right away.

SCHAPER: The campus was last locked down in December during first semester finals after graffiti was discovered on a bathroom wall that included racial slurs and a threatening reference to Virginia Tech. But University President Peters says the two incidents do not appear to be linked.

As temperatures dropped in the evening, a steady stream of cars, minivans and SUVs pulled up to the dorms on the 25,000-student campus about 65 miles west of Chicago. Because NIU is so close to the city and suburban homes that most of the students come from, parents like Moses Cortez, drove up to take their kids home.

Mr. MOSES CORTEZ: Oh, my God. (Spanish spoken)

SCHAPER: As he kissed his daughter Jessenia(ph) on the forehead, Cortez tried to find the right words to describe his emotions.

Mr. CORTEZ: Everybody is scared, okay?

SCHAPER: While all the classes at NIU are cancelled indefinitely, there will be essential services for the students who do stay here, as well as memorial services to remember their fallen classmates.

David Schaper, NPR News, in DeKalb, Illinois.

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