California Town Wrestles With Aftermath Of Shooting Rampage A visit to Rancho Tehama shows a small, rural community still struggling with the fallout from last fall's massacre in which a gunman killed five townspeople and wounded 12 others.
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California Town Wrestles With Aftermath Of Shooting Rampage

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California Town Wrestles With Aftermath Of Shooting Rampage

California Town Wrestles With Aftermath Of Shooting Rampage

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There were 300 mass shootings in the United States last year. One of them was in the Northern California town of Rancho Tehama. Six people including the gunman were killed. Twelve others were wounded when a man went on a shooting rampage. And as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, this small rural town is still struggling.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: A large Rancho Strong banner now hangs across the entrance to Rancho Tehama Elementary. Also new at the collection of L-shaped trailers that make up the school, an armed security officer is now posted full time. Inside, Sarah Lobdell's office walls are now surrounded by colorful thank-you cards from across the state and the nation.

SARAH LOBDELL: The questions they ask me - Mom, does everyone when they go back to school, do they get a guard?

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

LOBDELL: Hello.

WESTERVELT: Lobdell, the school's secretary, is used to the echo of gunfire in this rural community - target practice, hunters, the occasional drunk shooting at the moon. But last November 14, she knew this gunfire was different. She was the one who immediately called for every child and teacher to go inside fast and lock down.

LOBDELL: There was absolutely no question about it - that it was too close to us. And it was going to put everybody in a dangerous spot. There was absolutely no question, no hesitation. And I do believe that that also helped.

WESTERVELT: Helped is an understatement. Lobdell's fast action likely averted a massacre. Police believe the gunman, Kevin Neal, was targeting the neighbor's son, a kindergartner, and anyone else who got in his way. Unknown then to the school, Neal had already shot and killed his wife and two of his neighbors before driving to the school loaded down with ammo and semi-automatic weapons. He stalked the school's courtyard, furious he couldn't get inside, firing repeatedly at the locked-downed doors windows and walls. In her office, Lobdell shuns talk of heroism that day in favor of words like training and instinct.

LOBDELL: One of the teachers quoted the students are the heroes, and we all strongly agree that...

WESTERVELT: It's tough for you.

LOBDELL: It is very tough. There's terrific days. And, you know, we're all so thankful. But it's real. And it's - we still have that sense of we can't believe this really happened. Did this really in fact happen? Yes, it did. Yes, it did.

WESTERVELT: There's a small bundle of plastic flowers honoring the dead just below the Welcome to Tehama sign when you enter the town here. And just across the street, the cafe deli that was open during the shooting - it was the only restaurant in town - looks like that's now out of business. The blinds are pulled. The lights are off. The open flag is gone.

Elsewhere the impact is less visible - showing up in people's psyches or behind closed doors. Sandra Wells's 5-year-old daughter is happily back at school. But she says her kindergartner's not really the same since she had to run and crouch in fear as the crackle of bullets echoed.

SANDRA WELLS: She was not wetting the bed anymore. But since the shooting, she started, you know, pottying the bed and stuff again. And she has these night terrors. She wakes up yelling things. And she actually just the other day brought up the shooting again. And it's hard for us to talk to her about it, but we try to, you know, communicate with her the best that we can.

WESTERVELT: Meantime, many of the wounded feel forgotten. Francisco Cardenas was driving to the post office that morning when he was caught between deputies in hot pursuit and a killer on a rampage. He was badly wounded in one leg. The tree trimmer's now unemployed and in pain. He moved his family in with his parents several hours away. He says pledges of help to cover medical costs, transportation, meds, mental health care have yet to materialize from the sheriff's office and the California Victims Compensation Board.

FRANCISCO CARDENAS: Which promised lots and lots of good stuff, but then it's actually turning out that they're not really covering all those things, and no real help coming from them.

WESTERVELT: The compensation board says so far it's paid out only $100 in total to the 12 wounded here that day. There's also anger at the gunman, of course, and at the sheriff's office - a sense that police here failed to stop a man that was becoming unhinged and violent. He'd attacked and stabbed his neighbor. He'd made threats. After getting out on bail for the stabbing, Neal was slapped with a temporary restraining order or TRO. He fired off weapons almost every night, neighbors say, even though he wasn't supposed to have any weapons under the terms of the TRO. It's something Assistant Tehama County Sheriff Phil Johnston struggles with.

Can you respond though? There is some frustration and anger in the community feeling that - look - this guy should not have had a gun and that guns were being fired.

PHIL JOHNSTON: Well, there was no direct violation of the TRO that we could sink our teeth into for sure.

WESTERVELT: So you didn't have the evidence to search his home?

JOHNSTON: Absolutely not, no. Was he on our officers' radar? Yes. But, again, he was in a dispute with the other neighbors on that ridge. And I don't know that we could have classified him as a ticking time bomb. If I could prevent something like that from ever occurring, I certainly would do it. But we are also bound by the law.

WESTERVELT: Johnston was one of the first on scene. He tended to a wounded family, called for a medevac and set up a roadblock. It's clear Johnston too was altered that day. It's evident in a response that lingers somewhere between resignation and regret.

JOHNSTON: It changes the way that I think of law enforcement.

WESTERVELT: How so?

JOHNSTON: I used to really believe that my job in being a law enforcement officer was to help protect people. And I believe that I can't control that - that if some individual wants to storm some building, that I can't control that. It's just the way it is.

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Rancho Tehama, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLD SPECKS SONG, "HOLLAND")

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