'A Horrible Tragedy': At Least 10 Killed in Mass Shooting at San Jose VTA Rail Yard

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Mourners lay flowers at a vigil for shooting victims
Kiana Simmons (L), and Amar Singh of San Jose (R), tend to a vigil organized by HERO Tent, following the mass shooting at the Valley Transportation Authority light rail yard, outside City Hall on May 26, 2021 in San Jose. (Philip Pacheco/Getty Images)

Updated 4:30 p.m. Thursday

Santa Clara County officials on Thursday confirmed the identity of a gunman who opened fire Wednesday morning at a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority rail yard in San Jose, killing at least nine VTA employees before turning the gun on himself. The Santa Clara County Office of the Medical Examiner-Coroner identified Samuel James Cassidy, 57, a VTA employee, as the shooter. Previous reports identifying Cassidy were attributed to unnamed law enforcement sources.

The shooting took place at a VTA light rail facility which includes a transit control center, parking for trains and a maintenance yard at 101 W. Younger Ave., across Highway 87 from San Jose International Airport. Officers from the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office and San Jose Police Department rushed to the scene after receiving 911 calls of shots fired around 6:30 a.m., officials said.

On Wednesday evening, the Medical Examiner-Coroner's Office initially identified eight of the deceased victims. Later that night, it confirmed the death of a ninth victim, who had been hospitalized in critical condition after the attack.

  • Paul Delacruz Megia, 42
  • Taptejdeep Singh, 36
  • Adrian Balleza, 29
  • Jose Dejesus Hernandez III, 35
  • Timothy Michael Romo, 49
  • Michael Joseph Rudometkin, 40
  • Abdolvahab Alaghmandan, 63
  • Lars Kepler Lane, 63
  • Alex Ward Fritch, 49

Their jobs included bus and light rail operators, mechanics, linemen and assistant superintendent. One had worked for the transit authority since 1999.

San Jose City Councilmember Raul Peralez said Michael Rudometkin, one of the victims, was a close friend.

"There are no words to describe the heartache we are feeling right now, especially for his family," Peralez wrote on Facebook. "Eight families are feeling this same sense of loss tonight and our entire community is mourning as well."

The gunman appeared to target some of the victims, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith said on Thursday. She said he reportedly told at least one person: "I’m not going to shoot you," before opening fire.

"So I imagine there was some kind of thought on who he wanted to shoot," Smith said.

Members of a union representing VTA workers were meeting when the shooting began, officials said, but it’s unclear if the meeting was related to the attack. More than 100 people were reportedly in the facility at the time.

When transit authority mechanic Rochelle Hawkins heard shots, she said she dropped her phone and ran.

“I was running so fast, I just ran for my life,” she said. “I would hope everyone would just pray for the VTA family. Just pray for us.”

Emergency responders gather at a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority rail yard in San Jose on May 26, 2021, where an early morning mass shooting left at least nine people dead, including the suspect. (Amy Osborne/AFP via Getty Images)

While there are no cameras inside the rail yard's two buildings, Smith said footage captured the gunman moving from one location to the next, with victims found in both buildings. It took deputies six minutes from the first 911 calls to find the body of the gunman on the third floor of one of the buildings, who she said had killed himself as deputies closed in.

"When our deputies went through the door, initially [the shooter] was still firing rounds," Smith told reporters, noting that there was no exchange of gunfire with law enforcement. "I know for sure that when the suspect knew that law enforcement was there, he took his own life."

Authorities do not yet know whether the gunman had worked regularly with any of the victims. Investigators were serving search warrants for his home and cellphone, seeking to determine what prompted the bloodshed, the sheriff said.

The attacker used three handguns — all of which were legally registered to him — and likely fired dozens of rounds during the rampage, according to Craig D. Fair, an FBI agent based in San Francisco.

Fair told KQED Thursday that officers recovered 11 fully loaded magazines on the gunman's belt, and noted that multiple expended 15-round magazines were also found at the scene, which are illegal for civilian use in California.

Investigators, he said, are now examining five different areas within the facility that the gunman appears to have gone through during the attack.

"There’s two primary buildings involved," Fair said. "Victims were found in both of those buildings. Some of those rooms were very small."

"At this point, we do not know what the motive is. We do not know conclusively what drove him to this act,” Fair said. “I think it’s important to note that in an active shooter scenario, very rarely does somebody just snap. There is a reasonably lengthy ramp-up period of mobilization, a period of planning, a period where they obtain weapons."

And during that process, long before the attack happens, Fair said, they are often showing “pre-attack indicators that are overt and they’re observable to the public, to the community, to law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to educators.”

Immediately after receiving the first 911 calls, multiple local agencies initiated a rescue task force as part of the county's active shooting protocol to assist victims and provide medical aid, said Deputy Russell Davis, a sheriff's spokesperson, on Wednesday. Federal agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were also investigating the incident, he said.

While recognizing the enormity of the tragedy, Davis said many lives were saved due to the preparedness of local law enforcement agencies.

"I'll tell you this, with the training that we've been doing with our active shooter protocol, this could have been a lot worse of a situation," he said.

Deputy Russell Davis (center), a Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office spokesperson, prepares to speak during a press briefing on a shooting at a VTA rail yard in San Jose on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

On Wednesday, a bomb squad had also been called in to search the entire rail complex after finding evidence of possible explosive devices, Davis added.

At nearly the same time the first 911 calls came in from the rail yard, San Jose firefighters rushed to a two-alarm fire at the gunman's home about 9 miles away.

Smith said the gunman also appeared to have set a timer or slow-burn device to set his home on fire.

"I’m not sure we’ll ever actually find the real motive, but we’ll piece it together as much as we can from witnesses," Smith said.

Footage from a neighbor's security camera captured the gunman at 5:40 a.m. on Wednesday leaving his home and loading a large black duffel bag into his white pickup truck. He was wearing a uniform with reflective stripes.

His ex-wife, Cecilia Nelms, said he had a bad temper and would tell her that he wanted to kill people at work, "but I never believed him, and it never happened. Until now."

Nelms, teary-eyed and shaken by the news, said her ex-husband would come home wound up and angry about things that happened at work. As he talked about it, "he would get more mad," she said. "He could dwell on things."

FBI and ATF agents on Wednesday said they expanded the safety perimeter around the gunman's home on the 1100 block of Angmar Court after finding ammunition inside, and were using robots to search for explosives.

Emergency responders and the San Jose Bomb Squad deploy a robot to search for explosives at a home on the 1100 block of Angmar Court after finding ammunition inside following a two-alarm fire. (AMY OSBORNE/AFP via Getty Images))

The transit agency is arranging for grief counselors to assist employees and their families, said Glenn Hendricks, chair of the VTA board of directors.

Two funds have also been set up to assist victims’ families, including one hosted by Working Partnerships USA and another organized by the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents many workers at the site, including a number  of the victims.

"A horrible tragedy has happened today," Hendricks said on Wednesday, fighting back tears. "VTA is a family. People in the organization know everyone. We will do everything that we can to help people get through this."

VTA board of directors Chair Glenn Hendricks speaks during a press conference across from the First Street VTA service yard where a mass shooting took place in San Jose on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Victims, family members and witnesses can access free mental health and grief counseling, among other services, at the Red Cross building at 2731 North First St. in San Jose, with more information available at 408-209-8356.

Hendricks also said a hotline had been set up exclusively for VTA employees and family members, who can call 408-321-7550 for additional assistance.

VTA light rail service, he added, would be suspended starting at noon Wednesday for the foreseeable future, with bus bridges put in place to provide limited service. AC Transit and SamTrans have both provided bus operators to enable additional service.

"This is a very dark day for our city and for our community, but we've already seen how people are pulling together in this very, very tough time," said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who serves on the VTA board, at a press briefing on Wednesday. "These are and were essential workers. These VTA employees helped us get through this horrific pandemic."

Liccardo said this is the time "to understand what happened, to mourn and to help those who have suffered to heal." But he added he would soon turn his attention to "ensuring we do everything possible to ensure this never happens again in our city," and said he plans to elaborate on those plans within the next 48 hours.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo speaks at a press conference following Wednesday's mass shooting at a VTA rail yard in San Jose. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

"These folks were heroes during COVID-19. The buses never stopped running, VTA didn’t stop running," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez. "They just kept at work, and now we’re really calling on them to be heroes a second time to survive such a terrible, terrible tragedy."

On Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Gavin Newsom joined local officials at a press briefing in front of a Santa Clara County office building, where flags flew at half-staff.

Visibly emotional, he said victims' relatives were "waiting to hear from the coroner, waiting to hear from any of us, just desperate to find out if their brother, their son, their dad, their mom is still alive."

"There's a numbness I imagine some of us are feeling about this, because there's a sameness to this," Newsom said. "You know, anywhere USA. It just feels like this happens over and over and over again, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat."

This marks the county’s second major mass shooting in less than two years, he said, referencing an attack in which a gunman killed three people before killing himself at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in July 2019.

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a press briefing following Wednesday's mass shooting at a VTA rail yard in San Jose. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The bloodshed comes amid a recent rise in mass killings after the pandemic closed many public places and kept people confined to their homes last year.

Wednesday's attack is the 15th mass shooting so far in 2021, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University.

"We're experiencing something [that] just is not experienced anywhere else in the world," Newsom said, calling it an epidemic. "It begs the damn question, what the hell is going on in the United States of America? What the hell is wrong with us? And when are we going to come to grips with this?"

At the White House, President Biden ordered flags to be flown at half-staff and urged Congress to act on legislation to curb gun violence.

"Every life that is taken by a bullet pierces the soul of our nation," Biden said in a statement. "We can, and we must, do more."

A vigil for the victims of the attack will be held on Thursday at 6 p.m. at City Hall Plaza in San Jose. Caltrain will be providing free rides to and from the event.

This post includes reporting from KQED's Julie Chang and The Associated Press.

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