THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — The gunman who fatally shot at least 12 people at a crowded country and western dance hall in Thousand Oaks, Calif., was identified on Thursday as a 28-year-old who had served in the Marine Corps.
The Ventura County sheriff, Geoff Dean, said that the suspect, Ian David Long of Newbury Park, Calif., apparently took his own life after being confronted by officers responding to the Wednesday night attack. The .45-caliber handgun he used was purchased legally, but had been outfitted with an extended magazine.
The shooting came just over a year after 58 people were killed at a country music festival in Las Vegas when a gunman opened fire from a high-rise hotel room. There was an eerie parallel between the two shootings as some of the same people who emerged from the bar, the Borderline Bar & Grill, described having survived the shooting on the Las Vegas Strip.
Deputies had several interactions with Mr. Long the last few years, the sheriff said, including a reported disturbance at his home in April that prompted mental health specialists to talk to him. The health specialists, who discussed with Mr. Long his military service and whether had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, determined that he was not an immediate danger to himself or others and that he could not be involuntarily taken to a mental hospital.
Witnesses recalled a chaotic scene at the bar, which was filled with hundreds of people, many of them college students: A gunman opening fire, first at a security guard, as patrons dropped to the dance floor, hid under tables and broke windows to escape.
Sheriff Dean said that at least six off-duty officers were inside when the gunman opened fire. A parent told Sheriff Dean that “they stood in front of my daughter” and protected her. Witnesses also told local media about patrons in the back of the bar who broke out a window and helped a number of people escape.
The number of people wounded in the shooting on Wednesday was unclear, but the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said about 22 people had been taken to various hospitals.
The sheriff, his voice cracking, identified one victim as Sgt. Ron Helus, who was shot when he entered the building.
“He died a hero because he went, he went in to save lives, to save other people’s lives,” Sheriff Dean said.
Country music was playing in the dimly lit bar when people first heard gunshots some time before midnight. Some said they had initially mistaken the sounds for firecrackers.
Chyann Worrell, a junior at California State University Channel Islands, said she was at the bar to celebrate the 21st birthday of her friend Nellie Wong for a night of line-dancing with a live D.J. Shortly after 11 p.m., Ms. Worrell said, the gunman, wearing dark clothing and a dark baseball cap, drew his gun. He aimed it at a man near the front of the bar.
Ms. Worrell ducked for cover and heard a barrage of bullets. As she ran out of the bar, she said, she saw several bodies sprawled on the floor. Hours after the shooting, she had still not heard from two friends who had been with her at the bar.
One young woman inside the bar, Teylor Whittler, said the gunman appeared focused and did not appear to be targeting anyone in particular.
“I saw him shoot,” Ms. Whittler said, adding that someone had yelled, “Everybody get down.”
She said she saw him quickly reload his gun and fire again. “He knew what he was doing,” she said. “He had perfect form.”
“People started running to the back door,” she said, and she heard someone shout, “Get out — he’s coming.” She then fled and heard another burst of gunfire.
Brendan Kelly, 22, helped several people escape from inside. “It’s your worst nightmare,” he said. “It’s terrible.”
The attack in Las Vegas — and the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in February — renewed the debate about the prevalence of guns in the United States and their connection to the high number of mass shootings in the country. It also came less than two weeks after a gunman massacred 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. President Trump said on Twitter that he had been “fully briefed on the terrible shooting.”
The rampage in Thousand Oaks, a city of 129,000 people about 40 miles west of Los Angeles, was the deadliest shooting in Southern California since 14 people were killed in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015.
The first 911 call reported “shots fired” at the club, said Capt. Garo Kuredjian, a spokesman for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office. “As deputies responded, they also heard shots.” Additional units from the California Highway Patrol, Simi Valley and the F.B.I. responded.
Captain Kuredjian said many of the young people inside the crowded bar had turned out for a college country music night. The bar is not far from Pepperdine University, which said in a statement that it had received reports that several students were at the bar when the shooting occurred. California Lutheran University, whose campus is about four miles from the bar, said it had canceled classes on Thursday.
The bar’s website says that for a quarter century, it “has stood as the Ventura County’s largest country dance hall and live music venue,” with more than 2,500 square feet of open dance space.
Ms. Wong, who was celebrating her birthday, was trapped in the club until the police arrived. She described the scene as a blur.
“I’m so sorry your birthday got ruined,” her friend Sarah DeSon told her when they were reunited.
“She’s alive though. She’s alive for her 21st birthday,” said Ms. Whittler, whose badly scratched leg had just been bandaged by emergency medical workers. Moments later, Ms. Whittler’s parents arrived in a truck to check in on her.
“Were you hit?” her mother asked, with panic in her eyes. “No it’s just a scratch, I’m fine, I’m fine,” Ms. Whittler said.
Worried families and friends gathered Thursday morning at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center where they awaited information inside the auditorium, away from cameras that lined the entrance to the building.
One father, Jason Coffman, was frantically searching for his son, Cody, 22, whose cellphone went unanswered.
“I am in the dark right now,” Mr. Coffman said on CNN. “It’s actually tearing me up.”
When he tracked the phone, it pinged from inside the club.
“It’s not moving,” he said. “It’s there.”
A witness interviewed by ABC7.com said that the violence started when the gunman walked up to the entrance to the bar, shot a security guard and a cashier, and deployed a smoke bomb.
“I just started hearing these big pops,” said the witness, a man who was not identified. “The gunman was throwing smoke grenades.”
Then, panic ensued as people tried to flee.
“He just kept firing,” the witness said, adding that “people were trying to get out the window” to run away from the gunman, who had “a big handgun.”
Michael Millar, 25, who lives near the Borderline and is a regular, was on his way to the bar Wednesday night when people began to call him frantically asking if he was inside.
He said that the bar was popular with police officers and firefighters, and that it was often busy on Wednesdays because it hosts a college night and allows students under 21 to enter.
As Mr. Millar and his friend Chris Weber walked toward the bar, which was surrounded by police tape, they received a call that a friend who worked the door had been shot. “She’s the sweetest, nicest girl,” Mr. Millar said, trailing off. “Nobody would expect this in Thousand Oaks.”
Mr. Weber said that many of the people he believed were at Borderline had attended the music festival in Las Vegas last year where dozens died. He was frantically calling friends early Thursday to try to confirm who was inside.
Young women who were at the Borderline expressed disbelief that the bar, which they sometimes go to several times a week, could become the site of such violence.
“It’s safe. It’s a safe place to be,” said Erika Sigman, a sophomore at Cal State Channel Islands. “You can stay out all night at Borderline because there’s major security.”
Jose A. Del Real reported from Thousand Oaks, and Gerry Mullany and Russell Goldman from Hong Kong. Tiffany May contributed reporting from Hong Kong, and Matthew Haag and Matt Stevens from New York.