By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS Rafu Staff Writer
Gun violence has once again shown its deadly wrath in a school, this time, very close to home.
Shortly before classes were to begin at Saugus High School on Thursday, a student whose 16th birthday was the same day pulled a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun from his backpack and began firing at schoolmates in the campus quad.
Students scrambled for cover, barricading themselves in classrooms and fleeing campus. One report came of a girl staggering into the school’s choir room, shortly after 7:30 a.m., bleeding and asking for help.
After wounding five students – two fatally – the murderer, identified as Nathaniel Tennosuke Berhow, saved the last bullet for himself. He put the pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.
By the afternoon, two of the victims, a 15-year-old girl, Grace Anne Muehlberger, and a 14-year-old boy, Dominic Blackwell, had been pronounced dead at Henry Mayo Hospital in Valencia.
Three other students were injured, with at least one of them said to be not seriously wounded and released from the hospital.
Authorities announced that Berhow, who had reportedly been on life support since the incident, died on Friday at approximately 3:30 p.m.
By Friday afternoon, officials had not found any information that points to a motive for the deadly attack.
At a news conference late Thursday morning, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said investigators were in possession of at least one video that shows the gunman firing at students and then turning the gun on himself, adding, “It’s a sad day in Saugus. It’s a sad day in Los Angeles County and the nation for another tragic shooting at a school.”
One Saugus High student told KNX radio that she and her friends thought the first gunshot sounded like “a balloon popping.”
“After the second and the third one is when everyone knew … it was gunfire,” she said. “I felt like I was running for my life. At that moment I just prayed and prayed that everyone was OK and safe.”
She added that there had been no news of any threats to the school.
Several students and parents reported seeing a post on an Instagram account from Wednesday that read, “Saugus have fun at school tomorrow,” but at a news conference Friday, Villanueva said that the online account did not belong to Berhow and had been deactivated.
Another student told Fox News that the sophomore “wasn’t acting like himself” in recent days.
After locking down both a nearby elementary school and a middle school, police and officers from the FBI and ATF swarmed the Sycamore Creek Drive home where Berhow lived with his mother, Mami, whom a neighbor said is originally from Japan. She and her son’s girlfriend are reported to be assisting officials in the investigation.
Stunned neighbors told KNX that the family home was generally quiet, and described Nathaniel as a good kid who kept to himself and had been accomplished in karate, with the Boy Scouts and was on the school track team.
However, turmoil had beset the Berhow family in recent years. The suspect’s father, Mark, died suddenly from a heart attack in December 2017, with the coroner citing chronic alcoholism as a contributing factor. Jail records show he was arrested in 2015 on suspicion of attempted battery on a spouse, with the charges eventually dropped. Court documents from August 2016 reveal Mami Matsuura Berhow opening divorce proceedings and being awarded child custody in a civil suit against Mark Berhow. The couple also had a daughter, now around age 21.
The father is said to have been an avid hunter, and owned several weapons, even making his own bullets at times. A photo in an online obituary gallery shows Mark Berhow and Mami Matsuura apparently on a hunting trip, happily displaying a rifle and ammunition. A neighbor told KTLA News that Nathaniel had grown up around guns, so they were nothing new to him.
At Friday’s news conference, an ATF official said up to six additional firearms had been found at the Berhow home, some but not all registered in Mark Berhow’s name.
Late reports Thursday indicated Berhow’s distraught mother was holding out hope for the survival of her son.
“I don’t even know what to do right now, I am just praying for my son’s life,” Matsuura said.
“I know it’s been tough on them, including the mom,” a neighbor told KNX, with another adding, “She lost her husband, and now her son. It’s unimaginable what she must be going through.”
President Donald Trump offered words of support Thursday afternoon, posting on Twitter, “We send our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those tragically lost, and we pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded.”
The Hart Union High School District announced it would open the district Activities Center at 20880 Centre Pointe Parkway from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday evening, to allow students and community members to gather and receive support and counseling.
All classes in the district were cancelled for Friday.
At 6 p.m., a prayer vigil was scheduled to take place at Grace Baptist Church, with another vigil set for 7 p.m. at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. Both churches are in Santa Clarita.
A community vigil is also set for Sunday at 7 p.m. at Santa Clarita’s Central Park.
Villanueva said it is with a “heavy heart” that the investigation will move forward.
“I hate to have Saugus be added to the names of Columbine, Parkland, Sandy Hook, but it’s a reality that affects us all throughout the nation, something we’re going to have to deal with,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out what are we doing wrong and how can we stop this from happening in the future, so we’ll figure that out over time.”
Clearly shaken, a girl from Saugus High said she and her friends were not mentally prepared for the day’s violence.
“This just suddenly happened. Yesterday was a normal day, and now we’re here getting evacuated from our school.”
Another student told KNX her school has conducted regular disaster drills, including those designed to react to a shooting. She said the students on her campus would be prepared for when such an incident happens again. As the occurrence of mass shootings in the United States shows no sign of abating soon, she used the word “when.”