15 YEARS AGO: Witnesses didn’t immediately recognize sound of gunfire | TheUnion.com

15 YEARS AGO: Witnesses didn’t immediately recognize sound of gunfire

Grace Karpa
Staff Writer

Editor's note: This story was originally published Jan. 11, 2001 by The Union.

People thought they heard a nailgun, a computer or firecrackers Wednesday morning. What they heard was a man shooting their colleagues.

"It seemed he was really methodical," John Eby, a crisis counselor in the Nevada County's Behavioral Health Department, said later. "He was not frantically shooting one person and getting out. The report from employees locked in their offices was that he was taking his time to reload."

Eby said he was in a back conference room talking to a client on the phone when he "heard what sounded like firecrackers."

"Then I heard horrific screaming, and I knew right away we had a shooter," Eby said.

When he went into the hallway, "there were lots of gunshots going off," Eby recalled. "There were a dozen to 18 shots that went off," he said.

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Eby said he went through a door "because I knew he was coming closer: The shots were getting closer."

He went down a stairwell to a modular building "to tell case managers to make sure they knew what was going on," Eby said. Eby said he told everyone to lie low and call 911.

Gary Ahlstrom, a temporary behavioral health case manager, heard a gunshot between 11 a.m. and 11:20 a.m.

"I did hear something kind of like a pop but I didn't think anything of it because I thought it was the computer, or something," Ahlstrom said.

"We had a gentleman come in and say there was a shooting next door," Ahlstrom said about Eby's entrance. "He asked us to call 911."

The phones didn't respond, Ahlstrom recalled. Coworkers kept trying to get through until someone succeeded, Ahlstrom said.

Bruce Frazer, a counselor and social worker for 21 years, said he was walking next to the building going upstairs.

"I walked into the waiting room right after it happened," Frazer said. "I was walking alongside of the building and heard shots."

Construction workers had been working on the roof and Frazer "thought it was a nailgun on the roof."

"It really was not alarming at all," Frazer said. "I walked into the waiting room, and I think I passed the guy who did the shooting. He walked right out and got into the blue Dodge van carrying a case."

Frazer said the man was very calm and "didn't get my attention in any way."

"When I walked into the lobby, I saw broken glass, and I knew the situation was different and it was bad," Frazer said. "I saw a woman shot and down and not moving."

Frazer led clients in the waiting room out, he said.

"At that point, I went back around the building to another entrance on a different floor, warning people and having them lock doors and stay away from windows," Frazer said.

Ahlstrom said, "We had no idea if he was still in the building."

"I saw somebody get out but he appeared to be a heavy-set man walking in behind me," Ahlstrom said.

Ahlstrom recalled seeing a blue vehicle when he walked from an outside modular building to the main office.

"I never got to look at him," Eby said. "I can't believe he got away."

A Grass Valley woman and her husband were in a counseling session on the second floor of the Behavioral Health Department sometime after 11 a.m. when she heard noises "that sounded like a crowbar hitting a metal wall," said the woman, who, shaken by the incident, asked to remain anonymous.

The counselor, known to the couple only as Sandy, got up and locked the door, but otherwise the three people ignored the noise.

A few minutes later, the woman said she looked out the window and saw officers with guns surrounding the building. A few minutes later, deputies began banging on doors and telling people to "open up."

But no one came to the room they were in, and then, the woman said, the building got quiet.

After a couple of minutes, a deputy banged on their door. He told the three people to hold hands and close their eyes until they got outside, and he proceeded to lead them through the halls.

"He kept yelling, 'Keep your eyes shut! Keep your eyes shut!'" the woman said. "I kept peeking. I was the last one in the line."

She said at one point, feeling broken glass beneath her feet, she opened her eyes.

"I saw a woman lying there, dead. … There was blood and glass everywhere," she said.

Once outside, the deputy had the trio run to the Health Department trailer, where those people already evacuated "were wall-to-wall."

She said the evacuees were kept there for a little more than an hour before being escorted to vehicles and permitted to leave.

"(The deputies) told us to be very careful," she said.

Yvonne O'Keefe, who has worked in the county Behavioral Health Department for nearly four years, said, "I wish I had been there so I could have been some assistance."

Peggy Keller, another county employee, said she was in shock.

"It's very sad," Keller said Wednesday evening. "It's unbelievable."

Frazer said, "Obviously, the window was not bulletproof," of the partition that separated the department's lobby with clerical staff.

Ahlstrom said later, "I've been kind of dealing with the shock."

He left under the escort of sheriff's deputies.

"I thought it was best to just go home and try to to find out more on the radio," Ahlstrom said.

When he got home, the power was out.

"I was sitting in the dark, feeling in the dark," Ahlstrom said.

Ahlstrom said that he only knew for sure that two of his colleagues were OK.

Eby said he planned to be at work at the county's Behavioral Health Department at 8 a.m. today.

"There were people who were a lot closer to it than I was," Eby said. "A lot closer to these deaths."

Eby stressed he was concerned that people understand that only a small percentage of mentally ill people are violent.

News of a shooting at the county sent employees' relatives searching for loved ones.

At 1:30 p.m., Gary Anders, who recently moved to Banner Mountain, came to the Rood Center to find out what he could about his sister-in-law, county employee Michelle Chasin.

"My mother-in-law heard on the radio that there'd been a shooting at HEW," Anders said. "She's freaking out."

County Administrative Officer Ted Gaebler stepped outside the locked door to the Rood Center to tell Anders he did not know Chasin's state.

Anders said he had just moved from Orange County. "You see this all the time down there," Anders said. "This is unbelievable."

Lou Trovato, Nevada City police chief, arrived at the Rood Center at 1:30 p.m. for a briefing session. "I've heard a lot of rumors," Trovato said. "I came to find out what's what."

"We've heard reports of gunshots all over the place," Trovato said. Trovato guarded the door to the Rood Center, letting in television camera crews and reporters for a press briefing in supervisors chambers.

Eric Frazer and Doug McArdle of Grass Valley came to learn the status of friend Mary Holland, age 23 or 24, a waitress at Lyon's. Trovato said he did not know and sent them to the hospital. McArdle heard on the radio of the shooting at Lyon's but the restaurant was shut down.

"Where can I find out?" McArdle asked Trovato, who sent him to the hospital.

Lynn Scutero, a driver for Golden Country Stage, transported three women from HEW to the Rood Center.

The women seemed shaken but not distraught, Scutero said.

By 2 p.m., 11 county employees had been evacuated from HEW building to the Rood Center.

"There isn't any joking going on," said Pat Ward, Board of Supervisor's analyst, said about the atmosphere in the county's Emergency Center. The center is housed in the Empire Room on the second floor of the Rood Center, across the hall from the Nevada County Sheriff's Department.

A paramedic from AMR Colfax ambulance service unpacked life-support equipment from an ambulance shortly before 2 p.m. to bring into the Rood Center.

Gaebler said around 2 p.m. that sheriff's deputies were sweeping the HEW Building desk by desk and allowing employees to leave as they cleared the area.

The Rood Center experienced its own traffic.

P.J. Jones, a social worker with Calworks, was among the Rood Center employees to go home once they were allowed out.

Bill Heidelberger, a county legal counsel, did not want to talk about the time he was shot 20 years ago in a court hallway.

Grass Valley Police Capt. Jerod Johnson arrived at the Rood Center after 2 p.m. and sent officers to schools to oversee the release of students.

The Roseville Fire Department sent its three-member Critical Incident Stress Management Team to counsel traumatized county employees.

A lockdown of all schools in the western slope was lifted about the time school usually let out, but not always in time to catch the bus.

Nathan Block, a junior at Sierra Mountain High School in Grass Valley, said his school was locked down between 1 and 2 p.m. Students had to have a police escort to go to the bathroom, he said. It took him a while to locate his 14-year-old brother Michael, a Nevada Union High school student, who missed his bus.

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