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Gunman Opens Fire at University, Killing Five Then Self

February 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM EST
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A gunman shot 21 people at North Illinois University on Thursday, killing five before turning his guns on himself. Chicago NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett reports on the aftermath of yesterday's events.
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JIM LEHRER: The campus shootings. NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago reports from Northern Illinois University at DeKalb.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: Memorials and vigils took the place of classes and lectures today on the campus of Northern Illinois University, the morning after five students were killed by a gunman who then turned the weapon on himself.

At a news conference, University President John Peters said that NIU was prepared for a day it had hoped would never come.

JOHN PETERS, President, Northern Illinois University: We had a plan in place for this sort of thing. Our university police had practiced that plan. They showed that yesterday in the speed and the professionalism of that response.

We were dealing with a disturbed individual who intended to do harm on this campus. We did everything we could to ensure the safety of this university, and we are going to continue in that vein.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The chair of the board of trustees, Cherilyn Murer, said NIU’s disaster plan was implemented with the still-fresh memory of last year’s Virginia Tech killings.

CHERILYN MURER, Chair, Board of Trustees: The president, his vice presidents, the staff, the faculty, our incredible students, their supportive parents did everything, everything possible to avoid future tragedies as we had seen at Virginia Tech.

I can assure you that the plan was not something put on a shelf, but truly a plan that had been put into action.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Raquel Vega was in the classroom yesterday when the shooting began.

RAQUEL VEGA, Eyewitness: It seems like you would never thought you would experience. And I don’t — God, God be with everyone and their families who lost their loved ones.

It’s just — I mean, I’m like this. I can’t even imagine the way — how people are who actually lost someone. And I just — like, the gunshots, oh, it’s like it won’t go away. It won’t go away.

'Ideal student' had mental issues

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The gunman, identified this morning as 27-year-old Stephen Kazmierczak, was a 2006 graduate of Northern Illinois who had taken classes at the university as recently as last year.

NIU Police Chief Don Grady said Kazmierczak, who had been attending the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, was an exemplary student while at NIU. Officials said he had an unspecified mental health problem.

CHIEF DONALD GRADY, Northern Illinois University Police Department: Actually, I'm not prepared to discuss what it is that he was taking his medication for, only to say that he was taking medication, had stopped, and he had become somewhat erratic in the past two weeks.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The motive for the killings is unknown. What is known is that, just after 3:00 p.m. yesterday, Kazmierczak calmly walked into a geology class in Cole Hall just as it was ending and, without a word, he began shooting.

He fired at least 48 shots from three handguns, two nine-millimeters, and a smaller caliber pistol. He also leveled six blasts from a 12-gauge shotgun, stopping to reload, police said. He had much ammunition left. Then he shot himself.

At least 15 were wounded in the classroom. Authorities said the shotgun and one of the nine-millimeters were purchased last week in Champaign, Illinois, and that Kazmierczak's reported mental health problems would not have prohibited the firearm sales.

The five dead students have been identified as of this afternoon: Daniel Parmenter, 20, was from Westchester, Illinois; Catalina Garcia, also 20, hailed from Cicero, Illinois; 19-year-old Ryanne Mace was from Carpentersville, Illinois; Julianna Gehant, 32, was last known to be from Mendota; and Gayle Dubowski, 20, was from Carol Stream, Illinois.

No word yet on when classes might resume here. Today all academic buildings remain locked down, and few students were out on campus, though an ecumenical prayer service that was held at noon was filled to capacity.

Sociology Professor Kay Forest knew Stephen Kazmierczak and says the man who hurt so many was not the student she remembers.

KAY FOREST, Chair, Department of Sociology: He was an absolutely wonderful person. He was the ideal student that you want. He was polite. He was smart. He was collegial. He was a department citizen, and he was gracious. This makes no sense with anything that I knew about him; it makes no sense.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Forest left her office right after the shooting and came across students helping a wounded classmate outside DuSable Hall, adjacent to Cole Hall.

KAY FOREST: They were professional. They were calm. They were working together. They were everything you want students to be in a situation that is this tragic.

Quick official reaction praised

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: University officials have emphasized their quick reaction to the shooting. Schools nationwide have had to devise new and more effective disaster plans since the Virginia Tech rampage last year.

University officials and police at Virginia Tech had been criticized for a slow response and for failing to notify students promptly of the attack. Thirty-two students and faculty were murdered in two buildings on the Blacksburg campus; the gunman there also killed himself.

CHIEF DONALD GRADY: This offense started at 3:06 yesterday afternoon. By 3:06:29, there were two NIU police officers already in the area of the scene. A minute-and-a-half later, there were another eight police officers on the scene, and the response was immediate, and they went in immediately.

Within that short period of time, the shooter walked into the building, managed to begin his shooting spree, and concluded before we actually were able to enter the building and stop it.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Students Robin Yergovich and Chris Werve were supposed to be in the introductory geology class that was attacked yesterday. They said the university reacted swiftly to the disaster and showed us the e-mail alerts sent out to students.

ROBIN YERGOVICH, Student: They didn't give us much information, but they gave us the important information.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Could they have done any better job?

ROBIN YERGOVICH: Well, I know that the response time that it took like for the police to actually get to the room was very quick. They've been saying all over the news that it took them two minutes to get to the room after shots were fired, and I think that's wonderful.

I don't really know if it would have been possible for them to get information out to the public sooner than that.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Tonight, students and faculty are expected to gather for another vigil on campus.