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Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
AZTEC – Two students were killed when a gunman opened fire during first period at Aztec High School in northwestern New Mexico on Thursday morning, authorities say.
The suspected gunman is also dead, according to San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen, although he would not say whether he was a student at the school.
Authorities late Thursday identified the victims as Casey Marquez and Francisco Fernandez, but they didn’t give their ages.
Christesen said the suspect was male, but did not release his name or age.
Authorities have not said whether the suspect knew Marquez and Fernandez, why he shot them, or what he was armed with. They also would not say whether the suspect killed himself or was killed.
“We’re going to be processing the crime scene at the school through the night and probably into the next day,” New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas told a news conference Thursday afternoon. “Then we’ll be conducting the investigation from the interview standpoint and re-creating exactly what happened.”
Heads of several state and local law enforcement agencies spoke at the news conference, as did Gov. Susana Martinez.
“In the face of evil in the community of Aztec, we will stand with you, and we ask that you stand with us as well,” she said.
Martinez said officials from the White House had called her to express their condolences and offer federal resources.
Authorities added folding chairs to accommodate everyone who attended the news conference to hear the updates, including more than a dozen shaken parents and youths.
One high school student who attended was Autumn Petersen, 17, who was with her mother.
Petersen said she was still in shock after she and her classmates spent almost an hour hiding in a storage closet after the shooting started.
She said she was in history class around 8 a.m. when she and her classmates heard what sounded like someone banging on lockers in the hallway. They soon realized the sound was gunshots and heard more than 20 rounds fired.
“I was really scared,” Petersen said. “Like, ‘This is really happening at our school.’ ”
During the lockdown, she said, many students were crying and texting their parents.
“Throughout the whole process, we heard a bunch of gunshots,” Petersen said. “I never thought this would ever happen to us, especially since it’s such a small community.”
When the lockdown was lifted and students were allowed to leave the classroom, Petersen said, they were told to keep their eyes focused straight ahead.
“They told us not to look to the right,” she said. “I did … there was a body bag right outside our door.”
During the ordeal, the teenager and her mother, Angela Hobbs, texted back and forth.
“I told her to hide behind something,” Hobbs said.
The two were reunited just after noon at McGee Park in Farmington, joining hundreds of other parents and students.
Aztec Police Chief Mike Heal said the first 911 calls about the shooting came into dispatch shortly after 8 a.m. and four officers immediately headed to the school, with two officers getting there in about a minute.
“I am so thankful for the men and women in the Aztec Police Department,” Heal said. “They responded in less than a minute to get there and help secure the scene and do what they needed to do. I think they helped save lives today.”
Heal said he and a couple of the officers had to climb in through a window because the school was on lockdown.
Reports circulated early about multiple injuries in addition to the three who were dead, but State Police Chief Kassetas reiterated that those were false and no one else was injured. He also said that there is no evidence of threats to other schools and that there are no other suspects.
The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office is now leading the investigation, with help from State Police and the FBI in processing the crime scene.
Thursday afternoon, a group drove a truck to the scene and offered hot cocoa and coffee to police and community members.
Thoughts and prayers poured into the small town throughout the day from politicians and community leaders.
At the Capitol in Santa Fe, members of the Legislative Finance Committee in a morning meeting observed a moment of silence as word circulated of the school shooting. And when the Aztec High School basketball team didn’t attend a tournament at Albuquerque Academy on Thursday evening, the basketball players and spectators bowed their heads and fell silent in light of the tragedy.
Aztec High School is one of two high schools in Aztec, a town with a population of about 6,000 in northwestern New Mexico near Farmington and Bloomfield. It is the San Juan County seat of government.
Superintendent Kirk Carpenter said all the schools in the Aztec Municipal Schools District will be closed today.
“This isn’t something that will just affect those students,” Carpenter said. “Aztec is a small community. We shut down main street for homecoming. We want to make sure we address the needs of every family.”
He said the teachers, staff and students had practiced drills on what to do in case of a shooting.
“It’s at times like this you feel violated because of the way schools are set up – they’re supposed to be where we send our kids to stay safe,” Carpenter said. “And they still are safe places, but sometimes evil intrudes on it.”
Journal staff writers Ryan Boetel and Dan Boyd contributed to this story.