GILROY, Calif. — Authorities on Monday were searching for answers to why a 19-year-old opened fire on a popular food festival less than a mile from his parents’ home in California, killing two children and another young man, but believe many more people would have died if officers patrolling the event had not stopped the gunman so quickly.
Santino William Legan, 19, cut through a fence and appeared to randomly target people with an “assault-type rifle” Sunday afternoon, the end of the three-day Gilroy Garlic Festival that attracts about 100,000 people to the city known as the “Garlic Capital of the World,” Gilroy Police Chief Scot Smithee said.
Police responded in less than a minute, and Legan turned his “AK-47-type” gun on them, Smithee said. Three officers fired back and killed Legan, who legally purchased the weapon this month in Nevada, where his last address is listed.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of the officers who were able to engage this guy as quickly as they did,” the police chief said. “We had thousands of people there. It could have gone so much worse so fast. … There absolutely would have been more bloodshed.”
Legan’s motive wasn’t known, Smithee said. Legan posted two photos on Instagram not long before the attack that injured 12 other people.
One photo depicted Smokey the Bear in front of a “fire danger” sign, with a caption that said to read the 19th century book “Might is Right,” a work that claims race determines behaviour and is popular among white nationalists and far-right extremist groups.
Legan’s since-deleted Instagram account says he is Italian and Iranian. Minutes before the shooting, he had posted a photo from the festival saying, “Ayyy garlic festival time” and “come get wasted on overpriced (stuff).”
The festival in the agricultural city of 50,000 about 80 miles (176 kilometres) southeast of San Francisco had security that required people to pass through metal detectors and have their bags searched.
The shooter sneaked in through a fence that borders a parking lot next to a creek, Smithee said, and the gunfire sent panicked people running away and diving for cover under tables and a concert stage.
Some witnesses reported a second suspect, Smithee said, but it was unclear whether that person was armed or just helped in some way. A manhunt stretched into Monday.
The shooting killed 6-year-old Stephen Romero, a 13-year-old girl and recent college graduate Trevor Irby, who was in his 20s, authorities and family said.
“My son had his whole life to live, and he was only 6,” Alberto Romero told San Francisco Bay Area news station KNTV. “That’s all I can say.”
The boy’s grandmother, Maribel Romero, told Los Angeles station KABC-TV that she searched several hospitals before learning he had died. She said Stephen was “always kind, happy and, you know, playful.”
Keuka College said Irby was a biology major who graduated in 2017 from the school in upstate New York.
Officials didn’t release the name of the girl who died. The wounded were taken to multiple hospitals, and their conditions ranged from fair to critical, with some undergoing surgery. At least five have been released.
Police searched the two-story home of Legan’s family less than a mile from the garlic festival and a dusty car parked outside before leaving the house Monday with paper bags and what appeared to be other evidence.
Jan Dickson, a neighbour across the street, said Santino Legan had not lived there for at least a year and that SWAT officers came to the home Sunday night. She called the Legans “a nice, normal family.”
“How do you cope with this? They have to deal with the fact that their son did this terrible thing and that he died,” Dickson said.
The Gilroy Garlic Festival features food, cooking contests and music and is a decades-old staple in the city. Authorities said police, paramedics and firefighters were stationed throughout the event.