NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Authorities released intense police body camera footage Tuesday from a deadly shooting rampage at a local Christian elementary school that killed three students and three staffers.
The Covenant School students who died Monday were all 9 years old, and the staff members were in their 60s. The shooter was killed by responding officers, police said.
Police released more than two minutes of surveillance footage late Monday, followed by six minutes of body camera video Tuesday from officers who encountered the shooter. Most came from the body camera of officer Rex Engelbert.
The footage shows officers arriving at the school, announcing “Metro Police” as they enter the building and some classrooms with rifles raised as alarms ring out.
“It sounds like it’s upstairs,” an officer says as they ascend the steps to the sound of gunfire. The video ends with the confrontation in an upstairs lobby area, when several shots were fired at the attacker, who fell amid shouts of “Stop moving,” “Suspect down,” and, “Get your hand away from the gun.”
“I was really impressed that with all that was going on, the danger, that somebody took control and said, ‘Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,’ and went in and just tried to end this situation,” Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake said.
‘IT WAS TRULY HORRIFIC’: Nashville mourns after mass shooting
The attack was the nation’s 130th mass shooting of 2023, according to Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks gun violence data. The assault also marks the 89th shooting on K-12 school grounds in 2023 – an average of one every day – according to the K-12 School Shooting Database. The website counts any instance when a firearm is fired or pointed at someone in a school, or when a bullet hits school property.
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On Monday night, Tennessee’s first lady Maria Lee was set to have dinner with one of her best friends, Cindy Peak, an old colleague from her teacher days who planned to spend the day as a substitute teacher at The Covenant School.
But Peak never arrived home on Monday. The 61-year-old was one of six victims slain in one of the deadliest school shootings in Tennessee history.
“What happened at Covenant School was a tragedy beyond comprehension,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said in a recorded address Tuesday night, his first extended comments on the shooting.
“Like many of you, I’ve experienced tragedy in my own life, and I’ve experienced the day after that tragedy. I woke up this morning with a very familiar feeling, and I recognize that today many Tennesseans are feeling the exact same way — the emptiness, the lack of understanding, the desperate desire for answers, and the desperate need for hope.”
He added: “All of Tennessee was hurt yesterday, but some parents woke up without children, children woke up without parents and without teachers, and spouses woke up without their loved ones. Maria woke up this morning without one of her best friends, Cindy Peak.” Read more here.
— Melissa Brown, Nashville Tennessean
The attacker in Monday’s shooting purchased seven firearms legally and was under medical care for an unspecified “emotional disorder,” Drake said at a Tuesday news briefing.
According to Drake, the parents of Audrey Hale – the 28-year-old transgender man police have identified as the shooter – told officers they didn’t think their grown child should own weapons. They believed Hale had sold the only gun he had.
“As it turns out, she had been hiding several weapons within the house,” Drake said, adding that law enforcement was not aware of Hale before the shooting.
Police said Hale, who was assigned female at birth but identified as a man, bought the firearms between October 2020 and June 2022. He brought three to the school Monday, one of them an AR-style rifle.
Drake said the attacker did not appear to be targeting anyone specifically at the school, where Hale had been a student. He said Hale left behind extensive writings but no motive for the shooting has been determined.
In contrast to the painfully delayed police response to the shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas, last year, law enforcement officers in Nashville took quick action Monday, likely saving several lives.
Five officers from the Metro Nashville Police Department initially descended upon The Covenant School after a call about an active shooter came in at 10:13 a.m., and by 10:27 a.m. the attacker had been gunned down, police said. In Uvalde, where 19 students and two teachers were killed, it took more than 70 minutes to end the threat.
Body camera footage released Tuesday shows armed Nashville officers swiftly moving from one room to another in the school before confronting Hale. The police department said officers Rex Engelbert and Michael Collazo ended the attack, and they’re being widely hailed for their courage in pursuing and taking down a heavily armed shooter.
“Outstanding job @MNPDNashville,” the Fort Worth (Texas) Police Officers’ Association said in a tweet. “These brave officers ran toward the gunfire and eliminated the threat as they are trained to do.”
President Joe Biden said he spoke with Drake and “the two officers that went in and saved the lives,” and was working on reaching out to families of the victims.
Without referencing Uvalde, Drake made it clear standing around for more than an hour in an active-shooter situation was not an option.
“I was hoping this day would never, ever come here in the city,’’ Drake said Monday, “but we would never wait to make entry and go in and stop a threat, especially when it deals with our children.’’
A former middle school basketball teammate says she received a message from Hale on Instagram at 9:57 a.m. Monday – less than 20 minutes before the first 911 calls from the school.
Averianna Patton told WTVF-TV she saw the message that Hale planned to die by suicide and that Patton would see it on the news.
“Audrey, you have so much more life to live,” Patton responds in the messages. “I pray God keeps and covers you.”
“One day this will make more sense,” Hale wrote. “I’ve left behind more than enough evidence behind. But something bad is about to happen.”
Patton said she called the Nashville Davidson County Sheriff’s Office and was instructed to call Nashville’s non-emergency number. It was too late.
Patton, who told The Tennessean she thought of herself as sort of a “big sister” to Hale, and said Hale had shared suicidal thoughts with former teammates and felt she had to try to help.
“I’m just numb right now,” said Patton, who had stayed in touch with Hale through the years. “I have literally mind-blowing moments like, ‘What in the world?'”
Contributing: Cassandra Stephenson, Nashville Tennessean
In surveillance footage released by Nashville police late Monday, Hale is seen driving to the school. Hale, armed with multiple firearms, including an AR-style rifle, shoots through glass doors to enter the building. Hale walks in hallways and aims the assault rifle before the video cuts off. The video, with no audio, is more than two minutes long.
Police identified the student victims as Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney, all age 9. The staffers were Katherine Koonce, 60, identified on the Covenant website as “head of school”; substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61; and custodian Mike Hill, 61.
Hallie was the daughter of Chad Scruggs, lead pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church, according to a statement from his former church in Dallas.
“We love the Scruggs family and mourn with them over their precious daughter Hallie,” Mark Davis, senior pastor at Park Cities Presbyterian Church, said in a statement. “Together, we trust in the power of Christ to draw near and give us the comfort and hope we desperately need.”
Koonce earned a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, according to the school website. She earned a master’s in education from Georgia State University in Atlanta and a doctorate from Trevecca Nazarene University, a Christian school in Nashville.
Peak was raised in Leesville, Louisiana, and attended Leesville High School through her sophomore year in 1977, when her family relocated to Shreveport, KALB-TV in Alexandria, Louisiana, reported. She later graduated from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, the station added.
Tim Dunavant, a pastor at Hartsville First United Methodist Church, said Hill was the last employee he hired when Dunavant ran the kitchen at the Covenant church and school more than 13 years ago.
“I have a feeling, when it all comes out, Mike’s sacrifice saved lives,” Dunavant wrote in a Facebook post. “I have nothing factual to base that upon. I just know what kind of guy he was. And I know he’s the kind of guy that would do that. Goodbye Mike, I’m going to miss those encouraging texts out of the blue from you.”
Audrey Elizabeth Hale, 28, was an illustrator and graphic designer.
Hale entered the Covenant school with an AR-style rifle, an AR-style pistol and another handgun, police said. After the shooting, Drake said officers seized written material and a map describing how the assault would unfold, as well as a plan to shoot up a different Nashville school apparently scrapped because of “too much security.’’
“We have some writings that we are going over that pertain to this date, the actual incident,” Drake said at a news conference Monday afternoon. “We have a map drawn out of how this was all going to take place.”
Drake told NBC News that Hale might have had “some resentment for having to go to that school.”
Bill Campbell, a headmaster of The Covenant School from 2004 to 2008, told NBC News he remembers Hale as a third grader at the school in 2005 and a fourth grader in 2006. Hale may have transferred to another school after that, he said.
Nashville police said five officers responded to a 911 call that arrived at 10:13 a.m., and the shooter fired on arriving police vehicles from a second-story window.
The officers found the shooter on the second floor of the building that houses the school and a Presbyterian church. The threat was over by 10:27 a.m., police said.
“The police department response was swift,” police spokesman Don Aaron said. “Officers entered the first story of the school and begin clearing it. They heard shots coming from the second level. They immediately went to the gunfire.”
The Covenant School is a private school founded in 2001 that serves students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, according to its website. On a given day, slightly over 200 students and 42 staff members are at the school, Aaron said.
The school is on the campus of Covenant Presbyterian Church in the city’s Green Hills neighborhood, about 9 miles southeast of downtown Nashville. It’s next door to a Nashville Fire Department station and less than a mile south of Nashville’s largest shopping district.
The school’s motto is “Shepherding hearts. Empowering Minds. Celebrating Childhood.”
U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles, R-Tenn., whose district includes the site of Monday’s mass shooting, received widespread criticism from gun control advocates for a Christmas photo he posted in 2021 of his family posing with guns. The photo, which remained on the congressman’s Facebook page as of Monday night, shows his wife and two of his three children smiling and holding firearms in front of a Christmas tree.
“MERRY CHRISTMAS! The Ogles Family,” the post reads, adding in quotes: “The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference – they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good.” Read more here.
– Joey Garrison
Contributing: Trevor Hughes, Grace Hauck, and Natalie Neysa Alund, USA TODAY; Melissa Brown, Rachel Wegner, Kirsten Fiscus, and Craig Shoup, Nashville Tennessean