‘It was like being in a war zone’ amid shootout

September 27, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Guardian One, the King County Sheriff's Office helicopter (above), takes off from the Issaquah Community Center lawn as law enforcement agencies respond to a gunman in downtown Issaquah. By Christina Lords

Investigation continues after police kill gunman at Issaquah school

Issaquah police stopped a gunman in a fusillade of gunfire Sept. 24, after he led officers on a circuitous chase through downtown Issaquah, prompting residents to scramble for cover inside homes, and athletes and spectators at a youth football game to duck beneath bleachers for protection.

Officers fatally shot the 51-year-old Maple Valley man on the Clark Elementary School campus, not far from a youth football game on nearby Issaquah High School fields.

The initial calls to police started after the gunman — later identified as Ronald W. Ficker — abandoned a 2011 silver Kia in the roadway on Front Street South near the Julius Boehm Pool at about 11:15 a.m. The man, dressed in dark green clothing, brandished a pair of rifles — including a bolt-action hunting rifle — as he left on foot from the abandoned Kia.

The incident unfolded as frantic 911 calls from people along the gunman’s route led police to the tree-lined Clark Elementary campus along Second Avenue Southeast. Some callers said he pointed rifles at them on the street and inside vehicles.

Then, after the gunman headed about a half-mile from Front Street South to Second Avenue Southeast, witnesses said he attempted to break into a driver’s education car parked outside Clark Elementary. Police responded to the school moments later, and the fatal shootout occurred near the portable classrooms behind the main building.

Clustered beneath the bleachers alongside spectators, coaches, cheerleaders and players from the JV Purple football team, downtown Issaquah resident Karla Watts listened to the gunfire exchange between police and the gunman. Watts’ 13-year-old son Nathan plays on the team.

“It was like being in a war zone,” she said later.

Kristi Nangle, a Cougar Mountain resident and coach of a cheerleading squad at the football game, said fear permeated the atmosphere beneath the bleachers on a muggy fall day.

“All they could think about was the worst. They were thinking about the Columbine situation. They were thinking about — a couple of girls told me they were thinking about — the Norway situation that happened in June,” she said.

MORE COVERAGE

• King County authorities identify Issaquah gunman

• Issaquah police encountered gunman in days, hours before shooting

• Investigation, absences challenge Issaquah police

• Clark Elementary students return to school, a crime scene

• Police roadblocks create traffic headaches

Concerns about other shooters or a coordinated attack triggered a colossal police response from at least 10 local and state law enforcement agencies. Overall, officials estimated after the incident, more than 70 law enforcement officers assisted in the response and investigation from late morning until long after sunset.

‘We don’t know why he was doing it’

Brenden Bonnett, a resident across from the Clark Elementary campus, said the initial gunshot sounded as though a car backfired. The commotion in the street meant something more serious occurred.

“There was a bunch of people freaking out, saying they had just seen the guy with the gun,” he said. “He was just right there, right by the school.”

Bonnett ordered his young sons to head inside the house, and then barricaded the family inside the bathroom. Bonnett guarded the door as the children huddled in the bathtub.

“It’s a wonderful neighborhood, a lot of good people,” he said later. “It’s not something you expect here in our backyard.”

Michael Smith, Liberty High School’s cross country coach, and runners from the team just completed practice and returned to the Clark Elementary parking lot before the gunman reached campus. Smith yelled at the shooter as he attempted to break into the driver’s education vehicle.

“He turns around, looks at me and I saw two guns in his arms,” he said.

Smith returned to the cross country team and ordered parents and runners to call 911.


“Until he actually took a shot — your adrenaline is going — I wasn’t afraid, because he wasn’t acting like he wanted to hurt anybody,” Smith said later.

Police said the gunman headed across campus after the break-in attempt at the driver’s education car and then climbed into the cab of a backhoe parked behind the school.

“Because he was on the move, we were getting reports from everybody, so it was hard to tell exactly how many people were involved,” King County Sheriff Office’s spokesman Sgt. John Urquhart said hours after the shootout. “As far as we know at this point, just him, just the one man.”

Issaquah police officers converged on the campus. Investigators said the man then dropped to the ground and started firing at officers. In response, four officers returned fire and hit the gunman several times.

The man died at the scene from multiple gunshot wounds.

The gunman’s identity remained unreleased until the King County Medical Examiner’s Office can identify the body using DNA or dental records. The medical examiner’s office identified Ficker on Sept. 27.

Officials placed the officers involved in the shooting death on paid administrative leave — a standard procedure in such situations.

The sheriff’s office Major Crimes Unit is leading the investigation. The team also includes detectives from the Bellevue Police Department and a liaison from the Issaquah Police Department.

Meanwhile, police investigated the gunman’s abandoned Kia near a downtown intersection for hours after the shooting. Traffic slowed to a crawl throughout the city after police closed important downtown streets for more than seven hours.

“We don’t know why he was doing it,” Urquhart said. “We don’t know who he is for sure.”

Investigators located some ammunition in the vehicle, some shell casings nearby and a gas can near the rear of the car. Police also discovered three guns in the trunk, including a pellet gun and antique rifle. Investigators also used a robot to inspect the vehicle for explosives.

Officers use a King County Sheriff's Office patrol car as a shield as they advance on the shooter's location at Clark Elementary School. By Martin Buckley

Urquhart said investigators do not yet know what motivated the gunman, although theories abounded as witnesses started sharing stories through calls to friends and family, text messages and on social media services.

“I don’t think he planned on making it through, to be honest with you,” Bonnett said. “The way it seems to me, he knew that he was going to come to a school and start shooting. I think he just had a death wish and couldn’t do it himself.”

‘This could have been a lot worse’

Despite the crowds gathered near the shootout, no other injuries resulted from the incident — something bystanders marveled at in the days afterward.

“Lots of people up there, lots of kids,” Urquhart said. “This could have been a lot worse.”

Issaquah resident Jason Gerth said a shot from the gunman came close after he and some friends followed police cruisers from Front Street South to the Clark Elementary campus. Gerth said he could not see the shooter, but he said he felt a bullet slice through the air.

“I could feel it going past my head,” he said.

Issaquah Middle School student Abby Jones, 11, and a friend had been playing on a street near the schools. They heard gunshots and watched police vehicles barrel down Second Avenue Southeast.

“We started counting police cars — at 25, we got bored,” she said.

Sammamish Plateau resident Brian Sullivan spent the incident shielded beneath the bleachers at Issaquah High School. Not long after the last shots rang out, police approached the frightened crowd. Officers allowed the people huddled beneath the bleachers to depart after about 90 minutes.

“The officer that was standing guard protecting us came over — he didn’t indicate that the suspect had been killed or apprehended — he just said, ‘We think we’ve eliminated the threat.’ He was just trying to reassure us,” Sullivan said.

Investigators examine a staircase from the Issaquah High School parking lot to the Clark Elementary School campus late Sept. 24. By Christina Lords

Dean Whistler, JV Purple coach and a Sammamish Plateau resident, credited law enforcement officers on their coordinated effort to remove people from harm’s way at the football game, and said the incident offered a lesson in teamwork for the players.

“There was a sense that, even when things got to their most tense situation, it felt to us like we were kind of removed from it, and that was the intent and the effect of the law enforcement agencies and the way they handled it,” he said.

In the moments before a gun-toting police officer charged onto the field to tell people to move beneath the bleachers, Watts watched as her son tackled another player. The excitement morphed into fear in the ensuing seconds.

“You see this stuff play out on the news every single day all around the world,” she said, “but not in Issaquah.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Reporter Christina Lords and Managing Editor Kathleen R. Merrill contributed to this report. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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