One minute and 20 seconds changed lives forever.
A girl shot in the head, left in critical condition. A young man dead by his own hand, his own gun, after bringing horror to the hallways of his school.
Shaken teenagers filed out of the school …
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Shaken teenagers filed out of the school into the cold, some barefoot. Family and friends wondered if their loved ones had been hurt, or worse.
On Dec. 13, a community was left disturbed, heartbroken, changed. Arapahoe High School, home of the Warriors, was a crime scene for nearly three days.
The shooting in Centennial came a day before the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass slayings and less than 10 miles from where the Columbine massacre occurred more than 14 years ago.
This gunman’s target, by most accounts, was a member of the school’s faculty who reportedly had laid down discipline against the student. But Karl Pierson, a Highlands Ranch resident, was prepared to take out more than one man along the way, authorities believe. Many more.
Like a lot of Arapahoe students, Pierson carried a backpack into school Dec. 13. His, however, was filled with three explosive devices — Molotov cocktails.
Pierson also carried a machete and plenty of ammunition for his pump-action shotgun, the weapon he used to change the life of student Claire Davis, who clings to that life in a local hospital. Pierson purchased the firearm on Dec. 6 at a local retail outlet, legal because he was 18 years old, Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson said. He had purchased at least some of the ammunition the morning of the shooting.
Davis, 17, may have just been in the way — it’s not clear if Pierson even knew the fellow senior at the school of more than 2,000 students.
Pierson’s ultimate goal, the sheriff says, was to kill Tracy Murphy, the coach of the speech and debate team, a librarian. They had a disagreement and Pierson made threats in September that were reported to authorities.
Here’s what the sheriff said happened in 80 seconds:
Around 12:30 p.m., Dec. 13, Pierson entered the school through a door adjacent to the library on the north side of the building and immediately shot a random round down a hallway. He then walked up to Davis and shot her point blank.
Murphy, made aware he was a likely target, was quickly warned of the gunman’s presence and made his way out of the school to safety. Pierson wasn’t hiding his shotgun or his intentions as he approached the library.
Pierson then took another random shot, went directly to the library and set off one of the bombs, which set at least three bookshelves on fire. He shot another round, but by now he could hear school resource officer James Englert — an Arapahoe County sheriff’s deputy — heading toward him at full speed.
Robinson said the resource officer, along with an unarmed security guard and two administrators, heard the first shot and immediately began running from the cafeteria to the library. The resource officer was screaming at students to get down and identifying himself as a deputy sheriff as he hustled toward the threat — he “went to the thunder,” Robinson said.
As soon as Pierson heard the commotion coming toward him, he walked to a corner and shot himself. The sheriff called the quick response by the school resource officer and the others “heroic” and said it likely saved many lives.
“(Pierson) wanted to hurt multiple people,” the sheriff said. “His intent was evil.”
The threat was over in one minute and 20 seconds, investigators determined after viewing security camera footage. But the chaos was just getting started.
Tears, fear, relief
Even after Pierson shot himself to death, students in classrooms huddled in corners in the dark, unsure of what was happening. Schools across the south metro area, not only those within the Littleton Public Schools District, were put on lockout status as a precaution. Law enforcement personnel from other cities and counties responded to the school in southwest Centennial. The major intersection of Dry Creek and University was closed off to traffic for hours on end.
Arapahoe junior Tyler Arellano was in algebra class with 28 other students and his teacher when shots rang out.
“We were all just crying and ducking down,” he said just a couple hours after the shooting. “Nobody really knew what to do.”
Arellano said the teacher told them to keep quiet, and gave them all their cell phones in case they needed to call their parents.
“She did good and stayed calm,” he said.
They stayed that way for nearly 20 minutes, he thinks, then they heard the SWAT team yelling outside.
“They broke through the door and told us to run out as fast as we can toward King Soopers,” he said. “Everyone is in shock. They don’t really want to talk about it, because it was pretty scary. But I’m fine.”
Eventually, students, some pulled from physical education classes and not dressed for the December cold, emerged from the building. They would later be reunited with their parents, down the road just a short walk, at Shepherd of the Hills Church.
“My dad picked me up at Shepherd of the Hills,” said Kaylee Eastridge, an Arapahoe junior. “It was such a relief.
“He immediately started crying.”
What fueled the rampage?
Three months ago, Pierson made a threat. Last week, he made his move. It’s not known when, or if, he made a plan.
Pierson is described by fellow students as smart, but with some controversial opinions. He was a talented competitor on the speech and debate team at Arapahoe and, at least at one point, was a member of the cross country squad.
His motivation on Dec. 13 is not entirely clear, but Robinson believes, it “had to do with a disciplinary action involved with the debate team.” Pierson made threats against Murphy in September, the sheriff confirmed. To Robinson’s knowledge, Pierson had not been kicked off the team and the disciplinary action was “appropriate.”
In the hours after the shooting, law enforcement executed three search warrants, including at Pierson’s home in Highlands Ranch. Robinson is not ready to divulge what was found, but he believes Pierson acted alone.
At a press conference the afternoon of Dec. 14, Robinson — who only a day before the shooting had announced he would be retiring at the end of January — emphasized that the investigation would not be rushed, that there was plenty of work left to do.
He also wanted to make one more thing clear.
“(Pierson) deserves no notoriety and no celebrity. I choose to never use his name again in public.”
Even as Robinson spoke, a candlelight vigil was being mobilized for Davis, the shooting victim who was left in a coma.
“This has truly been a village and a family pulling together in a difficult time,” said Scott Murphy, Littleton Public Schools superintendent.
The community was wounded, but trying to heal.
— Staff writers Ryan Boldrey, George Lurie, Chris Rotar and Jennifer Smith contributed to this article.
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