SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Investigators grappled Thursday on two main fronts after the deadliest U.S. mass shooting since the Sandy Hook Elementary School bloodshed: Seeking clues on the motives and apparent commando-style planning by a couple who turned an office holiday party into a killing field with at least 14 dead.
“I don’t think they grabbed the guns and tactical gear on a spur-of-the-moment thing,” said San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan hours after Wednesday’s rampage and a police shootout that left both alleged shooters dead several miles from the attack.
In addition, at least 17 people were wounded, some critically.
Bit by bit, profiles emerged of the suspects: Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, a former county health worker who was born in the United States, and a woman described as his Pakistani-born wife, Tashfeen Malik, 27.
Also being pieced together were the hour-by-hour events before police say the suspects stormed a conference center wearing black masks and armed with assault rifles and handguns.
Earlier in the day, the suspects dropped off their 6-month-old daughter with Farook’s mother, saying they had a doctor’s appointment, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council for American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles.
Later, Farook attended the office party hosted by the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, where he had once worked as an inspector, police said. Farook then left the gathering “under circumstances described as angry or something of that nature,” said Burguan, the police chief.
He then returned with Malik and the pair opened fire on the crowd before fleeing in a black SUV, which was later spotted about two miles from the shooting site with the area under near-total lockdown. Some unconfirmed reports quoted police saying the attackers also were outfitted with body cameras.
A shootout with police left both suspects dead and the vehicle peppered with bullet holes and with its windows shattered.
“They came prepared to do what they did, as if they were on a mission,” Burguan said.
Muslim community leader Ayloush described Malik as a Pakistani-born immigrant who lived in Saudi Arabia before marrying Farook. Two FBI officials told The Washington Post that Farook was not under FBI investigation. It’s not clear whether he had links to any other people under FBI investigation.
A third person seen fleeing the shootout was also taken into custody, but it remained unclear whether there was any link to the suspect.
“Right now, as we continue to drill down our information, it looks like we have two shooters,” Burguan said. “We are comfortable that the two shooters that went into the building are the two shooters that are deceased.”
But many other questions loomed.
Among them was whether the attack was pre-planned and why the suspects amassed assault-style gear and arms in a tidy residential neighborhood about 50 miles east of Los Angeles where the couple was often seen relaxing in their back yard.
Burguan declined to comment on what may have precipitated the attack. But, he said, the couple seemed too well-prepared for the shooting to be viewed as a spontaneous act.
He added: “We have not ruled out terrorism.”
“I have no idea why he would do something like this,” Farhan Khan, who is married to Farook’s sister, said at a news conference. “I cannot express how sad I am today.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said it had recovered two rifles and two handguns and is conducting “urgent traces” on their origins.
An ATF officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said two of the weapons were purchased legally, and investigations continued into the other two.
Recent mass shootings in the United States have typically involved a lone gunman, often someone mentally unstable or consumed with rage. Multiple-shooter events are extremely rare: According to a recent FBI report on 160 “active shooter incidents” between 2000 and 2013, all but two involved a single shooter.
“One of the big questions that will come up repeatedly is: ‘Is this terrorism?’ ” said David Bowdich, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, said at an earlier news conference. “It is a possibility. We are making some adjustments to our investigation. It is a possibility. But we don’t know that yet. And we are not willing to go down that road yet.”
The two left behind little in the way of a paper trail — no apparent criminal record, no Facebook page or Twitter account.
An online dating profile for a “farooksyed49” from Riverside, Calif., resembles the suspect described by law enforcement. The profile, on the “Indian matrimonial and dating service” iMilap.com, describes a 22-year-old man from a “religious but modern family.”
“I work for county as health, safety and environmental inspector,” it reads. “Enjoy working on vintage and modern cars, read religious books, enjoy eating out sometimes travel and just hang out in back yard doing target practice with younger sister and friends.”
The man in the profile picture is tall and bearded, posed jauntily in front of a nondescript building flanked by palm trees and a smooth, green lawn. He writes that he is interested in “matrimonial.”
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, coworkers who knew Farook described him as a quiet and polite man who held no obvious grudges against people in the office. They said he recently traveled to Saudi Arabia and returned with a woman he met online.
The officer had recently held a shower for the couple’s new baby, and the two seemed to be “living the American dream,” said Patrick Baccari, a fellow inspector who shared a cubicle with Farook.
Griselda Reisinger, who worked with Farook before leaving the agency in May, and other colleagues told the Los Angeles Times that Farook was a devout Muslim but not vocal about his religion.
The site of the shooting, the Inland Regional Center, is a three-building complex that houses a conference center and serves more than 30,000 people with developmental disabilities. Nearly 700 staff members work there, according to the organization’s Facebook page, promoting “independence, inclusion, and empowerment.” The organization says that it is committed to eliminating barriers for individuals with developmental disabilities so that they can “live a typical lifestyle.”
The center held its own holiday party Tuesday, and a brief video clip showed staffers and clients in wheelchairs dancing to the 1980 mega-hit “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang.
On Wednesday, the city’s public health department had rented out the conference center’s first-floor banquet room for a holiday party, complete with Christmas trees and other decorations. The event was in full swing when the first reports of gunfire came, at 10:59 a.m.
Melinda Rivas, a social worker who works at the center, heard a woman down the hall shouting: “There’s a shooting!” Rivas and coworkers barricaded themselves in a conference room.
She called her two adult children: “There’s a shooting going on. Be safe,” she told them. Finally, a SWAT team evacuated those hiding, telling them to keep their hands raised as they walked out of the building. Rivas texted her children, with relief this time: “I’m safe.”
She recalled leaving the building to the sight of people in panic, yelling and screaming, with clothing and emergency equipment strewn about.
“It was almost like a bloody warpath,” she said. “. . . This is one of those things I’ve often seen on the news, and now I was a part of it.”
The San Bernardino massacre follows a series of mass shootings just in the past six months. They include attacks on a historically black church in Charleston, S.C.; at a military recruitment center in Chattanooga, Tenn.; in a movie theater in Lafayette, La.; at a community college in Oregon; and just last week at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs.
The latest violence was the deadliest mass shooting since 26 people, including 20 children, were killed by a lone gunman at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
One Internet site that tracks mass shootings — defined as events in which four or more people are killed or injured — reported that San Bernardino’s tragedy was the 355th such shooting this year, a pace of more than one a day. The definition of a mass shooting, however, remains a subject of debate.
“Obviously our hearts go out to the victims and the families,” President Obama said in a television interview. “The one thing we do know is we have a pattern now of mass shootings in the country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.”
Dauber is a freelance writer. Kaplan and Murphy reported from Washington. Freelance writer Martha Groves in San Bernardino and staff writers Joel Achenback, Mark Berman, Adam Goldman, Lindsey Bever, Niraj Chokshi, Ann Gerhart, Sari Horwitz, Elahe Izadi, Wesley Lowery, Kevin Sullivan, Julie Tate, Justin Wm. Moyer, Yanan Wang and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.