ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - The gunman accused of killing five people in a vendetta against a Maryland newspaper barricaded the rear exit to prevent anyone from escaping and methodically blasted his way through the newsroom with a pump-action shotgun, cutting down one victim trying to slip out the back, authorities said Friday.
“The fellow was there to kill as many people as he could,” Anne Arundel County Police Chief Timothy Altomare said as Jarrod W. Ramos, 38, was charged with five counts of murder in one of the deadliest attacks on journalists in U.S. history.
Three editors, a reporter and a sales assistant were killed in the Thursday afternoon rampage.
Ramos, a former information-technology worker for the federal government, had a long-held grudge against the Capital Gazette. He filed a defamation suit against the paper in 2012 after it ran an article about him pleading guilty to harassing a woman - the lawsuit was thrown out by a judge as groundless - and he repeatedly targeted staff members with menacing, profanity-laced tweets.
Police looked into the online threats in 2013, but the newspaper declined at the time to press charges for fear that doing so “would exacerbate an already flammable situation,” Altomare said. Also, the detective who investigated did not believe Ramos was a threat, according to a police report.
“There’s clearly a history there,” the police chief said.
Ramos, a clean-shaven figure with long hair past his shoulders, was denied bail after a brief court hearing in which he appeared by video, watching attentively but not speaking. Authorities said he was “uncooperative” with interrogators. He was placed on a suicide watch in jail. His public defenders had no comment outside court.
The first-degree murder charges carry a maximum penalty of life without parole. Maryland has no death penalty.
The bloodshed initially stirred fears that the recent barrage of political attacks on the “fake news media” had exploded into violence, and police reacted by tightening security at news organizations in New York and other places. But by all accounts, Ramos had a specific, longstanding grievance against the paper.
At the White House, President Donald Trump, who routinely calls reporters “liars” and “enemies of the people,” said: “Journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their jobs.”
Ramos carefully planned the attack, barricading the back door and using “a tactical approach in hunting down and shooting the innocent people,” prosecutor Wes Adams said. Adams said the gunman, who was captured hiding under a desk and did not exchange fire with police, also had an escape plan, but the prosecutor would not elaborate.
Few details were released at the court hearing on Ramos, other than that he is single, has no children and has lived for the past 17 years in an apartment in Laurel, Maryland. He was employed by an IT contractor for the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2007 to 2014, a department spokesman said.
The rampage began with a shotgun blast that shattered the glass entrance to the open newsroom. Journalists crawled under desks and sought other hiding places, describing agonizing minutes of terror as they heard the gunman’s footsteps and the repeated blasts of the weapon.
“I was curled up, trying not to breathe, trying not to make a sound, and he shot people all around me,” Capital Gazette photographer Paul Gillespie, who dove beneath a desk, told The Baltimore Sun, owner of the Annapolis paper.
Gillespie said he heard a colleague scream, “No!” It was answered by a gunshot blast. He heard another co-worker’s voice, then another shot.
Some 300 local, state and federal officers converged on the scene and within two minutes police had begun to corner Ramos, a rapid response that “without question” saved lives, Altomare said.
The police chief referred to Ramos as “the bad guy,” refusing to utter his name because “he doesn’t deserve for us to talk about him for one more second.”
Ramos was identified with the help of facial recognition technology because of what the chief said was some kind of “lag” in getting results from the computer system used to analyze fingerprints. Police denied news reports that Ramos had mutilated his fingertips to thwart his identification.
Two officials told The Associated Press on Thursday night, based on preliminary information, that the gunman had damaged his fingerprints in what was believed to be an effort to make it harder to identify him. That information had been in a law enforcement document and was included in a briefing that one of the officials received.
The chief said the weapon was a 12-gauge shotgun, legally purchased about a year ago despite the harassment case in which Ramos pleaded guilty. He also carried smoke grenades, authorities said.
Ramos launched so many social media attacks about the paper and its writers that retired publisher Tom Marquardt said he called police in 2013, telling his wife at the time, “This guy could really hurt us.”
A police report on the 2013 investigation said a Capital Gazette attorney showed an officer tweets from Ramos in which Ramos “makes mention of blood in the water, journalist hell, hit man, open season, glad there won’t be murderous rampage, murder career.” The officer, Michael Praley, said in the report that he “did not believe that Mr. Ramos was a threat to employees” at the paper, noting that Ramos hadn’t tried to enter the building and hadn’t sent “direct, threatening correspondence.”
“As of this writing the Capital will not pursue any charges,” Praley wrote. “It was described as putting a stick in a beehive which the Capital Newspaper representatives do not wish to do.”
Later, in 2015, Ramos tweeted that he would like to see the paper stop publishing, but “it would be nicer” to see two of its journalists “cease breathing.”
The online grudge apparently “went dark” for a period until some new posts just before the killings, Altomare said. The chief said police were not aware of Ramos’ recent online activity until after the rampage, saying: “Should we have been? In a perfect world, sure, we should have been.”
Investigators were reviewing Ramos’ social media postings and searched his apartment, where Altomare said they found evidence of the planning Ramos had put into the attack. The chief would not give details.
Those killed included Rob Hiaasen, 59, the paper’s assistant managing editor and brother of novelist Carl Hiaasen. Also slain were editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, special projects editor Wendi Winters, reporter John McNamara and sales assistant Rebecca Smith.
The newspaper said two other employees were treated for minor injuries.
The city of Annapolis announced a vigil for the victims Friday night at a public square near the Capitol.
Contributors include Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Michael Balsamo, Sarah Rankin and Denise Lavoie and the AP News Research Center in New York.