Stephanie Durkee was tending to children in the school cafeteria when she heard someone swearing. “Fuck AIG!” somebody yelled. It sounded like a man out on the schoolyard.
She walked a few steps to the cafeteria’s doorway, and as she walked, she heard two bangs. At first she thought it was a car backfiring. Then she heard a ping, like a bullet ricocheting off metal.
Stepping outside onto the playground, she saw a man running and a group of girls fleeing the man. “He was in amongst the children,” she said when interviewed later. “He could reach out and touch them — that’s how close he was.”
It was just after noon, 12:12 p.m. The playground was filled with boisterous first-graders, second-graders, and third-graders, children six to eight years old.
Durkee, a school monitor, said other adults in the yard later told her they heard the man shout at the children, yelling at the girls, “You better run, ’cause I’m going to shoot you dead!” In fact, two second-grade girls were struck in the arm by bullets.
The man was tall and thin, dressed in black: black ball cap, black hooded sweatshirt, black pants. His zippered sweatshirt was open in front, and it looked as though he had on a green army-type shooter’s vest underneath.
As he ran, he carried in his left hand a red plastic gasoline container. It was perhaps two-gallon size, rectangular, and had a handle. He was close enough that Durkee could see he also carried in that hand a long cardboard box of fireplace matches. The man’s left arm was extended by his side, and it looked as though the red container was heavy and full of gasoline.
The man’s other arm, his right arm, was extended in front of him, and in his right hand he held a large black revolver. It was shiny, Durkee remembered, and had a long barrel, maybe six inches long. Durkee saw the man fire three more shots.
The man ran toward some boys playing on the metal playground equipment, near the monkey bars and sliders.
“He was yelling at the time,” remembered Durkee. He was running and yelling and shooting at the same time, she said. “He was yelling, ‘Death to Obama’ and ‘Death to all the little fags. Kill them.’ ” Durkee thought the man was referring to the children as “all the little fags.”
“You could see when he fired his arm would jerk,” said Durkee. “I don’t think he was familiar with shooting the gun.” Durkee’s brother and father had revolvers, and she noticed that the man did not handle his weapon as if he were familiar with it.
Although Durkee remembered seeing the man fire three shots, she said she never saw a muzzle flash.
The man pulled on the trigger again, but there was no shot. Then he dropped the red plastic container, and it tipped over onto its side. Durkee, standing several yards away, could smell fumes. “Yes, I definitely could smell it,” she said, “and I knew it was gasoline.”
Durkee had been a campus monitor at Kelly Elementary School in Carlsbad for 17 years, and she had never expected to see anything like this.
She knew she had to do something. That’s when she put her whistle to her mouth and gave a fierce blast. She says she made the shrill noise for 30 seconds. Then she yelled RUN to the children, and the obedient little ones took off like a stampede for their classrooms. Durkee said the children were drilled to run for their classrooms when told to do so.
Had Durkee practiced blowing her whistle as a signal to the children? “No, I just did that by instinct,” she said. Her goal was actually to get the man’s attention away from the children, she said. “I was trying to distract him.”
As the man followed the children who were fleeing toward the classrooms, he used both hands to push open the revolving cylinder on the handgun and tried to dump out the empty casings. One empty shell casing fell out near some trees, and four more casings fell out as he went past the cafeteria, Durkee said.
It looked as though the man were reaching into his pocket. For more ammunition? She couldn’t see.
Durkee succeeded in catching the shooter’s attention. As he passed by her, he slowed to a walk, halted briefly, and looked directly at the pleasantly plump, middle-aged woman.
He was three or four feet away. “I asked him, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ He said, ‘This is a drill, and these are blanks.’ ” Then he jogged away from her, down a passageway between the cafeteria and another building, toward classrooms and the school’s offices. There were also bathrooms in that direction. Other women at the school later told Durkee that the stranger stopped in front of the bathrooms and tried to reload his revolver. Durkee said that single rounds of live ammunition were found on the ground there.
In the noise and confusion, Durkee heard some men speaking hurriedly. The cafeteria was being remodeled, and construction workers were on-site. One of the workers, Carlos Partida, told Durkee, “We’re going to get him! We’re going to get him and take him down!”
The next moment the shooter ran back past her, and two construction workers took off after him. Partida peeled off in another direction, toward the lot where his pickup truck was parked. The two other workers closed rapidly on the fleeing man, who headed for a six-foot-high chain-link fence at the edge of the grassy field.
Durkee, who has rheumatoid arthritis, followed the men as fast as she could.
The shooter made a run at the fence but got hung up at the top when one foot seemed to get caught. Then he threw himself over the top and fell to the ground on the other side. Scrambling to his feet, he moved toward a pale-colored car parked close by and stepped off the curb and into the street.
Just then Partida drove up in his truck. The shooter extended his right arm and pointed the gun at the truck. The truck was only two to five feet away. Partida drove it forward into the man and hit him. Durkee said she saw the shooter fall backwards to the asphalt street, and then he rolled onto his side as if he were going to get up.
Just then, the other two construction workers —Steven Kane and Mario Contreras — caught up to the sprawling shooter. They brought him onto the nearby curb and then onto the sidewalk. Not gently.
Durkee said, “I stayed there and I watched them.” The three construction workers together made sure the shooter waited for police, who arrived in about two minutes, according to Durkee’s estimate. “Two to four police cars pulled up, all of a sudden.”
Carlsbad police arrested Brendan Liam O’Rourke, 41, on suspicion of attempted murder and other crimes, on October 8, 2010. O’Rourke pleaded not guilty to 14 felony charges at his arraignment the following week in San Diego’s North County Superior Court. Prosecutor Summer Stephan said the man was disarmed of a Ruger .357 Magnum six-shot revolver and a speedloader and extra ammunition.
According to authorities, the shooter had failed to eject all the spent shell casings out of his revolver, and this prevented him from successfully using the speedloader to put a new load of ammunition into the gun.
O’Rourke’s next court appearance is a preliminary hearing scheduled for December 15.
Durkee was glad she was able to help. “I was just doing my job for those little children.” Durkee has lived in Carlsbad for 30 years and said her own two daughters are grown up and out of school now. “They both went to Kelly Elementary,” said Durkee.
“I was going to retire this year, but now I don’t think I can,” she said. “I don’t think they’ll let me.”