HESSTON, Kansas - Shortly before a gunman shot three people and injured another 14 on Thursday, he had been served with a court order aimed at barring him from contact with someone he had abused, authorities said Friday.
This news offered the first suggestion of a possible motive for the bloodshed that erupted in a small community in Kansas, where a lone shooter named Cedric Ford first fired indiscriminately on a highway in Newton and then gunned down people inside the lawn-mower factory where he worked before dying in a shootout with police.
"He was served a protection from abuse order at 3:30 yesterday, and the first shooting came at 5," Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton said in a televised interview Friday morning with Fox 4 in Kansas City after he was asked about a possible motivation.
These orders prohibit a person from contacting a victim of abuse or their children, and in some cases they can also bar someone from their home, according to the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.
Hours after the shooting, Walton had said authorities had ruled out terrorism as a possible motivation and had an inkling of what prompted the gunfire.
#BREAKING Kansas gunman identified as Cedric Ford; killed 3, wounded 14 people before officer shot and killed him. pic.twitter.com/msda7N4Oxm WPEC CBS12 News (@CBS12) February 26, 2016
"We have an idea … there were some things that triggered this particular individual," he said during a news conference.
The mass shooting - coming just five days after a gunman killed six people while driving around Kalamazoo, Mich., in an apparently random rampage - shook the blue-collar community of Hesston and the manufacturing plant where the gunman worked.
While authorities have not publicly identified the gunman, but a law enforcement official who asked not to be identified and two employees who witnessed the shooting told The Post that the suspected attacker was Cedric Ford, who worked on the plant's paint line and who co-workers said was worried about being fired.
Walton said the gunman was carrying a "assault type long gun," shot 15 people inside Excel Industries, 35 miles north of Wichita, killing three before he was taken down by a lone "hero" law enforcement official. Two other people were shot and injured by the gunman as he drove toward the plant.
Ford, 38, has a history of run-ins with the law, including a recent alleged assault on a live-in girlfriend, and his Facebook page reflected a fondness for guns, cars and children.
ABC News, citing two unnamed law enforcement sources, also named Ford, as did Reuters, CNN, the Wichita Eagle and KWCH, a local television station.
The bloodshed began just before 5 p.m. Thursday, when police received a report about a man in the nearby community of Newton who was shot in the shoulder while in his truck, Walton said. Fast on its heels came another report of someone who had been shot in the leg; the gunman took that person's vehicle - his own had veered off the road - and continued toward the Excel plant, firing as he drove.
Fellow workers were in the middle of an otherwise routine factory shift.
Michael Dellinger, 20, told The Post he and his co-workers had just gotten out of a safety meeting when he heard a unfamiliar popping noise.
Dellinger works on an assembly line in the plant's large, open main room, and is accustomed to loud sounds, so he didn't think anything of it. But then he saw Ford standing in the open doorway to the parking lot, holding a gun.
Ford started firing at the paint line, Dellinger said, and then at the assembly line next to Dellinger's.
The 20-year-old stood frozen.
"Then he turned toward our line," Dellinger recalled in a telephone interview. "I grabbed the guy next to me and said 'Run, there's a gun.'"
He and his co-worker ran toward the closest door. Dellinger said he could hear people yelling, and felt bullets ricochet off of factory equipment around him. At some point, he pulled out the safety ear plugs he wore to protect his hearing from ordinary factory cacophony. He wanted to be able to hear what was going on now.
When John Burnett, another assembly line worker, saw people running toward the plant's backdoor, he sprinted after them. As he ran towards the exit, however, he stopped to help an injured co-worker who was clutching his back in pain.
"I could tell there was blood," Burnett said in a phone interview. "He was a painter, so he was wearing a paint suit, and they are white, and I noticed there was red all over his paint suit."
Burnett helped the injured man outside, where others worked to stop the bleeding and called 911.
Austin McCaskill, who works on motor hydraulics at Excel, described the shooter "running through the plant just going crazy with a gun . . . just randomly shooting people." After running outside with others, McCaskill, 40, said they saw "probably two or three people laying in the road."
"One guy got shot in the back," he said. "There was one guy who was shot in the leg. There were random people everywhere who had gunshot wounds."
"Everybody says it can't happen here, but . . . it happened here," Walton told reporters at his Thursday news conference. "This is a fairly peaceful community. And to have something like this is tragic."
The sentiment has become chillingly familiar in an era of regular mass killings in otherwise peaceful cities and towns across America. But unlike other recent attacks - at a community college in Roseburg, Ore., at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, at a community center in San Bernardino, Calif. - this one barely seemed to register on the national consciousness.
No mention was made of the attack at the CNN/Telemundo debate, where the five Republican presidential candidates were sparring at the same time that the Harvey County sheriff was enumerating the victims of the shooting. President Obama, who has often given emotional, televised remarks after spasms of gun violence, didn't release so much as a statement. On the list of trending Google searches overnight, "Hesston, Kansas" ranked 36th.
But in the working class community north of Wichita, Thursday, the shooting was all people could think about.
Brian Johnson, who said he worked with Ford in the paint department at Excel, told the Post that he had gotten into an argument with Ford over the phone on Wednesday night and believed that Ford was trying to kill him.
The two fought about "stupid stuff" after Ford called Johnson on the phone Wednesday - mostly related to Ford believing that he was going to get fired - but Johnson said he thought they would resolve their differences when he arrived at work the next day.
"But when I got there at 4:30 p.m. he was gone. Went to go pick up his guns, I guess," Johnson said.
About half an hour later, Johnson heard gunshots and his boss yelling that someone had a gun. He dashed for the entrance, and as he ran he says he saw Ford firing his weapon. Co-workers would later tell Johnson that they saw Ford firing toward Johnson, but every bullet missed.
"Every foot track that I took he was right behind me," he recalled "all the way through the plant."
Asked if he thought Ford had targeted him, Johnson replied, "Absolutely. I do."
Hours after the shooting, Johnson sat in the waiting room at Via Christi Hospital -- St. Francis in Wichita, waiting to get word on three friends who had been seriously hurt. But he couldn't explain what might have driven his co-worker to such violence: "Ain't got a clue," he said.
Speaking at the press conference Thursday, Walton could not say if the gunman had recently been fired or how long he had worked at Excel. But he hinted that authorities had some idea of a motive.
"We have an idea . . . there were some things that triggered this particular individual," the sheriff said.
Public records show that Ford, 38, used to live in Florida and had an extensive criminal record, including convictions for burglary and carrying a concealed firearm. Johnson told The Post that Ford had been working at the Excel Plant for about five years.
Earlier this month, Ford was accused of assault by a live-in girlfriend.
"He placed me in a chokehold from behind," she wrote in a request for a protection order filed Feb. 5, according to the Wichita Eagle. "I couldn't breathe."
She added, in all capital letters: "He is an alcoholic, violent, depressed. It's my belief he is in desperate need of medical & psychological help!"
Thursday's attack was the 49th mass shooting in the United States this year, according to the crowd-sourced Mass Shooting Tracker database.
"This is a horrible situation," Walton said Thursday. "Just terrible, terrible."
Further bloodshed was averted, he added, by a lone law enforcement officer who was the first to arrive on the scene at Excel. Even as the gunman - armed with an "assault type" long gun and a pistol - fired indiscriminately around the plant's large assembly area, the policeman charged into the building.
That officer shot and killed the gunman, saving several others, Walton said.
"[The officer] went inside of that place and saved multiple, multiple lives," Walton said Thursday. "He's a hero as far as I'm concerned."
Walton said that police had traveled to the shooter's home Thursday evening, but a man he apparently lived with refused to let officers inside.
That standoff ended late Thursday night, when law enforcement surrounded a mobile home in Newton - about a dozen miles south of the Excel plant - that was believed to belong to the shooter, KWCH reported.
Newton police told the local television station that they'd received tips there was someone in the home and heard music coming from inside. But the music eventually stopped, and police ultimately found the home empty.
They would not say what was found inside, KWCH said.
In addition to the sheriff's office and other local authorities, state officials and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives responded to the shooting.
Meanwhile, life along this stretch of Insterstate 135 was stalled by the outbreak of violence. Hesston College, located just blocks from the plant, went into lockdown for several hours on Thursday. The local high school became a staging area for a few hundred plant employees who needed to be interviewed by police. Family members and friends thronged outside the hospitals in Newton and Wichita where victims had been taken, anxiously awaiting word that their loved ones were safe.
Six people injured in the shooting were in stable condition and being treated at Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, a hospital spokeswoman said. Another seven patients - five in serious condition, two in fair condition - were taken to Via Christi Hospital -- St Francis in Wichita, a spokeswoman said. Four people were taken to Newton Medical Center, a spokeswoman there said, three in good condition and one in fair condition.
Edna Bartel Decker, a Hesston resident, said she was one of the people shot at by the gunman on the road to the Excel plant. In a message to The Washington Post, she said she was in her car driving home when he drove past her, then slammed his breaks and jumped out of his car toting a gun.
"I was blocked and couldn't go around," she wrote. "He motioned me to get out, I refused, so he lifted up the gun to shoot. I immediately laid down on the seat as he shot. It went through my driver window and exited out the back passenger window."
"I give all the praise to God for my protection!" she added.
Shortly after the reports of the shootings on the road, police were called about a shooting in Excel's parking lot and then alerted to an active shooter at the facility. About 150 people were working at the plant at the time.
Law enforcement arrived on the scene at 5:06 p.m., Walton said, just two minutes after getting reports of shots fired at Excel. The gunman was shot down less than 20 minutes later, at 5:23 p.m.
When he finally heard the lull in the gunfire, Dellinger turned to look at the bloody scene behind him. Three co-workers were running after him, all of them bleeding. He helped them out the door as law enforcement began to arrive.
But Dellinger didn't stop running until he reached the edge of town, about a mile away.
"I wasn't going to stop until I knew I was safe," he said. "I just had a kid - he's a year and two months old. And that's all I thought about: 'I gotta see my son grow up. I gotta keep going.'"
Only later, sitting at home with his wife and young son, did the reality of what happened begin to sink in. He'd seen news reports of other mass shootings around the country, and he remembered thinking, "Man, I'm glad that doesn't happen anywhere around me."
"And sure enough it happened," he said. "I don't really know how to explain it. It's a bunch of emotions all jammed together."
Dellinger had only been working at the plant for three weeks, but said it was already the best place he'd ever worked.
"It's just amazing," he said. "I don't see how anybody can get that angry out there to do anything like that."
But someone did.
Dellinger said he used to take smoke breaks with Ford, who he described as a smiling, laughing man who nevertheless gave Dellinger "a bad gut feeling."
"There was something that was real off on him," he said. " I couldn't quite point it out."
Dellinger wouldn't have expected Ford to do something like this, but he said there's been a lot of discussion among Excel employees about the suspected gunman's possible motive.
"A lot of people said he had gotten fired, or he was worried about getting fired. That plus other stuff at home," Dellinger said.
This matches Johnson's account of Ford, who he said, "thought everybody was out to get him."
McCaskill said he did not know the suspected gunman personally, but had also heard that he "was having problems, like his girlfriend broke up with him," McCaskill said.
"He was having a bunch of problems," McCaskill continued. "But you don't need to go blasting up a plant because you've got problems."