Everyone knew Justin Forthofer’s goal was to kill someone.
That was no secret Monday as the 29-year-old Avon man walked nonchalantly into Steele High School. Agencies from Amherst police to SWAT to the Lorain County Bomb Squad were on alert and knew all hell would soon break loose as Forthofer walked through the door.
They were planning on it.
The event was a safety drill more than a year in the making, modeled on all the “what-if” fears raised by school shootings in Columbine, Chardon, and Newtown.
Sources disagree on exactly how many U.S. school shootings have occurred in the past three years but the count is roughly 100. A person died — either by their hand of someone else’s — in roughly a third of those shootings, according to a group called Everytown Research, which studies the causes of gun violence.
What was so shocking Monday wasn’t that a gun was fired many times inside Steele, but how deeply affecting each dull pop was, even to those braced to hear it.
In an organized training of massive proportion, 435 Amherst teachers and school staff played the roles of students.
They were clearly nervous about the early morning exercise but even more shaken afterward.
“It really got you thinking,” said art teacher Tony Trunzo. “You talk to each other, you know, about what it would be like, what you would do… I think I learned to think more about where the exits are.”
He described the sudden clarity that came when gunfire rebounded through the high school hallways and how he quickly found a way out through the Steele band room.
The exercise kicked off shortly before 9 a.m. when Forthofer entered and tried to bypass the visitor’s desk at the main entrance.
When called back, he signed in, then disappeared around a corner.
What felt like three minutes passed as he ducked into a bathroom, donned headgear, and pulled out a .357 Magnum and M-4 rifle (neither with live ammunition).
The following two hours were a blur.
SWAT, sheriff’s deputies, police officers from several departments, firefighters, medics, and more stormed the castle.
They had no foreknowledge of what the scenario would be, just that it would involve a “violent intruder.” The point was to see how those many agencies would react and coordinate with LifeFlight, ambulances, school administrators, Lorain County Emergency Management Agency personnel, the Lorain County Bomb Squad, and others waiting outside.
Here is what we observed and learned:
• The shooter was not remarkable at first. He parked his car, retrieved a bag, and just walked in as any student would.
• Police cleverly gave actors waiting time before starting the exercise. After 15 minutes, they let down their guard. Even that small break left them surprised and off-guard again when Forthofer started shooting.
• The shooter’s motivation, it turns out, was seeking revenge on an ex-girlfriend. “He’s going after her and he doesn’t care who gets in the way,” said Amherst police Lt. Dan Makruski, who led the drill.
• The shooter had been in and out of prison and came to Ohio from Florida. When he “heard his girl was messing with another boy” over homecoming weekend, he became enraged.
• School leaders didn’t know what would unfold, either. “I went from zero to 10 real fast,” said principal Michael May, describing how when shots were fired he rushed into an office to call 911.
• Eleven people were tasked with calling 911 dispatchers.
• Certain “actors” were told to pretend they were hit by bullets. Almost immediately, screams filled the school. There were also training dummies and sticky pools of fake blood on the floors.
• May took to the public address system quickly, signaling a level four lockdown, which means there is an armed shooter in the building.
• Residents as far away as Terra Lane reportedly heard gunfire.
• As it became clearer the shooter was on the second floor, May urged anyone on the northern end of the building to evacuate.
• Some actors could be seen bailing out of first floor windows along Washington Avenue.
• We found some classrooms where “students” used tables and desks to barricade doorways.
• In the midst of it all, we lost count of how many rounds were fired. Dozens of dummy bullet casings could be found on school floors, though.
• The first squad cars to screech up to the building didn’t pull right up to the main entrance, but parked at the northern end. Officers hugged the outside wall, moving fast and low toward the entrance, only to find the doors locked. A teacher let several in before propping the door open.
• Ptl. Devin Small was the first responder into the building, holding an M-4 rifle at the ready.
• Pre-Sandy Hook, the accepted police strategy was to wait for back-up before entering the building. History makes it clear that leads to too many casualties, so now police rush inside using what cover they can.
• For a long time, it was unclear whether there was one shooter or whether others had entered the building. Some teachers said they thought there were multiple threats, even after the exercise had ended.
• SWAT and Lorain County sheriff’s deputies entered the building in waves, working door-to-door and floor-to-floor to clear possible dangers.
• Forthofer was “shot” by Small and handcuffed on the second floor early in the exercise. Amherst police secured the second floor hallway and stood guard over the shooter. He “lived” and was later taken from the building by two officers.
• Units took to the emergency radio channel to announce “the joker is down.”
• Other armed officers had no reason to believe the threat was over once Forthofer was neutralized, though. Remember — they didn’t know any more than teachers about how the drill would play out.
• The ranks of armed law enforcement were not perfectly organized inside. They were caught up in the confusion, too, and worked hard to coordinate across several agencies while protecting each other from potential harm.
• LifeCare Ambulance paramedics and firefighters walked right past many of the “injured.” Their job, it was clear, was not to rescue those closest to the door first, but to seek out those in most desperate need of medical attention.
• LifeFlight swung around to land on the 50 yard line of the Comets football field behind the high school. Helicopter medics quickly prepared a stretcher and rescued a victim near the concession stand.
• As evacuees were escorted by SWAT out the front door, some were directed to take cover behind the sandstone sign in front of the high school.
• Some “students,” played by school staff in the scenario, hid between cars parked in the Steele lot.
• Others were rushed across the street to bunker down inside Powers Elementary School. Eventually, actors were evacuated from Powers by bus.
• At least eight victims were taken to University Hospitals Amherst Health Center.
• Long after the shooter was downed, a “bomb” unexpectedly went off. It had been planted in the first floor men’s restroom by Forthofer before he started shooting. (The device only made noise for the exercise.)
• It was discovered the shooter also dropped a device on the sidewalk in front of the school before entering. It looked like a small PVC elbow joint but turned out to be a mock pipe bomb.
• The trouble is that many officers ran straight past the device, taking no notice. It wasn’t until an hour or so into the training that it was discovered.
• The bomb squad investigated, eventually deploying a robot to handle the plastic piece.
Police said they were impressed with the way events worked out, but are aware there are problem spots that need addressed.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter. Valerie Urbanik can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @ValUrbanik on Twitter.
Photos by Jason Hawk and Valerie Urbanik | Amherst News-Times Amherst Ptl. Devin Small is vigilant Monday on the second floor of Steele High, where a mock shooter was stopped in a training drill.