Shooting at Fla. School Board Meeting ‘Could Have Been A Monumental Tragedy’
Panama City, Fla. (AP) - A gunman who fired point-blank at school board members before fatally shooting himself had for much of the meeting sat with the rest of the audience, listening to routine business.
As the board was in the midst of a discussion Tuesday, Clay A. Duke walked to the front of the room, spray painted a red "V" with a circle around it on the white wall, then turned and waved a handgun. He calmly ordered everyone to "hit the road" except the men on the board sitting behind a long beige desk.
Despite his shock, Bay City Schools Superintendent Bill Husfelt mustered a calm voice and tried to persuade Duke to drop the gun, but the 56-year-old ex-convict just shook his head, blaming officials for his wife being fired. Video showed him slowly raising the gun and leveling it at Husfelt, who pleaded "Please don't, please don't."
"We could tell by the look in his eyes that this wasn't going to end well," Husfelt later told The Associated Press.
Duke shot twice at Husfelt from about 8 feet away and squeezed off several more rounds before security guard Mike Jones bolted in and, after exchanging gunfire with Duke, wounded him in the leg or side.
Duke then fatally shot himself, police Sgt. Jeff Becker said. Somehow, no one else who remained in the small board room was injured in the clash that lasted several minutes, and Husfelt said at least two rounds lodged in the wall behind him.
"It was so surreal. You couldn't believe it was going on," he said.
Before the shooting started, the only woman on the five-member board -- who had left the room as ordered -- came back, sneaked up behind Duke and whacked his gun arm with her large, brown purse.
"In my mind, that was the last attempt or opportunity to divert him," Ginger Littleton told AP.
Duke, a large, heavyset man dressed in a dark pullover coat, got angry, turned around, and she fell to the floor, as board members pleaded with her to stop. Duke pointed the gun at her head and said, "You stupid b----" but he didn't shoot her, she said. She's not sure why.
"He had every opportunity to take me out," she said.
In his brief exchange with the board, Duke said his wife had been fired from the northern Florida district, but never told Husfelt or the board who she was or her job. Members promised to help her find a new job, but Duke just shook his head. Husfelt told Duke he would be responsible for her dismissal, so the board members should be allowed to leave.
"He said his wife was fired, but we really don't know what he was talking about," Husfelt told the AP at his Panama City home. "I don't think he knew what he was talking about."
Husfelt in the exchange on video tells Duke: "I've got a feeling you want the cops to come in and kill you because you said you are going to die today." Later, the head of more than 30 district schools said he was sure someone was going to be killed.
Tommye Lou Richardson, the school district's personnel director, who was at the meeting, called district security chief and former police officer Jones a hero. In the video, as Duke lay on the floor, colleagues comforted a shaken Jones, who said he had never shot anyone before.
SWAT officers then storm the room and order everyone onto the ground. School officials tell them that Duke is shot and appears dead. His feet can be seen near the board's seats. The district said Jones would not be available for an interview.
Minutes before Duke rose from his seat, the room had been filled with students receiving awards, Husfelt said. "It could have been a monumental tragedy."
Husfelt spoke to the AP wearing a sweat shirt and pajama bottoms, surrounded by his family. With a Christmas tree as backdrop, he said his faith anchored him during the ordeal and that he thought, "I don't want to die today but I'm prepared if I do.
"God was standing in front of me and I will go to my grave believing that," he said.
As for the V inside a circle that Duke painted, it's the same symbol used in the graphic novel series and movie "V for Vendetta," though police didn't talk about his motive.
After everything stopped, some board members speculated that the bullets Duke was firing were fake or caps. But police say the gun was real -- and the video shows papers flying up on Husfelt's desk.
Duke was charged in October 1999 with aggravated stalking, shooting or throwing a missile into a building or vehicle and obstructing justice, according to state records. He was convicted and sentenced in January 2000 to five years in prison and was released in January 2004. Records show Duke was a licensed massage therapist before his arrest but it wasn't clear if he was employed.
Attorney Ben Bollinger, who represented Duke during his trial, told The News Herald of Panama City that Duke was waiting in the woods for his wife with a rifle, wearing a mask and a bulletproof vest. She confronted him and then tried to leave in a vehicle, and Duke shot the tires. He said that as part of his sentence, Duke was required to complete psychological counseling. Bollinger did not immediately return a phone message from the AP.
"The guy obviously had a death wish," district spokeswoman Karen Tucker said of Duke.