Wed. May 18th, 2022
Students were inside this glass walkway at the Edmund Burke School when a gunman started firing at them from above.
Students were inside this glass walkway at the Edmund Burke School when a gunman started firing at them from above. (D.C. police)

When the first booms ripped along the line of bumper-to-bumper cars waiting for students leaving the Edmund Burke School for the day, William James Peterson thought construction scaffolding had collapsed.

But a deafening second round of blasts left the military trained, veteran D.C. police officer with no doubt: it was gunfire. He sprinted from a garage to a lane between buildings where the line of parents picking up their children forms.

Throwing on his protective vest and drawing his firearm, breathing heavily, he keyed up an alert tone on his radio:

“4101 Connecticut Avenue,” he told a dispatcher at 3:18 p.m. “I believe we have an active shooter here. Get me units to respond.”

Peterson, starting his off-duty security job at the school in the Van Ness area of Northwest Washington, crouched behind a pillar as bullets crashed into cars in front of him and shattered the glass on a walkway above that links the middle and high school buildings.

Even if he didn’t know where the bullets were coming from, the 49-year-old officer knew immediately what was happening.

The school was under attack.

D.C. police released police dispatch audio from officers describing the April 22 shooting in Van Ness that injured four people. (Video: D.C. Police)

Shards of glass showered the alley below, as terrified drivers cowered in their vehicles or jumped out and sprawled face down on the pavement to take cover from the barrage of incoming rifle rounds that tore chunks of concrete from pillars and curbs.

The April 22 shooting cast a pall of terror across the nation’s capital and plunged the area into lockdown. Students and staff launched into a well-rehearsed drill, racing for offices, barricading doors, hiding in closets and diving under desks.

Scarred by school shootings

Secret Service officers, armed SWAT teams, ambulances and tactical vehicles swarmed the largely affluent strip of Connecticut Avenue in a neighborhood that includes a college campus, foreign embassies and a Metro station. The terror separated children at Edmund Burke and at other schools from their parents for several agonizing hours and added the private, progressive college prep institution with 305 students to an ever growing list of schools targeted across the country in mass shootings.

No one has died, but four people were struck and one remains hospitalized. The school reopened the first week of May. Now, nearly three weeks after the shooting, new details are emerging about how the day unfolded, both on the ground and in the instant investigation law enforcement launched to find the shooter.

That Friday afternoon, Peterson, who had been on the force more than two decades, gripped his firearm with both hands, trying to trace the gunfire. He thought a gunman might be standing in the open sun roof of an approaching vehicle.

“I really felt that if this guy rolls down this alley,” Peterson said, “I have one chance to try to take him out.”

The gunman, however, was not on the street.

Perched above it all, according to police, was Raymond Godfrey Chambers Spencer. In a fifth-story apartment furnished with not much more than a mattress on the floor and two folding tables, the 23-year-old had amassed four legally purchased high-powered rifles mounted with scopes, two handguns and more than a thousand rounds of ammunition in what police would later call his “sniper’s nest.”


1. Shooter fires at least 239 rounds from apt. 511

 

2. A D.C. police officer working security at the

school hears shots and takes cover by a pillar

as he calls in an active shooter alert

3. A security guard and two women in vehicles

are shot in the alley

4. A 12-year old girl wounded in the elevated

walkway

Sources: D.C. police, Post reporting,

Pictometry International

HANNAH DORMIDO/THE WASHINGTON POST

Shooter fires at least

239 rounds from apt. 511

A D.C. police officer working security at the school hears shots and takes cover by a pillar as he calls in an active shooter alert

A security guard

and two women

in vehicles are

shot in the alley

A 12-year old girl is wounded

in the elevated walkway

Sources: D.C. police, Post reporting, Pictometry International

HANNAH DORMIDO/THE WASHINGTON POST

Shooter fires at least

239 rounds from apt. 511

A D.C. police officer working security at the school hears shots and takes cover by a pillar as he calls in an active shooter alert

A security guard and two women

in vehicles are shot in the alley

A 12-year old girl is wounded

in the elevated walkway

Sources: D.C. police, Post reporting, Pictometry International

HANNAH DORMIDO/THE WASHINGTON POST

From his bedroom window where a tripod to balance a long-gun stood, Spencer could look straight down the alley 160 feet to Edmund Burke’s glass walkway, which students and staff call “The Bridge.”

In the span of a few minutes, he showered at least 239 bullets through that window and a sliding screen door in the living room.

He hit a 12-year-old girl in the glass walkway, a mother sitting in her SUV and a security guard helping Peterson. One bullet grazed the shoulder of another woman in her SUV.

School was in sniper’s ‘crosshairs,’ but link is unclear, D.C. chief says

Random gunfire hit two storefronts nearly a mile down Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park.

He then stopped shooting and retreated to his bathroom with about 800 unspent rounds remaining. Authorities believe he might have realized counter-snipers had quickly located his apartment, and he felt it too dangerous to return to the window.

In a final message posted on 4chan at 3:36 p.m., Spencer wrote: “Waiting for police to catch up with me.”

Five hours later, police did.

Spencer fatally shot himself in the head as officers breached the gray door of Apt. 511 that night. Officers found him on his back in his bathroom, slumped against the tub, one handgun by his side. He lay partially atop an assault rifle set to fire on fully-automatic, along with a second, bloodied handgun. Hundreds of spent shell casings littered the floors.

Peterson, who grew up in Southeast Washington, was left stunned there weren’t more casualties. The gunfire seemed timed for 3:15 p.m. dismissal. Five more minutes and the alley would’ve been filled with students.

“He literally started this minutes before the kids were to walk out this school.”

‘I need to get out of this alley’

Raymond Spencer had never been arrested.

He wasn’t on law enforcement’s radar, or anyone else’s as far authorities can tell. He hadn’t spoken to his family in about a year, police said, and he didn’t seem to have a job. No partner or significant other has turned up.

“This guy was just an absolute loner,” D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III said.

In a way, Spencer was a police department’s worst nightmare.

“A lone, motivated person,” Contee said, with “no history of law enforcement contact, decides to go off the rails. How do you prevent something like this?”

The Washington Post was given early access to the investigation as D.C. police have been seeking to answer that question and others. This account is based on interviews with nine D.C. police officials and others who were at the shooting or are involved in the ongoing inquiry.

Shortly before midnight on April 22, Spencer left one of his apartments off I-66 in Fairfax County, Va., and took a ride-share into the District.

At 12:43 a.m., surveillance video captured him wheeling a suitcase into the lobby of AVA Van Ness, where he had begun leasing a 765 square-foot one-bedroom in January. Inside the suitcase, police believe, were at least some of the firearms, ammunition and other supplies used in the attack.

About 10 a.m., Spencer went to a Giant Food, and bought two frozen Stouffer’s dinners, meatloaf and lasagna, and returned to his apartment about a two-minute walk away on Van Ness Street near Connecticut Avenue.

Though his apartment was sparsely furnished, police said he was well prepared for a mass shooting, with items that included mitts to protect his hands from weapons that heat up during continuous shooting and noise canceling headphones.

At 3:18 p.m., a police lieutenant with news of Peterson’s alert burst into the office of D.C. Police Cmdr. Duncan Bedlion, who runs the 2nd District station on Idaho Avenue NW.

As Bedlion raced to the school, uniformed officers with the U.S. Secret Service, patrolling nearby embassies, were already there, running toward Peterson, shouting “Blue, Blue Blue” to flag they were police. They had rifles, and took over for the outgunned officer.

Patricia Termini was fourth in line in her SUV, waiting to pick up her neighbor’s 15-year-old son and headed toward the walkway when shots shattered the windows.

The sophomore ran to an office.

“They were so loud,” she said of the gunshots that sounded like explosions. “They stopped. Then they started again.”

Termini, 63, doubled over in her SUV and called her neighbors.

“’I don’t know if it’s explosions or gunfire, but something is happening here,” she told them.

She sat up for a moment and saw the “glass walkway riddled with bullets.” She ducked again and felt a bullet graze her shoulder.

“I thought, ‘These are bullets and I need to get out of this alley.’”

Raymond Spencer left an online footprint after D.C. shooting

Termini honked and the vehicle in front of her moved. She sped out to Upton Street, and onto Connecticut, where she climbed out, screaming. She turned and saw the rear window of her SUV had been blown out, some tires flattened.

Peterson, the D.C. officer who had taken cover behind the pillar, ran back into the school and saw the 12-year-old girl who had been struck as she crossed the walkway. Her right arm was bleeding, and she was crying.

But she was also walking.

Peterson put his hand on her back and gently guided her toward the Connecticut Avenue exit, and to an ambulance, as she pressed the wound with her left hand.

“I asked her for her name and she told me her name,” he said. “I’m trying to keep her calm.”

He went back into the building and tried to call the other school security guard, a retired D.C. police officer he knew from working together at the 2nd District. Peterson couldn’t get through, and an administrator who overheard the call told him the other guard had been shot and rushed to a hospital in intensive care.

‘Dear God please forgive me’

By this time, the gunfire had stopped.

But the of panic not knowing the shooter’s exact location and whether the shooting would start again loomed.

The Secret Service officers tried to identify the source of the gunfire and helped victims, including a woman found gravely wounded and unconscious in her car. They carried her to an ambulance on Connecticut Avenue.

Tactical officers formed active shooter teams hoping to eventually confront the shooter. Detectives went into the school to interview students and staff about potential threats, while officers began evacuating apartment buildings, including AVA Van Ness, worried the shooter might try to escape by blending in with evacuees.

A person who lives in the area identified the AVA apartments as the source of gunfire.

“We were able to use this information and identify and isolate a window,” Bedlion said.

The Secret Service deployed members of its counter-sniper unit, a spokesman for the agency said, and two members pinpointed the shooter’s location to a corner apartment on the 5th floor.

Authorities said the counter-snipers were on a rooftop across from the apartment building and could see the tripod in the open bedroom window but did not see a shooter. D.C. police said officers were also able to see into the apartment, observing the tripod and two rifles on a table. But they still weren’t sure what exact apartment he was in — 511 or the one next door.

By then, police believe Spencer had hunkered down in his bathroom, a makeshift commander center where he had a baby monitor synced to a small camera placed at the base of a hallway door to track visitors, a keyboard in the sink, bullet clips on the counter and pillows piled in the tub.

The Secret Service spokesman said the agency believes the counter-sniper’s efforts “likely prevented the shooter from reengaging because he realized his location was known to law enforcement.”

Contee said he had not given an order for the counter-snipers to shoot because no one appeared at the window, but he was prepared to reevaluate if circumstances changed.

Meanwhile at police headquarters, Carolyn Montagna, the director of the D.C. police department’s Joint Strategic and Tactical Analysis Command Center, coordinated with federal agencies and the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force trying to unearth intelligence.

Her team saw one of the first clue’s to the shooter’s identity — a 3:20 p.m. post to the 4chan platform by user Raymond Spencer reading, “School shooting!”

The post linked to a shaky video that appeared to show the shooting from the gunman’s perspective. A red target similar to one seen at a shooting range is in the center, the Burke school’s glass walkway visible. In the video, which Montagna’s office saw when someone tagged D.C. police in a tweet, the sound of gunfire erupts, and one of windows shatters.

The hours of a fearful lockdown at Edmund Burke school

At 3:24 p.m., the same user posted: “Dear God please forgive me.”

Another message at 3:30 read: “They’re in the wrong part of the building right now searching XD.”

Then, at 4 p.m., a user named Raymond Spencer updated the Edmund Burke School’s Wikipedia page, writing: “A basedman shot at the school on April 22, 2022. The suspect is still at large.” Shortly after, the user swapped “basedman” for “gunman” and added, “(Hope they catch him soon!)”

His Wikipedia profile page, since removed, has a picture of an assault rifle followed by, among other descriptors, “I’m an AR-15 aficionado.”

Montagna and the team were thrown. People often mask their identity on the Internet with pseudonyms.

Was Raymond Spencer a real name? Were these entries from the real shooter?

By 5:30 p.m., police were instructed to search every apartment at AVA Van Ness, even as units were being evacuated, according to court documents. Occupants could be seen walking out under police escort with their hands in the air.

As intelligence officials were still trying to confirm if Spencer was behind the posts, tactical officers had reached the fifth floor hallway. They saw his camera set up, and it was disabled.

But officers didn’t immediately storm the apartment, worried the door may have been booby-trapped. And they were still unsure who the shooter was and if he was still inside.

Soon Montagna learned the online posts came from a computer with an Internet Protocol, or IP address, linked to an account set up by Raymond Spencer, using his address at 2950 Van Ness Street NW.

At 7:36 p.m., Assistant Police Chief Stuart Emerman, filling in for the police chief who had flown to Boston that morning for a conference and was rushing back, stood before television microphones with the mayor and identified Raymond Spencer as a person of interest.

Police released two pictures, one of Spencer with long hair, the other with short hair.

“We would like to speak with Mr. Spencer,” Emerman told the city.

Behind the scenes, police were closing in, now locked on apartment 511.

At 8:36 p.m. — five hours after the first gunshots — police battered the door, a refrigerator blocking the entrance. Police heard a single gunshot as they rushed inside. They found Spencer’s body in the bathroom.

At 9:37 p.m., Contee, who had just returned to D.C. and sped from the airport to the scene, walked to a scrum of media in his street clothes.

The shooter was dead, he announced, adding, “Our communities are now safe.”

The publicly known details of Spencer’s life are scant. He attended Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, Md. He ran track, once finishing 20th in a 5,000 meter race, and was a lifeguard at a nearby public pool. It is still unclear what, if any, connection Spencer had with the Edmund Burke school.

He signed up for the U.S. Coast Guard in 2017 but did not graduate from basic training, the service said without providing an explanation. His family has not spoken publicly and has not returned inquires from The Washington Post. Neighbors had infrequent encounters, and efforts to reach friends or acquaintances were largely unsuccessful.

Detective Joshua Branson, an investigator in the homicide unit’s major case squad that investigates mass shootings, said Spencer’s family is helping police, but many questions remain.

“There was nothing that stuck out about Raymond to [his parents] or to his siblings that indicated that he had any type of trouble,” the detective said.

Spencer lived with his parents until about a year ago when he moved into the apartment in Virginia and lost all contact with his family, Branson said. Authorities said they are trying to determine how he paid for his two apartments and his firearms.

“He was kind of, you know, an isolated kid,” Branson said. “None of his neighbors knew who he was at either apartment complex. … He came and went as he pleased and really didn’t have any social interaction with anybody that anyone would alert us to.”

In the 10 days before the shooting, it appears Spencer searched Wikipedia on subjects that included David Hogg, who survived a deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and has become an outspoken advocate for gun control. There are also searches for Wheaton High School and the recent attack on a New York subway.

Police said they are investigating some cryptic postings on Spencer’s Wikipedia profile, including what might be a reference to conspiracy theories involving child pornography, and a poster that appears to be a meme of a Black scientist who some in the Nation of Islam believe created the White race.

Branson and Contee said detectives are aware of the posts and poster on the wall but do not yet know or understand the significance. Police said they have not located Spencer’s phone but do have some phone records and are seeking more. Branson said so far in the review “there is nothing that stands out” or points to a motive.

The ATF is examining the firearms — two handguns and four assault rifles — found in the D.C. apartment. Police said parts of two other rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition were found in his Virginia apartment.

Authorities are particularly interested in how the assault rifles were apparently modified to fire fully automatic, which allows for continued firing with one pull of the trigger, roughly between 600 and 900 rounds per minute.

Contee said investigating Spencer’s finances, operations and motivation will take time.

Added Branson: “We have the same questions you have.”

Story editing by Lynh Bui. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Adrienne Dunn and Jordan Melendrez. Design by Chelsea Conrad. Graphics by Hannah Dormido. Jasmine Hilton, Ian Shapira, Perry Stein and Emily Davies, Alice Crites, Jennifer Jenkins and Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.

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