LAS VEGAS (AFP) - Investigators are desperately trying to establish the motive of a retired accountant who killed at least 59 people and wounded more than 500 after amassing a weapons cache in a hotel room and opening fire on the Las Vegas strip.
As America grappled with the deadliest mass shooting in its modern history, officials reacted cautiously to a claim by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that Stephen Craig Paddock, 64, had carried out Sunday (Oct 1) night’s massacre on behalf of the militant group.
Police said Paddock, who had no criminal record, smashed windows in his 32nd floor hotel room shortly after 10.00pm local time and trained bursts of automatic weapons fire on thousands of people attending a country music concert below on the strip.
In video footage of the massacre broadcast on CNN, the rattle of long, sustained gunfire is heard as people scream and scurry for cover. At first they did not not know where the shots were coming from.
“We saw bodies down. We didn’t know if they had fallen or had been shot,” said Ralph Rodriguez, an IT consultant from the Pomona Valley, near Los Angeles, who was at the concert with a group of friends.
“People started grabbing their loved-ones and just strangers, and trying to help them get out of the way,” Rodriguez said.
ISIS claimed that Paddock was one of its “soldiers” but the FBI said it had found no such connection so far and the local sheriff described him as a lone “psychopath.” Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said Paddock fired through the door of his hotel room and hit a security guard in the leg. But when a SWAT team stormed the room where Paddock had been staying since Sept 28, they found he had killed himself.
A total of 23 firearms including automatic weapons were found in the hotel room, he said.
A search of Paddock’s house in Mesquite, Nevada, 130km north-east of Las Vegas, recovered 19 additional firearms, some explosives and several thousand rounds of ammo.
Lombardo said investigators had discovered several pounds of an explosive called tannerite in the Mesquite home, as well as ammonium nitrate, a type of fertiliser, in the gunman’s car.
The motive of the massacre was not yet known, he said. “We’re hunting down and tracing down every single clue that we can get on his background,” the sheriff said at a late-night briefing.
Lombardo said the authorities had found no manifesto or anything else to explain Paddock’s actions. “This individual is a lone wolf and I don’t know how it could have been prevented,” he said earlier in the day. “I can’t get into the mind of a psychopath at this point.”
President Donald Trump denounced what he called “an act of pure evil” and said he would visit Las Vegas on Wednesday.
But the White House pushed back at calls to reopen the US debate on tighter gun controls. “A motive is yet to be determined and it would be premature for us to discuss policy when we don’t fully know all of the facts or what took place last night,” Trump’s spokesman Sarah Sanders said.
Lombardo said Paddock had apparently used some kind of hammer to smash the window of his hotel room before opening fire on the concert crowd of some 22,000 people. ISIS described him as a “soldier of the caliphate,” saying he converted to Islam several months ago and went by the nom de guerre Abu Abdel Bar al-Amriki – “The American.”
The group provided no evidence to back up its claims and the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it had found no such link so far.
“We have determined to this point no connection with an international terrorist group,” FBI special agent Aaron Rouse said.
CIA spokesman Jonathan Liu said “the Intelligence Community is aware of the claim of responsibility by a foreign terrorist organisation.”
“We advise caution on jumping to conclusions before the facts are in,” Liu said.
Paddock, according to his brother, was a high-stakes gambler and their bank-robber father was once on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. But Eric Paddock stressed that his brother led an otherwise normal life, doting on their mother.
“He liked to play video poker. He went on cruises. He sent his mother cookies,” he said. “We’re trying to understand what happened,” his brother said. “We’re lost.”
Paddock had “no religious affiliation, no political affiliation” and was “not an avid gun guy at all,” his brother added.
‘PRETTY MUCH LIKE A WAR SCENE’
Witnesses said Paddock opened fire with an initial long burst of gunfire, and appeared to reload as he continued his spree. Robert Hayes, a Los Angeles firefighter who was at the concert, said he first thought the shots were some kind of equipment malfunction. Once he realised what was going on, he joined the first responders, donning one of their vests.
“It was pretty much like a war scene inside,” Hayes said, as emergency crews used tables and metal guard railings as makeshift stretchers.
The Las Vegas attack is the deadliest shooting in modern US history, exceeding the toll of 49 dead in an attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida in June 2016.
It was also the latest in a series of deadly attacks at concert venues. Twenty-two people were killed after an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England in May when a suicide bomber detonated a nail bomb in the foyer.
Ninety people were killed in November 2015 at the Bataclan theatre in Paris during a concert by US band the Eagles of Death Metal.
Pope Francis said he was “deeply saddened” by the “senseless tragedy” in Las Vegas, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II offered her “thoughts and prayers” and Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote to Trump to voice condolences over the “shocking” crime.