By Sandra Chereb
CARSON CITY, Nev. — Residents of a sleepy state capital say they woke up Wednesday to a small town that's lost its innocence after a mass shooting in an IHOP restaurant that left four people and the shooter dead and injured seven others.
Just before 9 a.m. Tuesday, gunman Eduardo Sencion stepped onto the Carson City pancake house parking lot from his blue minivan with a yellow "Support Our Troops" sticker on it.
He opened fire, then continued into the restaurant and marched toward a table of uniformed National Guard members before shooting each one, and fatally wounding three of them, authorities said.
Officials planned to release information about the victims Wednesday as the search for a motive — and a time of grieving — continue.
"Our hearts ache for all the victims of this senseless act of violence," IHOP Restaurants President Jean Birch wrote on Facebook after coming to town in the aftermath of the breakfast-time massacre. "The people of Carson City have also shown incredible support for the victims and IHOP's team members."
Lawmakers, business owners and law enforcement officials in this close-knit, government-driven city of 50,000 struggled to understand what drove Sencion to turn an AK-47 assault rifle on his hometown.
"It's unprecedented in Carson City history," said Guy Rocha, retired Nevada state archivist. "People who live in Carson City have come from other places to get away from the large urban madness. ... It finally came to Carson City.
Authorities are investigating whether the military members were targeted. Carson City Sheriff Kenny Furlong told The Associated Press on Tuesday night that authorities, at that point, did not think the shooter set out to target people in military.
"But of course, it's clearly a heavy, heavy concern from here," he added.
Sencion shot each of the five Nevada National Guard troops sitting together at the back of the restaurant. Another woman was shot and killed.
Family members told investigators that Sencion, 32, was mentally troubled, but he did not have a criminal history. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital hours after the mass shooting.
"The sheriff may never know the motive," Nevada Highway Patrol spokesman Chuck Allen said.
The shooting started just before 9 a.m. roughly two miles from the state Capitol in Carson City.
Sencion stepped out of the minivan and immediately shot a woman near a motorcycle before charging into the chain restaurant. Witnesses said he had unloaded a magazine when he was still less than 12 feet from his car.
The gunfire prompted Ralph Swagler, the owner of a nearby barbecue restaurant, to grab his weapon. But when Sencion started toward him, Swagler backed away.
"I wish I had shot at him when he was going in the IHOP," said Swagler, who owns Locals BBQ & Grill. "But when he came at me, when somebody is pointing an automatic weapon at you — you can't believe the firepower, the kind of rounds coming out of that weapon."
Sencion struck each of the Guard members in the restaurant in what witnesses described as a seemingly intentional attack. He then exited the restaurant and fired shots toward the barbecue restaurant, shattering the windows. He also fired toward an H&R Block and a casino across the street.
Sencion had shot himself and was lying injured in the parking lot by the time officers arrived. A crowd of reporters and onlookers could see a body on the ground, covered with a white sheet except for the feet, clad in tan boots.
Fran Hunter is a frequent IHOP customer who works in a pet supply store next door but made a last second decision Tuesday to eat at the casino coffee shop across the street.
"It turned out to be a good decision," she told the AP. "If you know the IHOP, they had to be sitting ducks with that long narrow aisle — if they were at those tables with no way to get out."
Servicemen flocked to a Reno hospital after the shooting, nervously waiting for word on those killed and hurt.
"It's hard to believe something like this would happen to really good people," said Spc. Lee Amato, 33, a Nevada Army National Guard member. "It's like a hole, something taken away. It's mind-boggling and hard to comprehend."
Sgt. 1st class Cameron Anderson, 31, of Reno, was tasked with driving the Guard's chaplain to the hospital.
"You go a whole tour in Afghanistan and no one is shot," Anderson said. "And you go to IHOP and several are shot. It's a shock."
The names of the victims, including the three Guard members — a woman and two men — who were killed, were not immediately released.
Officials were analyzing the assault rifle to determine whether it is automatic or semi-automatic. Sencion left two more guns in the van — another rifle and a pistol, authorities said. Furlong said law enforcement agencies would continue investigating as they conducted searches through the night, although he did not give further detail or say where.
The violent outburst rattled Nevada's capital city after the long Labor Day weekend when many officials, including Gov. Brian Sandoval, had left town. Carson City is also a jumping off point 30 miles south of Reno for travelers headed to Lake Tahoe or back to California across the Sierra.
Nevada officials initially feared the worst as news of the shooting spread. The state Capitol and Supreme Court buildings were briefly closed and extra security were sent to guard state and military buildings in northern Nevada to prevent further violence. The IHOP is several miles from the Guard's state headquarters complex.
Sandoval was in Las Vegas when the shooting occurred. He soon returned to the capital, where he was briefed by police and his security adviser.
"Everything is being done to ensure the public's safety," Sandoval said in a statement. He ordered flags to half-staff through Friday night in honor of the killed guardsmen.
Sencion was born in Mexico and had a valid U.S. passport. He worked at a family business in South Lake Tahoe and had no known affiliations with anyone inside the restaurant, Furlong said. He was not in the military.
Sencion filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2009, listing more than $42,000 in outstanding debts for a car, several credit cards and some medical expenses. The case was discharged four months later.
A lawyer representing some of Sencion's family members called the shooting "an aberration of his character."
"He's a gentle, kind man who was very helpful to friends and family," Joe Laub told The Associated Press. "I couldn't venture to guess what would cause him to do something as horrible as this."
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