LITHONIA, Ga. (AP) — A woman whose family once took in the suspect in an Atlanta-area school shooting said Wednesday that he was mentally ill but never violent in the past.
Natasha Knotts told The Associated Press that Michael Brandon Hill lived with her and her husband for several months in his late teens. She says she served as a mother figure for Hill in after he started coming to the small church where she and her husband are pastors.
Also on Wednesday, police gave more details about the previous day’s ordeal and what led up to it. Before going to the school, investigators say that Hill took a photo of himself with an AK 47-style rifle and packed up nearly 500 rounds of ammunition — enough to shoot more than half the school’s students.
Police said Hill, 20, got the gun from an acquaintance, but it’s not clear if he stole it or had permission to take it.
No one was injured, but the suspect exchanged gunfire with police who surrounded Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur. The school’s 870 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade were evacuated.
“We have to make a reasonable assumption he was there to do harm to someone,” said DeKalb County Police Chief Cedric L. Alexander.
Knotts said Hill called her sister Tuesday afternoon before the shooting and said he had a rifle but didn’t say what he was planning to do. She said she believes that Hill acted out as a plea for help.
“This is something that’s totally out of his character. This is not him. This is not the Mike that I know. For anyone that knew Mike, this was a total devastation,” she said in an interview at her home in Lithonia.
Though there is no blood or legal connection between them, Knotts said she considers Hill like a son.
“He was part of our family,” Knotts said of the roughly six months that Hill stayed with them several years ago. Her family was aware that “he had a mental disorder” before he moved in, but she said he was loving and quiet and never displayed any anger or violent tendencies.
He didn’t work, didn’t seem to have any friends and hardly ever spoke about his family or his past, Knotts said. Hill told her that his birth mother was dead and that he didn’t know his father. He also has brothers.
She kept in touch after he moved out and said he’d recently been living with another couple who belonged to the church. Knotts last saw Hill about a month ago and he seemed fine.
Hill held one or two staff members in the front office captive for a time, the police chief said, making one of them call a local TV station. At some point, he fired into the floor of the school office. As officers swarmed the campus outside, he shot at them at least a half a dozen times with an assault rifle from inside the school and they returned fire, police said. Police came into the school office, and Hill surrendered.
Hill is charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, terroristic threats and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Police declined to discuss what he told them when he was questioned.
DeKalb County Police Detective Ray Davis said a court date could take place in the coming days.
Davis said Hill’s motive was unclear but he’d had contact with the school office before. Hill had an address listed in court records about three miles from the school in Decatur, but no clear ties to the school.
The ordeal terrified parents.
Rufus Morrow was at work when he got a phone call with news that shots had been fired at the school his daughter attends.
He drove “about 90 mph” to the school. The police chief says Hill, armed with an assault rifle and other weapons, was able to slip into the school where visitors must be buzzed in by staff.
Morrow said he almost cried as he told his supervisor why he needed to leave.
“Just the mere thought of what happened at that other elementary school happening here, it was just devastating to my soul,” he said, referring to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut in December that left 26 people dead, 20 of them children.
School bookkeeper Antoinette Tuff says she was one of the employees held hostage. Tuff told WSB-TV in Atlanta that she tried to keep Hill talking to prevent him from walking into the hallway or through the school building.
“He had a look on him that he was willing to kill — matter of fact he said it. He said that he didn’t have any reason to live and that he knew he was going to die today,” Tuff said.
Tuff relayed messages from Hill to DeKalb County emergency dispatchers before convincing him to surrender. She told the dispatcher that Hill said he wasn’t there to hurt the children but wanted to talk to an unarmed officer.
“He said call the probation office in DeKalb County and let them know what’s going on,” Tuff said on a 911 recording that was released Wednesday. “He said he should have just went to the mental hospital instead of doing this, because he’s not on his medication.”
Tuff began telling Hill of her own struggles, including raising a disabled child and losing her husband.
Hill was arrested in mid-March for making terroristic threats in Henry County, DeKalb and Henry County sheriff’s officials have said. He was sentenced to probation. Still, Tuff reassured him by saying he didn’t hurt anyone, hadn’t harmed her and could still surrender peacefully.
“We’re not gonna hate you baby. It’s a good thing that you’re giving up,” Tuff said after having Hill put his weapons and ammunition on the counter. Tuff told Hill that she loved him and would pray for him.
Before he surrendered, Tuff took to the school’s public address system saying that Hill was sorry for what he’d done and didn’t want to hurt anyone — although the lockdown remained in effect.
Dramatic television footage showed lines of young students racing out of the building with police and teachers escorting them to safety. They sat outside in a field for a time until school buses came to take them to their waiting parents and other relatives at a nearby Wal-Mart.
Morrow was one of those parents and held his 10-year-old daughter close to him during an interview after the two were reunited.
“My stomach was in my throat for the whole time until I saw her face on the bus,” he said.
Complicating the rescue, bomb-sniffing dogs alerted officers to something in the trunk of a car in the school parking lot. They thought the suspect may have brought explosives, though the car turned out not to be his and had no explosives. Authorities said Wednesday that the dogs smelled a legal product that can be used to make explosives.
Students at the school arrived Wednesday morning at nearby McNair High School, where they would attend classes for the time being. The high school’s marquee said “Welcome McNair Elementary School Our Prayers Are With You.” The academy is named after McNair, an astronaut who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986, according to the school’s website.
Associated Press writer Phillip Lucas in Atlanta contributed to this report.