PANAMA CITY, Fla. — A gunman calmly walked to a podium, spray painted a red "V" with a circle around it on a wall and opened fire at school board members Tuesday, sending people scrambling and diving for cover. A security guard soon ran in, exchanged shots with and wounded the man who then killed himself, police said.
Despite several shots being fired, no one else was hit. In video of the clash that lasted several minutes, the gunman, Clay A. Duke, dispassionately confronts the Bay District school board, telling everyone in the room to leave except the men on the board. Duke, who was wearing a dark pullover coat, stands about 8 feet directly in front of the board with the gun at his side.
Superintendent Bill Husfelt tries to persuade him to drop the gun. Duke suggests that his wife had been fired from the district, but won't tell Husfelt or the board who she is or her job. Members promise to help her find a new job, but Duke just shakes his head. Husfelt tells Duke he would be responsible for her dismissal, so the board members should be allowed to leave.
"I've got a feeling you want the cops to come in and kill you because you said you are going to die today," Husfelt tells Duke. He then tells him that this isn't worth it.
The 56-year-old slowly and deliberately raises the gun and levels it Husfelt, who pleads "Please don't, please don't." Duke then fires two shots that miss, followed by several others that didn't hit the half-dozen or so people still left in the room.
Before he started shooting, member Ginger Littleton, who had left the room as ordered, sneaks up behind Duke as he stands next to the long, beige desk where the board was sitting and whacks him on the arm with her large, brown purse made of an alligator-like material.
"In my mind, that was the last attempt or opportunity to divert him," she told The Associated Press.
Duke, a large, heavyset man, got angry, turned around, and she fell to the floor and 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.
After Duke, an ex-convict, fired and missed Husfelt, district security chief and former police officer Mike Jones ran in and shot Duke, it appears in the video in the leg or side.
Duke then fatally shot himself, police Sgt. Jeff Becker said. The video shows a distraught Jones, with his gun at his side, being comforted by colleagues as he says 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.
"It was so surreal. You couldn't believe it was going on. He said his wife was fired, but we really don't know what he was talking about. I don't think he knew what he was talking about," Husfelt told The Associated Press at his Panama City home.
Minutes before Duke got up, the room had been filled with students receiving awards, he said.
"It could have been a monumental tragedy," Husfelt said.
Husfelt spoke to the AP wearing a sweat shirt and pajama bottoms, surrounded by his family. With a Christmas tree as backdrop, he said, "God was standing in front of me and I will go to my grave believing that."
"We could tell by the look in his eyes that this wasn't going to end well," Husfelt 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."
After everything stopped with Duke lying shot on the floor, some board members speculated that the bullets weren't real. But police say Duke's gun was real – and the video shows papers flying up on Husfelt's desk. He said two bullet holes were found in the wall behind his seat.
State prison records show Duke was charged in October 1999 with aggravated stalking, shooting or throwing a missile into a building or vehicle and obstructing justice. He was convicted and sentenced in January 2000 to five years in prison but was released in January 2004. They also show that Duke was a licensed massage therapist before his arrest.
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.
News Herald reporter Daniel Carson told his paper that he had noticed the man during the meeting and he didn't appear agitated.
"The guy obviously had a death wish," district spokeswoman Karen Tucker said.
Tommye Lou Richardson, the school district's personnel director, who was at the meeting, called Jones a hero for his actions.