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Arapahoe High gunman entered school through door that was supposed to be locked

On the morning of December 13, eighteen-year-old Karl Pierson gave no indication that anything was amiss, according to Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson. He took the time to have a meal and go bowling by himself.

Then, at around 12:30 p.m., he entered Arapahoe High School through a door that was supposed to be locked but was commonly left ajar. Armed with a shotgun, a machete, three Molotov cocktails and many bullets, he fired six shots -- one of which fatally wounded student Claire Davis and the last of which took his own life.

Those details and more were revealed this morning at a news conference hosted by Robinson and attended by Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler and Undersheriff David Walcher. Robinson spoke eloquently about Davis, a seventeen-year-old who he said "has left an impact on my life." He said the young woman "was very much engaged in the responsibility and process of preparing herself for her future" -- a future, he added, "that was taken from her and taken from this community by a murderer."

Throughout the entire press conference, Robinson never said Pierson's name. Instead, he referred to him as "the murderer" -- even while reporters called him "the gunman" or "the shooter." "There's no question that the person who entered that school armed is a murderer," he said. "He entered that school with evil intent and he entered that school with the focus of doing the maximum amount of harm to the maximum amount of people."

This screen capture shows students being evacuated on December 13.
This screen capture shows students being evacuated on December 13.

Robinson explained that the investigation thus far has revealed that Pierson entered the school's north side through a door that had been "probably blocked open, which is pretty much standard protocol because it's inconvenient for people to come and go from another area." He made no effort to conceal the fact that he was armed, Robinson said.

He immediately fired one round "randomly" down the hallway, according to Robinson. He then shot a second round directly at Davis, followed by a third round aimed down the hallway. Pierson proceeded to the library, where he fired two rounds "into the immediate area of the offices of the librarian and speech coach," Robinson said -- a man whom investigators believe was the gunman's intended target. Early on, investigators said Pierson's motive seems to be related to a disagreement with the speech coach.

Pierson was carrying three Molotov cocktails in his backpack, and Robinson said he ignited one of them in the library, which created a fire that burned four bookshelves and triggered the smoke alarm. He then fired a sixth round, taking his own life, Robinson said.

An examination of his body showed the Latin phrase "Alea iacta est" -- which means "The die has been cast" -- scrawled on his forearm in indelible marker. Also on his forearm were five numbers that correspond to the library and classrooms, Robinson said.

"It took less than one minute, twenty seconds from the time the murderer entered the school until his body was lying on the floor in the library," Robinson said.

Continue for more details from today's press conference.

In that time, a janitor initiated the school lockdown procedure and School Resource Officer James Englert and an unarmed school security guard, Rod Mauler (who is a retired Arapahoe County deputy sheriff, Robinson noted), ran to the library in accordance with a protocol known as "run to the thunder." The reason it's called that, Robinson said, is because "when gunshots are fired inside a school, the echo up and down the hallways sounds exactly like you might imagine thunder might sound."

The lockdown procedure was "absolutely a critical element to the fact that we don't have additional injury and death in this situation," Robinson said. Furthermore, he said it's likely that Pierson understood that Englert and Mauler were responding to the library. When murderers realize the police are coming, they will often take their own lives, he said.

But Robinson reiterated that Pierson's intent was to hurt more people. He had more than 125 rounds of ammunition with him, in addition to the 12-gauge shotgun that he'd legally purchased from a local store on December 6. "We know that up until the very last half hour of December 13, 2013, around twelve noon, the murderer was still in the planning process and taking steps to purchase additional ammunition," Robinson said.

However, it's likely that Pierson did his planning alone, Robinson said: "Our belief is that the murderer planned the events on his own and he executed that evil plan on his own."

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Robinson said he walked through the school and saw "a variety of compelling things." One thing that struck him, he said, were all the backpacks, laptop computers, cell phones and notebooks that students and staff had abandoned on their desks when the school went into lockdown.

"When I first saw those, it struck me as so sad," he said. "But I immediately thought to myself, 'Maybe not. Maybe this is something we should celebrate.'" Prior to 12:30 p.m., those computers and cell phones were very important to the students and the staff, he said. But that changed the instant that the lockdown went into effect at 12:33 p.m. "At 12:34, individuals were important," Robinson said -- and those individuals were safely evacuated from the school by 2:47 p.m. and reunited with their families by 5 p.m.

Undersheriff Walcher said the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office plans to contract with a third-party analyst to review, generally, "what went well and why, and lessons learned." Though there is no timeline for the review, Walcher said it will likely include a detailed description of the tragedy, as well as an analysis of the law enforcement response, the dissemination of information and the impact of prior training, among other topics.

The investigation is ongoing. DA Brauchler said he's issued twelve search warrants and expects to issue more, possibly for Pierson's school and health records. "The goal here is to come up with as many answers as possible," he said. As a father himself, Brauchler said he wants to know if this tragedy could have been prevented.

Robinson also spoke a bit about Englert, the school resource officer who was one of the first on the scene. At the request of Davis's family, Englert was a pallbearer at the seventeen-year-old's funeral, Robinson said.

"James Englert is a hero; there is no question," Robinson said. "James responded heroically and he saved lives." Robinson said that Englert, who students consider a Warrior, plans to be on duty when classes resume at Arapahoe High on January 6.

More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Stop harassing Arapahoe High shooting first responder James Englert, sheriff tells media."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com