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O.C. shootings: College student attacked randomly, police say

February 19, 2013 |  7:28 pm

The rampage began just as the morning commute was getting underway.

Over the course of 75 terrifying minutes, a 20-year-old college student allegedly killed a woman at his Ladera Ranch home before embarking on a string of shootings that stretched through the heart of Orange County and targeted random people during their morning routines.

He carjacked a truck at a gas station, police said. He then allegedly executed a businessman and stole his BMW. A few minutes later, he killed a plumber and took a work truck. He shot indiscriminately at morning commuters on the 55 Freeway, hitting at least three cars.

PHOTOS: Shootings at multiple locations in O.C.

In the end, authorities say he killed three people and wounded three more before turning his gun on himself.

Authorities were stunned by what they described as the “senseless violence,” which spanned about 25 miles of normally placid suburbia. The gunman, identified as Ali Syed, had no criminal record and left few clues as to his motive, police said.

“I just killed someone,” Syed told one man during the shooting spree, according to police. “This is my last day.”

MAP: Orange County shootings

Police discovered the gunman’s first victim early Tuesday at a beige-and-white stucco condo in an upscale Ladera Ranch community. Syed, who was unemployed and enrolled in a single class at Saddleback College, lived there with his parents.

Neighbor Jason Glass said he heard three to five loud bangs early Tuesday morning.

He heard doors slamming. Then a car vroomed away from the house.

MAP: Orange County shootings

“I just thought somebody was being really loud and obnoxious,” he said.

Deputies arrived at the neighborhood of doctors and lawyers about 4:45 a.m., after Syed’s parents called 911.

Authorities found the body of a woman in her 20s who’d been shot multiple times. She was not related to Syed, authorities said. As of Tuesday evening, it remained unclear who she was and why she was at his home.

Meanwhile, Syed had taken off in the family’s black GMC Yukon, armed with at least one shotgun. Possibly in his haste to flee, police said, his SUV sustained some damage.

He exited the 5 Freeway at Red Hill Avenue in Tustin around 5 a.m. and pulled into a Denny’s parking lot. There, a man was sitting in an older-model blue Cadillac, waiting for his son. They’d planned to carpool to work.

Syed, police said, pointed his weapon at the man and yelled: Get out. The man sped away. Syed fired, shattering the Cadillac’s rear window and striking the man in the back of the head. The man fled -– he was later treated at a hospital -– and Syed dashed to a nearby Mobil station, authorities said. He spotted a man pumping gas.

“When they made eye contact, Syed started running toward the victim,” said Tustin Police Chief Scott Jordan. “He said to him, ‘I don’t want to hurt you. I just killed someone. Give me your keys. This is my last day.’ ”

The man obliged.

Syed hopped into the man’s Dodge pickup and headed north on the 5 Freeway. After he merged onto the southbound 55 Freeway, authorities said, Syed screeched onto the shoulder, jumped out of the truck and opened fire on the cars whizzing by. He hit at least three.

Santa Ana Police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said Syed may have realized that the pickup was low on fuel and was trying to steal a second vehicle.

Damita Cunningham was driving on the 55 Freeway about 5:20 a.m. Traffic suddenly halted. She put her car in reverse, thinking she could go around the accident, but a large vehicle backed into her Honda Accord and zipped away.

Cunningham followed the vehicle, which pulled off the freeway. Cunningham walked over to the driver, whom she described as “sitting there with a blank stare.” He told her a man had pointed a gun at his window. He had been trying to flee.

“He was all shaken up,” Cunningham said.

In the meantime, Syed had returned to the pickup and exited the freeway at Edinger Avenue in Santa Ana. He rammed into another vehicle, slammed into a divider and abandoned the truck, authorities said. Then Syed approached a BMW waiting at a stop sign, his gun drawn.

Melvin L. Edwards, 69, was on his way to work at Rubicon Gear, a small family business that manufactures high-precision gears and shafts. Colleagues described the former U.S. Army combat infantry officer who served in Vietnam as easygoing, hardworking and generous with his employees.

Syed, authorities said, ordered Edwards out of the BMW and directed him to the curb. Edwards cooperated. But Syed allegedly fired three times anyway, killing Edwards.

Cunningham came across the crime scene before she returned to the freeway. She saw a man with a bloodied chest and brown boots.

“I'll never forget those brown boots,” she said.

The gunman was nowhere in sight.

Syed had sped away in the BMW to a Micro Center computer store in Tustin. About 5:40, workers at a nearby Fairfield Inn construction site heard gunfire.

Tom Van Schindel, a project superintendent, said a plumbing supervisor spotted one of his co-workers being chased through an overflow parking lot and drove over to help him. The supervisor was shot in the arm, police said.

Syed, authorities said, shot and killed the supervisor’s KBL Plumbing co-worker. Jeremy Lewis, 26, of Fullerton, had just arrived for his 6 a.m. shift.

“He has a good heart. He showed up every day, on time, ready to do his share of work,” said Craig Heising, another project superintendent. “When I saw police pull the yellow tarp over him, I was just overwhelmed by the senselessness of it. It's a classic case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

PHOTOS: Shootings at multiple locations in O.C.

Syed escaped in one of the site’s white work trucks. Just before 6 a.m., California Highway Patrol officers caught up with him on the northbound 55 freeway. He exited on Katella Avenue. Near the intersection of East Katella and North Wanda Road, Jordan said, Syed hopped out of the vehicle “while it was still in motion.”

Syed raised his gun to his head and fired.

Around 7 a.m., Kenneth Caplin had made his way to his nearby office, where he had a clear view out his window. He surveyed the investigators at work and the white truck stranded at a curb. From under a yellow tarp, the shooter’s sneakers peeked out.


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Photo: Ali Syed. Credit: L.A. Times