By ROXANA HEGEMAN and MARIA FISHER
A man who stormed into a Kansas factory where he worked and shot 15 people, killing three, had just been served with a protective order that probably triggered the attack, authorities said Friday.
The assault at the Excel Industries lawnmower parts plant in the small town of Hesston ended when a police officer killed the gunman during a shootout.
Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton described the officer as a “tremendous hero” because 200 or 300 people were still in the factory and the “shooter wasn’t done by any means.”
“Had that Hesston officer not done what he did, this would be a whole lot more tragic,” Walton said.
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The sheriff identified the gunman as Cedric Ford, a 38-year-old plant worker who had several convictions in Florida over the last decade. His past offenses included burglary, grand theft, fleeing from an officer, aggravated fleeing, carrying a concealed weapon, all from Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
According to the Wichita Eagle, Ford has also had criminal cases in Harvey County, including a misdemeanor conviction in 2008 for fighting or brawling and various traffic violations from 2014 and 2015.
The shooting came less than a week after authorities say a man opened fire at several locations in the Kalamazoo, Michigan, area, leaving six people dead and two severely wounded. Authorities have not disclosed a possible motive in those attacks.
Eleven of the people wounded in Thursday’s attack were taken to two Wichita hospitals, where one was in critical condition, five in serious condition and five in fair condition Friday morning, hospital officials said.
The others were taken to a hospital in nearby Newton, and their conditions were not immediately available.
Walton said his office served the suspect with the protection-from-abuse order at around 3:30 p.m., about 90 minutes before the first shooting happened. He said such orders are usually filed because there’s some type of violence in a relationship. He did not disclose the nature of the relationship in question.
While driving to the factory, the gunman shot a man on the street in Newton, striking him in the shoulder. A short time later, he shot someone else in the leg at an intersection.
“The shooter proceeded north to Excel Industries in Hesston, where one person was shot in the parking lot before he opened fire inside the building,” the department said in a news release. “He was seen entering the building with an assault-style long gun.”
Ford had left work early without explanation before showing up hours later with a rifle, according to a co-worker.
Matt Jarrell says he and Ford had worked “hand-in-hand” as painters on the second shift. He says Ford arrived as scheduled on Thursday but later disappeared and wasn’t there to relieve him so that he could take a break.
Jarrell told The Associated Press on Friday that someone else eventually spelled him and that he was sitting in his truck in the parking lot when he saw Ford drive up in a truck that wasn’t his.
Jarrell said he sped away when he saw Ford shoot someone and then enter the building.
Moments later, Martin Espinoza, who works at Excel, heard people yelling to others to get out of the building, then heard popping and saw the shooter, a co-worker he described as typically pretty calm.
Espinoza said the shooter pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger, but the gun was empty. At that point, the gunman got a different gun and Espinoza ran.
“He came outside after a few people, shot outside a few times, shot at the officers coming onto the scene at the moment and then reloaded in front of the company,” Espinoza told The Associated Press. “After he reloaded, he went inside the lobby in front of the building, and that is the last I seen him.”
The officer who exchanged fire with the shooter was not injured.
Walton said the attacker had an “assault-style” rifle and a pistol.
Erin McDaniel, a spokeswoman for Newton, said the suspect was known to local authorities. She would not elaborate.
Hesston is a community of about 3,700 about 35 miles north of Wichita.
Excel Industries was founded there in 1960. The company manufactures Hustler and Big Dog mowing equipment and was awarded the Governor’s Exporter of the Year award in 2013 from the Kansas Department of Commerce.
Fisher reported from Kansas City, Missouri. Associated Press writers P. Solomon Banda in Hesston, John Hanna in Topeka and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri, contributed to this report.