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Florida school board members recount meeting horror

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Inside mind of would-be killer
  • NEW: Superintendent says he doesn't think security would have made a difference
  • Man took hostages, fired shots at board meeting Tuesday
  • No one was hurt in the incident, but man turned gun on himself
  • Superintendent: "You could tell ... there was going to be some killing going on"

(CNN) -- It was a typical school board meeting, with members discussing typical school issues.

And then, all of a sudden, it was anything but.

"We're at a board meeting, and we're talking about technology and head lice, and next thing we know, this guy's got a gun in our face," Bill Husfelt, superintendent of Bay District Schools in Panama City, Florida, said Wednesday.

Clay Duke, 56, sat quietly through the meeting until it was time for citizens to bring up issues. Then he approached the front of the room, spray-painted a red "V" with a circle around it on the wall and brandished a handgun. He ordered the room cleared of everyone but six men.

Duke ended up firing shots but didn't hit anyone. Wounded by a security officer, Duke fell to the ground, where he turned the gun on himself. He was pronounced dead at a hospital of a gunshot wound to the head, authorities said. An autopsy was expected Wednesday.

"It was surreal," Husfelt told CNN's "American Morning." "He had already told us that he was going to die, he was prepared to die, and we were going to die as well. ... You could tell by the look in his eyes there was going to be some killing going on.

"If I was killed, I knew where I was going to end up," he said. "But it's a miracle. There's no other excuse for it. God blocked those bullets."

"I think it's safe to say that somebody was watching over the school board members," Panama City Deputy Police Chief Robert Colbert said Wednesday.

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He said Duke had an extra magazine and extra ammunition for the 9 millimeter handgun.

Just after the room was cleared of everyone but the six men, board member Ginger Littleton crept back into the room behind Duke and attempted with her purse to knock the gun from his hand. She did not succeed, and she and Duke struggled. Littleton wound up on the ground, and Duke cursed her and pointed the gun at her, but he did not fire and allowed her to leave the room.

Littleton said Wednesday that she thought she was going to die, but she went back inside because "I was concerned about my guys. They were lined up like ducks in a row. He was already basically standing on the same level as them. I knew something bad was going to happen. That was my only option. ... My guys had three-ring binders and pencils for protection, and that's all."

When Duke knocked her to the ground, "my thought was that Plan A had failed, and I didn't have a Plan B, which was probably not one of the smartest things I ever did," Littleton said.

She said she doesn't know why Duke did not pull the trigger, but her sense was "he wanted to be killed rather than kill." As time passed, however, "it appeared he was getting more and more ready to do some real damage," she said.

Littleton said Wednesday that she has three daughters, "and they said, 'Mom, are you just stupid? What were you thinking?' " She said she didn't have an answer.

But, she noted, "the sun is beautiful, and it looks great today." She laughed as she held up her purse for the cameras.

Board member Ryan Neves said he didn't sleep Tuesday night, and he suspects others didn't either, as he got an e-mail from Husfelt at 3 a.m.

"We're still trying to get back to life as normal," he said. "This is something at changes you for life."

Members said they were sobered upon visiting the room and viewing the bullet holes and the blood on the floor. Board member Steve Moss said one bullet hit his board book, and another hit a pole inches from where he was lying.

He recalled arriving home Tuesday night and being greeted by his wife and his children, ages 4 and 5. "That put things in perspective of just how fragile life is," he said. "Hug your wife and your husband, and love on those kids."

A chilling video of the meeting, from a live Internet feed provided by CNN affiliates WJHG and WMBB, shows Husfelt attempting to reason with Duke, who began a rambling discourse that had to do with the apparent firing of his wife and sales taxes. He and the superintendent discussed possibly finding a job for Duke's wife or looking into the case. Husfelt told him that he probably signed the termination papers but couldn't recall the circumstances.

Husfelt attempted to get Duke to allow the other members to leave the room. "Will you let them go? You're obviously upset at me, so why are they here?" he asked on the video.

"As Ginger said, we were defenseless," Husfelt said. "The only thing we had, the only thing we could possibly do, was buy time. ... He had us. He could have sat there and picked us off."

At one point, Husfelt told Duke, "I don't want anybody to get hurt. I've got a feeling that what you want, is you want the cops to come in and kill you because you are mad, because you said you are going to die. But why? This isn't worth it."

Duke then pointed the pistol at Husfelt, who said, "Please don't. Please don't. Please." But Duke pulled the trigger as Husfelt and the others hit the floor.

"I said to myself, 'I've been shot. It sure doesn't hurt like I thought it would,' " he said Wednesday.

"He was as close to me, almost, as this camera is, and it was pointed right at me," Husfelt said. "I was trying to turn kind of sideways. ... It's just all reactionary. Who knows what you do in a situation like that? We were all scared and doing a lot of praying, I can tell you that."

Both Husfelt and Littleton said that Mike Jones, chief of security for the school system and a retired police officer, was a hero. Husfelt said he heard Jones coming into the room after Duke pulled the trigger the first time. Duke fired several more shots, and Jones could be heard shooting at Duke.

Police believe that a total of about 14 rounds were fired in the room and are conducting ballistics testing, Colbert said.

Husfelt, Littleton and Colbert said that if it hadn't been for Jones, there might have been more deaths.

"Mike Jones came in just in the nick of time, or there would have been a lot more bloodshed," Husfelt said. He said Duke can be seen on the tape attempting to reach over and fire again, even after he is wounded.

"I'm just so thankful to be able to be here and talk with you," Husfelt said. "It's not something I want to do, but I'm so thankful to be able to do it."

Colbert said Jones' heroism cannot be overstated. WJHG reported that Jones was taken to a hospital with chest pains after the incident. Husfelt said he had visited with Jones and said the security official was being kept overnight for observation and was set to be released Wednesday.

Police have talked with Duke's family, Colbert said Wednesday, and "the family was as shocked as everyone else that this had occurred." He said Duke's wife had been employed as a teacher by the school district, and her employment had been terminated within the past year. Colbert said he did not know the woman's name.

He said Duke conducted "intelligence-gathering" as he entered the building Tuesday, stopping to ask members of a student ROTC group whether their guns were real and whether they were loaded.

Husfelt said that at first, when Duke was spray-painting on the wall, he thought the man was mad about the vote the board had just taken on a technology issue.

He said the district would re-evaluate security in the wake of the incident but said he doubted security would have made a difference. "We could have had this place like Fort Knox. ... There was nothing we could have done to stop him."

School officials said they were unaware of the significance of the spray painting.

But a Facebook page belonging to a Clay Duke has a profile photo of a "V" in a red circle, a logo that is used in the graphic novel and movie "V for Vendetta."

According to the Internet Movie Database, the 2006 film is about "a shadowy freedom fighter known only as "V" (who) uses terrorist tactics to fight against his totalitarian society. Upon rescuing a girl from the secret police, he also finds his best chance at having an ally."

CNN could not verify whether the Facebook page belonged to the gunman, but it does list Duke as being 56 years old and living in Panama City, Florida.

A biography on Duke's Facebook page reads: "My Testament: Some people (the government sponsored media) will say I was evil, a monster (V)... no... I was just born poor in a country where the Wealthy manipulate, use, abuse, and economically enslave 95% of the population. Rich Republicans, Rich Democrats... same-same... rich... they take turns fleecing us... our few dollars... pyramiding the wealth for themselves. The 95%... the us, in US of A, are the neo slaves of the Global South. Our Masters, the Wealthy, do, as they like to us..."

Under "political views," Duke labels himself a "Freedom Fighter." Under religious views, he wrote, "Humanism."

Duke had a criminal record, according to authorities. The website of the Florida Department of Corrections shows that he was sentenced to five years in prison in 2000 for aggravated stalking, obstructing justice and throwing or shooting into a vehicle, followed by 10 years of community supervision.

According to the Panama City News Herald, after six months of stalking a former girlfriend, Duke confronted the woman outside her home October 20, 1999. He was wearing a mask and vest and holding two .22-caliber guns. He threatened to kill her, kill several others and then himself, the newspaper said. When the woman tried to drive away, Duke shot out a rear tire.

The photo of Duke on the corrections page matches the Facebook page.

"We are absolutely in state of shock," said Lee Stafford, director of student services for the school district. "I was in the third floor, and we were watching the live feed, and first we thought it was a drill. But the more that you watched it, we realized this was an actual incident and emergency situation."

Duke's Facebook page listed him as a 1972 graduate of King High School in Tampa, Florida. His favorite quotation: "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth," from the movie "A Few Good Men."