On his first visit to a zoo, he was awestruck by the beauty of wildlife, friend and co-worker Matt Jarrell said. He described Ford as laid-back, quiet, a good listener.
But on Thursday, authorities said, the Kansas man unleashed a deadly shooting spree -- attacks that began shortly after authorities served him with a restraining order telling Ford to stay from his former girlfriend, who claimed he abused her.
Ford, 38, was armed with an assault rifle and an automatic pistol, Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton said.
Two people were shot in Newton, Kansas, before the gunman went to his workplace, Excel Industries, in the nearby town of Hesston and started firing.
"He looked happy," Jarrell, who was standing outside on break at the time of the shooting, said of Ford's expression when the shots rang out. "It was almost like a smile on his face. It's a picture I'm never going to get out of my head."
A Kansas sheriff's deputy served Ford a protection order just 1½ hours before he began opening fire, according to Walton. The subsequent flurry of bullets ended with at least 14 wounded and three others dead before the shooter was shot and killed.
"I believe that probably is the trigger, and it went from there," Walton said of the order.
The order was served to him at his workplace, according to Walton.
In a petition for the protection order, Ford's former girlfriend wrote that on February 5 he "became physical by him pushing me then grabbing me."
She added, "He placed me in a choke hold from behind -- I couldn't (breathe). He then got me to (the) ground while choking me -- finally releasing me."
The woman described Ford as an "alcoholic, violent(ly) depressed."
"It's my belief he is in desperate need of medical (and) psychological help!" she wrote.
Co-worker: Shooter seemed like 'normal guy'
"He was just a normal guy to me," Jarrell told CNN. "He had a family he loved. He was into cars."
Jarrell added, "He was someone I felt I could talk to ... and communicate with as I would a family member."
Jarrell, who witnessed one person being shot, said that "never in a million years" would he expect Ford -- one of the few people he was close to at work -- to do something like this.
Ford was supposed to relieve Jarrell at break time Thursday but never showed up. The painter who took Jarrell's place was one of three people in Ford's department to be shot, according to Jarrell.
"I was sitting in my truck with the door open," Jarrell said of the moment Ford jumped out of his truck and started firing. "Why he didn't shoot me, I don't know."
Few details of Ford's life were immediately available, but he appeared to be active on Facebook, where he described himself as a painter at Excel Industries.
On Ford's page -- which was taken down Friday afternoon -- he shared his fondness for rap, guns, cars and children.
The page says Ford lived in Newton and was from Miami.
Walton said Ford was already known to local law enforcement.
"All I can say is he's been in my jail a couple of times before," Walton said.
According to the Broward County, Florida, Sheriff's Office, Ford was arrested in 2000 by Pembroke Pines police in connection with car break-ins and then again in 2004 by Broward County deputies for parole violations.
Jarrell recalled one particular conversation he and Ford had about a visit to the zoo, CNN affiliate KSNW
reported. He described Ford as a "mellow guy" and "someone I could talk to about anything."
It was the first time in Ford's life he had gone to the zoo, Jarrell said, and he was in awe.
"There are little things we take for granted that we see all the time or we've grown up seeing," Jarrell said. "And this guy, you know, he was just touched going to the zoo."
"He never came off to be a bad guy."
Videos can be seen on Ford's Facebook page that appear to be from a recent zoo visit.
"It was amazing I (sic) never seen wildlife in my life besides pitbull and Rottweiler puppies lol" he wrote in a January 30 post.
On Friday, Jarrell was still emotional about the events of the previous day.
"Do I go to the guy's funeral because he was my friend or do I not go because he murdered all these people," he said. "It's going to be hard going to my co-workers' funerals. It's a lot to cope (with)."