Story highlights

Vincente Montano fired an airsoft pistol at a Nashville police officer responding to the attack, the patrolman says

Montano had the pistol in addition to a hatchet and pepper spray when he went after moviegoers

He was shot dead as he tried to go out the back door of the theater

CNN  — 

Vincente Montano bought a ticket Wednesday at the Carmike Hickory 8 movie theater complex, got a cup of water at the refreshment counter, and went to theater 4 about 20 minutes before the movie was to start.

He sat down alone. But two women soon noticed that he was “staring them down,” Nashville police spokesman Don Aaron said Thursday.

At one point he stood up, grabbed two backpacks, then started to walk over to where they were.

The two women said Montano stopped suddenly, dropped the bags and sat down.

But he was back up quickly and he doused the women with what police believe is pepper spray. A man with the women tried to intervene and Montano nicked him on the shoulder with a hatchet.

The trio and four other people in the theater fled. Montano blocked one door, so they ran out the other.

Officer Jonathan Frith ran by the two women as they ran out of the theater. They had red dye all over them that looked like blood, so he called for ambulances.

Frith was one of the first officers to reach the theater after reports of a strange-acting man with a hatchet and a gun were sent over the police radio.

Close quarters

When he was in the Marine infantry overseas, Frith had seen combat. Active engagements, he called them.

But on Wednesday, as a police officer in his hometown, he engaged an enemy who was a lot closer than any had ever been.

The officer, who grew up in the Antioch area of Nashville and went to the complex often as a teen, raced with another officer up to the projection room for theater 4, where “Mad Max: Fury Road” was about to begin. Two other officers watched the doors.

Frith and the other officer couldn’t see anyone in the theater. So they went back down to the entrance.

Frith, a six-year veteran of the Nashville Police Department, chose the door on the left. The other officer would go in the right.

Just seconds after moving into the dimly lit theater – the lights were off and the only illumination was from the images being projected on the screen – there were three pops to his right. He felt on his face what seemed to be the pressure blast from a weapon.

“I was engaged with what I perceived to be small arms fire from a small caliber handgun,” he said Thursday. He turned toward Montano but it was hard to see. There was a silhouette. He aimed his rifle at the image’s torso and fired one round.

It was impossible to tell whether the bullet hit Montano.

Frith backed out of the theater and called in a barricaded suspect.

Other officers checked to see how soon the SWAT team would arrive.

SWAT engages Montano several times

Aaron said four SWAT officers went into the theater, which was swamped with the chemical irritant. A police sergeant ran to get gas masks.

Montano had taken cover, police said, and was occasionally extending his arm. SWAT, believing he had a pistol, fired an unspecified number of rounds during several engagements, Aaron said. The spokesman said Montano was told more than once to surrender.

The suspect threw pepper spray canisters at police before trying to escape through the back door.

He tossed an airsoft pistol toward the SWAT team and fled.

There were five Nashville police officers on the other side of the door.

Aaron said they saw the suspect with one hand under a backpack he was wearing on his chest. They thought he might have a bomb.

In his other hand he held the hatchet.

Officers ordered him to stop.

They say he didn’t, and they fired.

Montano was fatally hit, though police didn’t say how many times he was struck or how many shots were fired.

More than a dozen gunshots, fired in rapid succession, can be heard on the audio track of a cell phone video recorded during the shooting that killed Montano. The video doesn’t show the shooting.

Vincente Montano had an airsoft pistol, a hatchet and pepper spray when he was killed at a Tennessee movie theater.

When Montano died, he left behind a host of questions and few answers:

Who was the shooter?

Montano has a Tennessee ID card with a Nashville address, but police think he was homeless. He had moved around a lot from state to state, they said.

His mother, Denise Pruett, said she had not seen him for more than two years. This week, she reported him missing.

Montano had been arrested in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, police said. He was charged with assault and resisting arrest 11 years ago.

What weapons was he carrying?

In one of the two bags he brought in – a backpack – was what looked like a bomb, but it turned out to be fake. Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson called it a “hoax explosive device.” Police destroyed it with a controlled detonation.

The airsoft gun left Montano without a real firearm but at the same time made him look like a serious danger.

The gun looks broken in a photo handout from police. Aaron said it may have been hit by SWAT gunfire.

What was his state of mind?

Montano had a history of mental illness and had been committed to a mental health facility at least three times, police said.

In the missing person’s report, Montano’s mother told authorities he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2006.

“Ms. Pruett advised Vincente has several other health issues and has a hard time taking care of himself,” the report said.

How did he gain access to a weapon?

Airsoft pistols reside in a category that is less weapon and more toy. They are readily available off the shelf or online for as little as $15 – no background check necessary.

They are powered by compressed air with firepower ranging from a stinging thump to a slight skin puncture.

According to a law enforcement official, there was no evidence Montano owned a real firearm.

How did patrons react?

The July 23 theater shooting in Lafayette, Louisiana, and the trial of Aurora, Colorado, theater shooter James Holmes are still fresh on the public mind.

Montano’s pepper spray, hatchet and deceptively real-looking gun sent patrons into a screaming panic.

“We all ran out of the theater,” a 911 caller said.

Some notified police officers, who had responded to a nearby traffic accident. They dropped what they were doing and responded, police said. Other officers who were nearby, like Frith, also sped to the theater.

The moviegoers’ cries resonated through the walls into the neighboring theater, where Jessica Alarid sat next to Alex Roby. The two thought the patrons next door must be screaming at a scary movie scene.

Alarid got up to use the restroom and ran right into police entering the building with their guns drawn. They sent Alarid back to her seat.

“We took cover underneath the seats until they came for us,” she said. They kept hearing screams then a gunshot. Alarid and Roby exchanged terrified looks.

“I still to this moment don’t think it’s real,” Roby said. “It feels like a really bad dream.”

Then officers came to get them, led them outside and told them to run away as fast as they could.

“I feel eternally grateful that we were able to be completely unharmed,” he said. “We all got very lucky.”

No one was seriously injured. The three people who were pepper sprayed were treated at the scene.

CNN’s Evan Perez, Tina Burnside, Greg Botelho, Sara Pratley, Eli Watkins and Sheena Jones contributed to this report.