Minutes earlier, the room had been filled with students accepting awards, but no one was hurt except the gunman, who shot himself Tuesday after exchanging fire with a security guard, police said.
“It could have been a monumental tragedy,” Bay District Schools Superintendent Bill Husfelt said. “God was standing in front of me and I will go to my grave believing that.”
Video of meeting shows 56-year-old Clay A. Duke rising from his seat, spray-painting a red V on the wall, then waving a gun and ordering everyone to leave the room except the men on the board. They dove under the long desk they had been sitting behind as he fired at them.
Duke’s motivation was still murky Wednesday. He rambled to the board about tax increases and his wife, but also apparently created a Facebook page last week that refers to class warfare and is laced with images from the movie “V for Vendetta,” in which a mysterious figure battles a totalitarian government.
The school board was in the midst of a routine discussion when Duke walked to the front of the room.
“We could tell by the look in his eyes that this wasn’t going to end well,” Husfelt told The Associated Press.
Husfelt was calm as he tried to persuade Duke to drop the gun, but Duke just shook his head. The only woman on the board, Ginger Littleton, had been ordered out of the room too, but she sneaked back in behind him and whacked his gun arm with her large brown purse.
“In my mind, that was the last attempt or opportunity to divert him,” Littleton said.
Duke, a large, heavyset man in a dark pullover coat got angry and turned around. She fell to the floor as board members pleaded with her to stop. Duke pointed the gun at her head and said, “You stupid b——” but he didn’t shoot her. She’s not sure why.
“I think the ‘you stupid’ part, I thought at that point, probably, you’re right. I was pretty stupid,” Littleton told NBC’s “Today” show early Wednesday.
After several minutes, video showed Duke slowly raising the gun and leveling it at Husfelt, who pleaded “Please don’t, please don’t.”
Duke shot twice at Husfelt from about 8 feet away and squeezed off several more rounds before district security chief Mike Jones, a former police officer, bolted in. He exchanged gunfire with Duke and wounded him in the leg or side before Duke fatally shot himself, police Sgt. Jeff Becker said.
Somehow, no one else in the small board room was injured in the clash that lasted several minutes. Husfelt said at least two rounds lodged in the wall behind him.
In Duke’s brief exchange with the board, he said his wife had been fired from the northern Florida district, but never told Husfelt or the board who she was or what she did. Members promised to help her find a new job, but Duke just shook his head. Husfelt told Duke he didn’t remember his wife but would have be responsible for her dismissal, so the board members should be allowed to leave.
“He said his wife was fired, but we really don’t know what he was talking about,” Husfelt told the AP at his Panama City home. “I don’t think he knew what he was talking about.”
Video of the meeting shows Husfelt telling Duke: “I’ve got a feeling you want the cops to come in and kill you because you said you are going to die today.” Later, the head of more than 30 schools in the district that includes the beach tourism and Air Force town of Panama City said he was sure someone was going to be killed.
Tommye Lou Richardson, the school district’s personnel director, was at the meeting and called Jones a hero. As Duke lay on the floor, colleagues comforted the shaken man, who said he had never shot anyone before.
SWAT officers then stormed the room and ordered everyone onto the ground. School officials told them that Duke was shot and appeared dead. His feet could be seen near the board’s seats.
People gathered at Duke’s home Tuesday night asked reporters to leave. On a Facebook page under his name, the only dated entries are from Dec. 7 and 8. The page shows a cryptic message in the “About Me” section.
“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 percent of the population. Rich Republicans, Rich Democrats ... same-same ... rich ... they take turns fleecing us ... our few dollars ... pyramiding the wealth for themselves.”
His Facebook profile picture is the red V symbol he spray-painted on the wall during the meeting, and his page includes photos from the film version “V for Vendetta,” which was also a graphic novel.
He quotes billionaire Warren Buffett, who told the New York Times in 2006: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class that’s making war and we’re winning.”
Duke was charged in October 1999 with aggravated stalking, shooting or throwing a missile into a building or vehicle and obstructing justice, according to state records. He was convicted and sentenced in January 2000 to five years in prison and was released in January 2004. Records show Duke was a licensed massage therapist before his arrest but it wasn’t clear if he was employed.
Attorney Ben Bollinger, who represented Duke during his trial, told The News Herald of Panama City that Duke was waiting in the woods for his wife with a rifle, wearing a mask and a bulletproof vest. She confronted him and then tried to leave in a vehicle, and Duke shot the tires. He said that as part of his sentence, Duke was required to complete psychological counseling. Bollinger did not immediately return a phone message from the AP.
“The guy obviously had a death wish,” district spokeswoman Karen Tucker said of Duke.