In aftermath of Las Vegas shooting: Silence, tears — and unanswered questions

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent

LAS VEGAS — The car alarms began echoing around the Route 91 Harvest Festival grounds late Wednesday morning, beeping here and there, disturbing a site that has been mostly still and quiet since police put it on lockdown in the hours after a gunman rained bullets down on unsuspecting concertgoers Sunday night in one of the worst mass shootings in modern history.

It was the sound of people trying to find their cars in one of the several dusty parking lots, abandoned when they had run for their lives from a scene of unimaginable bloodshed and mayhem. One by one, police escorted people through roads still sealed off with crime tape, back through a church parking lot, into the shadow of the festival grounds across the street from the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, in clear sight of the two broken windows used by shooter Stephen Paddock to target his victims.

The survivors approached the police line with a look of dread on their faces, seemingly never wanting to return to a place they had barely escaped. And almost all left with tears streaming down their faces, the memories of that night having rushed back as they performed the simple task of trying to return some normalcy to their lives.

People on Wednesday pick up their cars from the venue where the Las Vegas mass shooting occurred. (Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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“I didn’t know it would be so hard,” a woman tearfully told reporters through her open car window as police officers lifted the crime tape for her to drive through.

Wiping her eyes, she still wore a paper wristband that said “Sunday,” which served as her admission for the final day of the country music festival. She said she hadn’t been able to take it off. She had ridden in a police SUV, the windows down, as she clicked her key fob trying to remember where she had left her white Toyota.

When she saw the festival grounds and Mandalay Bay in the distance, the memories all came rushing back — the “pop-pop-pop” sound of gunfire, the screams, bodies falling and a stampede of people desperately trying to escape. Choking up, the woman said she couldn’t say more. “Otherwise, I won’t be able to drive,” she said, slowly pulling away.

Investigators at the festival grounds across the street from the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on Tuesday. (Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

And so it went for hours, the alarms beeping on and off. A few hundred yards away, teams of FBI investigators walked in packs, fanning out in spots all over the concert site. They moved slowly, one step at a time, meticulously looking for evidence as investigators continued to try to piece together the puzzle of why Paddock, a 64-year-old real estate investor and avid gambler with no history of violence, had so viciously and ruthlessly attacked a city where he had been a regular visitor for years.

Three days after the attack, the mystery of why Paddock did what he did only seemed to deepen, as law enforcement officials told reporters they had found evidence that the gunman had intended to survive his rampage and that he likely had help as he meticulously plotted his attack.

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Joseph Lombardo, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department sheriff who has become the face of the investigation, told reporters Wednesday that a timeline cobbled together through video of the event suggested Paddock shot at concertgoers for just 10 minutes — from 10:05 to 10:15 p.m. on Sunday. In that short period, he killed 58 people and injured nearly 500 — though he likely intended the death toll to be worse.

A source told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that it appears Paddock used one of the two windows he busted out in his Mandalay Bay suite to shoot at a pair of fuel tanks just beyond the concert site near the runways of McCarren International Airport, just a few blocks away. The tanks were breached but did not explode, the source said.

Paddock’s rampage was interrupted by Jesus Campos, a Mandalay Bay security guard who approached the room after calls from guests. Paddock had seen Campos coming through cameras he had set up to monitor the hallway, including a baby monitor he had concealed on a room service cart. (Despite speculation to the contrary, Lombardo said none of the camera feeds were recording.)

Lombardo said Campos, who was shot in the leg, was lucky to be alive. He said police had recovered upwards of 200 shell casings in the hallway from where Paddock had blasted through the door of his hotel suite on the casino’s 32nd floor. But Campos’s arrival coincided with the end of the attack. Police said Paddock did not fire any shots after 10:15 p.m., even though his arsenal, which included 23 firearms, was far from depleted. Police finally breached Paddock’s suite at 11:20 p.m. and found him dead at 11:28 p.m. — more than an hour after the gunfire ended.

It was unclear what exactly Paddock was doing during that hour, but Lombardo said the gunman planned to escape and was likely considering his “own fate” — though the sheriff repeatedly declined to offer further details. Downstairs, where the gunman’s car was parked in the casino’s garage, police found several pounds of material that could be used to make explosives, including ammonium nitrate and another 1,600 rounds of ammunition.

Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, left, and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Sheriff Joe Lombardo leave a media briefing at police headquarters in Las Vegas on Wednesday. (Photo: Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP)

At the same time, Lombardo confirmed that Paddock had rented a room at a condo building in downtown Las Vegas the previous weekend. The room, rented through the site Airbnb, overlooked the Life Is Beautiful music festival, featuring acts like Chance the Rapper and Lorde. Was he casing that event? “We don’t know,” the sheriff said.

Authorities said they were still trying to piece together what Paddock had been up to in the days leading up to Sept. 28, when he first checked in to Mandalay Bay and spent time gambling before unleashing his attack. Through police initially suggested he was a “lone wolf” gunman, Lombardo seemed to cast doubt on that theory Wednesday, telling reporters he found it nearly impossible to believe that Paddock had no help in assembling his arsenal and plotting the attack.

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“You have to make an assumption that he had some help at some point,” Lombardo told reporters. “You look at the weapon obtaining, the different amounts of [explosives] available, do you think this was all accomplished on his own? … On face value, you’ve got to make the assumption he had to have some help at some point.”

Among those people investigators are looking to for answers is Marilou Danley, Paddock’s girlfriend, whom he had flown to the Philippines in the days leading up to the attack. Described as a “person of interest,” she spoke to the FBI for hours Wednesday in Los Angeles, where she had returned late Tuesday night. In a statement read by her attorney, she denied any knowledge of Paddock’s plot. Referencing $100,000 he wired to her ahead of the attack, she explained that at the time she thought it may have been his way of ending their relationship.

Agents from the FBI use binoculars from the broken window where Stephen Paddock opened fire at the Mandalay Bay Resort. (Photo: Gregory Bull)

An FBI official repeatedly declined to say what Danley told them but suggested she is still cooperating with the investigation.

Police still have no real answer to Paddock’s motive, and Lombardo, frustrated and fatigued, openly questioned if anyone would ever truly understand why the shooter did what he did.

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“What we know is that Stephen Paddock is a man who spent decades acquiring weapons and ammo and living a secret life, much of which will never be fully understood,” he said.

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