In the most violent day in the young history of UC Merced, a male student armed with a large hunting knife attacked four people on campus Wednesday before he was shot down by police, a spree of bloodshed that shocked the tight-knit campus and left investigators searching for a motive.
The school day was just beginning when authorities said the student, whose name was not released, had a confrontation with others in a second-floor classroom on the north side of the campus. A construction worker, 31-year-old Byron Price, who was nearby heard the commotion and went in to intervene, authorities said.
The attacker lunged at Price and slashed him before fleeing. He stabbed a male student outside the classroom and then left the building, where he found a female university employee sitting on a bench and stabbed her in the back. Two university police officers chased the man onto a bridge, where he was shot and killed.
Authorities said the suspect was a California resident in his late teens or early 20s who was not from Merced County. His name was being withheld while officials tried to contact his family.
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All four stabbing victims were expected to recover.
Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke described Price as “the true hero in all of this chaos.”
“Without him, the first victim could have been a lot worse off, or even dead,” he said.
The attack, the most serious violence to strike the 10-year-old UC campus, stunned students and officials.
“Events like this happen elsewhere but not at UC Merced, which may still be small in its student body but large in its sense of community,” Chancellor Dorothy Leland said at a press conference.
Classes were canceled for Wednesday and Thursday, and by late afternoon, the campus, normally bustling with nearly 6,700 students, was largely vacant.
Investigators evacuated the Tuolumne residence hall, a two-story dormitory in the center of the campus. Officials said only that they were doing so to “widen the crime scene” and would not say whether the suspect lived there.
Authorities have not commented on any possible motive in the attack.
Law enforcement officials said the student used a large hunting knife with a blade 8 inches to 10 inches long in the attack.
Price was one of three Artisan Construction workers remodeling the student waiting room at the Classroom and Office Building on Wednesday morning, according to Artisan CEO John Price, who is also Price’s father.
“They heard a scuffle in the classroom right across from where they were working and it sounded like a fight. So (my son) opened the door and the guy lunged at him,” John Price told the Merced Sun-Star. “It got the (attacker) outside the room, away from others.”
The younger Price was stabbed at least once and taken to Mercy Medical Center by his co-workers. John Price said his son was released from the hospital before noon Wednesday and had no injuries to major arteries.
UC officials said one of the campus officers was placed on an automatic three-day leave pending an investigation, a standard procedure for officer-involved shootings.
Warnke said the Sheriff’s Department was assisting in the investigation. The FBI has “offered assistance” with the case, FBI spokeswoman Gina Swankie confirmed.
A Merced-area law enforcement bomb squad arrived on campus around noon to search the area. Authorities said the specialty squad was dispatched as a precaution to investigate an item near the suspect’s body, but there was no specific threat.
The campus community first was notified of the attack shortly after 8 a.m. when school officials issued an alert on Twitter, advising students to avoid the area around the Classroom and Office Building.
Students arriving for morning classes found a campus on lockdown and activities canceled.
Charyea Phillips, a 22-year-old senior, was among the students walking off campus and onto the rural roads leading toward Merced. A psychology major from Los Angeles, Phillips said her campus job is located near the scene of the stabbing and she saw officers responding to the site.
“Just to see something like that happen, it could have been me,” she said. The attack is something she would have expected to see in Los Angeles, not at a small-town campus like UC Merced. “That’s why I moved away from there.”
Blanca Ayala, a senior psychology major from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, said she was studying on campus when she heard about the attack. “It never crosses your mind that your life is in danger.”