SHS shooting investigators remain with unanswered questions

Balloons and flowers stand in front of Saugus High School which was still closed for investigation on Friday, November 15, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal

As the community tries to move on from the deadly Saugus High school shooting, investigators continue to try to get to the bottom of the biggest unanswered question: Why? 

A week after the shooting they learned more about the weapon used on Nov. 14, but many more questions still remain unanswered. Only some possibilities into understanding a motive have been ruled out. 

“We’ve combed through a lot of stuff and we haven’t found, for lack of better words, that ‘smoking gun,’ like what triggered him to do this,” said Lt. Brandon Dean with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau. “We’ve done 100 to 150 interviews — somewhere around there — and we don’t have evidence of bullying, breakups from a girlfriend or anything of that nature.” 

On Nathaniel Tennosuke Berhow’s 16th birthday, he pulled an unregistered “ghost gun” from his backpack and began shooting in an open-air quad on the school campus. In just 16 seconds, he shot five students, apparently at random, and then turned the weapon on himself. He died at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital the next day. 

The weapon

The weapon used, which the LASD released information on Nov. 21, was deemed a form of a “kit gun” and not manufactured conventionally, meaning that it was “assembled by a consumer rather than a manufacturer, from pieces bought separately,” Dean said in a previous interview, but did not say how the gun was acquired or assembled. 

On Wednesday, he said investigators believe someone else built the gun, not Berhow. 

“We believe the firearm was either built by his father or his father purchased it from someone who built it,” said Dean. “It looks like his father, who had died back in 2017, was involved in either gun-making or purchasing things and giving them to friends to make them. We don’t know because there were pieces of other guns (at their home) that weren’t completely built firearms.” 

The teenager’s father, Mark Vincent Berhow, was an avid hunter who owned at least a half-dozen firearms. He died of a heart attack on Dec. 5, 2017, and was described as a hard worker and a kind gentleman, as stated in his obituary. Mark’s case file revealed a history of chronic alcoholism, according to the county’s Department of Medical Examiner. 

The loss of his father was something Jared Axen, the Berhow family’s next-door neighbor, described as a “big deal” for Nathaniel, a boy many people have described as someone with a bright future ahead. 

Who was Nathaniel Berhow?

Nathaniel, son of Mark and Mami Matsuura and brother of Samantha, “was going places,” said Axen. 

“He was an AP student, he had hopes and dreams, he had plans, so it’s odd to see something like this happen,” he added. 

The teenager and his mother had arrived from visiting colleges on the East Coast not long before Nov. 14, according to Dean. 

He was also a Boy Scout and a well-respected athlete who had been a member of Saugus High School’s cross-country and track-and-field teams since his freshman year, his coach Kevin Burns said, adding that he was “well-liked, he was a nice kid and as an athlete, he was hard-working.”  

Nathaniel’s peers also described him as such. He was a “sweet kid with lots of friends and no signs of anything from him,” according to Brenda Lindsey, who said that’s what her son and Saugus runner Grant told her about Nathaniel. 

It appeared he was loved and he loved his dad, said Axen. 

“He loved his dad; it was hard to watch the dad go through alcoholism,” he said. “His dad struggled, but was sober before he passed away. He spent more time with his family and was no longer drinking. The man he lost was the man that loved him and that was a big deal. I believe (Nathaniel) was the one who found his father’s body inside their house.” 

Court documents from August 2016 reveal that Mami had filed for custody. Mark had “some history with mental health illness but (Nathaniel) had not been diagnosed with anything of that nature,” said Dean.

Thus far, investigators have not found a letter, social media accounts, nor “any journals that would indicate that this was coming,” Dean said, adding that the boy’s mother was also unaware. 

“In talking to the mom during the initial interview, she was quite shocked — nothing she had ever anticipated,” said Dean. 

A neighborhood still ‘shocked and hurt’

For longtime residents and neighbors of the Berhows, Axen said the surrounding neighborhood is “still shocked and hurt and we’re trying to figure out how we’re supposed to be helpful to Mami because of privacy, which is important for her.

“She’s not very interactive right now; she feels ashamed. We don’t want her to feel that she needs to go through this alone,” he said. “This is her burden, but I think in the community, we’re trying to figure out how to share this.” 

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