Detective Dan Finn of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station was dropping off his girlfriend’s son at school in the morning when he noticed kids sprinting away from the campus.
His training as a student resource officer, or SRO, taught him it was likely a fight between two kids.
“That’s what kids do,” he said Friday, “they gravitate toward the fight.” He added he was on the phone with a student resource officer for an unrelated incident and he asked if there had been any radio traffic about Saugus.
“No,” was the response.
Then, as he watched, the kids started heading in different directions: westbound on Centurion Way, running into homes or neighbors’ houses, sprinting in the wash.
His training told him to stop, pull into the main parking lot of Saugus and ask a fleeing student just outside the main gate entrance what was happening.
“He said, ‘There was shots fired,’” Finn recalled.
In that moment, his training as an active-shooter instructor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department took over.
In blue jeans and T-shirt, with no bulletproof vest or backup, Finn made the only decision he could: He went in.
Finn and off-duty Officer Sean Yanez of the Inglewood Police Department found each other on campus shortly after both made entry and charged deeper into campus together.
Backpacks and cellphones littered the ground in the quad, telling them they were headed in the right direction. They were the first to find the fatally wounded Gracie Muehlberger and Dominic Blackwell, as well as the shooter, Nathaniel Berhow.
Assistant Principal Marcus Garrett and Saugus teacher Jim Klipfel then ran out to assist them with the students wounded by gunfire. LAPD officer Gus Ramirez was the next off-duty to arrive.
Taking turns, the law enforcement officers provided cover to one another while tending to the three children, not knowing if there was another gunman and waiting on help to arrive.
“It does not surprise me that he ran onto campus without a bulletproof vest,” said Lt. Eric Lasko, who was the watch commander at the SCV Sheriff’s Station when Finn called in the report of shooting victims at Saugus. “It does not surprise me that he didn’t hesitate for one second to run on campus to help these kids … to help out as much as he could.”
“As the watch commander, one of the calls that you hope never happens on your shift is an active shooter on a school campus,” said Lasko. He remembers thinking about his own kids who are local area high schoolers, as well. “It’s the worst-case scenario, and then, you have to know how you’re going to manage this incident.”
While Lasko worked that morning to call in the entire station, the station’s special weapons unit as well as many deputies as possible from nearby stations in other communities, Detective Dan Cacic was already in his truck heading to his son’s high school.
Once arriving on campus, Cacic began clearing classrooms.
“I wanted to put my focus elsewhere — to do what I had to do,” said Cacic.
“I remember we were in a closet, this property closet, for what seemed like an hour; no lights on, kids crying and stuff,” said Nathan Miller, a member of the Class of 2019. “And when these guys (deputies) came in, it was like the tone of the room shifted immediately … you know these guys are our heroes.”
Aidan Soto, a senior at Saugus, recalled seeing a “madhouse” as he was leaving Saugus High that morning, watching a deputy who looked like “he was just about to go into work” run into the campus with his bulletproof vest on and weapon drawn.
“He was instantly running into help … that’s something that I really clearly remember seeing.”
Los Angeles County Fire Department officials on the scene were also asked to run in, not knowing whether a second shooter was active. They had been called to transport those wounded.
“As we look back on that day, and remember those young lives who are no longer with us, I find solace and peace in seeing how our residents and communities have pulled together during challenging and difficult times to prove that there is still good in this world – and we can all do our part to care for one another and protect each other,” said L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl L. Osby, in a statement sent to The Signal on Friday.
Local fire crew members have declined to publicly speak about the shooting and their response, instead allowing Osby’s statement to speak for them.
When Finn was asked why he hadn’t really told his story publicly until now, he said he didn’t want to make it about him.
“As far as I’m concerned, there’s more people that needed to be in the spotlight and it wasn’t me,” said Finn. “It’s Gracie and Dom and their families, the administrators at the school and the students there and their staff.”