Jacky Phongsavath was headed to his computer class at Tacoma’s Foss High School on Wednesday when he heard three gunshots. Seconds later, the principal sprinted past him.
Phongsavath, a junior, followed and peeked around the corner.
“There was blood on the lockers,” he said.
On the floor was 17-year-old junior Samnang Kok (left), gunned down by a fellow student, police said, just before the morning bell on the first day back after winter break.
School nurse Donna Libby and assistant principal Bryon Bahr were performing cardio-pulmonary resuscitation on the young father who liked to play basketball, but Kok died at the scene.
Officers later arrested another Foss junior and booked him into the Pierce County Jail for investigation of first-degree murder. Police Chief Don Ramsdell refused to identify him Wednesday.
The News Tribune has learned his name is Douglas S. Chanthabouly, a junior. Chanthabouly is expected to make his first appearance in Superior Court today.
The News Tribune generally does not name suspects before they are charged with a crime but is doing so in this case because of the public interest in the crime, its severity and because police have had time to confirm the identity.
Why Kok was shot remained unknown to detectives late Wednesday. Police said they don’t think the shooting was gang-related or random. Ramsdell said it most likely ended a personal dispute between the two teens, who were acquaintances.
Theories were flying among students and others: The two fought over a girl. There was a disagreement over money. Chanthabouly was seeking revenge for a slight against his younger brother.
The result was a dead teenager, a school in pandemonium and another blow to a city desperately trying to ease violence among its youth.
“This was in a sanctuary, in a safe haven,” said Kurt Miller, a Tacoma School Board member who also works at a nonprofit agency that tries to alleviate urban problems. “We broached that trust with 1,500 students today.”
Ramsdell said the incident – thought to be the first school shooting in Tacoma history – was “tragic.”
“It hits the heart,” he said.
The shooting occurred about 7:25 a.m. in what is known as the “300 hallway,” a collection of classrooms and lockers at the north end of the school, not far from the library.
Witnesses said Kok was walking through the hall when the shooter approached him, pulled out a handgun and opened fire at close range, perhaps from as little as 5 feet away.
Kok “hit the locker on the side of his head and fell over,” sophomore Malcolm Clark said. “He started shaking and foaming at the mouth.”
Steven Stone, a senior, also was in the 300 hallway at the time. Stone said he heard a shot, turned to look and heard two more. He saw a kid bleeding on the floor.
“I turned around and ran,” Stone said. “I was scared. I didn’t know what else might happen.” Watch video interview
Clark said the shooter fled out a nearby door.
Barely a minute later, one of the school’s two security guards called 911 to report shots fired and to request medical aid, and police mounted a major response.
Police spokesman Mark Fulghum said nearly every police officer on duty at the time responded to the school, and the next shift was called in early.
Chaos broke out inside the school as word spread – via cell phone, text message and word of mouth – that a gunman was on campus.
“Our friend said someone was shooting up the school and we needed to run,” said Hollynn Asbjornsen, a junior who was near her home economics class when she heard gunshots. “I’m six months pregnant, and I ran to the gym.”
Ayanna Fernandez, a freshman, was in the girls locker room when a fellow student ran in screaming, “He’s got a gun. He’s got a gun. A kid’s been shot.”
Meanwhile, teachers and administrators rounded up students and locked them in classrooms, the library, the cafeteria and the gymnasium as three teams of heavily armed law enforcement officers searched the sprawling school.
Tacoma School District Superintendent Charlie Milligan said he arrived at the school about 7:45 a.m. and spent the next three hours locked down with school staff and students, whom he described as cooperative and calm.
“I saw a very profession demeanor … from the staff at Foss, who held themselves up well,” Milligan said. “I was very pleased with them and the students.”
The scene outside was tumultuous, with kids who weren’t inside when the shooting started fleeing to safety while panicked parents flocked to the school in search of their kids.
Police officers in marked and unmarked cars blocked off street entrances to the school near South 19th and Tyler streets and prowled campus with weapons drawn while television helicopters hovered overhead.
The Fred Meyer parking lot across South 19th Street became a waiting area for scared students and anxious parents.
Shelah Allen waited there for her son, who was locked with other students in the ROTC classroom while police searched the building.
“I just want him out,” Allen said.
Shirley Falkenhagen sped to the Fred Meyer parking lot from her job in Buckley after her son, a Foss student, called from school with word of the shooting.
There, she reunited with her son and her daughter, also a student there.
“I don’t know what to think,” Falkenhagen said. “I am glad my kids are OK.”
A few blocks away, Vonitha Carter took a call at home from her son, Chase. It was about 7:30 a.m. The teenager had heard shooting but was OK, Carter said.
A few minutes later, Carter heard her dog, Rick, barking outside. She looked out the window and saw a young man with lanky black hair walking down a dirt alley near her house. She said she was suspicious and called 911 to report it.
The police did not respond.
About two hours later, the dog started barking again. Carter again looked out and saw the same teenager. He matched the description of the Foss gunman given to her by her boss at Metro Parks.
Carter said she called 911 again to report the teenager was heading toward South 16th and South Verde streets.
“The dog barking was the only reason I knew he was out there,” she said later. “The kid was just walking like normal. He was so clean cut.”
A police officer arrested Chanthabouly a few minutes later in the 2000 block of South Tyler Street, Ramsdell said.
Carter said 911 dispatchers called her back later to say she’d help nab the shooter.
“Kind of scary,” she said. “My nosiness paid off.”
Police spokesman Fulghum said Chanthabouly gave up without a fight. Officers said he was carrying a handgun when he was taken into custody.
Police said Chanthabouly had no criminal record before his arrest Wednesday. The school district declined to release his or Kok’s attendance and disciplinary records.
Relatives of Chanthabouly had little to say when contacted by The News Tribune. A young man who identified himself as the suspect’s brother said police told the family not to talk to the media.
Soukanh Bounchanh, who said he is the teenager’s uncle, called his nephew “a nice kid.”
Chanthabouly was on suicide watch at the jail Wednesday night, said Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer.