Two major questions surrounding Thursday’s shooting rampage at Excel Industries in Hesston appeared to have been answered Friday:
What triggered Excel employee Cedric Ford to return to the plant after his break and shoot 17 people, three fatally?
And where did Ford get the weapons used in the attack?
Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton said Friday that the sheriff’s office served Ford, 38, with a protection from abuse order from his ex-girlfriend in Wichita at about 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the Excel plant.
Walton said he thinks that was likely what triggered the attack, which began about 90 minutes later.
The mother of Ford’s two children, Sarah J. Hopkins of Newton, is facing a federal charge after authorities said she is suspected of giving Ford the two weapons used in the attack.
Hopkins, 28, is the mother of Ford’s 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, according to court records obtained by The Eagle on Friday afternoon. She was charged with one count of knowingly transferring a firearm to a convicted felon, U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said in an e-mailed news release Friday.
Authorities on Friday also confirmed the names of the three people killed in the attack: Renee Benjamin, 30; Josh Higbee, 31; and Brian Sadowsky, 44.
Nearly all of the wounded are recovering; one person remains in critical condition at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis.
Hundreds of people gathered Friday night in Hesston’s Heritage Park for a candlelight vigil, the first step in what is likely to be a long healing process.
A hero emerges
Walton described Ford as being upset about being served with the court papers at about 3:30 p.m. Thursday, but not out of the ordinary.
“He didn’t display anything that was outrageous,” Walton said.
Authorities think Ford left the plant and went home to retrieve the weapons. A neighbor said he saw him walk angrily from his mobile home in south Newton and throw what looked like a machine gun into his car and speed off.
Walton said Ford shot people at random and did not target specific people. He said hundreds of people were inside the plant at the time of the shooting.
While other officers remained outside, Walton said, one officer – later identified by the governor’s office as Hesston Police Chief Doug Schroeder – entered the building and confronted Ford in the front office area. They exchanged gunfire and Ford was killed.
The chief entered the plant alone, without backup.
Walton called Schroeder a “hero” but did not name him, saying the shooting is under investigation, as is standard procedure for all police shootings.
“Understand there are probably 200 or 300 people (inside) while this is going on,” Walton said. “This man was not going to stop shooting.”
Although the shooting was unprecedented in his 28-year career, Walton said, it wasn’t totally unexpected.
“I have never seen anything like this,” he said. “As far as we don’t think it’s ever going to happen here, isn’t that what every sheriff says that’s stuck up on the podium?”
President Obama phoned Hesston Mayor David Kauffman on Friday morning to discuss the shooting, the White House said in a news release. Obama offered his condolences to the loved ones of those who were lost and his gratitude to police officers and other first responders who acted quickly to save lives.
Speaking later while visiting a manufacturing plant in Jacksonville, Fla., Obama talked with plant employees about the Hesston shooting and the recent shooting in Michigan.
“These acts may not dominate the news today but these are two more communities in America torn apart by grief,” the president said in the release. “I thought it was important for me to say something today because otherwise these sorts of shootings become routine. … We cannot become numb to this.”
In federal court documents, Hopkins is accused of giving Ford the Zastava Serbia AK-47-type semi-automatic rifle and the Glock Model 22 .40-caliber handgun he was carrying when he embarked on Thursday’s shooting spree.
According to the affidavit, Hopkins said during an interview with law enforcement Friday that she:
▪ Was in a relationship with Ford and lived with him in Newton for period of time
▪ Bought both weapons at A Pawn Shop, 519 N. Main in Newton, in March 2014
▪ Moved out of their home in July 2015 but left the guns with Ford
▪ Retrieved the guns from the house with help of Newton Police less than a month later “because she had purchased the weapons and they belonged to her”
▪ Gave the guns back to Ford later that month “because Ford had threatened her.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives special agent who wrote the affidavit also said in the document he spoke Friday with the Newton police officers who helped retrieved the two guns with Hopkins. They said Hopkins, at the time, told them Ford was a convicted felon and that barred him from possessing them, the affidavit said.
The special agent also interviewed an employee of A Pawn Shop who said that after Hopkins bought the weapons, she placed them back in pawn. According to the affidavit, she paid the fee on the Zastava Serbia AK-47 and retrieved it on Feb. 5 – 20 days before Ford’s shooting spree.
A man who answered the door at Hopkins’ address in Newton on Friday confirmed that she lived at the house but said she was not home at the time.
He shook his head and said “I don’t want to talk to you” when an Eagle reporter introduced herself. He then shut the door.
Hopkins was booked into Sedgwick County Jail at 5:38 p.m. Friday, an online roster of inmates shows, and is being held without bond.
Grissom said Hopkins faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000 if she’s convicted.
Protection from abuse order
Ford was accused of assault by a woman who identified herself in Sedgwick County court records as his live-in girlfriend.
The woman, in a written petition for protection from abuse that was filed Feb. 5, said she and Ford were arguing that day in the 1800 block of South Green Acres Drive – near Harry and Edgemoor – when he “became physical by him pushing me then grabbing me.”
“He placed me in a choke hold from behind – I couldn’t breathe,” the woman wrote in all capital letters in her petition. “He then got me to the ground while choking me.” Eventually, she says, he let her go.
A Wichita police report dated Feb. 5 shows that an officer took the woman’s report by phone shortly after 10:30 that morning. The woman, it says, reported a person “battering her leaving visible injuries.”
Police categorized the report as a domestic violence incident with no children present. Both have children, but not together, records show.
In her petition for protection from abuse, the woman expresses concern over Ford’s demeanor and mental state.
“He is an alcoholic, violent, depressed,” she writes, again all in capital letters. “It’s my belief he is in desperate need of medical & psychological help!”
Records show Ford’s criminal background spans at least two states.
In Florida, where he’s from, he has felony convictions for burglary, grand theft and carrying a concealed weapon, a background check revealed.
In Harvey County, he has convictions for disorderly conduct in 2008 and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol in 2010.
A check of Wichita Municipal Court records turned up a 2008 domestic violence conviction for phone harassment and a new domestic violence case for the Feb. 5 assault on the live-in girlfriend who filed for the PFA. He also has a variety of traffic violations, according to court records.
Contributing: Bryan Lowry of The Eagle and Laura Bauer of the Kansas City Star
Timeline of Hesston events
Woman contacts Wichita authorities at 10:38 a.m., alleging an assault about an hour earlier by a man she had been dating, Cedric Ford. Wichita police take the report by phone and log the report as a domestic violence incident.
Later that day, the woman petitions Sedgwick County District Court for protection from abuse. A judge issues a temporary order for protection and sets a Feb. 18 hearing date. Paperwork is ordered served to Ford. The woman writes down Excel Industries’ address, 200 S. Ridge Road in Hesston, as the place he can be served.
The PFA hearing in Sedgwick County District Court is moved to March 10 because Ford hasn’t yet been served with the paperwork. The woman appears.
3:30 p.m. – Cedric Ford is served a protection from abuse order at his work place, Excel Industries. He appears upset and leaves.
4:57 p.m. – First call of shots fired are reported. A man driving with his two children is shot in the shoulder at 12th and Meridian in Newton. Shots go through the windshield of a second car. The woman in that car is not injured.
At old Highway 81 and 36th Street, Ford drives head onto oncoming traffic. His vehicle and another car go into the ditch. The driver gets out of the car and is shot. Ford takes the victim’s vehicle.
At Excel in Hesston, Ford goes to the northeast section of the plant. He shoots a person in the parking lot, then enters the door at the northeast corner.
A sheriff’s deputy arrives in the parking lot and reports he is fired on; the deputy is not injured.
Ford enters the building and shoots 14 more people. Three are fatally wounded.
5:24 p.m. - Hesston Police Chief Doug Schroeder enters the building and kills Ford in the office area, 27 minutes after the first report of shots fired.
Sources: Harvey County Sheriff’s Department and court records