UPDATE 2: ‘A tragedy for Placerville’: Principal shot dead; janitor in custody
Elementary school Principal Sam LaCara was shot to death Wednesday morning in his office at Placerville’s Louisiana Schnell School campus.
School janitor John Luebbers is believed to have mortally wounded LaCara, 50, with a single gunshot wound to the abdomen shortly before 10:40 a.m. Wednesday.
Authorities believe Luebbers targeted LaCara. The 44-year-old suspect was arrested about 90 minutes after the shooting by El Dorado County Sheriff’s deputies at his Skycrest Drive residence in El Dorado without incident.
LaCara was pronounced dead at 11:16 a.m. at Marshall Hospital.
No children were injured in the shooting though one might have witnessed the incident.
Placerville Police Chief George Nielsen called the shooting a “dynamic, rapidly evolving event” that was “under control” by the afternoon.
At 10:37 a.m., Placerville police received a call of a possible shooting on school grounds. Minutes later, officers were on the scene.
Scanner chatter indicated the suspect, believed at the time to be a school employee, had fled and might still be in the area.
The school was immediately placed on lockdown.
By 10:45 a.m., authorities worked to secure the school and scoured a nearby hiking trail for the suspected shooter. Members of the California Highway Patrol, as well as the El Dorado County Fire Protection District, also assisted with securing the campus.
In all, 52 law enforcement and emergency services units responded to the scene.
Two school district officials were on scene before LaCara was taken to the hospital, but they declined to speak to the Mountain Democrat. One observer noted they appeared “panicked” as they headed for the school office.
LaCara was taken from his office on a stretcher shortly before 11 a.m. and was administered CPR by emergency crews. He was rushed to Marshall Hospital by ambulance.
LaCara’s wife was given a police escort to the hospital, although it was initially inadvertent. Placerville area CHP commander Lt. Chuck King said LaCara’s wife was stopped on Highway 50 for speeding by a CHP officer. Upon learning the circumstances, she too was rushed to the hospital.
As law enforcement worked to secure the school, news of the shooting made its way to nearby residents and parents of students.
On the outskirts of school grounds, onlookers expressed their concern for LaCara and voiced their disbelief over the shooting.
Less than half a mile away, dozens of worried parents gathered in the parking lot of the Democrat on Broadway as they awaited word of their children’s safety.
There was some confusion over where the students would be taken. Some parents said they were told they could get their children in the Democrat parking lot, but it was later announced that the children would be bused from the school to the El Dorado County Fairgrounds.
Debbie Parlin, mother of sixth-grader Nick Anderson, heard the news of the shooting from a co-worker at the Forest Service who was listening to a scanner.
“A friend brought me over,” she said. “My son is the only sixth-grader at Schnell. Mr. LaCara put together a class for students who weren’t quite ready for junior high school this year. He’s a fabulous principal.”
School and county transit buses packed with smiling, waving students left the school at around 1:30 p.m.
Across the county in El Dorado, sheriff’s deputies located Luebbers’ pickup truck and were preparing to enter his house shortly before noon. The suspect surrendered to authorities peacefully at 12:01 p.m.
Chief Neilsen, in a press conference held in the parking lot of the Placer Heights Baptist Church in Placerville, told reporters the motive for the shooting was under investigation, although he said authorities believe Luebbers and LaCara recently had a dispute of an unspecified nature.
Nielsen also said Luebbers has no criminal record or history of mental illness. Further information on Luebbers, as well as possible criminal charges he faces, was not revealed.
The police chief called the shooting a “devastating event” and said it was “a tragedy for Placerville and our entire society.”
Also at the press conference were Sheriff John D’Agostini, Undersheriff Rich Williams, El Dorado County Fire Battalion Chief Larry Marinas and members of the Placerville Union School District.
Marinas told the Democrat that authorities believed two students were in LaCara’s office at the time of the shooting and that one of them actually witnessed the act.
The caliber and model of the gun used to shoot LaCara was not known as of press time.
The district canceled school Thursday.
Trish Sweeney, whose child is a first-grader at Schnell School, said the school had a practice lockdown drill just last week.
She was worried that her child might be scared unnecessarily by the drill. “But who would have known that they would need to do this?”
Managing Editor Pat Lakey and Democrat staff writer Wendy Schultz contributed to this report.