School was in sniper’s ‘crosshairs,’ but link is unclear, Washington, D.C., chief says

Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary
D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee, center, Mayor Muriel Bowser and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Chris Geldart display guns seized by police at a news conference Monday.

WASHINGTON – D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee said the sniper who sprayed bullets across the Van Ness neighborhood in Northwest Washington on Friday had his sights on a nearby private school, firing more than 200 bullets out his apartment window, with about 800 unspent rounds in his residence.

“The school was certainly in his crosshairs,” Contee said, referring to the shooter as a “lone-wolf sniper.”

Raymond Spencer had six firearms in the apartment on Van Ness Street, including three fully automatic rifles, the chief said at a news conference Monday. He said police found thousands more rounds of ammunition inside another residence in Fairfax County, Va., and parts to assemble three additional firearms.

Authorities said they still have not learned of any connection Spencer had to the Edmund Burke School or a motive for the shooting that four people wounded – including a 12-year-old, two women in vehicles and a school security guard who is a retired District of Columbia police officer.

Two of the victims remained hospitalized in critical condition on Monday.

Contee and Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, provided a chilling update to Friday afternoon’s attack that terrorized a stretch of busy Connecticut Avenue from Van Ness to Woodley Park and plunged residences and schools along with Edmund Burke into lockdown for hours.

Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser discusses the shooting in Van Ness at a news conference in Washington.

Authorities also revealed Spencer had set up a camera in the hallway outside his apartment door at the AVA Van Ness, apparently to see if police were coming. Spencer, 23, had also purchased two frozen dinners at a nearby Giant Food five hours before the rampage.

Police described his fifth-floor apartment as a “sniper’s nest” with a view of a glass-enclosed bridge that links two school buildings at Edmund Burke and where parents line up in cars to pick up children at dismissal. He had turned the apartment bathroom into a makeshift command center, with a laptop computer, a cellphone and a rifle and a pillow in the tub.

Police also said they learned new details about Spencer, who they said fatally shot himself in that bathroom as police breached his door about 5 1/2 hours after he opened fire around 3:20 p.m. He had attended Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, had been a lifeguard and had briefly served in the U.S. Coast Guard in 2017, police said.

But other parts of Spencer’s life remain a troubling mystery to law enforcement, including how he paid for the apartments he leased in the District starting in January and in the Fair Lakes area of Fairfax County starting in February 2021, and how he afforded his expensive arsenal.

But even more critically, police said they do not know why he apparently indiscriminately fired toward the school.

“Everybody wants to know,” Contee said, adding, “And we want to be able to provide those answers.”

Bowser billed Monday’s news conference as a discussion of public safety in the District, and announced the creation of a new Violent Crime Impact Team, in which local authorities will partner with federal law enforcement agencies to target violence in specific areas where shootings are most prevalent.

Contee noted that on Friday and Saturday, police responded to a total of 10 shooting incidents with 15 victims, including a shooting of a man in a wheelchair and the shootings of three people in Brightwood Park in Northwest Washington, D.C. Both attacks occurred as police were in the midst of tracking down the sniper, evacuating buildings and securing the area around Van Ness.

Also over that 48-hour period, a construction worker directing traffic was shot by a person on a ride-share bicycle who was upset with delays, and a man was fatally shot and stabbed during an argument at a birthday party.

On Monday, as the mayor’s briefing was wrapping up, a person was fatally shot in Northeast Washington. Police said they have seized 969 illegal guns in the District this year, a 50% increase from this point in 2021.

Contee has frequently said that people react to crime differently depending on their “proximity to the pain.” Of the crime experienced over the past three days, the chief said, “This should be painful to all of us.”

Homicides, which have trended upward in the District for the past four years, are down 10% year-to-date. But violent crime is up 26%, driven by a spike in robberies and carjackings. A recent poll by The Washington Post found that 3 in 10 District residents do not feel safe in their neighborhoods.

The crime concerns come as Bowser seeks reelection to a third term and as a June 21 primary is approaching. Public safety and the Van Ness shooting were key topics of debate the day after the sniper attack at a candidates forum, where Bowser came under criticism from opponents.

On Monday, the mayor said gun violence affects not only victims but also “people who live in communities where they are fearful, where they witness crimes, where they hear gunshots, or where they can’t enjoy the peace and tranquility of their own homes.”

Officials at the news conference also displayed piles of firearms that police had recently seized in the District, with Bowser saying she wanted to “display some of the firepower that MPD is up against on our streets.” Some of those weapons were from Spencer’s apartment.

Authorities said they are meticulously collecting and documenting evidence, and as of Monday were still at Spencer’s apartment processing the crime scene. Meanwhile, police are starting to build out a rough timeline of events around the shooting.

Contee said Spencer moved into the AVA Van Ness apartment in January, filling out his lease agreement online. The chief said investigators are trying to determine how the young man could afford two residences, and “how he’s paying his bills and keeping the lights on.”

Other tenants have said they encountered Spencer infrequently. In the days leading up to the shooting, police officials said they believe Spencer had searched Wikipedia pages on the recent attack in the New York City subway and a school shooting in Florida.

The night before the attack, Contee said, surveillance video shows Spencer wheeling a suitcase into the building, and officials have previously described his apartment as sparsely furnished, with a mattress on the floor.

Law enforcement officials with knowledge of the investigation have said authorities are examining internet posts that might be by Spencer, particularly on the 4chan platform, where a user going by “Raymond Spencer” wrote “Dear God please forgive me” at 3:24 p.m., shortly after the shooting began.

The user posted another message at 3:30 p.m., which Contee said appeared to be directed at police: “They’re in the wrong part of the building right now searching XD.”

A final message was posted on 4chan at 3:36 p.m.: “Waiting for police to catch up with me.”

Separately, the Edmund Burke School Wikipedia page was revised online Friday to read, “A basedman shot at the school on April 22, 2022. The suspect is still at large,” according to the Wikipedia page’s history, which showed a change shortly after 4 p.m. made by a user going by “Raymond Spencer.” Shortly after, the user replaced “basedman” with “gunman” and added “(Hope they catch him soon!)” next to the edit, according to the Wikipedia page’s history.

It was unclear how Spencer either obtained three fully automatic rifles or modified the rifles to fire continuously with a single squeeze of the trigger. Contee said Spencer’s firearms were not equipped with a so-called “giggle switch” or “auto sear,” components used to convert some guns into fully automatic weapons. They are illegal but accessible on the internet and relatively easy to install.

So far, law enforcement officials have been frustrated in their efforts to establish a motive in the shooting. Contee said investigators are talking with Spencer’s family, who have not spoken publicly about the case, and he urged anyone who has interacted with Spencer to contact authorities.

Police officials have noted Spencer did not appear to try to hide his digital footprint and used his real name on many of his posts. But it also appears he left behind few clues about his motive.

“We’re trying to really put the pieces together,” Contee said.