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3 UNLV faculty members were killed in the Las Vegas campus shooting

University of Nevada, Las Vegas professors Naoko Takemaru (left), Cha-Jan "Jerry" Chang and Patricia Navarro-Velez were killed during a shooting on campus on Wednesday. Takemaru oversaw UNLV's Japanese Studies program while Chang and Navarro-Velez were both professors in the business school.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
University of Nevada, Las Vegas professors Naoko Takemaru (left), Cha-Jan "Jerry" Chang and Patricia Navarro-Velez were killed during a shooting on campus on Wednesday. Takemaru oversaw UNLV's Japanese Studies program while Chang and Navarro-Velez were both professors in the business school.

Updated December 8, 2023 at 4:18 PM ET

A gunman who opened fire at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on Wednesday killed three faculty members and left one injured, the university said.

On Thursday, the university identified two of the victims as Patricia Navarro-Velez, 39, of Las Vegas and Cha-Jan "Jerry" Chang, 64, of Henderson, Nev. — both professors in the business school. On Friday, the Clark County coroner's office identifiedthe third person killed: Naoko Takemaru, 69, of Las Vegas, who oversaw UNLV's Japanese Studies program.

UNLV said another faculty member, who was not identified, remains hospitalized.

On Friday, the university announcedthat next week's scheduled in-person final exams have been cancelled, but said it has decided to proceed with commencement ceremonies Dec. 19-20.

"The milestone moment of commencement is the most special day on the university calendar, and it's in difficult times like these that we can and should celebrate our graduates' academic dreams fulfilled," UNLV President Keith Whitfield wrote.

What police have said about the suspect

Police officers keep watch Thursday near the scene outside Frank and Estella Beam Hall, where the UNLV Lee Business School is located, the morning after a shooting left three dead at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus.
Mario Tama / Getty Images
Getty Images
Police officers keep watch Thursday near the scene outside Frank and Estella Beam Hall, where the Lee Business School is located, the morning after a shooting left three dead at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus.

At a news conference Thursday, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Sheriff Kevin McMahill identified the shooting suspect as 67-year-old Anthony Polito.

McMahill told reporters that officials had been able to search Polito's car and house but haven't pinned down the motive for the shooting.

"I want to stress that we're still learning a lot about this suspect and still trying to understand the motive," McMahill said. "We know he applied numerous times for a job with several Nevada higher education institutions and was denied each time."

McMahill added that Polito had a list of people he was seeking on the UNLV campus, as well as faculty from East Carolina University, where he had once worked.

The sheriff told reporters that police had contacted all the individuals on that list to make sure they were OK, with the exception of one individual who was on an international flight.

Before the shooting, Polito had sent letters to various UNLV personnel across the country with no return address, McMahill said.

He told reporters that law enforcement officials still do not know the content of all the letters, but he said that at least one of them had an "unknown white powder substance" in it. Police later said on X (formerly Twitter) that the powder was found to be harmless.

McMahill urged that if anybody in the education sector receives a letter with no return address that is taped, they should proceed with caution and contact their local authorities.

The Associated Press reported that Polito, who was killed in a shootout with law enforcement, did not appear to be targeting students, according to two law enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the investigation.

"What students, employees, and campus visitors endured yesterday during the shooting and the tense aftermath is life-changing," Whitfield said in a statement.

"My heart breaks for the families, friends, and loved ones of Dr. Navarro and Dr. Chang, and for all of the victims of this senseless act of violence that has physically and emotionally affected so many," he also stated. "During this time, it's especially important for all of us to be there for each other and I am committed to doing all I can for all of our students and staff – to listen, to comfort, and to let them know we care deeply about them and their wellbeing."

It was just six years ago and a few miles west that Las Vegas experienced the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, when a gunman opened fire on the Route 91 Harvest country music festival, claiming the lives of 60 people.

"It's not gonna be the last time"

Wednesday's shooting started around 11:45 a.m. local time on the fourth floor of the Lee Business School at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It ended outside, with two university detectives fatally shooting the gunman.

The Associated Press reported that Polito was a professor who had recently been rejected for a job at the school.

For the roughly 40 minutes between the first shots and the all-clear, the campus waited in a state of unease, apprehension and terror.

Parents Mabel Fontanilla and Raul Villalonga embrace following a shooting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, campus on Wednesday.
Ronda Churchill / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Parents Mabel Fontanilla and Raul Villalonga embrace following the shooting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus on Wednesday.

Law student Carlos Eduardo Espina, 24, had just finished one of his last final exams when his classroom received the alerts of an active shooter.

"At first it didn't seem real. And then you just say, 'Oh s***. It's my turn, I guess,'" he told NPR by phone on Wednesday evening. "That's just the way it's going. This is happening more and more often."

Since the start of this year, more than 630 mass shootings have claimed lives across the U.S., according to the Gun Violence Archive. One poll released this year found that half of Americans have been impacted by gun violence — 1 in 6 say they've personally witnessed a shooting.

It was only last week that Espina stood in a crowd to watch a Christmas parade and wondered aloud to his girlfriend not whether, but when, he would get swept up in some kind of mass shooting, he said.

"It's not gonna be the last time," he predicted on Wednesday. "I wouldn't be surprised if there's another, something like this, I don't know, within a few days or weeks. That's just how things are nowadays."

Police say quick action prevented further tragedy

When UNLV alerted students to the shooting on social media, the warning included the phrase "This is not a test," followed by what has become the standby survival advice: "RUN-HIDE-FIGHT."

Ph.D. student Kathryn Henry said it felt like the city's history with tragedy at least left campus authorities more prepared to respond again.

When the shooting started, she was on the other end of campus, ordering a bagel in the campus recreation center. The next thing she knew, she was swept into a locker room with roughly 100 other people and spent the next two hours sheltering in place.

"Nobody panicked," she said. "They were all very calm. They were very professional. You could tell the drills had worked."

But even the highest levels of preparedness couldn't insulate her from the fear.

When NPR spoke to Henry on Wednesday evening, she was still waiting to hear back from friends, students and colleagues, checking her phone and email for confirmation that everyone was safe.

Police stressed that the death toll would've been far higher if the officers had responded with less speed.

It's unclear how many of the 30,000 students were on campus on Wednesday, but McMahill said a group of students had gathered outside the business school building at the time of the shooting, marking the end of the term with picnics and games.

#VegasStrong reemerges as a rallying cry

UNLV's 332-acre campus is less than 4 miles from the Mandalay Bay hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, where a 64-year-old gunman opened fire from a hotel window on Oct. 1, 2017, targeting a crowd of thousands attending the open-air Route 91 Harvest country music concert below.

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Mandalay Bay's parent company, MGM Resorts, thanked first responders who "once again" acted with courage and speed.

The Park MGM Las Vegas hotel was one of several resorts along the Vegas Strip that lit up its marquee with what has become a familiar phrase: #VegasStrong.

That hashtag, which trended in the days following 2017's shooting, once again was among the most shared phrases on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Wednesday.

But this time, some of those sharing the hashtag are saying they don't want to feel strong; they just want to feel safe.

Rachel Weese, who works as a research coordinator at the school, shared the #VegasStrong hashtag alongside a post explaining that Wednesday's shooting marked the third time she has had to hide in a locked classroom because of the threat of an active shooter.

She told NPR in a social media message that the potential shooters were disarmed before anyone was injured in the first two incidents, but three times feels like too many.

She added in her post, "when will america change?"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
Jonathan Franklin
Jonathan Franklin is a digital reporter on the News desk covering general assignment and breaking national news.