Why Did Stephen Paddock Become a Murderer?
Looking down from room 134 on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay casino hotel, Stephen Paddock had a commanding view of the famous Las Vegas Strip. From his perch in the golden skyscraper he could see the country music fans crammed into the open-air venue last Sunday for the final night of the Route 91 Harvest festival. Jason Aldean, the last act, was on the stage about 400 yards away just beginning his hit song When She Says Baby.
Paddock, a secretive 64-year-old retired accountant, property investor and high-stakes gambler on video poker machines, was an unremarkable man whose life had left almost no footprints. That was about to change as he prepared to open fire on the 22,000 revellers below, snuffing out scores of lives and wounding hundreds in the worst mass shooting in modern American history.
Paddock had booked a suite of two connecting rooms — “comps” free of charge because of the thousands of dollars he had spent in the “high limits slots” section down on the casino floor — that he had spent three days turning into a fortified sniper’s den. It was not accidental that he had chosen a suite on the corner of one of the Mandalay Bay’s three towers — the one closest to the concert site.
Using 10 suitcases, Paddock had brought in 23 weapons, tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, tripods, scopes, tools and a dozen “bump stocks”: devices to modify semi-automatic rifles that essentially turned them into machineguns. He wanted nothing to distract him from his task — twice he called security to complain about loud music being played in the suite below.
Paddock had overlooked no detail as he set up two firing positions in different rooms. Cameras had been rigged up in the hotel hallway, including on a room- service trolley, to feed images to screens inside the room. There was another camera looking through the peephole on the hotel door and a baby monitor to pick up sound from the hallway. He had barricaded the security door at the stairwell next to his room.
The gunman knew the police would be coming for him and he wanted to be alerted before they stormed his room. He was clad in a brown long-sleeved T-shirt, black trousers, slip-on shoes and gloves. His last act of preparation was to take a lump hammer and smash two windows in front of his firing positions.
At 10.05pm Paddock opened fire. It seems that his first few shots, from the window facing directly east, were aimed at jet fuel tanks next to the Las Vegas airport 600 yards away and beyond the Strip. At least one bullet penetrated a tank but did not cause an explosion.
Paddock then switched to the northeast window in his room and concentrated his fire on the festival. Most of the startled concert-goers thought they were hearing fireworks or perhaps some kind of sound equipment malfunction. Aldean began singing his song uncertainly — “Some days it’s tough just gettin’ up / Throwin’ on these boots and makin’ that climb / Some days I’d rather be a no . . .” — before halting mid-sentence, turning and running off the stage.
For the next 10 minutes Paddock rained death on the crowd below him, firing thousands of .308 and .223-calibre bullets in long bursts lasting eight or nine seconds. He had no military experience and there were no known visits even to gun ranges. A trained soldier would have fired shorter bursts, ensuring his weapons did not overheat. But when one of Paddock’s rifles jammed he just picked up another. With an elevated position and a huge crowd to aim at, no feat of marksmanship was needed.
People began dropping to the ground, some hit by bullets, others trying to dive for safety but in fact further exposing themselves to the gunfire. When shots are fired from ground level, lying down reduces the profile. But when bullets come from above, a prone target is more vulnerable.
Kimberly King’s husband, Billy, 38, a bellman at the Mandalay Bay, lay on top of his wife to protect her. “We all hit the floor and we were basically sitting ducks. He had his upper body on my head,” recalls the life insurance agent, 26. “I whispered to him, ‘I’m scared and I want to leave.’ He was like, ‘OK, let go.’ He started to get up and right when he did that, got shot.”
A bullet had gone into his back and exited from his chest. “I saw the bullet hit him,” his wife says. “He started cussing and his blood was all over me. I was in shock. I couldn’t move. He just grabbed me and said, ‘I need you to run.’ I fell twice and he just lifted me up.”
Clutching each other, they headed to the exit. “We were running and I looked around at this young girl who was running with us and right when I looked at her she got shot in the face,” says Kimberly. “I knew that she was dead because of the way that her body fell.”
The first reports — picked up on scanners and recorded — came in on police radios at 10.08pm. “We got shots fired,” one officer said breathlessly. “Sounded like an automatic firearm.” Another, crouched behind a breeze-block wall, exclaimed: “I need eyes. Somebody, can you tell me where it’s coming from?”
It soon became clear where the shots were coming from. At 10.13pm an officer said over the sound of gunfire: “We’re seeing multiple flashes in the middle of Mandalay Bay on the north side. It’s one of the middle floors.” Photographer Brandon O’Neal, who was on stage when the shooting started, later said it was like looking up at “the devil’s lair”.
Two minutes later a heroic Mandalay Bay security guard called Jesus Campos approached room 134. Paddock, alerted by his cameras, fired about 200 bullets through the door, hitting Campos in the thigh. Incredibly, he was able to crawl away and meet police officers who arrived on the 32nd floor at 10.17pm.
The intervention of Campos was pivotal and probably saved countless lives because from that moment Paddock stopped firing on the concert-goers, turning his focus instead to the threat to him from inside the hotel.
With the firing at the festival apparently over, the police waited for a Swat — special weapons and tactics — team to arrive and it was not until 11.20pm that the door was blown open. Inside the suite was Paddock, sprawled on his back on the blood-soaked carpet. He had blown the top of his head off.
Down on the Strip there was pandemonium. Emergency vehicles had stopped some distance away for fear of entering a killing zone. Some people were trampled in the crush to get out, others stayed behind to help the wounded and dying.
A striking feature of the night of horror was how many military veterans used their battlefield experience to save lives. Taylor Winston, 29, a former US marine sergeant who had served in Iraq, was dancing the two-step with his girlfriend when the shooting started. He commandeered a lorry and loaded it up with the injured, driving through the gunfire to deliver 30 people to hospital in two trips.
Six young British soldiers from 1st the Queen’s Dragoon Guards who had been on an exercise in Fort Irwin, California, were nearby when the shooting started. Trooper James Astbury, 22, from Ruthin, in Denbighshire, and two others were eating in the Hooters hotel with two other soldiers when chaos erupted.
Scores of people from the concert burst in shouting “There’s a gunman”, “He’s outside” and “I’m going to die”. Some were throwing chairs out of the way in their panic. Others were just screaming or frozen in shock. The three soldiers set up a triage position to divide casualties into groups so the most critically injured could be prioritised.
Astbury tended to a young woman with two gunshot wounds. “She had been shot in the face — her cheek was just gone — and in the top of her thigh. I wrapped a T-shirt around her leg as a tourniquet and held a piece of gauze to her head. She kept saying she was scared and wanted to phone her mum. She’d lost her phone.”
The magnitude of what had happened struck him when he took her out to put her in an ambulance. “They were covering up bodies on the pavement,” he says.
Trooper Ross Woodward, 23, was crossing a bridge between the Tropicana and Excalibur hotels with two other soldiers when they heard the first bursts of gunfire. As the concert-goers rushed away from the shooting, the three soldiers ran towards the carnage. “It was clear there were mass casualties,” he says. “There was one man who had been shot in the left lower back and was lying in the road. I went over to him and applied pressure to the wound. I was trying to find the exit wound.
“Then he started telling me, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, don’t leave me.’” Woodward held his hand and comforted him. “A minute or so later, there was no response. I checked his pulse and I realised he’d passed away.” He called a woman over and she took over holding the dead man’s hand while Woodward went back to tending the living.
The six British soldiers treated at least a dozen people with gunshot wounds. When there were no ambulances, they flagged down a passing car, loading casualties for the driver to take to hospital. In all, 58 people died and 489 were injured, most with gunshot wounds. The atrocity eclipsed last year’s Orlando nightclub shooting in Florida in which 49 died and the Virginia Tech campus massacre of 2007 that claimed 32 lives.
As dawn broke, the FBI was piecing together the life of Paddock in the hope of providing an explanation for why a man with no criminal record or apparent warning flags had committed such an outrage.
It soon emerged that Paddock had an unusual childhood. His father Benjamin “Chromedome” Paddock had been a notorious bank robber who was arrested in 1960 at a Las Vegas petrol station — a few miles from where the Mandalay Bay was later built — when Stephen, the eldest of his four sons, was seven.
Benjamin Paddock escaped from jail in 1968 and returned to robbing banks before being recaptured in 1978. On the FBI’s Most Wanted list, the bureau stated he’d been “diagnosed as psychopathic”. He died in Texas in 1998 and it is not known whether his four children — who had been told he had been killed in a car accident — saw him after his initial arrest.
Stephen Paddock had led an outwardly successful life. He had been married twice, had no children and had spent the past five years with Marilou Danley, 62, a Filipino-born Australian citizen whom he had met at the Atlantis Casino in Reno, Nevada, when she was a hostess assigned to look after him.
Apart from these relationships, however, he had no known friends and was not close to his brothers. “We are completely dumbfounded,” said his youngest brother, Eric, who burst into tears in front of his home in Orlando after the Las Vegas attack. “It’s like an asteroid just fell on top of our family.”
Paddock led an isolated, itinerant life, living in at least nine homes over the years, each one modest and sparsely decorated. In 2015 he moved from Florida, where he complained about the humidity, to the desert community of Mesquite, Nevada, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas. But he also spent time in a home in Reno and would live for weeks in casino hotels. A drinker but not a drunk, he was fastidious about germs and vehemently anti-smoking.
There is evidence that his relationship with Danley was cold and that he was controlling. A manager at a Starbucks in the Virgin River hotel and casino in Mesquite told the Los Angeles Times that Paddock would publicly demean her.
“He would glare down at her and say — with a mean attitude — ‘You don’t need my casino card for this,’” said Esperanza Mendoza. ‘I’m paying for your drink, just like I’m paying for you.’ Then she would softly say, ‘OK’ and step back behind him.”
Last month Paddock paid for Danley to fly to the Philippines to visit her family and wired her $100,000 (£77,000) while she was there.
A total of 47 firearms were found in Paddock’s hotel room and two homes. At least 33 had been bought legally since last October. The sharp increase in his gun buying over the past year suggests to the FBI he decided to carry out a mass murder at the start of that period.
In recent months, Paddock had apparently considered targeting at least two other concerts. A week before the mass shooting, he rented several rooms through Airbnb at the Ogden hotel in Las Vegas during the Life Is Beautiful festival, which featured Chance the Rapper.
In August a man named Stephen Paddock rented rooms at Chicago’s Blackstone hotel overlooking the four-day Lollapalooza music festival in Grant Park. Barack Obama’s daughter Malia attended the event, which drew 100,000 people each day. No one arrived to use the rooms in the Ogden or the Blackstone.
After the attack, 50lb of explosive, along with ammonium nitrate and 1,600 rounds of ammunition, were found in Paddock’s car at the Mandalay Bay. Quite why they were not put to use might never be known but Paddock plainly had even more grandiose plans than the carnage he inflicted on the Strip.
Professor John White, a leading forensic psychologist and former Texas police officer, says it was possible that his actions could have been linked to those of his father. “There’s no mass murder gene, but there are heritable traits, meaning that he inherits some part of the brain that, given the right circumstances, may bring out these behaviours.”
What happened to his father might have influenced him, adds White. “If he started having feelings of anger, being out of control at an early age but was able to suppress it, there could have been a lot of tension, a build-up, until a precipitating event, something that happened to push him over the edge.”
Quite what that event might have been is an intense focus of the FBI. In the last year of his life Paddock seemed to have lost a lot of weight and become more dishevelled. In June he was prescribed the anti-anxiety drug diazepam. Leaks of Danley’s FBI interviews — agents say she is co-operating after returning from the Philippines midweek — indicated he might have been suffering from mental health problems. One official said Danley had revealed Paddock would lie in bed “moaning and screaming, ‘Oh, my God’”.
One possibility of a precipitating event might be what would seem at face value to have been a relatively minor dispute with neighbours on Babbling Brook Court in Mesquite. About a year ago Paddock erected a sheet-metal fence that blocked not only his own majestic view but that of his neighbours.
There were complaints and the residents’ association ordered him to take it down. Scott Smith, who lived three doors down from Paddock, says: “From what I understand from speaking with my other neighbour, he felt it was something he was able to do but when it went up a number of neighbours complained about it and it was directed he had to take it down. He did and he put the perforated screening up. My neighbour said he was upset he had to take it down.
Paddock stood out, says Smith, because of his aloofness. “I’ve lived here two years and I must have seen the man five times,” he said. “It seemed like he was in his own little world. Most people here are very friendly but he was not, he was kind of the opposite.
“We assumed he came to town to gamble and he would gamble all night and sleep during the day and that’s why we never saw him.”
Another possibility is that Paddock was suffering from an acute mental illness or brain condition. The mass shooting that most echoes Paddock’s was that perpetrated by Charles Whitman in Austin, Texas, in August 1966. After murdering his mother and wife, Whitman, 25, went to the tower at Texas University and fired from the observation deck on the 28th floor. He killed a total of 16 people, plus an unborn child, and wounded more than 30 before being shot dead by police. A clear motive was never established and a brain tumour was discovered during his post-mortem examination.
“I’m sure they’ll do an autopsy of the brain,” says White. “The limbic system is our emotional centre for anger and rage. If he has a tumour, it might disinhibit him enough to do something like this.”
Paddock was a high-rolling gambler, not quite one of the so-called whales, the big spenders who gamble hundreds of thousands. But he was what his brother Eric described as being “the small end of the big fish”.
He was a skilful video poker player who seldom interacted with other players. In the days before his death, he was gambling up to $30,000 a day. According to one report, Paddock made at least $5m from gambling in 2015. But more than the money, it seemed that the status and perks that were associated with being a high-roller appealed to him.
Some in Las Vegas are contemplating the fact that Paddock’s motive may never be discerned. He harboured no known political views or hatred towards any particular group. His rage seemed to be directed at the whole of society.
Kimberly King survived the shooting. So, miraculously, did her husband, Billy, after a bullet passed through his chest without hitting a main organ or artery. He was discharged from hospital within two days.
She says she prefers to focus on the victims, not their killer. “There were 58 people who died and I lived and my husband lived. If I don’t do good in life from now on and I don’t live life as if was the last day then it would be disrespectful to those people. All I want to do right now is help and be a greater person.
“What do I think about the killer? I don’t think about him. I don’t think about him as a human being. I don’t feel nothing towards him. He doesn’t deserve for me to be angry at him. If we’re angry at him, then he got what he wanted.”