At the corner of Park Street and Lincoln, near one of the few big intersections in town, a crosswalk guard in an orange vest helped students across the street in the small, rural town of Hesston, and you could be forgiven for having confused Friday for any day.
The only sign that something was different was a red Big Dog lawn mower sitting on the corner with an American flag blowing in the wind, then a yellow Raptor lawn mower a couple of doors down the street, with sunshine reflecting off the ripples of another flag.
Both lawn mowers were made by Excel, the plant at which a gunman had shot and killed three people less than 24 hours before.
Across the street, every parking space was taken at the King Park community center, as the city manager explained to reporters that President Obama had called and offered condolences to the town, which, one police sergeant said, in his nearly 20 years of service had never in his memory required an officer to use force.
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The zero-turn riding lawn mowers the company built have had a huge impact on the town.
The plant had grown rapidly, tripling in size in the last few years, several workers said. The town of Hesston revolves around two big manufacturing plants, one of which is Excel, and everyone knows somebody who works there.
So it was not a surprise that Cameron Rankin, 20, said he’d started working at Excel on the assembly line just a week and a half before. He’d had two days of orientation and was told, he said, that if he carried a weapon with him he needed to leave it locked up in his car, out of sight.
Rankin moved to Hesston six months ago, he said, because he was trying to escape a group of people that made it too easy for him to make bad choices. When the shooter entered the plant, Rankin had in his safety earplugs and didn’t pay much attention to the loud popping sound he heard until a coworker told him to start running.
“But sometimes trouble finds a way to follow you,” Rankin said at the Sonic, soon after serving a group of fraternity brothers from the University of Denver who had, unknowingly, stopped off the highway as this little town dealt with one of the worst acts of violence to hit the state of Kansas.
Down the street a local woman entered Lincoln Perk, the town’s coffee shop, and asked how she could support the victims. The barista told her the business was accepting donations in lieu of tips. The night before, the owner of Lincoln Perk, Holly Nickel, wrote on Facebook that she would offer free coffee to anyone who needed a place to chat. But the first morning customer shoved a handful of five dollar bills in her face and told her to use them to pay for anyone else’s drink who came in. All the other customers did the same and, Nickel said, hardly anyone had to pay for their own coffee the whole day.
Down the street at Subway, Aaron Smith, 26, remembered routinely serving Cedric Ford, the shooter, a bacon cheeseburger and cheese tots in his night job at Sonic and, on some days, a cherry limeade. Ford mostly came with coworkers but on occasion would bring his two kids, and was always friendly, Smith said, telling him that he’d moved from Florida for a change of lifestyle.
A month ago, William Gray, 20, also moved to Hesston, that quiet little town, like Newton, he said, where he never thought anything bad could happen.When Gray, an Excel employee, saw a man get shot in the leg 10 feet away from him, and heard a loud bang against the door, he and others ran.
Employees like Gray and Rankin found their way outside the plant Thursday evening and huddled in groups, some praying for the people still inside, some talking about who had been shot, some hoping that the shooter would not come out of their side of the building, and waited.
Newton mobile home park
Gray’s roommate, Bill Hurst, who had closed up his barber shop a half-mile from the factory, finally picked Gray up and drove him home to a mobile home park in Newton.
But just as they were about to turn into the park, they saw that the entrance was blocked by police and, they said, they heard over a loudspeaker, “Come out with your hands up.”
The shooter had lived two blocks over, maybe 150 yards from their front door.
The windows of Ford’s mobile home had been smashed out by a SWAT crew.
Friday, the detritus of Ford’s last moments before heading out on a rampage lay scattered about his home. Through a white curtain that tangled in shards of glass on the window sill Friday afternoon, a blue bottle of nearly empty Amsterdam vodka sat on the counter. What appeared to be several ash trays were stacked on top of a couch that was turned over; the mattress in the bedroom was pulled out of its frame, and two drawers from the bureau had been pulled out. Underneath Ford’s giant flat-screen TV in the living room was an Xbox, and a few feet away on the floor, a copy of “Call of Duty, Black Ops,” a first-person shooter game known for its graphic violence.
Nearby were a pair of slippers and a couple of air fresheners.
Ernie Carson, the manager of the property, was told not to go inside the mobile home until Ford’s family had been contacted. So he was using a rake Friday afternoon to pile glass shards. Ford had recently moved from one mobile home to another, Carson said, but had been nothing but sweet to him and seemed to be a good father to his two children.
Even after Ford had been shot and killed, much of the town continued to wait Friday, unsure how to respond. Annie Good, a senior at Hesston High, said teachers told students that counselors were available. They talked about the shooting in government class, briefly, she said, but she was hesitant to say anything, because the names of the deceased had not been released.
After a news conference with the FBI, Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Harvey County Sheriff, Hesston City Manager Gary Emry said he had not yet had a chance to tell how his city was processing the previous day’s events because he’d been so busy taking care of official business.
Even after the media throng had mostly packed up, Sgt. Chris Carter stood and answered the last few reporters’ questions, though he had only had 27 minutes of sleep since the day before, when he had carried a person with a gunshot wound in his pickup truck. One of the town’s two police cars had been in the shop during the shooting, so Carter showed up in his personal vehicle. There were more than 150 law enforcement officers working on the case Friday.
The events the day before could not have been expected and yet, that’s what all sheriffs say before they find themselves standing at a podium, said Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton, a man who is referred to only by his first initial and who, with his calm demeanor and full mustache, has been one of the most prominent public faces of the tragedy.
An ATF agent was pulled over along Meridian in front of one of the many fields outside town Friday afternoon with a dog, who according to an ATF spokesperson, was sniffing the side of the highway for bullet casings. This type of meticulous investigation would be continuing for a long while yet, Walton said at the news conference, as middle school students outside were helped across the street by a crossing guard.
On the corner of Lincoln and Park, a group of small children in Kami Regier’s home day care laughed and giggled, just feet away from her riding lawn mower and a blowing American flag.