The Evidence Room, Episode 30 -The Long Hallway

Houston – On May 18, 2018, a student at Santa Fe High School walked onto campus and attacked his classmates and teachers.

According to police, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, then 17, walked onto campus wearing a trenchcoat and carrying a shotgun, revolver and homemade bombs.

The shooting began at 7:32 a.m., and by the time Pagourtzis was in custody at 8:02 a.m., eight students and two teachers were murdered. More than a dozen others were injured. Students Chris Stone, Angelique Ramirez, Aaron McLeod, Kimberly Vaughan, Shana Fisher, Sabika Sheikh, Jared Black and Christian Garcia were killed, along with educators Ann Perkins and Cynthia Tisdale.

Court documents show Pagourtzis confessed to the murders and told officers “he did not shoot students he did like so he could have his story told.”

However, the case has never gone to trial because Pagourtzis remains incompetent to stand trial.

Parents of those who were murdered and survivors have never stopped pushing for justice and changes in the law.

‘A Happy Morning’

“The morning of May 18 was a happy day because it was the last Friday of the school year and everybody was in a good mood,” said former substitute teacher Flo Rice.

Rice said she was in the gym with Ann Perkins and their classes when the fire alarm went off.

“I looked down the hall and Ann was a little ahead of me, and I was still calling the kids to come on when there was the most horrendous sound. I mean, it was just deafening. I had never heard anything like it. I felt it reverberate through my entire body and there seemed to be a flash. I thought it was a bomb,” said Rice. “I hit the ground face first, and I was... I think, just kind of laying through the exit door, and then all of a sudden, the sound was gone. It was just the fire alarm going off.”

“I looked around and there was nobody. My kids were gone,” Rice continued. “There were no kids anywhere, but my friend Ann Perkins was lying a few feet ahead of me on the sidewalk, and she was lying across the sidewalk and facing away from me. So, I was confused. I didn’t know why she was lying there, and she looked okay, but I couldn’t see her face. I tried to get up and I couldn’t get up, so I sat up and looked down and realized that my left leg was completely twisted. My foot was turned around, it was broken. Then I stood up onto my legs and realized I had bloody bullet holes in my legs. This fear was visceral.”

Santa Fe ISD police officer John Barnes was in his office when he was first alerted to trouble.

“I walk out from the offices, and in the middle of the hallway, one of the ladies who worked there said something like, ‘Somebody said they heard something down near the art room at the end of the hall and they said it sounded like gunfire,’” said Barnes.

As Barnes headed toward the school’s art rooms, he said he was confused because he initially saw no signs a shooter was loose on campus.

“The hallway, it was clear. There was no yelling or screaming, there were no gunshots. So, I’m going down the hall thinking, ‘Okay, the fire alarm was going off,’” said Barnes. “When I opened those doors, what was odd to me is I smelled gunpowder, but I didn’t hear a thing, and I thought, ‘Man, how can that be that I can smell gunpowder, but I don’t hear any gunshots?’”

Barnes said he kept advancing.

“It’s a long hallway, and so in front of me, 30, 40 yards, whatever it was, all the kids are out in front of me,” said Barnes. “They’re all high-fiving and, you know, walking down the hallway, acting like it’s no big deal. I have my gun out at this point, I had pulled my pistol out, but nobody saw that, and no one paid attention to me. And they walk out in front of me and I’m questioning, ‘Okay, if this is a shooting, why are these people in front of me that could have heard the shots before I did, why are they acting like it’s normal?’ So, I’m waiting for that second piece of information to tell me this is a real shooting.”

Barnes said he then heard what he thought at the time was two gunshots.

“I see Rice and Ann get hit and I see them fall out the door there at the end of the hallway,” said Barnes. “I can’t see the shooter because it’s an L-shaped hall there, but I know, obviously it’s coming from that hallway.”

Barnes said as he approached the corner at the end of the hallway. He said he had planned to use the wall as cover.

“I thought, ‘Okay, as soon as I see him, I’ll get a shot off, at least be able to hit him before he can shoot me or hopefully miss,’” said Barnes. “The video shows him posted, when I say posted, I mean the shotgun was posted on the door frame and he was pointing at the corner. So, he knew that I was coming around that corner, and I didn’t know that.”

Barnes said he never saw the gunman as he leaned around the corner and a blast from the shotgun ripped through his arm, shredding an artery. Then assistant chief of police for Santa Fe ISD, Gary Forward, reached Barnes shortly after he was hit and applied a lifesaving tourniquet.

“My heart stopped in the helicopter or when I was going to the helicopter and then stopped again in the ER,” said Barnes.

While fellow officers were carrying Barnes to a medical helicopter, Rice remained motionless on the ground. She said she called her husband but didn’t dare move for fear the gunman would see she was still alive and shoot her again.

“I didn’t call 911. I don’t know why it never occurred to me. I called Scot because I knew he’d come to get me,” said Rice.

Scot Rice said his wife’s calls were brief, she would only say a few words before hanging up.

“She says, ‘I’ve been shot’ and hangs up, and I’m like, what kind of phone call is that you know? It’s not something you hear every day,” said Scot. “Then she calls back and tells me ‘I’ve been shot, I’m in the parking lot.’ Then she hangs up again. So I get dressed and our daughter’s getting dressed to go to school, and what goes through my head is this, ‘You may never see your mother alive again.’”

Scot said he made it to the campus before police locked down the entire area. He said he found his wife, Flo, and was able to take her to a nearby hospital.

“We got her in the car and she was bleeding profusely. She wouldn’t have lasted long with the amount of blood she was losing,” said Scot.

‘I didn’t think I could do it’

Brent Cooley was a sergeant with the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office at the time of the shooting. He said he had just come on duty when he heard the call go out over his police radio.

“When I first arrived on the scene, it appeared that most of the students and staff had self-evacuated,” said Cooley. “I had another junior deputy that was basically brand new that self-dispatched and showed up at the same time and said, ‘I’m going with you, Sarge.’ So I said, ‘Okay, just, you know, go where I go and shoot where I shoot.’”

Cooley said at first he didn’t know where in the school the shooting took place, so he followed sounds until he reached the hallway that proceeded north toward the art rooms. Cooley said the doors to the hallway were shut because the fire alarm was triggered, but he said he could hear voices on the other side.

“The doors pushed open and it was Constable Jimmy Fullen, two deputies from the sheriff’s office, and one officer from Santa Fe PD. They were dragging John Barnes out of the hallway. I was a medic for five years; I know what a dead body looks like. He was dead at that point when they drug him past me, he was dead or close to it,” said Cooley.

Cooley said he then followed a blood trail down the hall toward the art room.

“As I’m pushing down the hallway, the first intersection, there’s another hallway where I encountered a group of officers huddled down holding the long cover down that hallway,” said Cooley.

Cooley said as he continued advancing, he saw signs where a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper had fired shots at the gunman. Cooley said he then reached the two doors that led to the art lab.

“While I’m there to stop the killing, I don’t know if there’s killing going on... if that makes sense. So, I have to assess, do I run in there and just blindly kill myself for no reason? Is this tactically sound? Is it safe, no. Do I have a do I have a team? Do I have a stack? No, I don’t,” said Cooley. “At that point, you know, I pretty much was resolved with I’m going to die in this hallway because you don’t have to be accurate with a shotgun, all I have to do is open the door.”

Cooley said he could hear the gunman screaming and cursing at officers, as well as shooting at the wall. Cooley said a SWAT officer from League City police prepared to breach the room.

“So, we picked the first door, made the announcement that we’re basically coming in to kill him, and as we approached the door, the other room door that we weren’t approaching opens up and hands come out,” Cooley said. “That kid crawled to me and said, ‘I didn’t think I could do it,’ at least three times; ‘I didn’t think I could do it.’ So, he crawled to me, I grabbed hold of him, spun him around, patted him down and handcuffed him.”

Pagourtzis was charged with capital murder and aggravated assault of a public servant.

‘He was at the door’

Rosie Yanas Stone said her son Chris was very much a “family boy.”

Stone said she was getting ready for work when the phone rang.

“My phone rang and Chris’s friend’s name came across the top. I thought he forgot his phone or forgot something, and I was like, ‘Hello.’ The next words were, ‘Mama Stone, you need to get to the school, Chris was shot,’” said Stone.

Stone said she doesn’t remember her drive to the high school but does remember running toward the school when she collapsed.

“People were picking me up, and I’m like, ‘I need to get in there, they’re saying that my son was shot.’ Next thing I know, they’re taking me over to the old gym,” said Stone. “Everybody’s asking me all these questions. I don’t know what’s going on, I just know that Chris would have called me by now. They put me in this room, they wouldn’t let nobody come see me or talk to me, and every time I talked to someone, I always asked them if somebody was dead. They told me ‘no’ for two freaking hours. They told me ‘no’ until somebody came in and held my hand and told me otherwise. We went home empty-handed that day.”

Stone said since the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida happened a few months before Santa Fe, she remembers talking with Chris about what to do if a gunman stormed his campus. Stone said she told her son to “play dead,” and his father talked to him about wedging his shoe under a door to keep it closed so a gunman couldn’t get into a classroom.

Stone said Chris told her he couldn’t do that.

“‘What if someone needs my help?’” Stone remembers her son saying. “I was like, ‘Just do whatever you gotta do, you just make it home to me.’ Never thinking that I would have this conversation again. As we’re fixing to walk out the door, I told Chris, ‘Chris, you don’t have to worry about that, the worst thing that’s going to happen in Santa Fe is you’re going to get run over by a cow.’”

In 2021, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society awarded Chris a medal of valor as part of its Young Hero Award.

“Chris Stone was selected for his extreme valor when he used his body as a human barricade on May 18, 2018, to keep a school shooter from entering a classroom, saving the lives of many students while losing his own,” read the Medal of Honor Society website.

“At 17 years old he was a man of his word because he stayed and helped. He was at the front of the classroom, my son could have run out easily, but he stayed,” said Stone.

Stone said she later learned the gunman shot her son through the door.

Declared incompetent

In 2019, Pagourtzis was declared incompetent to stand trial after being examined by a trio of experts: one hired by his defense team, one brought in by prosecutors and a third-party independent expert appointed by the judge presiding over the case. Before being declared incompetent, defense attorney Nicholas Poehl successfully argued for a change of venue. The trial was to have taken place in Fort Bend County.

After being declared incompetent, Pagourtzis was sent to the North Texas State Hospital campus in Vernon where doctors are working to restore his competency. As of Feb. 2024, Pagourtzis has been at the hospital for more than 1,500 days. This is well beyond the fiscal year 2023 average of 227 days it takes doctors at the hospital to restore a patient’s competency. Until his competency is restored, the criminal case cannot move forward and remains in limbo.

While Texas allows a 17-year-old to be charged as an adult, his age at the time of the crime makes him ineligible for the death penalty or a sentence of life without parole. Shortly before being declared incompetent, Pagourtzis was also charged in federal court. However, the federal court system considers 17 to still be a juvenile, therefore the case against Pagourtzis remains sealed.

Poehl said his client was receiving psychiatric treatment while in the Galveston County Jail, but his mental illness still progressed to a state of incompetency.

“The whole idea behind competency is he’s able to assist in his defense and make rational decisions with the advice of counsel, of course. He has classes, he undergoes regular therapy, group and individual. He is on a wide variety of medications to combat his psychosis. Unfortunately, his condition is such that his mental illnesses are very severe. His psychosis is very persistent,” said Poehl.

Poehl would not disclose exactly what his client has been diagnosed with, but said that information may come out during a hearing in the near future. Poehl did say prosecutors and the judge visited the hospital over the summer to speak with doctors about Pagourtzis’ treatment.

“They’re not at the point of saying we’re out of options,” Poehl said.

Family members of victims and survivors of the attack are skeptical, many wonder if more could not have been done at the jail to prevent Pagourtzis from spiraling into incompetency.

“What bothers me the most about this issue with his competency is that when he was arrested, he was competent, he was communicating. He was in the county jail for 17 months before he was found incompetent,” said Flo Rice. “He was taken in and federal charges were filed on him, so he was competent at that point, and then four months later, he’s not.”

“He is severely mentally ill,” said Poehl. “He had a delusional scheme that played the sole role in driving him to do this,” said Poehl without discussing specifics.

Fighting for change

Without a criminal trial, much of the evidence gathered in the case has never been shared publicly. Frustrated with a lack of information being given to the families of victims, many banded together to push for the passage of a new state law.

“Because our shooter didn’t die on scene, and he was in that hamster wheel of not being well enough to withstand trial, which meant that the information wouldn’t come out until it was in trial,” said Rhonda Hart, whose daughter Kimberly Vaughan was killed in the attack. “So we just kept going around and around in this circle.”

Parents like Hart were particularly angered they weren’t even allowed to see their child’s autopsy report.

“I’m her mom, I’m not allowed to read the official report. How is that fair?” said Hart.

The families then pressured state lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 435, which allows immediate family members of victims to view certain pieces in cases that have not gone to trial. Within months of the new law’s passage, several families viewed their child or spouse’s autopsy report. Many others also watched law enforcement officer’s body cam footage from the day of the shooting. The new law still gives prosecutors discretion as to what evidence is shared. The bill also prohibits those viewing the material from recording it in any way and requires the signing of a non-disclosure agreement.

“Thankfully, we know that she was one of the kids that was sitting there by the door and she had her back turned so she didn’t know what was going on. She was one of the first kids that was shot. She had no idea what was going on, which I’m very thankful for. I know she didn’t suffer,” Hart said.

Since they both signed an NDA, neither Stone nor Hart could discuss what they saw in the video.

“For now,” both said simultaneously.

The families also fought for the passage of Senate Bill 11. This bill created, among other things, a mandate that school districts develop threat assessment teams, make sure employees receive threat assessment training and conduct threat assessments on any students who may show potential for violence. Flo and Scot Rice lobbied for the passage of this bill, but said it doesn’t go far enough. While non-compliance with SB 11 could result in a state takeover of a district, the Rices believe that’s unlikely and therefore there are not enough incentives for districts to comply with the law to the fullest extent.

Families and survivors also said Gov. Greg Abbott promised a third-party, independent investigation.

“Not a criminal investigation, we already know who did it. We already know who died and who was wounded, but where the failures were. What can we learn from this and what can we do to keep this from happening again?” said Scot.

All said no such outside investigation ever happened. Families continued to push for the type of investigations conducted after the shootings in Parkland, Ririda and Uvalde.

“I wrote to Greg Abbott’s office and I was like, ‘Hey, could you launch an independent third-party investigation?’ And they wrote me back and said that that wasn’t inside of the scope of his office, that wasn’t on his agenda to launch a third-party investigation into Santa Fe. And I was like, what? Like, that’s literally your job, right, to investigate why kids died,” said Hart.

“What I’m trying to prevent, what we’re all trying to prevent, we’ve been trying to prevent, is to make this harder for another school shooting to happen. We have to learn from our mistakes,” said Stone.

When KPRC 2 contacted the Governor’s Office regarding an independent investigation we were sent the following statement:

Following this despicable act of violence, Governor Abbott held roundtables with parents, students, and educators to ensure they are receiving all the resources and support needed to heal. Since that horrific day, the Governor’s Public Safety Office has awarded nearly $9 million to support Santa Fe recovery efforts, including over $1.8 million in funding for the development of a long-term resiliency center and additional community counseling services. Keeping our schools and communities safe remains a top priority for Governor Abbott, which is why he made school safety an emergency item for the 88th Regular Legislative Session. Working with the Texas Legislature, Governor Abbott signed HB 3 into law this year to help protect Texas students and school faculty through heightened safety and security requirements, armed campus personnel, and improved training for both educators and first responders. Governor Abbott will continue to work with the legislature to expand school safety initiatives and ensure all Texas students can thrive in a safe learning environment,” the statement read.

The families also sued the online ammunition seller, Luckygunner. Attorneys for Everytown Law argued that Pagourtzis was able to buy ammunition from this website even though he was underage. The case settled and attorneys for Everytown announced this “first-of-its-kind agreement requires the seller to maintain an age verification system at the point of sale for all ammunition sales.”

However, Luckygunner fired back in an online statement: “It should come as no surprise that anti-Second Amendment activists will do and say anything to push their agenda, including using tragedy to further their cause.” The statement further reads, “We agreed to continue with the same age verification process we have been using since 2019. We did not agree to change any part of our business as a part of the resolution of this lawsuit.”

No trial, no resolution

Families of those killed and survivors continue to push for an outside, independent investigation into warning signs that may have been missed, how the police response was handled, and what else can be done to prevent shootings before they happen. During an interview with KPRC 2 in August of 2023, the current chief of the Santa Fe ISD police department answered some of these questions.

Family members are also suing Pagourtzis’s parents, claiming they were negligent in allowing their son access to firearms in their home and for not doing more to address their son’s mental issues. The case has withstood several attempts to have it dismissed and is now scheduled for trial on May 28.

“It’s always the pain is out there hanging over your head, it’s just out there. There’s been no resolution, and then, you know, there’s a possibility you could go to trial, maybe, maybe not. I mean, you’re just on this constant roller coaster,” said Rice.

“I believe that a trial is also needed for my son. I think that my son needs closure. I think all 10 need closure. I think our survivors need closure, and I think Santa Fe needs closure,” said Stone. “I’m lost and not having justice, it makes it worse. Having unanswered questions makes it worse, and nobody understands us until you walk in our shoes.”

“You know, deep down, I think everybody wants to see a trial. That’s our end goal, but maybe I’m just cynical. I just don’t think we’re ever going to see a trial because he’s going to continue to just be incompetent for the rest of his life. My hope if we don’t get a trial, is that maybe he would choke on his vomit at some point. You know, just sort of natural causes,” said Hart.

About the Authors

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”

As an Emmy award-winning journalist, Jason strives to serve the community by telling in-depth stories and taking on challenges many pass over. When he’s not working, he’s spending time with his girlfriend Rosie, and dog named Dug.

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