Erik Ayala a "student of concern" in Keizer
by Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian
Tuesday January 27, 2009, 9:30 PM
ERIK S. AYALA
Investigators say the 24-year-old gunman who shot nine people and then took his own life downtown Saturday night displayed troublesome behavior in high school, had attempted suicide in the past and was treated for depression at least once.
"This was somebody who had a history of emotional issues, and unfortunately decided to take others along with him," Portland Detective Division Cmdr. John Eckhart said Tuesday.
A broader picture of Erik S. Ayala's life is emerging as Portland detectives turn from potential prosecution to profiling the suspect after he was pronounced dead at Legacy Emanuel Hospital and Health Center on Tuesday from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.
While a student at McNary High School in Keizer, Ayala was a "student of concern," Eckhart said. Sgt. Rich Austria said Ayala had "behavioral problems that involved local police intervention."
Detectives' brief interview with Ayala's mother at the hospital this week revealed that he had been hospitalized and on medication when he was younger for depression or other mental health problems, but he wasn't taking medication recently, Detective Mark Slater said.
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Police said Ayala had few friends, sporadic but no significant romantic relationships, was estranged from his family and down about a recent loss of a steady job.
An initial review of his computer seized from his apartment showed a preoccupation with violent video games, and some e-mails displaying potential anger toward preppies, investigators said.
Police confirmed Tuesday that the 9mm gun police found lying beside Ayala's body had been purchased about two weeks earlier at a Milwaukie pawnshop near Ayala's apartment.
Bryan Kellim, owner of 99 Pawn & Guns off McLoughlin Boulevard, said he checked the store's paperwork after one of his employees recognized Ayala's face from a photo that Portland police released Monday afternoon. Kellim called Portland detectives Monday night, and left a message for the lead investigator.
He said Ayala came into the store on Jan. 6 and 7, before purchasing the Italian-manufactured EAA Witness 9 mm pistol for about $350 on Jan. 9. During Ayala's visit, Kellim dealt directly with him, describing him as laid back and calm.
"He was just shopping," Kellim said. "He said he was looking for a 9mm gun around the $400 range."
From his conversation with Ayala that day, it appeared as if Ayala was not an experienced gun owner and was interested in learning to shoot. Kellim said he even suggested Ayala go to an indoor firing range that's used by Clackamas County Sheriff's Office and take a safety course.
On Jan. 7, Ayala returned to the store, interested in purchasing the gun, but he didn't have the proper identification. Because he was not a U.S. citizen, Ayala, a native of Mexico, needed to have a resident card, and at least three months of utility bills, Kellim said.
According to federal guidelines, an immigrant legally in the United States must prove his or her identity with a government-issued photo ID, and documentation showing continuous residence in the state for a 90-day period prior to purchase of a gun.
Ayala returned to the Milwaukie pawnshop two days later, on Jan. 9, with the proper paperwork, which he left with the store clerk. The store ran a background check, and Ayala returned late in the afternoon to pick up the gun when the sale was approved.
"He was extremely calm, very polite," Kellim said. "Honestly, I've helped a lot of customers, and I would have never, ever guessed. Nothing seemed odd. When we found out what had happened, we were like 'wow.' It was as much a shocker to me as it was to anybody else."
Kellim, 32, who grew up in the area, said he called police right away after realizing his store had sold the firearm to Ayala. "It just makes me sick. I didn't sleep hardly at all last night," Kellim said. "I just feel for the families."
The same day he bought the gun, Ayala purchased ammunition for it at a Joe's in Clackamas, according to a store receipt detectives found in Ayala's bedroom. He did not have a concealed weapons permit.
What continues to puzzle investigators is what drove Ayala this month to make plans for taking his life, and why he chose to do it downtown after spraying bullets at strangers. On Friday, Ayala left behind a two-page will for his roommate to open on Sunday, the day after the bloodbath on Southwest Second Avenue. In it, he bequeathed his car, which he said would be somewhere downtown, his bank account and his prized PlayStation 3 to his roommate.
His roommate has said Ayala had been a part-time clerical worker since his contract job with the state ended nearly two years ago.
Ayala worked as a data entry operator from March 15, 2006, until July 13, 2007, for the state Department of Human Services. He was hired for a 17-month position, working the 3 to 11:30 p.m. swing shift at the agency's Document Management office in Salem.
Ayala cleared a criminal background check before being hired, and would have had access to information that is confidential, such as information from people applying for the Oregon Health Plan, Human Services spokeswoman Patty Wentz said Tuesday.
Office administrator Wendy Nelson-Baca said she hadn't spoken to Ayala since he left a year and a half ago. But she remembered him as a good employee who came to work every day. "Erik was our top employee in terms of reaching performance standards both for production and low error rates," she said.
Nelson-Baca was reluctant to talk much about Ayala personally. "I did like Erik," she said." He was very pleasant to talk to."
Thus far, the Portland police investigation suggests that Ayala had suicidal tendencies in the past, made calculated plans to kill himself downtown and may have opened fire "on the first crowd of people he encountered," said Eckhart, detective division commander.
As detectives continue to dig into Ayala's past, Slater, the lead investigator, said he hopes to provide some firmer answers to what led to the unexplainable tragedy.
"We may never know," he said, "but we may come close."
--Maxine Bernstein; firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com