LITHONIA, Ga. – A man who allegedly exchanged gunfire with police at an Atlanta-area school didn’t seem to have any friends and rarely talked about his family or past during the months he lived with a couple who serve as pastors at a small church.
But Michael B. Hill was quiet and didn’t display anger or violent tendencies, said Natasha Knotts, the woman who took him in after he started coming to the small church where her husband is pastor and she is an assistant pastor. No one was wounded in Tuesday’s standoff, bringing relief to parents who had feared the worst after reports of the gunfire began surfacing.
The DeKalb County Public Defender’s Office said in a statement that it was representing Hill and that he has “a long history of mental health issues.”
Knotts told the Associated Press on Wednesday that Hill, who is now 20, lived with them for about six months in his late teens. Though there is no blood or legal connection between them, Knotts said she served as a motherlike figure to Hill.
“He was part of our family,” Knotts said. Her family was aware that “he had a mental disorder” before he moved in.
Hill told her that his birth mother was dead and that he didn’t know his father. He also has brothers.
Before going to the school, investigators say that Hill took a photo of himself with an assault rifle and packed up nearly 500 rounds of ammunition – enough to shoot more than half of the school’s students.
Police said that Hill got the gun from an acquaintance but that it’s not clear whether he stole it.
Although no one was wounded, the suspect exchanged gunfire with police who surrounded Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, a few miles east of Atlanta. The school has 870 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade.
Dramatic television footage showed lines of young students racing out of the building, with police and teachers escorting them to safety.
At some point, the gunman fired into the floor of the school office. As officers swarmed the campus outside, he shot at them at least a half-dozen times with an assault rifle from inside the school and they returned fire, police said. Police came into the school office, and Hill surrendered.
School bookkeeper Antoinette Tuff said she was one of the employees held hostage. Tuff told WSB-TV in Atlanta that she tried to keep Hill talking to prevent him from walking into the hallway or through the school building.
“He had a look on him that he was willing to kill – matter of fact, he said it. He said that he didn’t have any reason to live and that he knew he was going to die today,” Tuff said.
Law enforcement officers Wednesday praised Tuff for helping to avert a tragedy.
“She was a real ally. She was a real hero in all of this. She just did a stellar job. She was cool, she was calm, very collected in all of this, maintained her wherewithal,” Police Chief Cedric Alexander said.
Tuff relayed messages from Hill to DeKalb County emergency dispatchers before convincing him to surrender. Tuff began telling Hill of her own struggles, including the raising of a disabled child and the death of her husband. Tuff reassured him by saying he didn’t hurt anyone.
“We’re not going to hate you, baby. It’s a good thing that you’re giving up,” Tuff said after having Hill put his weapons and ammunition on the counter. Tuff told Hill that she loved him and would pray for him.