SIMI VALLEY — A Simi Valley man, apparently awash in depression and debt, shot his wife and their three young sons to death Tuesday morning, then turned his hunting rifle on himself in one of the bloodiest shootings in Ventura County history, police said.
Heavily armored Simi Valley Police SWAT team officers rushed to a modest home in the city's earthquake-ravaged east end. There, they found Ahmad Salman, a 44-year-old quality control technician at a Camarillo communications equipment factory, curled in death in his backyard, a 30.06 rifle by his side, and his family dead and dying around him.
His 38-year-old wife, Nabela Salman, and 3-year-old Yezin lay crumpled on the other side of a fence they had climbed trying to escape, while twin 5-year-olds Zain and Zaid lay nearby, said Police Chief Randy Adams.
It was the worst mass killing in Ventura County since Dec. 2, 1993, when a distraught jobless man shot and killed four people before police shot him to death.
"No city likes to have an incident like this," Adams said as horrified neighbors gathered in the street to talk. "I can't imagine what would lead anyone to do something like this."
Tuesday morning was quiet--until about 8:25:
The sound of heavy-caliber gunfire burst through the doors and windows of middle-class tract homes, echoing loudly off the rocky walls of the nearby Arroyo Simi.
Five or six shots, then a pause, then one shot more, neighbors said.
Within minutes, SWAT and patrol officers screeched up to the house, and the SWAT team moved in carefully, unsure whether a gunman was still there.
Police held back three ambulances that arrived for the victims while the armored SWAT officers swarmed the house.
Officers rushed in and carried Nabela Salman and one of her children to a helicopter, witnesses said.
"I saw a police officer carrying a young child--maybe 5 or 6--slung over his shoulder and running to a waiting ambulance," said John Casselberry.
Two Ventura County Sheriff's Department helicopters hovered overhead, one finally landing on a neighborhood street to whisk two victims to Simi Valley Hospital.
"They were in full cardiac arrest. It appeared they were all shot at least once, and most in the torso," said Medtrans ambulance supervisor Robert Snyder.
Officers circled the house and found Salman in the backyard. It was soon apparent that the gunman was dead.
Neighbors said the Salmans had a rough marriage, that they argued loudly and often.
But Ahmad Salman had deeper troubles.
Salman, who had moved to the United States from Syria more than two decades ago, had been on medical leave since February, according to officials of the Harris Corp., his employer. He told neighbors he suffered from clinical depression and was thousands of dollars in debt.
"He was always telling me he was financially stressed and he didn't know what steps he was going to take," said Linda Shepherd, who rented a condominium from Salman across town.
Two weeks ago, he told her he had taken a $9,000 loss on the recent sale of his house, that he was carrying $20,000 in credit card debt. And he told her she would have to leave because the family needed to move into the condo.
At one point, Shepherd said, she visited the Salman home and found him squatting in his living room surrounded by stacks of bills, his children huddled on the couch and his wife sobbing.
"He said, 'What am I going to do with all these?' " over and over, she recalled.
Former neighbor Mary Qualls recalled chatting with Salman as they gardened in their backyards.
"He used to tell me that he was depressed a lot," she said. "He was on medication. I told him, 'The medication's not working.' "
At one point, she recalled, "He just told me, 'Sometimes life is not worth it.' I told him, 'It is, if you have your kids.' "
The family bought the house on Hope Street in August 1995 and completely renovated it, because like many around it, the home had been badly damaged by the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Qualls said she told a friend, "You watch, Ahmad's going to snap."
After finding the bodies, Simi Valley police detectives began combing the Salmans' property for evidence, seizing the 30.06 hunting rifle used in the slayings.
They fanned out across the cul-de-sac, interviewing neighbors. And they scheduled psychological counseling for their own officers because the violent deaths of children made it a special case.
Some said Nabela and Ahmad Salman were obviously troubled, but they put on a good face to the outside world:
Jason Fein said he and his family recently moved to the neighborhood, and the first person to welcome them was Ahmad Salman.
Their children played together in the cul-de-sac, Fein said, and Salman was always very nice and well-behaved, not someone who seemed to be on the verge of a violent explosion like this.
"I don't know what to think," Fein added. "It's very sad, obviously."