PANAMA CITY, Fla. — A Florida school board member told Wednesday how she was ordered out of a meeting by an ex-convict armed with a gun, but returned to hit him with her purse in an attempt to save her colleagues.
In an incident that was caught on video, Ginger Littleton sneaked up behind the man and hit his right arm with her purse. She failed to dislodge the gun, and he turned it on her, but did not fire.
In an interview with TODAY, she said that she knew she could "walk away and try to live with myself" or take action and hope "the cavalry would come soon."
The gunman, Clay A. Duke, fired point-blank at school board members several times but, astonishingly, missed. One school board member said bullet holes could be seen just inches from where he had been.Video: School board heroes: ‘Happy to be alive’ (on this page)
A security guard arrived, the two men exchanged fire and Duke was wounded. He then fatally shot himself.
Duke, 56, appeared to be upset that his wife had been fired from a job with the district. Panama City Police Chief John Van Etten said Duke had been planning the shooting for some time and it was not a "spur of the moment" act.
Tuesday's date was circled on a calendar found in the trailer where Duke lived north of Panama City.
Bay District personnel director Tommye Lou Richardson says Rebecca Crowder-Duke was fired in February. The district hired her in September 2009 to teach students with special needs, but she didn't pass probation. Richardson says Crowder-Duke had questioned her termination but never filed a lawsuit. She couldn't specify why the woman was fired.
She was apparently living with her mother in a nearby town.
Crowder-Duke on Wednesday called her husband a "gentle giant."
"The economy and the world just got the better of him," she said in a rambling press conference.Interactive: Listen to the 911 call (on this page)
Crowder-Duke said her husband was an excellent marksman who probably intentionally missed the five board members who were sitting just steps away.
"He didn't want any one to get hurt but himself," she said.
'That look in his eyes'
At the board meeting, Clay Duke sat with the rest of the audience, listening to routine business.
But, as the board was in the midst of a discussion, he walked to the front of the room, spray painted a red "V" with a circle around it on the white wall — an apparent reference to the film "V for Vendetta" — then turned and waved the handgun.
He ordered everyone — including Littleton — to "hit the road," except for the men on the board, who were sitting behind a long beige desk.
Despite his shock, Bay City Schools Superintendent Bill Husfelt tried to persuade Duke to drop the gun. But the 56-year-old ex-convict just shook his head, blaming officials for his wife being fired.
Video showed him slowly raising the gun and leveling it at Husfelt, who pleaded, "Please don't, please don't."Story: School board shooter: Bipolar, money troubles
"He had that look in his eyes," Husfelt told NBC's TODAY on Wednesday. "I've seen anger before, and he almost had like a grimace, a smile. He had planned to do this and we knew it wasn't going to end well.
"That guy had a mission; he'd already told us he was going to die, he told us he was going to kill himself basically, and he was going to try to do the same to us," he added.
Husfelt told Duke he would be responsible for Duke's wife's dismissal and said the board members should be allowed to leave.
"It was so surreal. You couldn't believe it was going on," Husfelt added.
Husfelt in the exchange on video tells Duke: "I've got a feeling you want the cops to come in and kill you because you said you are going to die today."
Duke shot twice at Husfelt from about 8 feet away and squeezed off several more rounds before security guard Mike Jones bolted in and, after exchanging gunfire with Duke, wounded him in the leg or side.
Duke then fatally shot himself, police Sgt. Jeff Becker said.
Somehow, no one else who remained in the small board room was injured in the clash that lasted several minutes.Video: School board shooting survivors speak out (on this page)
Husfelt, speaking later at a press conference, said Jones' intervention had "saved our lives."
"That gentleman was not going to stop shooting," he said. "He only turned around after he was hit twice by Mike. He had more ammunition and he was going to keep going."
'Like ducks in a pond'
"My guys were lined up like ducks in a pond," Littleton told TODAY. "So I could either walk away and try to live with myself because I knew something bad was going to happen, or I could try to defend, delay, somehow or other divert, hoping that the cavalry would come soon.
"My guys had three-ring binders and pencils to protect themselves, so I whacked him with the purse, hoping I could get him to drop the gun. Obviously that didn't work. I did not have a Plan B."
Duke, a large, heavyset man dressed in a dark pullover coat, got angry and turned around as Littleton fell to the floor.
Duke pointed the gun at her head and said, "You stupid b----" but he didn't shoot her, she said. She's not sure why.
"He had every opportunity to take me out," Littleton said.
She told the press conference that seeing the bullet holes in the room and blood on the floor had brought home how serious the incident had been.
"I have three wonderful daughters. They said to me, 'Mom, are you just stupid? What were you thinking?'" she said. "I don't have an answer for that. I don't know what I was thinking."
As she displayed the purse, she jokingly offered to auction it for $50 as another board member said: "We're going to put some bricks in it for her."
"We're so happy to be alive," board member Jerry Register told TODAY Wednesday. "Life means a lot more today than yesterday."
Tommye Lou Richardson, the school district's personnel director, who was at the meeting, called district security chief and former police officer Jones a hero.
In the video, as Duke lay on the floor, colleagues comforted a shaken Jones, who said he had never shot anyone before.
SWAT officers then storm the room and order everyone onto the ground. School officials tell them that Duke is shot and appears dead.
Minutes before Duke rose from his seat, the room had been filled with students receiving awards, Husfelt said. "It could have been a monumental tragedy."
Husfelt said his faith anchored him during the ordeal and that he thought, "I don't want to die today but I'm prepared if I do.
"God was standing in front of me and I will go to my grave believing that," he said.
'V for Vendetta' symbol
The V inside a circle that Duke painted is the same symbol used in the graphic novel series and movie "V for Vendetta," though police didn't talk about his motive.
On a Facebook page under Duke's name, which was apparently created Dec. 7, he left a cryptic message under the "About Me" section.
"My testament: Some people (the government sponsored media) will say I was evil, a monster (V) ... no ... I was just born poor in a country where the Wealthy manipulate, use, abuse, and economically enslave 95 percent of the population. Rich Republicans, Rich Democrats ... same-same ... rich ... they take turns fleecing us ... our few dollars ... pyramiding the wealth for themselves."Video: Video captures gunman’s rage, board’s heroics (on this page)
The Facebook page's profile picture shows the same red V symbol that was spray-painted on the wall during the school board meeting.
The page also shows photos from "V for Vendetta," in which a mysterious figure battles a totalitarian government.
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The Facebook profile also uses a quote billionaire Warren Buffett told the New York Times in 2006: "There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class that's making war and we're winning."
Duke was charged in October 1999 with aggravated stalking, shooting or throwing a missile into a building or vehicle and obstructing justice, according to state records.
He was convicted and sentenced in January 2000 to five years in prison and was released in January 2004.
Records show Duke was a licensed massage therapist before his arrest but it wasn't clear if he was employed.
Attorney Ben Bollinger, who represented Duke during his trial, told The News Herald of Panama City that Duke was waiting in the woods for his wife with a rifle, wearing a mask and a bulletproof vest.
She confronted him and then tried to leave in a vehicle, and Duke shot the tires. He said that as part of his sentence, Duke was required to complete psychological counseling. Bollinger did not immediately return a phone message from the AP.
"The guy obviously had a death wish," district spokeswoman Karen Tucker said of Duke.
The Associated Press, NBC News and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.