A hatchet-wielding man, armed with what turned out to be a pellet gun, attacked a movie patron at a theater outside of Nashville Wednesday and sprayed others with pepper spray before he was shot dead by police, authorities said.
Nashville police were called on a report of a suspected "active shooter" situation at the Carmike Hickory 8 theater in the suburb of Antioch at around 1:15 p.m., and a police officer who entered the theater said the suspect pointed what appeared to be a gun at the officer, Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson said.
"This shady looking guy stood up with like two bags and he walked towards the back of the theater, and he pulled out a hatchet and started attacking this family," a man can be heard telling a Nashville 911 dispatcher on audio of the call released by police. "And then he pulled out a gun, and we all ran out of the theater."
The suspected firearm turned out to be an "airsoft" pistol that resembled a handgun, police said.
The suspect was identified by police as 29-year-old Vincente David Montano, most recently of Nashville. He was shot dead by police officers as he exited the theater’s rear door, police said.
Montano appears to have had a history of mental illness, Nashville police spokesman Don Aaron said. He was committed twice each in 2004 and 2007, Aaron said Rutherford County authorities told investigators.
"It appears this individual has had significant psychiatric or psychological issues," Aaron said. "The motive for all of this has not been determined," he said.
The violence occurred at a screening of "Mad Max: Fury Road." A man who only identified himself as Steven, who was cut by the ax, said he has no idea why he and his family were attacked. "We did nothing to bring this upon ourselves," he said.
"I would ask anyone to pray for his family, because obviously he has some mental problems or something else," Steven told reporters.
A 53-year-old woman and a 17-year-old woman were also treated for pepper spray exposure, officials said. Steven said his daughter was one of the three people pepper sprayed.
"I'm very, very grateful that no one else got injured here today other than the person who perpetrated this," Steven said, and thanked police for their swift response.
Two police officers were responding to a nearby traffic accident when people came running up to them saying there was trouble in the theater, Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson said, and they headed to the theater while calling dispatch.
A police officer entered the auditorium and encountered Montano, police said. Montano allegedly pointed what looked like a gun at the officer and pulled the trigger, and the officer fired one round from his rifle and backed away, police said.
The airsoft pistol looks like a semi-automatic handgun, and makes a noise when the trigger is pulled, Aaron said. "If someone confronted you with it, you would think it was a real pistol," Aaron said.
SWAT members entered the theater, which was full of pepper spray, and Montano allegedly engaged police for several minutes and pulled the trigger of the pellet gun, which police said makes a sound that resembles the shot from a small-caliber pistol.
Police said four SWAT members fired at Montano inside the theater, and Montano fled out of a rear entrance, holding the ax. Five officers outside fired on Montano after he moved toward them with the ax, and he died at the scene, police said in a statement.
Montano was wearing a surgical mask — presumably to protect him from the pepper spray that filled the theater — and was wearing a backpack on the front of his chest during the incident, police said.
The bomb squad found a "hoax device" apparently intended to resemble an explosive device inside that backpack, but it was not explosive, Anderson said. The device was destroyed by the bomb squad.
A second backpack left at the rear of the theater contained nothing suspicious, he said. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrived on the scene to assist.
The red dye of the pepper spray caused some witnesses to mistake the spray for blood, Anderson said. Nashville Fire spokesman Brian Haas was grateful there were not more serious injuries. "This could have been a lot worse," he said.
All the officers who fired during the encounter have been placed on administrative leave, as per standard policy, Nashville police said.
The violence at the Carmike Hickory 8 theater comes nearly two weeks after a deadly rampage at a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Gunman John Russell Houser, 59, stood up and began shooting during a showing "Trainwreck" on July 23, killing two people and wounding nine others before killing himself.