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‘I am grateful’: UNLV dean narrowly evades shooter in campus office

Updated December 7, 2023 - 7:19 pm

Gerry Sanders was reluctant to attend a meeting a short distance from his office at UNLV’s Beam Hall on Wednesday morning. It was during lunch. It was not mandatory.

But Sanders, UNLV’s dean of the Lee Business School, opted to attend the meeting at the nearby Tam Alumni Center just five minutes before it was to start. The decision may have saved his life.

About 15 minutes after he walked out of Beam Hall, a shooter opened fire on the floor where Sanders had expected to spend his lunch break.

“I left the building just before the shooter arrived, and it appears that his first stop was on the fourth floor,” Sanders said in a phone conversation Thursday afternoon. “I am grateful that, for whatever reason, I wasn’t in the path of gunshots. But at the same time, I am also feeling this guilt, that I could have been there and tried to protect my people.”

A close call

Two of the three victims killed were identified by the Clark County coroner’s office as Cha Jan “Jerry” Chang, 64, a professor of management information systems at Lee Business School; and Patricia Navarro Velez, 39, an assistant professor in the accounting department.

The third victim is also a faculty member, whose identity has not been released pending notification of next of kin. A fourth person injured in the shooting, who remains hospitalized in critical but stable condition, is a visiting professor.

Sanders said he knew the victims through meetings when he joined UNLV and also through occasional interactions, but otherwise had limited communication.

On Thursday, Clark County Sheriff Kevin McMahill said a “target list” was found in the assailant’s apartment. The list included members of the faculties at UNLV and East Carolina University in North Carolina. Sanders said he met with a pair of investigators Wednesday night, but there was no mention of such a list.

At about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Sanders, who will mark his third anniversary at UNLV next month, met with College of Fine Arts Dean Nancy Uscher and College of Education Dean Danica Hays on the second-floor Albrecht Room in the Tam building.

About a dozen people attended the session, which focused on a new online platform to share information about the university’s business building.

“I had been invited the night before, and I immediately texted the person that scheduled it, ‘Why are we having this meeting at lunch? That’s the one free hour I get,’” Sanders said. “And he said, ‘Don’t worry, your development people are going to be here.’ It wasn’t until about 20 minutes before I needed to be there that I figured, what the heck, they have sandwiches, I’ll eat there.”

Frantic texts

At 11:51 a.m., as introductions were being made around the table, everyone in the room received the campuswide alert of a reported shooting.

“The meeting stopped, and we all started looking out the window at all the sirens,” Sanders said.

The dean repeatedly texted his executive assistant, whose office is in the same suite as his at Beam Hall, finally receiving a response at noon.

“I asked her, ‘Can you tell me what the active shooter situation is in our building?” he said. “And she said, ‘They just tried to get in both my doors.’ ”

Sanders then called her and could hear the fire alarm blaring in the background.

“She said that she was barricaded in her office with three students, and she could hear gunfire and someone was trying to break down her door,” Sanders said. “I don’t know if they were checking the door or if they kicked it or turned the knob … But she heard shots, and they were very close.”

Sanders was later interviewed by investigators at his home. “They told me that her staying inside, and then not responding to that knocking on the door, saved her life.”

Sanders and members of the group at Tam Alumni Center walked out of the board room to the building’s circular stairway.

“As we were standing, leaning on it, we heard five pops, ‘Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop,’ coming from about 200 or 300 yards away,” Sanders said, figuring this was the firefight in which law enforcement officers shot and killed the assailant. “We immediately went back into conference and shut the door and barricaded inside.”

The group was in the boardroom, quiet, for about three hours.

No explanation

Sanders was asked if he considered he might have been targeted specifically in the act, as a top-level administrator.

“I didn’t know who the individual was, but from what I understand he was a wanna-be faculty member,” Sanders said. “I don’t know where this started. I have surmised that it’s possible he wanted to take out the leadership. But it’s also possible he went up a stairwell and just started shooting. Who knows? “

Sanders does know the fast action of first responders prevented even an even deeper tragedy.

“These officers ran in, immediately,” Sanders said. “There is no question that there would have been more carnage if they hadn’t reacted so fast.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on X, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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