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Nashville theater gunman carried bags with ‘hoax explosive device’

Vincente David Montano terrorized movie patrons in what looked convincingly like a theater massacre in the making, and police in Nashville, Tennessee, responded accordingly, shooting him dead.

He left them with an odd mystery.

During a Wednesday afternoon showing of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Montano — donning a surgical mask — drew what looked like real semi-automatic pistol. And he sprayed down patrons with pepper spray, said police spokesman Don Aaron. Montano hit a moviegoer with a hatchet.

But the pistol turned out to be a dud, an airsoft gun, which usually fires BBs and plastic pellets — hardly a deadly firearm. The hatchet inflicted a minor cut on one patron; the pepper spray stung three people’s eyes. But no one was seriously injured.

Montano, 29, fired the airsoft on a responding SWAT team. The gun made a popping sound, police said in a statement, making them think it was real. “As he emerged with ax in hand and started toward officers, five opened fire,” police said.

When Montano died, he left behind a host of questions and few answers:

Who was the shooter?

According to his ID card, Montana had a Nashville address. But police think he was homeless. He had moved around a lot from state to state, they said.

His mother, Denise Pruitt, said she had not seen him for more than two years. This week, she reported him missing to Texas Rangers.

Montana had been arrested before in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, police said. He had been charged with assault and resisting arrest 11 years ago.

Police are still researching his background.

Why did he do it?

“We have no motive,” police spokesman Aaron said.

With Montano dead, it may be hard to determine one.

He went to a movie showing on a weekday, in the middle of the day, not exactly a time when the seats are filled.

Witnesses and police said that some patrons went running out of the theater, when Montana started his mayhem. All total, he hit three people with pepper spray and one person with the ax.

What weapons was he carrying?

In one of the two bags he brought in with him — a backpack and a satchel — was what looked like a bomb, but it turned out to be fake. Police Chief Steve Anderson called it a “hoax explosive device.” Police destroyed it with a controlled detonation.

The airsoft gun left Montano without a real firearm but at the same time made him look like a serious danger. He pointed it at the first responding officer and pulled the trigger. That prompted the officer to fire one shot back before backing out of the theater, police said.

Before the SWAT team arrived, police believe Montana filled air in the theater with pepper spray. “Officers reported encountering a cloud as they entered in an effort to bring Montano into custody,” they said.

He continued firing on the SWAT team, at one point tried to flee, then rushed officers with an ax.

More than a dozen gunshots, fired in rapid succession, can be heard on the audio track of a video recorded during the shooting that killed Montana. The video doesn’t show the shooting.

What was his state of mind?

Montano had a history of mental illness and had been committed to a mental health facility at least three times, police said.

In the missing person’s report, Montano’s mother told authorities that he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2006.

“Ms. Pruitt advised Vincente has several other health issues and has a hard time taking care of himself,” the report said.

How did he gain access to a weapon?

That nagging question comes up again and again when a mentally ill shooter opens fire on a crowd.

Airsoft pistols reside in a category that is less weapon and more toy. They are readily available off the shelf or online for as little as $15 — no background check necessary.

They are powered by compressed air with firepower ranging from a stinging thump to a slight skin puncture.

How did patrons react?

The recent theater shooting in Lafayette, Louisiana, and the trial of Aurora, Colorado, theater shooter James Holmes are still fresh on the public mind. And Montano’s masked face and deceptively real looking gun sent patrons into a screaming panic.

“We all ran out of the theater,” a 911 caller said.

Some notified police officers, who had responded to a nearby traffic accident. They dropped what they were doing and responded, police said.

The moviegoers’ cries resonated through the walls into the neighboring theater, where Jessica Alarid sat next to Alex Roby. The two thought the patrons next door must be screaming at a scary movie scene.

Alarid got up to use the restroom and ran right into police entering the Hickory Hollow Cinemas with their guns drawn. They sent Alarid back to her seat.

“We took cover underneath the seats until they came for us,” she said. They kept hearing screams then a gunshot. Alarid and Roby exchanged terrified looks.

“I still to this moment don’t think it’s real,” Roby said. “It feels like a really bad dream.”

Then officers came to get them, led them outside and told them to run away as fast as they could.

“I feel eternally grateful that were able to be completely unharmed,” he said. “We all got very lucky.”

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