More than 20 million Americans are laid off or fired from their jobs each year. Most go quietly and move on. Steven Leet was the exception.
Fired from his job stocking parts at a Morgan Hill, California, Ford dealership last week, the 60-year-old San Jose man lingered for nearly two hours and then barged into an open office where his two supervisors were meeting. He shot them to death, then walked outside and fatally shot himself.
It’s still quite rare for employees to kill their co-workers on the job.
“But they do happen,” said Wayne Maxey, a retired cop and district attorney investigator who’s now an executive consultant in workplace violence prevention with Workplace Guardians of Temecula, California. “One of the big obstacles is that a lot of organizations just kind of assume it’s not going to happen here.”
Over a five-year period from 2011 to 2015, 312 employees were killed on the job by a co-worker, an average of about 62 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By comparison, robbers killed more than twice as many workers — 721 — over those years.
A 2014 FBI study on “active shooter” incidents in the workplace, schools and other public places from 2000 to 2013 indicated they alarmingly are on the rise. There was just one in 2000, the report said, but 30 in 2017, the most ever recorded by the FBI over a one-year period, according to a follow-up study.
That 2018 FBI study, however, said mass shooters typically telegraph their slide toward violence, offering hope that alert observers could intervene and head off tragedy.
“In the weeks and months before an attack, many active shooters engage in behaviors that may signal impending violence,” the report said. “While some of these behaviors are intentionally concealed, others are observable and — if recognized and reported — may lead to a disruption prior to an attack.”
Police have not revealed any warning signs about the Morgan Hill shooter.
The 2018 study examined 63 mass shooters and found few demographic trends other than that most were male. More than three out of four spent a week or more planning their attack, and more than half used legally acquired firearms. Only one in four had been diagnosed with a mental illness. In two-thirds of cases, at least one victim was targeted.
The shooters typically were experiencing multiple forms of stress, the report said, such as depression, financial strain, problems at work or school, marital strife and conflicts with friends and peers.
And they typically showed four or five observable and concerning behaviors before erupting in violence, the report said. Those most commonly included increased signs of depression, anxiety or paranoia; discord in relationships with family, friends, or colleagues; expressing intent to harm people; confused or irrational thinking; and a decline in work or school performance.
But the FBI report said that observers often are reluctant to act on their concerns “for fear of erroneously labeling a friend or family member as a potential killer.” And authorities “struggle to decide how best to assess and intervene, particularly if no crime has yet been committed.”
Morgan Hill police are still investigating last week’s shooting that took the lives of Brian Light, the dealership’s service director, and Xavier Souto, the parts manager who was Leet’s supervisor.
Police said that after Leet was fired at 4:15 p.m., he spent about half an hour at his car in the parking lot, went back to the dealership parts department where he had worked and stood outside an open office where Light and Souto were meeting before entering just after 6 p.m. and opening fire. Surveillance video indicated they did not appear concerned about Leet lingering at the dealership after he was fired.
After searching Leet’s home, police found a dozen legally owned guns but no evidence he planned the bloody attack. And they had no answer to what prompted Leet’s firing, whether he knew it was coming, what he said to the employees he spoke with between being fired and shooting his boss, and whether anyone at the dealership knew of his affinity for firearms. Leet lived alone, and co-workers and neighbors described him as a quiet man who kept to himself.
Steve Fuentes, the owner of Sunnyvale Ford who was Light’s boss before he joined the Morgan Hill store about a year ago, said that most dealerships consider their employees like family, and if someone is fired, “it’s atypical to escort them off with security.”
But, after the shooting in Morgan Hill, Fuentes said he reached out to Sunnyvale authorities.
“There is an active shooter program they offer that we will get ourselves enrolled in,” Fuentes said, “and be as proactive as we can in case that kind of thing, God forbid, ever happens at our store.”
Consultants like Maxey who advise employers in avoiding and dealing with mass shootings say that while “active shooter” drills can help in a crisis, “there’s so much more to do before that.”
“In most cases, people don’t snap,” Maxey said. “There’s usually a progression.”
Security consultant Aric Mutchnick, president of Experior Group, said even large companies often lack clear protocols for handling employee terminations and keeping them from turning violent. He conducts role-playing exercises and points out areas where employers may inadvertently make things worse, like having security escort a fired worker to his desk with a box in front of co-workers.
“Is it the walk of shame?” Mutchnick said. “That’s not conducive to a pleasant experience.”
Even small details like the layout of the room where employees are given the bad news can amp up anxiety and tension — is it small and cramped, does the worker feel trapped? — Mutchnick said.
What happens before and after an employee gets fired are also important, Mutchnick said. Employers should clearly spell out grounds for termination and give workers opportunities to improve, he said, and they should follow up with fired workers in the weeks afterward to check on their well-being.
But co-workers need to have a means to confidentially report concerns about a colleague to company executives, experts said.
“In most of these cases, there is some behavior that occurs that can be detected,” Maxey said. “The big challenge is that in a lot of these cases people have seen these changes but they didn’t report it to the organization.”
San Jose Mercury News staff writer Julia Prodis Sulek contributed to this report.