Before he riddled Austin’s police headquarters and the federal courthouse with bullets and attempted to burn down the Mexican Consulate early Friday, Larry Steven McQuilliams came to Austin apparently looking for a fresh start he never found.
McQuilliams, who was 49 and went by Steve, had been incarcerated in Texarkana in the late 1990s. He had lived in Wichita, Kan., but left after growing frustrated with a job there, only to fail several background checks in Austin and land nothing more than a job at a car wash, according to one neighbor.
It is still not clear why McQuilliams decided to reportedly fire more than 100 bullets in downtown Austin just minutes after the bars closed, or why he tried to burn down the consulate. But McQuilliams did appear to be angry with the government, according to the neighbor, McQuilliams’ Facebook page and an initial law enforcement assessment. Austin police and the FBI are investigating the incident, which ended with McQuilliams’ death when police Sgt. Adam Johnson fired back with one hand while holding two patrol horses steady with his other.
Because hundreds of people had poured into downtown from bars just minutes before McQuilliams began shooting shortly after 2 a.m., “I give thanks that no one but the suspect is injured or deceased,” Police Chief Art Acevedo said at a Friday news conference. “That’s something we should all take a lot of comfort in.”
Noting that the targets suggest “anti-government behavior,” perhaps based on recent gun control and immigration debates, Acevedo said: “I would suspect … the political rhetoric might’ve fed into some of this. … I’m willing to speculate because I think it’s important, (and) people want to know.”
As Acevedo talked, police had cordoned off the Barton Hills apartment complex in which McQuilliams had lived in South Austin. One neighbor reported police snipers on nearby roofs. At one point during the 12 hours of searching, police carried out dozens of propane bottles — presumably the kind police say McQuilliams had arrayed at the Mexican Consulate. McQuilliams had set them on fire, along with shooting the building, police said, though the canisters didn’t produce the kind of fireball that would have seriously damaged it.
Acevedo said the police headquarters building received extensive damage — a mangled bullet was found inside on the floor when reporters toured the building hours later — while outside the federal courthouse, eight pieces of green tape marked the places where bullets struck the guard post, leaving the glass covered in spider-web cracks.
The rounds had been fired between 2:22 a.m. and 2:33 a.m., according to police. The precise order of events remained to be sorted through, though a YouTube video taken from a parking lot by Interstate 35 includes the sound of nearby automatic-weapon fire.
The incident ended at the police station, where Johnson, a 15-year veteran with the Austin Police Department, was corralling two horses after his night shift. When Johnson saw McQuilliams firing shots at the building, he returned fire.
Johnson is now on paid administrative leave, which is standard procedure whenever an officer is involved in a shooting.
Lacking a conclusion from the medical examiner’s office, it was not clear if McQuilliams died from Johnson’s shot or killed himself.
McQuilliams wound up in Austin a year and a half ago, after leaving Wichita, where he felt his contributions at work weren’t appreciated by his employer, he told neighbors, including Katie Matlack, who lived four doors down from McQuilliams in a small apartment complex near Barton Springs.
“Everyone in the building knew him,” Matlack said. “He was a very kind person. I think he was just frustrated at every turn.”
Matlack said she saw McQuilliams every couple of days while walking her dog. He was a Renaissance fair enthusiast and martial artist, he told neighbors. He took care of neighbors’ pets when they were away. He loved the spillway end of Barton Springs, where many owners take their dogs to roam off leash and where many of Austin’s free spirits go to hang out. He would help clean up the hike-and-bike trail when heavy rains washed through it, according to neighbors. He felt at home in drum circles.
In one Facebook photo he has a shaved head and is smiling as two belly dancers kiss him on opposite cheeks; in another he wears a tri-cornered hat with gray hair peeking out the sides and looks like comedian Steve Martin.
While living in Wichita two years ago, McQuilliams volunteered for Amira Dance Productions, helping to move furniture, set up tents and accompany the dancers to Renaissance fairs.
Until McQuilliams moved away, “he was a dedicated fan, supporting our dance studio and volunteering in many ways,” said studio director Pat Baab, who added that McQuilliams was never an actual employee of the studio.
McQuilliams was cynical about government. He told neighbors that his time behind bars — police didn’t release details of the circumstances and online records are incomplete — meant a series of failed background checks by potential employers. Only a nearby car wash would hire him. Neighbors said they thought he lived off savings he brought with him.
“We were all comfortable with him, but we could sense that he was unhappy,” Matlack said. “We all knew him as a gentle soul trying to find his place in something.”
The frustration seemed to wear on him, Matlack said, though he didn’t strike her as significantly unbalanced. No one in the complex mentioned having seen firearms in McQuilliams’ apartment, though he sometimes demonstrated his proficiency with long Japanese daggers known as sai.
But he did give off at least one subtle sign that seems ominous in hindsight, Matlack said. He had two cats, one indoor and one outdoor, and he had begun putting the indoor cat outside, as if to prepare it for life outside the apartment.
On Nov. 21, he posted a photo of the Dalai Lama with the quote, “If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun.” On Wednesday at 2:59 p.m., McQuilliams posted an audio link to Audioslave’s “Set it Off,” which includes someone getting shot through the heart and the chorus near the end: “Alright, set it off, set it off now children/Set a fire.”
“I’m not surprised at all” about McQuilliams’ involvement in the shooting, said Charles Witt, who lives in a nearby condominium complex. Though they never spoke, Witt saw McQuilliams often bicycle through his property. “When I heard the SWAT team was next door, I said, ‘Wow, I bet this is the bicycle guy.’”
Staff writers Tony Plohetski, Andrew McLemore, Jazmine Ulloa, Lilly Rockwell and Sean Collins Walsh also contributed to this article.