'We shouldn't have to live like this': Michigan State University grapples with aftermath of mass shooting as investigators probe gunman's motives

By Nouran Salahieh and Sara Smart, CNN

    (CNN) -- As investigators probe why a gunman targeted Michigan State University and how he got the firearm used in the mass shooting, the campus community is mourning the students killed and still reeling from the hours of terror that unfolded earlier this week.

Gathered around a landmark MSU rock bearing the words "Always a Spartan," thousands of students, faculty, staff and community members came together with flowers to honor the three students killed in Monday night's mass shooting: Arielle Anderson, Alexandria Verner and Brian Fraser.

The MSU students died in what became the 67th mass shooting in the US in 2023 -- less than two months into the year, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive.

"We shouldn't have to live like this," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told the crowd. "We shouldn't have to subconsciously scan every room for an exit, go through the grim exercise of figuring out who our last call would be to."

"Our campuses, churches, classrooms and communities should not be battlefields," the governor told the grieving crowd that included students who had also lived through another mass shooting at a Michigan high school just 15 months ago.

At Wednesday's vigil, MSU's head men's basketball coach Tom Izzo told the students to allow themselves to show their emotions as they process the tragedy.

"Whatever you're feeling, it's all valid," said Izzo. "Emotions are different for each and every person."

As the MSU Shadows song echoed through the campus Wednesday, students wrapped their arms around each other and swayed together.

The Monday evening attack at MSU left three students dead and five wounded across two different campus buildings and sent terrified students running, barricading in classrooms, or jumping out of windows as hundreds of officers converged on the university in search for the gunman, who later died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police said.

While parents plan their children's funerals and others watch theirs fight for their lives at the hospital, investigators are searching for answers.

Note left by shooter listed other targets

It's still unknown why the gunman -- 43-year-old Anthony Dwayne McRae who had no known ties to MSU -- opened fire at the university, police said.

A two-page note found in McRae's backpack begins, "Hi, my name is Anthony McRae" and goes on to say, "I will be shooting up MSU," law enforcement officials who have access to the note told CNN.

The note -- which claims McRae is the leader of a group of 20 killers -- also has a list of targets that includes a warehouse, an employment agency, a discount store, a church, and a fast-food restaurant, law enforcement officials who have access to the note told CNN.

All the businesses listed on the letter were warned they had been named, but that the gunman was dead and there is no credibility tohis claims of being the leader of any team, law enforcement officials said.

Authorities also previously disclosed that the note threatened other shootings at other schools hundreds of miles away in New Jersey. Police there said there was no longer a threat after McRae was found dead.

While police investigate what connection the shooter may have had to the locations, FBI profilers are analyzing the letter, according to the law enforcement officials. The note doesn't say why the locations are targets or list grievances, officials said.

Also unclear is how McRae -- who previously pleaded guilty to a firearm charge -- obtained the firearm used in the attack. Authorities have said the type of firearm used remains under investigation.

Gunman should not have been able to purchase weapon legally, Attorney General says

McRae was previously charged with carrying a concealed weapon -- a felony count that would have prevented him from being able to buy a gun if he were convicted.

At the federal level, a misdemeanor conviction does not preclude someone from buying a gun. But in Michigan, "the charge under Michigan law is either a low-class felony or high-class misdemeanor," the state attorney general's office said.

However, the felony case against McRae never went to trial. Instead, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor -- possession of a loaded firearm in or upon a vehicle -- in 2019 and spent a year and a half on probation, the Ingham County prosecutor's office said Tuesday.

McRae then went on to purchase two guns in 2021 in Michigan, a law enforcement source said. One was a Taurus pistol, and the other was a Hi-Point 9 mm pistol, according to the source.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel -- who has two sons at the university left shaken by this week's tragedy -- told CNN it wasn't clear yet if the weapon used in Monday night's incident was purchased legally or not.

But when asked if the gunman should have been able to buy a gun, Nessel said, "I believe he should not."

"We don't even have universal background checks here in Michigan," Nessel added. "We have very little in the way of legislation that would prevent a person from possessing a gun, owning a gun, coming into contact with a weapon."

"Somebody who is having mental health issues, somebody who just had been illegally possessing a gun, and look how easy it was for him to obtain a weapon even in the wake of all that, something's gotta change," Nessel said.

The suspect's father, Michael McRae, told CNN his son became bitter, isolated and "evil angry" after his mother died from a stroke two years ago and "didn't care about anything no more."

"Ever since my wife died, my son began to change," Michael McRae said. "He was getting more and more bitter. Angry and bitter. So angry. Evil angry ... He began to really let himself go. His teeth were falling out. He stopped cutting his hair. He looked like a wolf man."

'There will never be a return to normal'

At Wednesday's vigil, the speakers honored the three students lost in the shooting. They remembered their smiles, their kindness, their sense of humor and the dreams they had.

"This is our home and we went through the unimaginable," MSU undergraduate student body president Jo Kovach said. "We lost three beautiful souls who we attend classes with, are friends with, are inclubs with. Their absence on this campus, and in this world will forever be felt."

Anderson and Verner were Juniors and Fraser was a sophomore, university police said.

Anderson was studying to become a doctor, her aunt Chandra Davis posted on Instagram. "How is it that she was in class doing what she was supposed to be doing and yet and still her life was taken by a coward who clearly didn't understand the devastation he was about to cause my entire family," Davis wrote. "No parent should have to bury their children."

Fraser was president of the Michigan Beta Chapter of Phi Delta Theta, the fraternity said in a statement. He was a leader and a great friend to his brothers, the Greek community and the people he interacted with on campus, the fraternity said.

And Verner, a graduate of Clawson Public Schools, was "everything you'd want a student to be," school district Superintendent Billy Shellenbarger said.

The mass shooting also left five other students in critical condition. While authorities have not identified them, student Guadalupe Huapilla-Pérez is among the wounded, according to a verified GoFundMe account and the National HEP/CAMP Association, which Huapilla-Pérez participated in at school.

"The time away from work for her family, the long recovery road ahead, and the subsequent medical expenses to care for Guadalupe, will place both an emotional and financial a burden on her family," the organization said on Facebook.

At the vigil, the student body president said the shooting has left a scar on the campus community, but urged students to come together.

"There will never be a return to normal. This event has changed what that will feel like for us forever. But that's okay," Kovach said. "If there's one thing I know and love about Spartans is that in times of need we come together."

Among those gathered for the vigil Wednesday were officers from the MSU police department, which responded to Monday's mass shooting.

Michigan State Police provided security at the vigil to allow the university's police to grieve, the department said, adding, "We are all healing together."

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