At 10:05 on the night of Oct. 1, 2017, country singer Jason Aldean was closing out the annual Route 91 Harvest festival on the Las Vegas Strip, across from Mandalay Bay, when bullets began flying.
Exactly 10 minutes later, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history had come to an end. When the death toll was finalized three years later, the total number of victims had grown to 60.
As the fifth anniversary of the massacre approached, five of the Metropolitan Police Department officers who worked that night spoke to the Las Vegas Review-Journal about their experiences. These are their stories:
‘At that point, I had to make a decision of what do I do’
Retired Metropolitan Police Department Detective Rick Golgart and his daughter Rylie at the Las Vegas Community Healing Garden on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. They were at the Route 91 Harvest festival on Oct. 1, 2017, when a gunman opened fire from his suite at Mandalay Bay. Rylie Golgart was shot in the back. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images
Metro Detective Rick Golgart went to the concert every year with his wife to celebrate her birthday. In 2017, his daughter Rylie asked to attend for the second year in a row to celebrate her upcoming 19th birthday. Rick Golgart and his wife stayed in the VIP section, but Rylie Golgart wanted to be closer when Aldean performed.
During a recent interview, Rick Golgart remembered hearing a pop in the crowd and thinking, “What is an idiot doing lighting up firecrackers?”
Moments later, Clint Burton walked up to the VIP booth with a gunshot wound to his leg. Rick Golgart and his friends helped make a tourniquet for Burton’s leg with a belt. Rick Golgart, being the only first responder in his group, loaded the 250-pound man onto a nearby wheelchair and dashed to his F-150.
Rick Golgart called his daughter and told her to hunker down. All he could hear was screaming and yelling from her end of the phone. He and Burton loaded into the truck, along with seven other people they found on their way to the parking lot.
The detective was on Interstate 15, passing West Flamingo Road on his way to University Medical Center with three gunshot victims, including Burton and Calla Medig, a resident of Jasper, Canada, when his daughter called.
“I hand the phone to my friend because I’m driving. He says, ‘It’s Rylie. She’s been shot,’” Rick Golgart recalled, tearing up. “I talked to her. She’s coherent, talking to me, says she can’t move her legs. I said, ‘We’ll get you.’ At that point, I had to make a decision of what do I do. I have a truck full of people with injuries. My daughter is still conscious. She’s talking and everything else, which is good. I make the decision to go to UMC to drop them folks off. I’ve been told by the first responders at UMC after the fact that my truck was the first truck to get to UMC with victims, even before an ambulance.”
Rick Golgart then rushed back to the concert grounds and found his daughter in a medical tent being watched over by an off-duty firefighter. She had been shot in the back. Rick Golgart and the firefighter got her on a backboard and into the truck, then headed back to University Medical Center.
Retired Metropolitan Police Department Detective Rick Golgart and his daughter Rylie at the Las Vegas Community Healing Garden on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. The father was driving several gunshot victims, including Calla Medig, to University Medical Center on Oct. 1, 2017, when he learned that his daughter had been shot. Medig died about an hour after arriving at the hospital.
When they arrived, officers told them the hospital was full and sent them away, so they headed to Valley Hospital Medical Center, a half-mile away.
Rylie Golgart would undergo two surgeries within a week at Valley Hospital and spend two months in a rehabilitation facility in Colorado before returning home.
“On Dec. 15 when we came home her goal was to —” Rick Golgart said, pausing to regain his composure. “Her goal was to run out of the hospital. She didn’t, but she walked out of the hospital with the assistance of some walking sticks.”
Rylie Golgart declined to be interviewed for this story.
Rick Golgart later discovered that Burton would have died if he had not made it to the hospital when he did, but Medig died about an hour after arriving at the hospital. The detective retired from Metro in 2019 after 25 years and said he does not regret a single decision he made that night.
“If I would have gone back for Rylie at the time, I might not have been able to get through traffic,” he said.
After five years, a few therapy sessions and several reunions with their friends from that night, Rick Golgart said he and his family are on guard because of their trauma — but grateful to have survived.
“I’ve met a lot of families across the country that their family members aren’t here,” he said.
‘You can’t run the show when you’re in the show’
Retired Metropolitan Police Department Lt. Ray Spencer, at the pony wall outside the festival grounds, on Sept. 22, 2022, in Las Vegas. He was the incident commander for the Route 91 Harvest festival when the mass shooting occurred on Oct. 1, 2017. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images
Lt. Ray Spencer was overseeing 50 officers and a civilian dispatcher while working a 13-hour overtime shift as incident commander for the festival. Just before 10 p.m., he was dealing with an intoxicated couple who was trying to re-enter the festival grounds after being removed, Jason Aldean’s group wanted a police escort to the airport, and Spencer had a blister from walking for hours in patrol boots.
“It’s crazy when you think back about what was a big deal at 9:55,” he said five years later.
Within minutes, Spencer was running along Las Vegas Boulevard, passing bloody, screaming people as he ran toward the center of the festival grounds. He thought that was where the gunfire was coming from.
“I look at my handgun, and I’m like, ‘I know how this movie is going to end,’” he recalled. “I’m holding a Glock handgun, and I’m listening to what sounds like fully automatic rifle fire. I do not have any firepower to return fire. At this time, I still think I’m encountering people at ground level.”
Ray Spencer and other officers searched the festival grounds for survivors the night of the mass shooting. He said every victim they encountered was dead. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images
When Spencer realized the shooter was above him, he and dozens of other people took cover under a palm tree. He asked over the police radio for another person to take over as incident commander while he focused on preserving lives.
“You can’t run the show when you’re in the show,” he said. “You cannot be the guy responsible for overall operations when you’re trying not to die.”
Spencer made his way to a pony wall where he found four other officers, including one with a shield, and a paramedic. The party of six formed a line, with the shield in front and Spencer second. They walked the field looking for living victims.
“I’m a sitting duck out here on this field,” he said. “We go from victim to victim to victim to victim. I stopped counting at 20.”
Spencer said he will never forget the calls coming in on all the cellphones.
“The field is pitch black because all the lights were turned off, but every phone, it’s nonstop cellphones ringing. And you can read on their phones: ‘Mom,’ ‘Dad.’ You can see their loved one calling.”
Not one person they encountered on the field was still alive.
“When you look at all those people that lost their life, their phones are ringing, and they’re never going to take that call from their mom, their husband, their boyfriend,” he said. “You don’t realize you go to a concert and that’s the last day of your life.”
Spencer took over Metro’s homicide section as lieutenant four months later. He retired in May and is now running for Las Vegas City Council against Nancy Brune.
‘I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared’
Metropolitan Police Department Capt. Joshua Bitsko outside the convention center area command, which oversees the Las Vegas Strip, on Sept. 22, 2022. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images
Sgt. Joshua Bitsko heard automatic gunfire in the background while officers frantically called out on the police radio from the festival grounds. Bitsko, then a K-9 officer who was training dogs near the 215 Beltway and Eastern Avenue, was on the 28th floor of Mandalay Bay within minutes.
Bitsko was one of a dozen officers, including several SWAT officers, who made their way to the 32nd floor and found the door to the gunman’s suite. Cameras had been positioned outside it, and shooting was coming from within.
The team later broke through the door and encountered the shooter’s body, broken windows and the smell of smoke from fresh gunfire.
Joshua Bitsko was one of a dozen officers who made their way to the gunman’s 32nd-floor suite at Mandalay Bay on the night of the shooting. The team later broke through the door and encountered the shooter’s body. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared,” Bitsko said in a recent interview. “It didn’t hinder anyone on my team’s actions. We did what we had to do.”
They made sure the room was safe, and Bitsko headed back to the command post at the south central area command for another 10 hours of work.
Bitsko, a second-generation Metro officer who was raised in Las Vegas, is now the captain of the convention center area command, which oversees the Strip. He teared up when reflecting on the grieving period that came after witnessing the attack on his hometown.
“I’m very proud of our officers and what they did that night, what they’re ready for every day in convention center area command,” Bitsko said. “They’re there every night keeping people safe.”
He said he always tried to remember the actions of people during and after the shooting, including those who attempted to carry injured strangers to safety while bullets descended on the crowd.
“There was so much good that happened by brave citizens that don’t have bulletproof vests and training we do have,” he said.
‘In the moment, my heart broke’
Former Metropolitan Police Department Sgt. Ashton Packe, who oversaw the Tropicana Las Vegas crowd control after the October 2017 mass shooting, on Sept. 21, 2022, outside the Strip hotel. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images
Sgt. Ashton Packe was patrolling near Rancho Drive and West Washington Avenue, overseeing 17 officers, when he heard the police radio call out the shooting. The former counterterrorism detective worried that there would be additional crime scenes and a coordinated attack, so he told his officers to wait 20 minutes before responding to any location.
“In the moment, my heart broke, because here I had worked so hard as a counterterrorism detective in proactive prevention of terrorism and at the initial onset, you hear the gunfire on the police radio, officers are screaming for help, and people are down,” Packe said.
He split his team into three, sending one team to University Medical Center, one to Metro’s headquarters and the most advanced to Paris Las Vegas, where an active shooter call was reported. Packe responded to Paris, helped protect a medical area near the crime scene, and then moved to the Tropicana Las Vegas when he discovered that thousands had rushed into that casino seeking shelter.
Packe worked until 10 a.m. to get survivors to nearby hospitals where loved ones might be. He also discovered that most of the people who ran to the casino were tourists staying on the Strip, so he coordinated their safe returns to their hotel rooms.
“One lady had blood. She clearly had been standing next to a loved one who had taken a round and just ran,” Packe said. “I had my cops walk her out, put her in a taxi and send her to the hospital.”
Packe returned to the counterterrorism section as a sergeant in 2018 and retired from Metro in 2021 after 20 years. He said the part of the shooting that will always hurt him most is the number of concertgoers who suddenly became victims.
“Especially in Vegas, we always really pushed and trained for preventing crime from happening: Be proactive,” he said. “Having worked in the counterterrorism world, it was just a little part of me deep down, I feel for the victims and their families. There’s no words that I can give them to express how upset so many of us are that this just horrific act happened.”
‘We knew we owed the victims and survivors answers’
Kelly McMahill at the Metropolitan Police Department’s south central area command substation on Sept. 23, 2022, in Las Vegas. She was a captain overseeing the internal oversight office when the mass shooting occurred on Oct. 1, 2017, and spent the next 18 months working on the after-action report. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images
Capt. Kelly McMahill and her husband, Kevin, took their three youngest children to see the Blue Man Group on Oct. 1, 2017, in celebration of their good grades. The family typically avoided the Strip, and Kelly McMahill was glad to be in bed by 9:40 p.m. that Sunday night.
Just after 10 p.m., the couple’s phones began buzzing frantically. Kevin McMahill, then the undersheriff, was out the door in five minutes after hearing the news. His wife, then captain of the internal oversight division, called a babysitter and rushed to headquarters, where she prepared to investigate what she assumed would be a police shooting.
“The thing that stands out the most to me when I got there was there was row after row after row of men and women lined up to be deployed,” Kelly McMahill said five years later, remembering all the off-duty employees ready to assist. “To this day we’ll never know how many people self-deployed. I wrote the after-action report. I went though tons of documents. We’ll never know.”
Kelly McMahill sent officers to all 13 hospitals in town, reviewed the shooter’s suite and waited at the command post to begin the investigation. As daylight began to break, she called what was then known as McCarran International Airport and stopped all flight traffic while investigators were removing victims from the field.
“To this day the lingering thought I always have is for the victims, the thousands,” Kelly McMahill said. “Every single concertgoer, cop, every security guard, they’re all victims.” (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @[email protected]_Eye_Images
She would spend the next 18 months “living and breathing” the gunman’s actions as a co-author of the 187-page after-action report, which began with a brief biography of the initial 58 victims and reviewed the department’s conduct and mistakes during the shooting. Two victims died from their injuries after the report was completed.
“There’s no one to prosecute. Our suspect is dead. But we knew we owed the victims and survivors answers as to what took place,” Kelly McMahill said. “There’s always speculation. There’s still the conspiracy theories out there. If only people knew how hard we worked to get it right.”
She became captain of the south central area command and was promoted to deputy chief before retiring in June after 26 years with the department. Now, she travels around the country consulting for other police departments after mass shootings.
“It was so big,” she said, remembering the impact of the Route 91 shooting. “If I have a homicide, I can wrap my arms around the people that were there. I can hold their hand and check on them. How do you wrap your arms around 22,000 people and say, ‘I want you to know that every single night before I go to sleep, you’re all I think about’? Or, ‘For the rest of my life, I’m going to be so horrifically sad that this happened to you on our watch.’”
Kelly McMahill said Metro is still making changes in response to the shooting, including staffing police officers with rifles and dozens of medical supply bags at all major events. Construction is nearly complete on the Reality Based Training Center, which will help first responders across jurisdictions work together to practice handling mass casualty events.
Kevin McMahill, the incoming Clark County sheriff, is planning to incorporate a wellness bureau into the department. Kelly McMahill said the idea was born from the officer reports that told the traumatic stories of what officers witnessed during the shooting. And she now serves on Clark County’s 1 October Memorial Committee, which is working to create a permanent memorial.
“To this day the lingering thought I always have is for the victims, the thousands,” Kelly McMahill said. “Every single concertgoer, cop, every security guard, they’re all victims.”
Contact Sabrina Schnur at [email protected] or 702-383-0278. Follow @sabrina_schnur on Twitter.