A traffic officer working off-duty security and SWAT officers fatally shot two men wearing body armor and armed with assault rifles Sunday who began shooting outside a Prophet Muhammad cartoon art contest in Garland, "saving lives," police say.
While the names of the gunmen have not been confirmed by police, a federal law enforcement official told NBC 5's Scott Gordon one of the suspects in the shooting is Elton Simpson. NBC News confirmed the name of the second suspect as Nadir Soofi, Simpson's roommate. Simpson, 31, has been known to the FBI since 2005 and was placed on a terror watch list in 2011 following a criminal case.
Officer Joe Harn, with the Garland Police Department, said the officer and an unarmed security guard were sitting in a patrol car blocking an entrance to the Curtis Culwell Center when two men pulled up in a dark-colored sedan at about 7 p.m.
As the officer and guard exited the patrol car, two men exited the dark-colored sedan, got behind their vehicle and opened fire on the officers, police said.
The guard, identified as 58-year-old Bruce Joiner, was wounded in the ankle. The police officer, who has requested his name not be released, began shooting back with his duty pistol and killed the armed men, Harn said.
There were no other injuries reported in the attack.
"He did what he was trained to do and under the fire he was put under, he did a very good job and probably saved lives," said Harn, who has not yet released the officer's name. "His reaction, and his shooting with a pistol, he did a good job."
The Garland officer who shot the two gunmen outside the Culwell Center was described as "a seasoned veteran" by his attorney, Zachary Horn.
"He's a terrific guy," said Horn, whose firm represents the Texas Municipal Police Officers Association and Garland police officers. "Just humble, and I can't describe — he’s a terrific individual."
"The word 'heroic' gets tossed around a lot, but there's really no other word that can be used to describe his courage and his actions," said Horn.
Horn and the unnamed officer met several times near the scene after Sunday night's shooting.
"He appeared to me the type of guy that, if your wife or your daughter needed a police officer, he's the exact type of guy you would want to show up," said Horn.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation's largest Muslim advocacy organization, has condemned the attack and said in a statement Monday that a violent response is more insulting to the Muslim faith than any cartoon.
"We share with the North Texas community, and the American community at large, our horror at this display of violence," said Alia Salem, executive director for the DFW Chapter of CAIR. "Those organizers of the event, and those perpetrators of this violent crime, have come in with hatred on their agenda from both sides. If we don't stand up against that type of hatred, together, then this cycle of violence is going to continue."
The council said "bigoted speech" can't be an excuse for violence as leaders emphasized the American Muslim community's support for open speech while condemning acts of terror.
During a news conference Monday Harn couldn't confirm if shooting qualified as a terrorist attack. He said the men, whose names are not yet being confirmed by police, were obviously there to shoot people and that the Garland officer saved a number of lives.
Police added the department's security plan allowed them to stop the armed men before they were able to shoot anyone else.
Harn said the Garland Police Department was contacted several months ago by the Garland Independent School District regarding security at the events center due to the provocative nature of both the "Draw the Prophet" event and speakers scheduled to appear on behalf of the New York-based American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Harn added that off-duty officers work events at the Culwell Center every weekend, but that organizers paid the department around $10,000 for additional security that included agents with the ATF and FBI, security officers from the school district, off-duty police officers as well as SWAT officers and the bomb squad.
Pamela Geller, president of the AFDI, and Geert Wilders, a Dutch lawmaker known for his outspoken criticism of Islam, were scheduled to speak. Wilders received several standing ovations from the crowd and left immediately after his speech.
The "Draw the Prophet" contest Sunday was to award $10,000 for the best cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad. According to mainstream Islamic tradition, any physical depiction of the Prophet Muhammad — even a respectful one — is considered blasphemous. Drawings similar to those featured at the Texas event have sparked violence around the world.
Geller told the AP before Sunday's event that she planned the contest to make a stand for free speech in response to outcries and violence over drawings of Muhammad. She said in a statement after the shooting that it showed how "needed our event really was."
The SWAT team, stationed at the Culwell Center for the event, responded to the shooting in seconds and secured the scene as the bomb squad began to investigate the vehicle used by the gunmen.
Harn said there were several detonations, first of the trunk being opened and then of suspicious items found in the car. None of the items were explosives and no bombs were found, police said.
While the bomb squad conducted their investigation, several adjacent businesses were evacuated as a precaution.
Harn said the investigation into the gunmen and shooting would not happen very fast and that police continue to evaluate social media and other channels for threats. He said before Sunday's event there had been some chatter, but that no specific threat had been received.
The investigation is being conducted by the Garland police, ATF, FBI, Texas Department of Public Safety and investigators from Irving and Plano police departments.
On Monday, federal agents spent hours at a Phoenix apartment complex where Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi apparently lived.
The FBI said the Phoenix residence was being searched for indications of what prompted the attack, and FBI spokeswoman Katherine Chaumont said no other locations in Phoenix are being investigated.
Agents could be seen also searching a white Chevy minivan at the Autumn Ridge Apartments complex. They took what appeared to be plastic bottles out of the vehicle. The apartment is on the first floor of a two-story building. The area around the building is sealed off but residents walked about and stood on their balconies watching.
Court documents show a man with the name Elton Simpson is an American Muslim who became the subject of a criminal investigation in 2006 because of his association "with an individual whom the FBI believed was attempting to set up a terrorist cell in Arizona," U.S. District Judge Mary H. Murgia said in her order convicting Simpson.
Prosecutors alleged that the false statement involved terrorism, but Murgia's order said prosecutors hadn't proved that part of the allegation. Another federal judge later sentenced Simpson to three years of probation.
Bob Kieckhaver, one of a number of residents who were evacuated for about nine hours from units near the men's apartment, said one of them had a beard and wore an Islamic version of a prayer cap. He was quiet but the second man was more open and would greet others at the mailboxes.
Both men were seen feeding stray cats, he said.
Another resident of the Phoenix apartment complex, Lotti Robertson, a native of Abilene, said she got a knock on her door early Monday.
"They told me to expect maybe some possible booms in the apartment, because they might be detonating stuff in it, so that was pretty unnerving," she said.
Simpson had worshipped at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix for about a decade, but he quit showing up over the past two or three months, the president of the mosque told The Associated Press.
Simpson was quiet, never angry and a regular on the basketball court playing with young members of the mosque, said Usama Shami, president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix. He asked questions about prayer and marriage, Shami said. And he was rattled by the FBI investigation into him years earlier
"I've never seen him angry," Shami said of Simpson. "That's the honest truth. He was always having a grin."
In a statement released Monday evening by Phoenix law firm Osborn Maledon, the family of Elton Simpson, said:
"We send our prayers to everyone affected by this act of senseless violence, especially the security guard who was injured in the line of duty. As a family we do not condone violence and proudly support the men and women of our law enforcement agencies. We are sure many people in this country are curious to know if we had any idea of Elton's plans. To that we say, without question, we did not.
"Just like everyone in our beautiful country, we are struggling to understand how this could happen. We will not make further statements. We are heartbroken and in a state of deep shock as we grieve. We humbly request that everyone respect our need for privacy."
The Associated Press' Nomaan Merchant and Jamie Stengle contributed to this report.