Moments after armed assailants stormed the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif., Dec. 2, a police officer broadcast an urgent message.
“We have two witnesses who watched the whole thing start,” the officer said. “They said there are three shooters with rifles without a doubt. They said definitely three.”
Hours later, police Chief Jarrod Burguan repeated the number at a news conference.
But In the months since, FBI and police say they have found no evidence that the attack was carried out by anyone other than Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik.
But the early reports of a possible third shooter — a source of worry for first responders racing to the scene — continue to bedevil authorities.
A few victims interviewed by police still maintain they saw a third attacker. The father of one victim raised the possibility this week while weighing in on the legal dispute over investigators’ attempts to gain access to Farook’s work iPhone. And Burguan said residents still ask him about a third assailant when he attends public forums.
“The questions about this third shooter have persisted, and I understand why,” Burguan said. “Our dispatch radios have been recorded, they have been played live. We know there was information that went out over the air. That was all fog of war.”
Studies have found that witnesses who experience a highly stressful or traumatic event are less likely to accurately recall details. A news cycle that helps spread early information that is often wrong also feeds false stories even after a better picture of what happened emerges, according to police and forensic psychologists.
“Once the misinformation is embedded, it becomes a part of their memory,” said Deryn Strange, a professor of psychology at John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York. “It is exceptionally difficult to get rid of that information because we don’t really take on corrections particularly easily.”
Federal investigators have said that none of the evidence they have so far collected — including weapons used in the attack — indicate the involvement of a third shooter.
Burguan said ballistics evidence shows that only two weapons were used in the Inland Regional Center. Police have interviewed several hundred people in connection with the investigation, and the vast majority reported they saw two shooters, he said. There were no surveillance cameras in the room where the shooting occurred.
“In the absence of video, you rely on forensics and witness accounts,” said Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman.
As the investigation continues, FBI officials said they won’t rule out the possibility of a third shooter — or any other potential scenario. Last month, the federal government called on Apple to help FBI agents unlock an iPhone used by Farook, as part of the bureau’s effort to figure out whether he communicated with anyone else about the terrorist plot.
San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos filed a brief backing the FBI that cited two 911 calls that reported a third shooter.
“Although the reports of three individuals were not corroborated, and may ultimately be incorrect, the fact remains that the information contained solely on the seized iPhone could provide evidence to identify as of yet unknown co-conspirators,” Ramos wrote.
In the attack, the early reports of a third shooter weighed heavily on the minds of those rushing to the aid of victims.
Michael Neeki, a trauma physician who entered the building with a county SWAT team, was already struggling to tune out panicked sobs and shrieks echoing throughout the facility as he tried to evacuate victims. With each step, he said, he wondered whether another round of gunfire or an explosion could happen.
Alex and Nina Jabourian, a husband and wife who work as emergency medicine residents at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in nearby Colton, shared Neeki’s concern as they arrived at the scene of the firefight in which Farook and Malik were killed hours later.
They had been told during a debriefing that there may have been three shooters. Even after Farook and Malik had been killed, reports of another armed assailant were coming over police radios.
“Right now we have one down outside the car, one down inside the car. From what we understand, one is on the run,” a dispatcher said, according to recordings of transmissions that followed the gun battle.
“It was worrisome because we didn’t have complete information about what was going on,” Nina Jabourian said. “We didn’t know if it was safe to be there.”
Months later, Jabourian says that she and her husband no longer wonder whether there was a third shooter. She attributes those concerns to the chaos of the day.