Ventura County Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Helus and a passing highway patrolman were responding to several 911 calls late Wednesday night when they showed up at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California.
It was "college night" at the bar, and many students were there to learn the country two-step.
But when Helus and a California Highway Patrol officer entered the bar about 11:20 p.m., gunshots were already piercing the room. He and the CHP officer went inside, according to Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean, who held an emotional news conference outside the bar early Thursday morning.
Helus was immediately hit with multiple gunshots, Dean said. The highway patrolman cleared the perimeter and pulled Helus out.
By the time they entered the bar again the gunfire had stopped, and they found 12 people dead inside, including Helus and the gunman. A 24-mile procession was held for Helus before noon, as a hearse carried his body from the bar to the Ventura County Medical Examiner's Office. Firefighters, police and school children saluted the caravan as it passed by.
"Ron was a hardworking, dedicated sheriff's sergeant who was totally committed," Dean said, choking back a few tears and clearing his throat. "And tonight, as I told his wife, he died a hero because he went in to save lives."
Law enforcement officials identified the gunman as Ian David Long of Newbury Park, a 28-year-old ex-Marine who used a .45-caliber Glock handgun. He suffered from PTSD.
When Long entered, people screamed and fled to all corners of the bar, while a few people threw barstools through the windows and helped dozens to escape, witnesses said.
Shootings of any kind are very rare in Thousand Oaks, a city of about 130,000 people about 40 miles west of Los Angeles, just across the county line.
The news struck Helus' work family hard. Capt. Kuredijan Long described his slain friend as a leader, a "lifelong learner" and a "workout fanatic."
Helus was a 29-year veteran of the force with a wife and grown son and planned to retire in the coming year, said the sheriff, who choked back tears several times as he talked about a man who was also his longtime friend.
A friend, Sgt. Eric Buschow, said Helus took on some of the toughest assignments, was on the SWAT team for much of his career and worked in narcotics and investigations.
Dean says the report of the shooting came as Helus was on the phone with his wife.
The sheriff said Helus told her, "Hey I gotta go handle a call. I love you. I'll talk to you later."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Gina Silva and Gigi Graciette reported from Thousand Oaks, Calif. Lisa Fernandez wrote from Oakland, Calif.