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Tennessee theater attacker may have wanted to set off explosion

Montano arrived at the Carmike Hickory 8 theater armed with the canister of propane, an ax, pepper spray, and a pellet gun resembling a semi-automatic pistol.

A man with a history of mental illness who attacked three people at a Nashville-area movie theater Wednesday was carrying a propane canister and lighter fluid, and may have intended to set off an explosion, authorities said.

Vincente David Montano, 29, was later killed by police. He was described as a "transient" who had been committed for mental health issues at least four times since 2004. Police are trying to determine a motive.

Montano arrived at the Carmike Hickory 8 theater in the suburb of Antioch about 20 to 25 minutes before a showing of "Mad Max: Fury Road," armed with the canister of propane, an ax, pepper spray, and a pellet gun resembling a semi-automatic pistol, Metro Nashville Police Spokesman Dan Aaron said Thursday.

RELATED: Tennessee theater attacker said to have schizophrenia: Police report

Two women inside the theater told police Montano was "staring them down," Aaron said. Montano stood up, moved toward the women and then sat back down — and then "abruptly and suddenly, without any provocation," doused them with pepper spray and struck another man with an ax, Aaron said.

The victims escaped the theater and flagged down nearby police for help. They were not seriously hurt.

Nashville Police Officer Jonathan Frith was one of the first to arrive. The former Marine entered the darkened theater, with the movie still playing, and encountered Montano, who appeared to be shooting at him. Frith said he thought he'd been shot.

"I was engaged by what I perceived to be small arms fire from a small-caliber handgun," Frith said, adding he heard three small pops and felt pressure to the right side of his face. Frith fired once, and withdrew.

A SWAT team wearing gas masks entered the theater and Montano threw canisters at them, Aaron said. He refused several commands to surrender, police said, and four SWAT officers shot at Montano inside the theater. Montano was shot dead by five police officers outside as he fled through a rear door.

"He had a hand up underneath the duffel bag he was wearing over his chest," Aaron said, adding that he was carrying the ax in his other hand. "Officers believed he was carrying an explosive ... and deemed him to be an imminent threat."

The propane tank Montano carried had been gashed, possibly by the ax, and the gas escaped. Aaron said there was a "great possibility" that Montano intended to use the canister as an explosive.

RELATED: Police identify deceased suspect in Antioch, Tennessee, theater attack

Montano has a history of mental illness. His mother, who had not seen her son since 2013, told Murfreesboro police when making a recent missing person report that Montano had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2006.

Aaron said Montano was committed in Rutherford County at least three times in the past, and was committed at least once out of state. A 2004 Murfreesboro police report says Montano's mother reported her son was "having thoughts of suicide as well as homicide" and has been hearing voices.

Montano's state ID listed the address of a homeless shelter. The Nashville Rescue Mission said in a statement that Montano had checked into their men's facility at a different address, in May and on August 3, but there was no record of him ever being an overnight guest.

Frith said he believes officers had no choice but to use deadly force. Police have credited Frith and other officers first on the scene with containing Montano in the theater.

"I wasn't the only one there," he said. "It was just by chance that I engaged him ... We contained the threat as a team."

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