THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — The mourners gathered to hold hands, to sing and to wonder how one of the safest cities in America could become a killing zone.
Hundreds of people gathered Thursday evening to remember the dozen people shot and killed by a Marine veteran at the packed Borderline Bar & Grill the night before.
It was a scene of horror enacted in many places around the country in recent months, but never before in Thousand Oaks.
Terrified patrons who had gathered for the weekly line dancing and college night hurled barstools through windows to escape or threw their bodies protectively on top of friends as shots erupted. Twelve people were killed including Ventura County sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus, a 29-year veteran nearing retirement who responded to reports of shots fired and was gunned down as he entered the bar.
He and other first responders “ran toward danger,” Sheriff Geoff Dean said at the vigil.
“When I told her (his wife) that we had lost her hero, I said to her: ‘Because of Ron, many lives were saved,’” Dean said. “And she looked at me through her tears and she said: ‘He would have wanted it that way.’”
The dead also included a man who had survived last year’s massacre in Las Vegas, Telemachus Orfanos, 22.
“I don’t want prayers. I don’t want thoughts,” his mother, Susan Schmidt-Orfanos, said earlier. “I want those bastards in Congress — they need to pass gun control so no one else has a child that doesn’t come home.”
Dani Merrill also attended the 2017 Las Vegas country music festival where a gunman in a high-rise hotel opened fire and killed 58 people. She was appalled that such bloodshed had come to her community.
“I’m super upset that it happened in our home and I feel awful for the families that have to go through this,” Merrill said at the vigil. She escaped from the Borderline bar when the shooting began, hurting her knee as she ran onto a loading dock.
The city of about 130,000 people about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from Los Angeles, just across the county line, is annually listed as one of the safest cities in America.
“Hope has sustained communities, very much like Thousand Oaks, through the exact same triages of mass shootings,” said Andy Fox, the city’s outgoing mayor. “Tonight Thousand Oaks takes its place with those cities, who in order to move forward will rely on hope. we are Thousand Oaks strong.”
The motive for the attack was under investigation.
The killer, Ian David Long, 28, was a former machine gunner and Afghanistan war veteran who was interviewed by police at his home last spring after an episode of agitated behavior that authorities were told might be post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dressed all in black with his hood pulled up, Long opened fire with a handgun with an illegal, extra-capacity magazine. He shot a security guard outside the bar and then went in and took aim at employees and customers, authorities said. He also used a smoke bomb, according to a law enforcement official who was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. He apparently killed himself as scores of police converged on the nightspot.
Many of the estimated 150 patrons at the Borderline dived under tables, ran for exits, broke through windows or hid in the attic and bathrooms, authorities and witnesses said.
Matt Wennerstrom said he instinctively pulled people behind a pool table, and he and friends shielded women with their bodies after hearing the shots. When the gunman paused to reload, Wennerstrom said, he and others shattered windows with barstools and helped about 30 people escape. He heard another volley of shots once he was safely outside.
“All I wanted to do was get as many people out of there as possible,” he told KABC-TV. “I know where I’m going if I die, so I was not worried.”
A video posted on Instagram after the shooting by one of the patrons shows an empty dance floor with the sound of windows shattering in the background. As a silhouetted figure comes through a doorway, the camera turns erratically and 10 gunshots ring out.
“I looked him in his eyes while he killed my friends,” Dallas Knapp wrote on his post. “I hope he rots in hell for eternity.”
Earlier, people stood in line for hours to give blood, although some found it hard to get to the donation site because of a wildfire that erupted not far away and closed down a major freeway.
All morning, people looking for missing friends and relatives arrived at a community center where authorities and counselors were informing the next-of-kin of those who died.
Jason Coffman received the news that his son Cody, 22, who was about to join the Army, was dead. Coffman broke down as he told reporters how his last words to his son as he went out that night were not to drink and drive and that he loved him.
“Oh, Cody, I love you, son,” Coffman sobbed.
It was the nation’s deadliest such attack since 17 students and teachers were killed at a Parkland, Florida, high school nine months ago. It also came less than two weeks after a gunman massacred 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Democratic Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, in his first public appearance since winning office on Tuesday, lamented the violence that has returned to California.
“It’s a gun culture,” he said. “You can’t go to a bar or nightclub? You can’t go to church or synagogue? It’s insane is the only way to describe it. The normalization, that’s the only way I can describe it. It’s become normalized.”
President Donald Trump praised police for their “great bravery” in the attack and ordered flags flown at half-staff in honor of the victims.
Authorities searched Long’s home in Newbury Park, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the Borderline bar, for clues to what set him off.
“Maybe there was a motive for this particular night, but we have no information leading to that at all,” the sheriff said.
Long was in the Marines from 2008 to 2013, rose to the rank of corporal and served in Afghanistan in 2010-11 before he was honorably discharged, the military said. Court records show he married in 2009 and was divorced in 2013.
Authorities said he had no criminal record, but in April officers were called to his home, where deputies found him angry and acting irrationally. The sheriff said officers were told he might have PTSD because of his military service. A mental health specialist met with him and didn’t feel he needed to be hospitalized.
Tom Hanson, 70, who lives next door to Long and his mother, said he called the police about six months ago when he heard “heavy-duty banging” and shouting coming from the Longs’ home.
“Somebody has missed something here,” his wife, Julie Hanson, said. “This woman has to know that this child needed help.”
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