Mass shootings were not unheard of in 1984, but they were far from common. The 1966 Texas Tower shootings by Charles Whitman at the University of Texas in Austin is often considered the first modern mass murder targeting random victims. 16 were killed and 30 wounded on campus that day. But the sniper attack would be rare until the Las Vegas shooting in 2017 with 59 dead plus the shooter. Most incidents with multiple deaths—three or more—were the result of family killings, street gang activity, organized crime wars, or in connection with a crime like robbery. What happened at a San Ysidro, California McDonalds on July 18 of 1984 was something very different—the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history until being surpassed seven years later by the Luby’s Cafeteria shooting in Killeen, Texas where 23 people plus the gunman died.
James Huberty--a deceptively mild-mannered looking killer.
41 year old James Huberty was originally from Ohio where he had a relentlessly sad childhood and youth. He was crippled by polio and wore leg braces for several years leading to being bullied in school. The family was hyper-religious, and he was raised in a particularly severe Methodist household which never spared the rod in punishment of his childhood sins. When his father moved to a farm his mother abandoned the family to become a Pentecostal missionary in Tucson, Arizona. Huberty was emotionally devastated by his mother’s abandonment. His father would later recollect finding his son slumped against the family chicken coop sobbing.
With few friends, he was an indifferent and inattentive student. His only interest or hobby was practicing endlessly with a target pistol. By his teens, Huberty was something of an amateur gunsmith. He was described by the few that knew him as sullen, resentful, and prone to fits of rage.
He did become fixated on death. After graduation from Waynedale High School in Apple Creek, Ohio he kicked around in local odd jobs before trying his hand as a sociology major at Malone University in Canton. The experience at the Quaker school was not a good one. He quickly dropped out and enrolled at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. He graduated with honors in 1964 and earned his funeral director and embalmer licenses.
In early 1965, Huberty married Etna Markland, whom he had met while attending Malone College. Shortly after his marriage, he found work funeral home in Canton. Although proficient at embalming, his introverted personality made him ill-suited to dealing with members of the public, causing minor conflicts with his superiors. He worked in this profession for two years before opting to become a welder for a firm in Louisville where he worked for two years before securing a better-paid position at Babcock & Wilcox in June 1969.
Although reclusive and taciturn, Huberty’s bosses considered him a reliable worker. He willingly took overtime, got promotions and by the mid-1970s was earning a very comfortable income of between $25,000 and $30,000 per year—enough for Huberty and his wife to move into a three-story home in an affluent section of Massillon, Ohio. In the winter of 1971, this home was destroyed in a fire. Despite the set-back James and Etna bought another house on the same street and later built a six-unit apartment building on the grounds of their first home. Daughters Zelia and Cassandra were born in 1972 and 1974.
The family seemed to be doing well, even thriving. But Huberty still suffered bouts of depression and fits of anger and had a history of domestic violence, frequently slapping or punching his daughters, holding knives to their throats, and beating his wife. The police were called on multiple occasions. Etna tried but failed to persuade him to seek counselling for his anger, but he refused. She learned that she could somewhat mollify him and calm him by doing card readings for him with reassuring messages.
Huberty inscribed this Polaroid with the chilling caption "I'll give you 100 yards" while holding an AR-15 assault rifle. It was recently posted appreciatively on a web site for mass murderers and serial killer fans. The deadly efficiency of his killing spree was admired.
Hubert was also amassing a personal arsenal of guns and ammunition. He picked fights with neighbors over the slightest perceived slights and his oft repeated mantra was “I believe in paying my debts. Both good and bad.” He became a conspiracy theorist and self-proclaimed survivalist who believed an escalation of the Cold War was inevitable and that Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and the whole U.S. government were conspiring against him. In many ways he was the prototype of the paranoid and angry White man that became familiar in more recent mass shootings.
Things really fell off a cliff when Huberty lost his job in the 1982 recession which he blamed on mysterious, dark forces. He threatened to commit suicide. The following year in dire economic straits he sold the apartment building for $150,000 and the family home for $12,000 in cash plus assuming the balance of the mortgage. With the money as a nest egg, Huberty put most of the family’s possessions except for his gun collection into storage and drove the family to Tijuana, Mexico where he thought the family’s resources would last longer.
Although his wife and daughters adjusted well and socialized with their new neighbors, Huberty who spoke no Spanish and refused to learn. He was also unable to find a job. After just three months he moved the family across the border to San Ysidro, a poor mostly Latino district of San Diego. They first lived in an apartment complex with otherwise all Latino tenants. He got some Federal job training funds for security guard training, which appealed to him because he would be able to carry a weapon imagined he would command respect. After getting a job as a condominium development guard in April 1984 he sent for the family’s possessions in storage and rented a two bedroom apartment for $400 a month.
On July 10 everything fell apart when Huberty was fired from his job because of his poor work performance and mental instability. Even Huberty seemed finally to ready to acknowledge his mental problems. He admitted them to his wife and even tried to make an appointment to see a counselor on July 17 but was unable to connect. The next morning, he took his family to the San Diego Zoo but told his wife, “Well, society had their chance.” After returning home he outfitted himself in camo pants and kissed his wife good-bye telling her that he was “going hunting—for humans.” He had said similar things before, so she was not unduly alarmed.
But this time he armed himself with a 9mm Browning HP semi-automatic pistol, a 9mm Uzi carbine, a Winchester 12 gauge pump-action shotgun and had a box and a cloth bag filled with hundreds of rounds of ammunition for each weapon. After driving around perhaps scouting other targets, he pulled up to the McDonalds restaurant just a few hundred yards from his apartment.
The San Ysidro McDonald's was virtually indistinguishable from the chain's other 1980's restaurants
He strolled into the busy eatery filled with mostly Latino patrons and employees at 3:56 p.m. Huberty first aimed his shotgun at a 16-year-old employee named John Arnold. As he did so, the assistant manager, Guillermo Flores, shouted: “Hey, John, that guy’s going to shoot you!” but when He pulled the trigger, the gun failed to fire. As Huberty inspected his gun, the manager, 22-year-old Neva Caine, walked toward the service counter of the restaurant in the direction of Arnold, as Arnold began to walk away from the gunman. Huberty fired his shotgun toward the ceiling before aiming the Uzi at Caine, shooting her once beneath her left eye. She died within minutes.
He then turned his shotgun on Arnold wounding him in the chest and arm, before ordering “Everybody on the ground.” Huberty called those in the restaurant as “dirty swine, Vietnam assholes” and claimed that he had “killed a thousand"” and that he intended to "kill a thousand more.” 25-year-old Victor Rivera, tried to persuade Huberty not to shoot anyone else and was promptly shot fourteen times.
As staff and customers tried to hide beneath tables and service booths, Huberty turned to six women and children huddled together. He first killed 19-year-old María Colmenero-Silva with a single gunshot to the chest, then fatally shot nine-year-old Claudia Pérez in the stomach, cheek, thigh, hip, leg, chest, back, armpit, and head with his Uzi. He wounded Pérez's 15-year-old sister Imelda once in the hand and fired upon 11-year-old Aurora Peña with his shotgun. Peña—initially wounded in the leg—had been shielded by her pregnant aunt, 18-year-old Jackie Reyes. Huberty shot Reyes 48 times with the Uzi. Beside his mother's body, eight-month-old Carlos Reyes sat up and wailed. Huberty shouted at the child, then killed the baby with a single pistol shot to the center of the back.
Huberty then shot and killed a 62-year-old trucker named Laurence Versluis, before targeting a family seated near the play area of the restaurant who had tried to shield their son and his friend beneath the tables with their bodies. 31-year-old Blythe Regan Herrera had shielded her 11-year-old son, Matao, beneath one booth, as her husband, Ronald, protected Matao's friend, 12-year-old Keith Thomas, beneath a booth directly across from them. Thomas was shot in the shoulder, arm, wrist, and left elbow, but was not seriously wounded; Ronald Herrera was shot six times in the stomach, chest, arm, hip, shoulder, and head but survived, his wife, Blythe, and son, Matao, were both killed by numerous gunshots to the head.
Nearby, three women had also attempted to hide beneath a booth. 24-year-old Guadalupe del Rio lay against a wall; she was shielded by her friends, 25-year-old Gloria Ramírez, and 31-year-old Arisdelsi Vuelvas Vargas. Del Rio was hit several times but was not seriously wounded, Ramírez was unhurt, whereas Vargas received a single gunshot wound to the back of the head and died of her wound the next day. At another booth, Huberty killed 45-year-old banker Hugo Velázquez Vasquez with a single shot to the chest.
The first of many calls to emergency services was made shortly after 4:00 p.m. notifying police of the shooting of a child who had been taken to a near-by Post Office on San Ysidro Boulevard. The dispatcher mistakenly directed responding officers to another McDonalds two miles from the San Ysidro Boulevard restaurant. This error delayed the imposition of a lockdown by several minutes, and the only warnings to civilians walking, riding, or driving toward the restaurant were given by passers-by. Shortly after 4:00 Lydia Flores, a young woman, drove up to the pickup window. She noticed shattered windows and gunfire, before “looking up and there he was, just shooting.” Flores reversed her car until she crashed into a fence and she hid in some bushes with her two-year-old daughter until the shooting ended.
At approximately 4:05 p.m., a Mexican couple, Astolfo and Maricela Felix, drove toward one of the service areas of the restaurant. Noting the shattered laminated glass, Astolfo initially assumed renovation work was in progress and that Huberty—striding toward the car—was a repairman. Huberty fired his shotgun and Uzi at the couple and their four-month-old daughter, Karlita, striking Maricela in the face, arms and chest, blinding her in one eye and permanently rendering one hand unusable. Her baby was critically wounded in the neck, chest and abdomen. Astolfo was wounded in the chest and head. As Astolfo and Maricela staggered away from Huberty’s line of fire, Maricela gave their baby to her husband. Astolfo handed the shrieking child to a young woman named Lucia Velasco as his wife collapsed against a car. Velasco rushed the baby to a nearby hospital as her husband assisted Astolfo and Maricela into a nearby building. All three members of the Felix family survived.
The body of 11 year old Omar Hernandez lays by his bicycle outside the McDonalds.
Three 11-year-old boys then rode their bikes into the west parking lot to buy sundaes. Hearing someone yell from across the street, all three hesitated, before Huberty shot the three boys with his shotgun and Uzi. Joshua Coleman fell to the ground critically wounded in the back, arm, and leg. Omar Alonso Hernandez was on the ground with multiple gunshot wounds to his back and had started vomiting and David Flores Delgado, received several gunshot wounds to his head. Coleman survived; Hernandez and Delgado both died at the scene. Huberty next noticed an elderly couple, 74-year-old Miguel Victoria Ulloa, and 69-year-old Aida Velázquez Victoria, walking toward the entrance. As Miguel reached to open the door for his wife, Huberty fired his shotgun, killing Aida with a gunshot to the face and wounding Miguel. An uninjured survivor, Oscar Mondragon, later reported observing Miguel cradling his wife in his arms and wiping blood from her face, shouting curses at Huberty, who then approached the doorway, swore at Miguel, then killed him with a shot to the head
Approximately ten minutes after the first call had been, police arrived at the correct McDonalds. The first officer on the scene, Miguel Rosario, rapidly determined the location and cause of the actual disturbance and relayed this information to the San Diego Police Department as Huberty fired at Rosario’s patrol car. Officers deployed immediately imposed a lockdown on an area spanning six blocks from the site of the shootings. The police established a command post two blocks from the restaurant and deployed 175 officers in strategic locations. These officers were joined within the hour by several SWAT team members, who also took positions around the restaurant.
As Huberty was firing rapidly and alternating between firearms, police initially were unaware how many individuals were inside the restaurant. Because most of the windows had been shattered by gunfire, reflections from shards of glass provided an additional difficulty for police focusing inside the restaurant. Initially, police were concerned the gunman or gunmen may be holding hostages, although one individual who had escaped told them there was a single gunman present in the premises, holding no hostages and shooting any individual he encountered. At 5:05 p.m., all responding law enforcement personnel were authorized to kill the perpetrator if they could get a clear shot.
Several survivors later reported observing Huberty walk toward the service counter and adjust a portable radio, possibly to search for news reports of his shooting spree, before selecting a music station and further shooting victims as he danced to the music. Then Huberty searched the kitchen area, discovering six employees and shouting: “Oh, there’s more. You’re trying to hide from me!” One of the female employees screamed in Spanish, “Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me!” before he opened fire, killing 21-year-old Paulina López, 19-year-old Elsa Borboa-Fierro, and 18-year-old Margarita Padilla, and critically wounding 17-year-old Albert Leos. Immediately before Huberty had begun shooting, Padilla grabbed the hand of her friend, 17-year-old Wendy Flanagan, before the two began to run. Padilla was then fatally shot. Flanagan, four other employees and a female customer hid inside a basement utility room. They were later joined by Leos, who had crawled to the utility room after being shot five times.
When a fire truck drove within range, Huberty opened fire and repeatedly peppered the vehicle with bullets, slightly wounding one occupant. Hearing a wounded teenager, 19-year-old Jose Pérez, moaning, Huberty shot him in the head; the boy slumped dead in the booth. Pérez died alongside his friend and neighbor, 22-year-old Gloria González, and a young woman named Michelle Carncross. At one point, Aurora Peña, who had lain wounded beside her dead aunt, baby cousin and two friends, noted a lull in the firing. Opening her eyes, she saw Huberty nearby, staring in her direction. He swore and threw a bag of french fries at Peña, then retrieved his shotgun and shot the child in the arm, neck, and jaw. Aurora Peña survived, although she would remain hospitalized longer than any other survivor.
At 5:17 p.m., Huberty walked from the service counter toward the doorway close to the drive-in window, affording a 27-year-old police SWAT sniper Charles Foster on the roof of the Post Office directly opposite the McDonald’s an unobstructed view of his body from the neck down through his telescopic sight. Foster fired a single round from a range of approximately 35 yards. The bullet entered Huberty’s chest, severed his aorta just beneath his heart, and exited through his spine sending Huberty sprawling backwards onto the floor directly in front of the service counter, killing him almost instantly.
Hublerty's deadly Uzi lay on the floor surrounded by spent rounds near his body.
So many rounds had been expended from different firearms within the restaurant, police were not completely certain the sole perpetrator was deceased. Entering the restaurant approximately one minute later, a police sergeant focused his gun upon Huberty as he noted the movements of a wounded girl. When asked if the deceased male was the suspect, the girl nodded her head.
The entire incident had lasted for 77 minutes, during which time Huberty fired a minimum of 257 rounds, killing 20 people and wounding as many others, one of whom was pronounced brain dead upon arrival at hospital and died the following day. Seventeen of the victims were killed inside and four in the immediate vicinity. Only 10 of those inside were uninjured—six of whom had hidden inside the basement utility room.
Survivor Wendy Flanagan, right, and a co-worker are led from the building by police.
McDonalds temporarily suspended all television and radio advertisements in the days following the massacre. In an act of solidarity, arch-rival fast food chain Burger King also temporarily suspended all forms of advertising.
Huberty’s body was cremated on July 23, 1984. No religious service was held. His ashes were returned to his widow, and later interred in his home state of Ohio.
In the weeks following the massacre, Huberty’s wife and daughters received numerous death threats, forcing them to temporarily reside with a family friend. All three would attend counseling sessions for over nine months.
Etna Huberty and her daughters initially relocated from San Ysidro to Chula Vista, where Zelia and Cassandra enrolled in school under assumed names. One year later, the family moved to the town of Spring Valley.
The front page of the San Diego Union the day after the attack.
Because of the sheer number of victims, local funeral homes had to use the San Ysidro Civic Center to hold wakes for each victim. The local Catholic parish, Mount Carmel Church, was forced to back-to-back funeral masses in order that each of the dead could be buried in a timely manner.
Several police officers who responded to the scene of the massacre suffered symptoms including sleep deprivation, loss of memory, and guilt in the months following the incident. A study commissioned by the National Institute of Mental Health and conducted by the chief psychologist of the San Diego Police Department in 1985 concluded several officers suffered posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of the incident. So, presumably did many survivors and witnesses.
In assessing the Police Department’s response, an inquiry reported that for the most part responding officers had acted appropriately given the information they had. When the Police Chief was asked if the murders were hate crimes against Latinos, he denied it saying Huberty “hated everybody.”
The San Ysidro McDonalds massacre prompted the city of San Diego to assess the tactical methods by which they responded to incidents of this nature and the firearms in the possession of responding officers. The police department increased training for special units and purchased more powerful firearms in order to better equip law enforcement to respond to scenarios of this magnitude. One officer reported feeling inadequate because he had only been armed with a .38 caliber revolver. “The time had come where you had to have a full-time, committed and dedicated, highly trained, well-equipped team ... able to respond rapidly, anywhere in the city.” A high ranking police official reported. Thus the massacre helped build the momentum to heavily armed, armored, and militarized police.
Although the company initially planned to quickly re-open the busy restaurant, they quickly bowed to public pressure and had the building leveled and deeded the land to the city on the condition that no other eating place could be built there.
The Massacre memorial is decorated with flowers and pictures of the dead on the anniversary of the shooting every year.
A permanent memorial on the site was formally unveiled on December 13, 1990 consisting of 21 hexagonal white marble pillars ranging in height from one to six feet; each bearing the name of one of the victims. The memorial was designed by a former Southwestern College student Roberto Valdes, described his inspiration for the design:
The 21 hexagons represent each person that died, and they are different heights, representing the variety of ages and races of the people involved in the massacre. They are bonded together in the hopes that the community, in a tragedy like this, will stick together, like they did.
On each anniversary of the massacre the monument decorated with flowers and it has become a pilgrimage spot during annual Day of the Dead observances with candles and offerings brought for the victims.
But outside the community the massacre is little remembered. There have been too many fresh horrors since.