The massacre at McDonald’s
“7’m going hunting . . . hunting for humans. ” —James Oliver Huberty
It was just another sunny, southern California day. A day for going to the beach, or shopping, or visiting friends. In San Ysidro, a Mexican-American neighborhood only one mile north of the Mexican border and 15 miles south of San Diego, it was a day for running errands or taking a trip to the zoo. Easygoing Californians shopped for groceries at the Big Bear supermarket and stopped off for cheeseburgers and Cokes at the local McDonald’s at 522 San Ysidro Blvd. Boys arrived on bikes for soft ice-cream cones. Inside the restaurant, it was a working day for teenagers on summer vacation. They swept floors, served fried McNuggets and smiled at the customers. Wednesday, July 18, was a day like any other in San Ysidro, with one difference: before it ended, 21 innocent people were dead and so was their killer.
It was shortly before 4 p.m. when James Oliver Huberty walked through the door of the McDonald’s restaurant, just up the hill from his apartment. Wearing a black T-shirt, military camouflaged fatigues and a pair of sunglasses, Huberty brandished three guns: a 9-mm semiautomatic Uzi rifle, a 9-mm Browning semiautomatic pistol and a 12-gauge Winchester pump shotgun. “He pointed one of the guns at my face,” said Francisco Lopez, 22, an assistant manager at the restaurant. “I thought it was some kind of joke. Then he turned around and started shooting. He killed the old man. Just like that. Boom.” Without an apparent motive, Huberty, 41, husband, father of two daughters, unemployed security guard, mercilessly executed 21 people and wounded 19 more. It took him 82 minutes. The scene was carnage. Among his victims: a family of three, slumped at a bloodstained table; two youngsters, lying beside their bicycles; an eight-month-old girl, sprawled on the restaurant floor. The massacre was the worst of its kind
in U.S. history. It ended when a marksman from San Diego’s Special Weapons and Tactics team (SWAT) fired a single round from the roof of a post office building next door, killing Huberty instantly.
Inside McDonald’s, police found a gruesome collage of dead and wounded. The restaurant walls were blood-spattered and bullet-pocked. They also found 245 empty shell casings, dozens of unspent rounds and the AM-FM radio that Huberty had brought with him to hear news accounts of his rampage. Ten terrified survivors were cowering under tables bearing half-eaten Big Macs and fries, or huddling in basement closets.
At week’s end, investigators were still piecing together the details of a shocking crime, and they were trying to reconstruct the last day of Huberty’s life. The question bedevilling police, the families of the victims and ordinary North Americans was, as always, why he did it. The prevalent theory was familiar: the massacre was the work of an angry loner who hated his world and himself.
According to his wife, Etna, Huberty had eaten a normal breakfast, and the family, with daughters Zelia, 13, and Cassandra, 10, had set out for traffic court in San Diego to pay a fine for illegally crossing a double yellow line. Huberty pleaded ignorance of the law—the family had only moved to San Ysidro in January—and the judge excused him with a suspended fine. Later, the Hubertys went to a nearby restaurant for lunch—ironically, another McDonald’s—then piled into the family car, a black Mercury Marquis sedan, and headed for home on Route 1-805. Then, his distraught wife recalled, “All of a sudden Jim said, ‘Let’s go to the zoo.’ ” They had yearlong passes to the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park, regarded as one of the best in the world.
Said police spokesman Bill Nelson: “From what investigators have been told it was a very average, calm day. They went to the zoo as a family and there didn’t appear to be any trouble.” In fact, in a letter to San Diego TV station KFMB after the massacre, Etna Huberty wrote, “My husband had been attentive and I thought things were coming along quite well. He was quiet. He looked at the animals. There were no arguments.”
About 3 p.m. the family returned to their $470-a-month two-bedroom apartment at Averil Villas, a two-storey wood and stucco complex with a central courtyard near the McDonald’s restaurant. After that, the accounts of the day differed. Etna Huberty maintains that the couple had not quarrelled—as a neighbor had asserted—although she conceded that her husband occasionally beat both her and their daughters. She said she went to the kitchen to wash dishes, while her husband went upstairs. In a bedroom cupboard Huberty maintained a vast arsenal of weapons and ammunition. The guns, apparently bought legally, were always loaded.
After doing the dishes, Etna said, she went to lie down for a rest in her daughter’s bedroom. Then her husband prepared to leave the house. “He said, T want to kiss you goodbye.’ ” She offered him $10, but he declined it, saying, “I’m not going far.” Then Huberty added, “I’m going hunting . .. hunting for humans.” Etna said that she dismissed the threat, although she knew her husband had emotional problems and, last year, had tried to commit suicide. But 10year-old Cassandra apparently took her father seriously. She told neighbors that her parents had had an argument and that her mother and older sister had left the house first, her mother screaming, “I’m going to the McDonald’s.” Later, looking down the hill on the restaurant parking lot, Cassandra saw the family
car, heard shots and feared her mother and sister were dead.
In fact, Etna and Zelia did not leave until after Huberty himself had left. Etna’s letter to the television station said that just before Huberty went out the door, she told him that the man who had purchased their Massillon, Ohio, home last year—where they had lived until last October—had agreed to refinance the property and pay off the mortgage which the Hubertys held. It was good news. It meant that her husband, laid off only a week earlier from his security guard job on a condominium construction site, would be able to buy a business.
It is not clear whether Huberty was carrying the guns, including the semiautomatic pistol he had illegally adapted to fire automatically, or whether the weapons were already in the car. In any case, Huberty climbed into the Mercury and drove down the hill toward the familiar golden arches with the sign proclaiming OVER 45 BILLION SERVED. A chil-
dren’s playground abutted the street, with a slide and climbing equipment and colorful McDonaldland characters smiling brightly on patrons and the passing traffic.
Inside, the afternoon scene was similar to that at McDonald’s around the world. Lawrence Versluis, 62, three days short of retirement from the trucking job he had held for 38 years, was sipping a cup of coffee, perhaps thinking about the trip to Spain he and his wife, Isabel, were planning to take. Two friends, José Lozano, 19, and Gloria Lopez-Gonsales, 24, had stopped off for a snack after shopping for a waterbed. Restaurant manager Neva Caine, 22 and newly married, had been planning to start a family after her husband, Andy, opened his chiropractic practice. (Restaurant franchise owner Robert Colvin, a former Winnipegger, was at his chiropractor being treated for back pains.) David Flores and a fifth-grade friend had bought doughnuts next door at YumYums and, being thirsty, walked their
bikes across to McDonald’s. In all, about 25 people were inside the restaurant, including three teenage girls working the afternoon shift.
Then Huberty arrived and the murders began. “Everybody down,” Huberty shouted, “or I’ll kill somebody.” Terrified customers complied. But Huberty, moving methodically up and down the aisles and cursing, began shooting anyway—at helpless victims, passing motorists, lamps, doors and windows. Several times he stopped to reload his weapons, and one young couple, Oscar Mondragon, 27, and Rusbelino Sevilla, 23, took advantage of a lull in the gunfire to flee. Another woman, Lydia Flores, had just placed her order at the drive-through microphone. When no one appeared at the pickup window, she parked and approached the door. Seeing Huberty, she ran for the car, slammed it into reverse and escaped along a canal that runs behind the property.
Maria Emelda Diaz and her two-yearold son were just entering the restaurant when Huberty brushed past them to begin his murderous assault. She stepped back, but the boy continued into the room. When she realized what was happening, she motioned frantically to the boy to come outside. He obeyed, and she snatched him up and fled.
Four-month-old Karlita Maria Felix was with her parents, Maricela Flores and Astalfo Felix, when Huberty began firing. Sitting near an exit, the 23-yearold mother opened the door and handed her baby to a woman outside just before Huberty shot the woman. The infant was also hit, as were her parents, but last week hospital officials were optimistic that the entire family would survive. Others were less fortunate. David Flores and his friend Omarr Hernandez were killed as they tried to pedal away on their bikes. Another friend, Joshua Coleman, was also struck and feigned death, waiting for the massacre to end. Claudia Perez, 9, was killed by a bullet that passed through her sister’s upraised hand. The sister, Inelda, lived. One survivor recalled hearing Huberty boast that he had “killed many in Vietnam and he wanted to kill more.” But Pentagon and Veterans Administration officials could not find any service record.
The shooting brought several calls to police, who were on the scene within minutes. The local SWAT team followed. But commanders, fearing that Huberty was holding hostages, initially ordered their men not to
shoot. Instead, the snipers took up positions on adjacent buildings and waited. At 5:05 p.m., field commander Lieut. Roy Blackledge gave permission to shoot. But Blackledge’s superior, Lieut. Jerry Sanders, who was stuck in traffic en route to the restaurant, used his radio to countermand the order. “That’s a negative on the green light. There’s a red light—no firing permitted—unless he leaves the building,” Sanders said. He later explained that he thought Huberty had 12 to 15 hostages and the full SWAT team was not in place.
The ruling had little practical effect because most of the killings took place in the first 10 minutes and, even as the officers waited for Sanders, the SWAT team could not get a clear sight line at
Huberty. When Sanders arrived, he promptly gave permission to shoot and at 5:17 p.m., as the rush-hour traffic sped down the highway and the sun began its descent over the nearby Pacific Ocean, sharpshooter Charles Foster fired a single round from his telescopeequipped Remington .308-calibre rifle. The bullet hit Huberty in the chest, struck the aorta and spinal chord and passed through his body.
As one drama ended with Huberty’s death, another began as police sifted through his background in a painstaking search for an explanation of his crime. By most accounts, Huberty was a man bruised by social and financial misfortune and anguished by private devils. Etna Huberty said that he came from a broken home and, during a sad childhood, looked on his dog, Shep, as his only friend. Huberty’s mother, lele, who abandoned her son and his only sister at an early age, said at her home in Texas, “I knew he needed help.”
Huberty was born in Canton, Ohio,
and raised on the peaceful, rolling farmland by his father, Earl, a straitlaced Methodist millworker. Huberty was a loner as a child, as he was in his adult life. Childhood illness plagued him.
At Wanedale high school, in Applecreek, he tried out for the basketball team, but the gangly six-foot teenager with the flat-top brown hair and square eyeglasses did not make the cut.
Some classmates believed he was headed for the ministry. “The family were Bible-toters,” said Jean Hofacre, a former schoolmate. “We thought he went on to the seminary.” In fact, Huberty attended the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Sciences in Pennsylvania before returning to Canton to apprentice with a funeral director. There, he had the first of many failures. Although his employer said that Huberty liked embalming, he did not like dealing with clients. Said the funeral director, Don Williams:
“He was intelligent, but he acted like he just wanted to be left alone.”
Though Huberty ob-
tained a funeral director’s licence in 1965, he opted for a welder’s mask and took a job in the steel town of Massillon, about 10 miles west of Canton, where his father had worked. Huberty married there and began raising his family. But his angry, frightening personality often brought him into conflict with his neighbors. Said Phyllis Putnam of the Massillon police department: “We got calls frequently about him causing problems—vandalism to cars or property.” Sandra Martinez, assistant manager of the San Ysidro apartment building where the Hubertys first lived, said Huberty was “a quiet man who seemed like he was always mad at somebody. He was always frowning.” Once, Huberty’s pet German shepherd scraped the paint on his landlord’s car. Recalled Vaughan Mohler, who lived next door at the time: “He took the dog out back and shot it. That’s how he handled business.” Mohler also remembered being disturbed at night when Huberty practised his marksmanship in his basement target range.“Guns were his toys, his non-
sense,” said his wife Etna last week.
Financially, things seldom went right for the Hubertys. In 1971, their large home in Massillon was demolished when a fire reached a keg of gunpowder Huberty kept in the house, causing an explosion. As well, like many American families, the Hubertys were caught in the economic squeeze of high interest rates, soaring energy prices and economic cutbacks. Huberty blamed former president Jimmy Carter and the capitalist system for his misfortunes, and many of his friends thought he was a Communist. But Etna said, “If anything, he was a Nazi.”
In 1982, he lost his $30,000-a-year welder’s job when the plant where he worked closed. His wife said that he suffered a nervous breakdown as a result. Last September, Huberty lost $69,000 on the sale of the home he had remodelled into an apartment complex. At about the same time, Huberty tried to commit suicide. Said Etna: “He had this little silver gun. He raised it to his head and I pried his fingers off it. I left
the room and hid the gun. When I came back, he was sitting on the sofa, crying.”
The Hubertys’ next move was to the Mexican border town of Tijuana. But Huberty did not speak Spanish and, said his wife, “He felt hopeless, lost and rejected.” Three months later they moved back across the border to San Ysidro. Unable to find work, Huberty applied for a federally funded re-employment program as a security guard. On June 21 he was issued a permit to carry a .38-calibre or a .357 magnum revolver in an open holster while on duty. The condominium construction company hired him to work on its site. Although there were no complaints about his work, he was laid off two weeks ago.
The managers of the apartment complex where the Hubertys lived wasted little time in removing traces of the family’s stay after the shooting. Their nameplate quickly disappeared from the mailbox, and a vacancy sign appeared on the stucco wall of the building. Meanwhile, at the scene of the crime, a ghoulish parade of sightseers carried binoculars and cameras. One couple even recorded the action with a home-video camera. As children played and laughed on the dusty street, a man sold Polaroid photos of the bullet-ridden restaurant, pointing out where the bodies had lain. And McDondald’s employees began the grisly cleanup operation.
The corporation itself displayed a humanitarian approach. Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc, immediately gave $100,000 to launch a fund to aid victims and their families. Mc-
Donald’s Corp. and its franchisees later added $1 million. The company also withdrew all its radio and television commercials in North America in a gesture of respect for the victims. The residents of San Ysidro set up an emergency phone network to handle offers to babysit, cook meals or arrange hospital visits for relatives of the wounded. Mental health officials offered free counselling to survivors and a local funeral home promised free burials. Explained Rudi Elias, director of the San Ysidro Service Center: “Many of the victims were not affluent. If we don’t help, they’ll end up in potter’s field.”
Following the massacre, Etna Huberty and her two children fled to the home of a friend in San Ysidro. But they did not keep their privacy for long. In a bizarre twist, the friend told a KFMB-TV receptionist that Etna thought its coverage of the murders had been the best. She added that Etna was available for an interview. Camera crews and reporter Carlos Amezcua raced to a nearby community centre where Etna handed over a typed, single-spaced letter describing how Huberty had spent his last day. She said that she planned to take her two children back to Massillon and cremate her husband’s remains. Added Etna, tears flowing behind her dark glasses: “You know what I think? I think this is a bad dream and I’ll wake up.”
Etna denied reports that her husband was on drugs and a preliminary coroner’s report concurred. It stated that Huberty’s body, brought in with hands shackled behind the back, contained no signs of drugs or alcohol. Nor did he
appear to have any brain defects. However, pathologists will carry out more extensive tests later. Then, said Etna, there will be no funeral. But she was among more than 1,000 mourners at a memorial service in a local church before funerals for six of his victims.
Inevitably, the massacre sparked comparisons with other such tragedies. One of the more famous recent cases was that of 24-year-old Richard Speck, who stabbed and strangled eight nurses in a Chicago hospital dormitory while under the influence of whisky and heroin in July, 1966. In a shooting spree less than a month later, University of Texas engineering student Charles Whitman, 25, shot and killed his wife and mother at their Austin home, then climbed a campus tower with a rifle, a shotgun and three handguns and fired at 44 passersby, fatally wounding 14. Police marksmen eventually shot him, and an autopsy revealed a small tumor on his brain.
Canada has not been immune to random acts of mayhem. On Jan. 21, 1975, Richard (Weasel) Blass, 29, an escaped
convict who had already murdered five people, killed 13 more in an underworld revenge execution at the Gargantua Bar Salon in North Montreal. In August, 1982, apprentice cabinet maker David Shearing, 23, shot and killed six members of two families who were camping in a provincial park north of Kamloops, B.C. Shearing, who set the bodies ablaze in the campers’ car, is serving a life sentence for the murders. And last May, Denis Lortie, 25, a corporal in the Canadian Forces, killed three people and wounded 13 others with a submachine-gun in Quebec’s legislature (Maclean's, May 21).
Last week, Dr. Frank Elliott, professor emeritus of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, re^ called the Whitman case on hearing of the Huz berty shootings. Elliott, I who is writing a book
0 about “dyscontrol syns drome”—lack of control
1 of violent impulses as a g result of brain damage§ said that media descripI tions of Huberty as a £ man who had bouts of
apparently unreasonable rage could mean that he had a brain dysfunction. He added: “In many cases like Huberty’s, there is minor brain damage or developmental oddity. I have found this in 41 per cent of almost 300 recurrently violent people. It is something that I always look for now when someone explodes into unexplained violence.”
The statistics will not console the families and friends of San Ysidro’s 21 innocent victims. Nor will they impress the statisticians who compute such numbers every day. The victims of James Oliver Huberty were overtaken by random chance. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, a phrase as old as misfortune. And the wrong place can be anywhere—a university tower in Texas, a provincial park in British Columbia or a legislative building in Quebec. But on Wednesday, July 18, at 4 p.m., the wrong place was a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif.