Rampage Killers

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James Huberty

Those who knew him called him weird, odd, short-tempered, a man on the edge, a fuse ready to blow. Few however could have imagined the carnage James Huberty would unleash at a McDonald’s restaurant on a muggy San Ysidro afternoon in July 1984.

James Huberty was born on October 11, 1942 in Canton, Ohio. As a boy, he contracted polio, a disease that caused him to suffer spastic paralysis and numbness throughout his body. Neither was that the only childhood setback he endured. When James was just seven, his mother Isel, abandoned the family to become a “street missionary,” something that affected him deeply and caused him to act out aggressively on numerous occasions. His father, Earle, did his best to hold the Huberty clan together, but James became increasingly withdrawn. The only thing that seemed to interest him was the .22 rifle gifted to him by his father. He was frequently in trouble for shooting up cabbages in a neighbor’s field.

Whatever demons plagued James Huberty’s formative years, he appeared to have outrun them by the time he reached adulthood. After graduating high school, he enrolled at Malone College, a small humanities school in Ohio, where he obtained a degree in sociology. Afterwards, he studied to become a licensed embalmer at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science in Pennsylvania. It was in Pittsburgh that he met his future wife, Etna.

Huberty did not last long in the funeral business, mainly because he lacked the interpersonal skills required to succeed in the profession. He was a skilled embalmer but was not very good at interacting with bereaved families. Moving back to Canton, he found a job as a welder at the Babcock and Wilcox utility plant, something that was more suited to his personality. Co-workers from that time recalled that he never spoke much, unless the discussion turned to guns. Then Huberty would hog the conversation, trotting out all kinds of ballistic information, including what various calibers could do to the human body.

In 1965, James Huberty married his sweetheart Etna at the Trinity Gospel Temple in Canton. Over the next few years, he’d father two daughters, Zelia and Cassandra. In 1971, the family moved to a large, redbrick house in Massillon, Ohio, about ten miles west of Canton. They also bought an investment property, a six-unit apartment building. Things were most definitely looking up.

But the picture of Huberty as the devoted husband and family man contrasted starkly with how his neighbors saw him. Intensely private, he constructed a high fence around his property and posted several “No Trespassing” signs. He also kept a number of large dogs, described by neighbors as “attack dogs.” He barely passed the time of day with his neighbors but was ever vigilant for transgressions on their part and always ready to confront anyone who overstepped his bounds. There were a number of heated exchanges over pets. On one occasion Huberty even tried to shoot a stray dog that had defecated on the sidewalk outside his house. Only the intervention of a neighbor saved the animal’s life.

Aside from the constant bickering with the neighbors, Huberty and his family enjoyed a relatively happy decade in Massillon. But all of that was to change when hard times hit the region in the early eighties. Eventually, the Babcock and Wilcox plant was forced into closure and Huberty lost his job. Five months later, he found new employment and lost that too. Then he tried to sell his apartment building to raise money and was defrauded by the real estate agent. All of this left him bitter and angry and disillusioned. On one occasion he threatened to shoot himself and Etna had to wrestle the gun from his hand.

At around this time, Huberty's aggression towards other people started to escalate. He began talking openly about shooting people and was drawn into a number of altercations, one of which resulted in his arrest for disorderly conduct. Then he was involved in an auto wreck, which left him in constant pain and with a tremor in one hand. Soon his wife and children began to suffer the brunt of his ill-tempered wrath as well. One witness recalled seeing Huberty threaten Etna with a gun.

In the autumn of 1983, Huberty suddenly uprooted his family and moved to California. The move was ill prepared. Huberty had still not resolved the outstanding issues surrounding his properties and had not arranged accommodation out west. As a result, the family lived a shiftless life for the next ten months, staying in several small towns along the Mexican border. Eventually, they settled in San Ysidro.

But if Huberty thought that the cross-country move would somehow resolve all his problems, he was wrong. He grew ever more frustrated, ever more angry. He began talking endlessly about the coming apocalypse. He became obsessed with survivalist ideals. The only thing that seemed to give him pleasure was to unpack the extensive weapons cache he had assembled over the years and spend the hours cleaning his guns. His bizarre actions manifested in other ways too. One day he walked up to a parked police car in San Ysidro, insisted that he was a war criminal and demanded to be arrested. The police questioned him and then let him go.

In June 1984, Huberty found work as a security guard and was able to move his family to a better neighborhood in San Ysidro. But the move proved ill advised. Within days of starting his new job, Huberty was fired due to his bad attitude. It was the last straw. James Huberty, who had spoken so often about the apocalypse to come, had finally reached the end of his tether. He was about to unleash an apocalypse of his own.

On Tuesday July 17, Huberty told his wife that he had tried to make an appointment at a local mental health clinic. He said that the clinic had promised to call him back but had failed to do so. When Etna suggested that he phone again, Huberty became angry and left on his motorcycle.

The following day, Wednesday July 18, the Hubertys drove up to San Diego, where James was due to appear in traffic court over a disputed ticket. Afterwards, Huberty treated his family to lunch at McDonald’s and then he and Etna took the kids to the San Diego Zoo. As they were driving home, he made a cryptic comment to Etna, one that appears chilling in retrospect. “Society had their chance,” he said.

At around 3:45 on the afternoon of July 18, James Huberty left his apartment in San Ysidro. He was wearing camouflage pants and a black T-shirt and lugging a tote bag. When Etna asked where he was going, he said that he was “Going hunting humans.” It was just the sort of oddball comment she was used to hearing from her husband and Etna thought nothing of it.

Outside, Huberty dropped his bag on the passenger seat of his battered old Mercury Marquis and started the car. His destination, just a block away on San Ysidro Boulevard, was the local McDonald’s outlet. He pulled into the restaurant parking lot just before four.

By the time Huberty flipped open the door of the Mercury and stepped onto the blacktop, he looked more like a Special Forces soldier than an out-of-work, middle-aged security guard. An Uzi semi-automatic was slung over one shoulder; a canvas tote bag full of ammunition adorned the other. Into his belt was shoved a 9-mm Browning pistol with a fourteen-shot clip; a twelve-gauge Winchester pump-action shotgun was held loosely in his hands.

Sixteen-year-old McDonalds’ employee John Arnold was standing at the service counter, when he found himself looking straight down the barrel of a shotgun, held by a balding man. Arnold barely had time to respond when the man pulled the trigger. It clicked down on an empty chamber. Thinking it was some kind of a sick joke, Arnold walked away, shaking his head in disgust.

Meanwhile, some of the customers in the restaurant had noticed Huberty, standing by the counter, tinkering with the shotgun. Some wisely chose to leave immediately, but others ignored him, taking him for a harmless crank, or perhaps someone on their way to a fancy dress party dressed as Rambo. They were soon disabused of that notion when Huberty shouted out, “I’m going to kill you all,” and then started firing.

John Arnold, who had earlier had such a narrow escape, was nicked by shotgun pellets from the first blast. Then people started screaming, throwing themselves to the floor, rushing for the exit. A plate glass window shattered, as Arnold dived for cover under a seat. Griselda Diaz, a customer, did the same thing, then dragged her young son across the floor to a side exit. They managed to escape, but others were not so lucky.

As Huberty kept firing, emptying one weapon, switching to another, reloading, the first emergency call reached the police. That call came from within the restaurant, but others soon followed, made by people in the vicinity who had heard the shots.

Meanwhile, several of the kitchen staff had managed to run to a downstairs cloakroom to hide. They were joined shortly by other employees and a few customers. This small group huddled together, listening to the ceaseless cacophony of shots from upstairs and praying that the assassin would not find their hiding place.

Upstairs, Huberty continued his deadly spree. Manager Neva Caine was executed by a shot to the head. Then Huberty rooted out four other employees from their hiding place. He opened fire, killing two girls instantly. A third tried to crawl away but was cut down by a shotgun blast to the back of the head. The fourth member of the group, Albert Leos, was shot four times but miraculously survived.

Huberty now turned his attention to other targets. Three youngsters - Joshua Coleman, David Flores and Omar Hernandez - were pushing their bicycles along the pavement in front of the building, when he opened fire. Flores and Hernandez were killed instantly. Coleman only survived because he had the presence of mind to play dead.

By the time the first police car arrived on the scene at 4:07, 18-year-old Jackie Wright Reyes, and her 8-month-old son, Carlos, were dead, as were elderly couple, Aida Velazquez Victoria, 69, and Miguel Victoria-Ulloa, 74. Huberty turned his attention on the police cruiser, shattering its windscreen and emergency lights with a barrage of gunfire. Cowering behind their vehicle, the officers placed a call and requested a SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team.

Inside, the McDonald’s now resembled a slaughterhouse. Blood-spattered bodies lay everywhere, while the wounded writhed and moaned in agony. Some people played dead. Others cowered under tables and prayed that the gunman wouldn’t find them. Many were beyond prayers. Victor Rivera, a maintenance man, had brought his wife and 4-year-old daughter to McDonald’s for a treat. Now Victor was dead, his wife and daughter seriously injured. Ron and Blythe Herrera had stopped off with their 11-year-old son for a quick bite. Only Ron would survive the excursion, albeit with seven gunshot wounds. Lawrence Versluis, a 62-year-old truck driver, was taking his coffee break when he was shot dead. He had been due to retire at the end of the week.

With the toll now at twenty-one dead and nineteen injured, the police finally managed to establish a perimeter, shutting down blocks of San Ysidro Boulevard and a stretch of Interstate 5. By 4:55 p.m. the SWAT team was in position, with snipers on the roof of a post office to the south of the restaurant. However, the restaurants tinted windows, many of them now marred by dense spider webs of cracks, made it impossible for the sniper to get eyes on the assassin. With no way to assess the situation inside the restaurant, the SWAT team was ordered to wait. No shots were to be fired unless the gunman tried to escape.

Huberty had by now redirected his fire. He was no longer shooting at customers inside the restaurant, he was targeting the police officers outside. Inadvertently, though, he was exposing his position. As he continued firing, pieces of glass began falling away from the windows, giving the sharpshooters a target to aim at. At 5:13 p.m. SWAT commander Jay Sanders gave the order, any sniper with a clear shot was to take it.

SWAT sniper Charles Foster was positioned on the roof of the post office with his Remington .308-caliber sniper rifle. At 5:17, four minutes after receiving the green light, Foster got a clear visual on Huberty. He drew in a breath, held it, and then gently applied pressure on the trigger. A single shot was fired, crashing into Huberty’s chest and ripping through his body before shattering his spine. He was probably dead even before he realized he’d been shot.

The McDonalds massacre was at the time the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. In its aftermath, McDonalds tore down the restaurant and donated the land to the city of San Ysidro. They in turn built an education center on the site. A memorial consisting of 21 hexagonal granite pillars commemorates the casualties of James Huberty’s deadly spree. Nineteen more victims survived their wounds, but must forever endure the physical and mental scars of that terrible day.

Rampage Killers contains 11 more horrific spree killing cases.