Originally published 02/20/2013.
Kicking around a football at about 3:40 p.m. on July 18, 1984 in the San Ysidro section of San Diego, California, Armando Rodriguez, 11, noticed a black Mercury Marquis drive into the McDonald’s parking lot across the street. The man who exited the car puzzled Armando. Wearing fatigue pants and a dark shirt, carrying a bag, the man also carried weapons: a 9 mm Uzi semi-automatic, a Winchester pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, and a 9 mm Browning HP.
As the people inside the McDonald’s soon learned, the man would use those weapons on them. “Lie down!” he barked.
Both customers and employees lay down. An employee picked up a phone to call police and James Huberty, 41, began shooting those on the floor. He methodically shot as he walked through the prone people. When bloodied people on the floor moaned, Huberty shot them again. He shot people as they fled and shot at people in the parking lot outside the restaurant. He left the restaurant to shoot people lying in the parking lot outside if they showed signs of life. Some people hid behind cars.
School chums Omar Hernandez, David Flores, and Joshua Coleman, all 11, ran for their bicycles in the parking lot when the shooting began. Huberty shot each of them. Hernandez and Flores fell dead. The wounded Coleman “played dead.” He did not move until police rescued him after Huberty’s death.
Alicia Gracia was cooking chips when Huberty started firing. She and two other kitchen workers raced downstairs to the cloakroom. Other employees soon escaped to that room.
The shooting lasted 77 minutes. Huberty spent 257 rounds of ammunition, mostly with the Uzi. He killed 21 people, most of them Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants, and injured 19 others. The youngest killed, Carlos Reyes, was eight months old and the oldest, Miguel Victoria-Ulloa, was 74.
The first police car arrived at 4:07 p.m. Huberty shattered its windscreen and emergency lights. A police officer called for a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. Cops closed off six blocks around the restaurant.
At 5:17 p.m., SWAT sharpshooter Charles Foster, perched on the post office south from McDonald’s, shot from his telescope-sighted Remington .308-caliber rifle, killing Huberty with a bullet that crashed through a glass door and into his heart.
The wounded were rushed to nearby hospitals.
San Diego Police Chief Bill Kolender called it “the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life and I’ve been in the business 28 years.”
Born on October 11, 1942 in Canton, Ohio, James Huberty contracted polio when he was three. His father, Earl Huberty, recalled, “His whole nervous system was hurt” and described the disease as making the boy “quick-tempered” because of the pain and spasms he suffered. Polio also left him with permanent walking difficulties.
In the early 1950s, Earl bought a farm in “Pennsylvania Amish Country,” an area that earned its name because of its high population of Amish Mennonites.
When James was seven, his mother, Isel, felt “called” to become a Christian missionary. She left her family — leaving deep psychological wounds in James. A minister recalled that James “blamed God for taking his mother away from him.”
The only close friend of the sad, lonely boy was his dog, Shep. As a youth, Huberty displayed a strong interest in guns and facility with them. A neighbor said, “He’d shoot five heads of cabbage.”
In early adulthood, Huberty enrolled at Malone College where he met Etna, whom he later married in 1965. He attended the college off and on but eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
After graduation, he trained at another school as an embalmer.
In 1971, James and Etna Huberty moved into a comfortable, redbrick house in Massillon, Ohio.
Although Huberty had received an embalmer’s license, he did not go into that business. He apprenticed as a welder and worked in that capacity at the Babcock and Wilcox utility plant. Don Williams, owner of a funeral home at which Huberty had trained as an embalmer, commented, “He was a good embalmer but just didn’t relate to people. That’s why he was better as a welder. He could just put that mask down and be by himself.”
Etna gave birth to daughters Zelia and Cassandra. The family seemed happy enough. During the 1970s, Huberty became interested in “survivalist” doctrines. A “No Trespassing” sign was prominently placed on his property.
After a fire broke out in the Huberty house, the Hubertys moved to Canton. Huberty worked as a welder for Union Metal.
Huberty often bickered with neighbors. A dog defecated on his lawn and Huberty went after it with a gun, but was dissuaded from shooting it by a neighbor. When another neighbor griped that the Huberty German Shepherd damaged a car, Huberty shot his pet.
At a child’s birthday party, Etna encouraged her daughter Zelia to fistfight with a classmate. Etna squabbled with the classmate’s mother. During the quarrel, Etna brandished a gun and was soon arrested. Etna was also once accused of threatening neighbors with a handgun because she said their noise interfered with her sleep.
Local police sometimes joked that “it’s the Hubertys again” because neighbors complained about them so often and the Hubertys complained about others with similar frequency.
Economic hard times hit Ohio in the 1980s. The Babcock and Wilcox plant shut down. Huberty was devastated by the lay-off and feared he could not make his house payments. Former co-worker Terry Kelly recalled, “He said that if this was the end of his making a living for his family, he was going to take everyone with him. He was always talking about shooting somebody.”
Five months later he got another job — but was soon laid off again. Etna later said he attempted suicide at one point. She recalled that he raised a gun to his head. She grabbed his arm and pried his fingers from the gun. She took it to another room and hid it. She elaborated, “When I came back, he was sitting on the sofa crying.”
Acquaintances remember that he often said he wanted to shoot people because he felt so bad about being unemployed.
In September 1983, Huberty was injured in a car accident. The injury aggravated lingering damage from his childhood polio and left him with a hand tremor.
The family moved to Tijuana, Mexico, in January 1984. They soon moved again, this time to a town on the American side of the California-Mexico border. They moved from one apartment complex to another in the same neighborhood in June 1984. Huberty found a job with a security company but was fired a few weeks later in July 1984. The company recorded the grounds for the firing as “general instability” and that “he was not performing his duties in a proper manner.”
On July 17, 1984, Huberty called a mental health clinic. A receptionist misspelled his name as “Shouberty” on the intake form and told him he would be called back. However, since Huberty had not said that he had an emergency, he was not called back.
In an interview after the slayings, Etna asserted that the murders might have been prevented had her husband been given the help he sought. “A psychologist or counselor could have gotten him to a medical doctor — a psychiatrist — and he could have given him medication,” she contended.
Early on the morning of July 18, 1984, Huberty and Etna drove to a traffic court so Huberty could deal with a traffic ticket. The couple had lunch at a McDonald’s and visited the San Diego Zoo. As the couple walked among the zoo’s animal exhibits, Huberty bitterly commented, “Society had its chance.”
They returned home. As Huberty prepared to leave, Etna inquired, “Where are you going, honey?”
“Going hunting humans,” he answered.
She assumed this was a joke.
He drove to a Big Bear supermarket and then to a Post Office. Apparently considering a fast-food restaurant a “better” target, he left those places without incident and instead headed to the McDonald’s where he committed the mass murder.
The number of victims led local funeral homes to use the San Ysidro Civic Center for wakes. Mount Carmel Church held back-to-back funeral masses.
An autopsy revealed no alcohol or drugs in Huberty’s system. It revealed high levels of lead and cadmium, probably from fourteen years of welding. Etna filed lawsuits in 1986 against Babcock and Wilcox and against McDonald’s, claiming the fumes from the former and food of the latter, specifically monosodium glutamate in the food, caused Huberty delusions and uncontrollable rage. Her lawsuits were dismissed.
The McDonald’s Corporation suspended advertising for a week after this tragedy. In response to this announcement, Burger King did the same.
Because of Huberty’s slaughter, police departments developed tactical teams to deal with mass shootings. It also became common practice to debrief officers involved in traumatic events and offer them professional counseling.
On September 26, 1984, McDonald’s demolished the restaurant Huberty targeted. McDonald’s donated the property to the city that opened a community college there.
A memorial to the victims stands in front of the college. It consists of 21 hexagonal granite pillars of varying heights. They are decorated with flowers on the anniversary of the massacre. On Dia de Los Muertos (the Mexican “Day of the Dead”), lit candles and offerings are left at the memorial.
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