The UCSB rampage: ‘How fragile life can be’
Paul, a senior bio major who didn’t want his last name mentioned in any newspaper, was at his favorite pizza place in Isla Vista, when out of the corner of an eye he caught a black BMW Coupe going by. Moments later he heard what could have been the sports car backfire. Or maybe it was just somebody, you know, setting off fireworks again, this being the manic last two weeks of school at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
But no. Paul knew instinctively this was something really different. He had just heard, crazy as it seemed, gunshots. And when 20, 30 kids came screaming and charging through the front door like Godzilla was close behind, he knew those instincts were justified, totally.
“We didn’t know where the shooter was. We didn’t know if he was, like, in the car or on foot,” recalled the soft-spoken 22-year-old from the Bay Area. “So I didn’t even know if he was going to come into our building. Like, obviously, I was thinking of leaving. So we went there to the back where it was, like, more protected.”
Rumors were flying among the students, too, crammed together by the bathrooms. One that stuck was some sorority girls had gotten shot just a couple blocks away. As sirens began to blare, Paul and the others guardedly stepped outside.
And, man, there it was! Right across the street, a little kitty-corner, some kind of major commotion at the I.V. Deli Mart. A few steps further, Paul spotted the bullet holes in the front glass. Then just inside the doorway, right down on the floor, was a guy who wasn’t moving. This was Christopher Michaels-Martinez, a 20-year-old sophomore English major. Outside of a few funerals, it was the first real dead body Paul had even seen.
After half an hour, when that bloody body was taken away, everybody seemed to drift off, too “But I was still, like, shocked, so I didn’t go anywhere yet,” he said. “But I just kind of, like, stayed on the patio in front of the restaurant, and just saw what was going on and stuff. I just had a feeling there had to be more, you know, shootings. And I felt, like, afraid.”
10 crime scenes
Paul was right-on again.
By the end of the moving carnage, in fact, Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies checked off 10 distinct crime scenes. Thirteen people were wounded, some seriously. Seven students lay either dead or dying, including the tormented murderer — 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who had reportedly been seeing counselors, therapists and psychiatrists since he was nine. The part-time student at Santa Barbara City College from the San Fernando Valley shot and killed himself after his BMW crashed and sheriff deputies closed in.
The first killing took place sometime May 23 in No. 7 of a two-story charcoal-colored apartment building on Seville Road in the ocean-side college town with the reputation for partying. That’s where he stabbed to death his two roommates and gravely wounded their friend: Weihan Wang, 20, of Fremont, and Cheng Yuan Hong, 20, and George Chen, 19, both of San Jose.
Next Rodger drove a half-dozen blocks across Isla Vista to the Alpha Phi sorority house. When he banged on the door around 9:30 that Friday evening, there was no answer, but three UCSB coeds were talking on the front lawn. He shot and killed two, Veronika Weiss, 19, of Thousand Oaks, and her sorority sister Katherine (Katie) Breann Cooper, 22, of Chino Hills, while injuring the third.
Then he drove 2 1/2 short blocks to the I.V. Deli Mart, spraying the front of the convenience store with a semi-automatic handgun — either a Glock 34 or Sig Sauer P226 he’d bought legally with monthly allowance money from his divorced parents — killing Michaels-Martinez, the sophomore from San Luis Obispo.
After unloading and reloading a new 10-shot magazine clip, he got halfway around what’s called the “Loop” on campus, firing multiple rounds before turning onto a side street. That’s where he first took fire from a lone sheriff’s deputy. Still, he managed to run down a student on a bicycle and shoot four more pedestrians.
When other deputies joined the street fight, he gunned his BMW on Del Playa Drive, hitting another bicyclist, who bounced off the hood, caving in most of the windshield. The Beemer hit several vehicles, winding up crashing into a jeep. Before officers managed to get to the on-fire sports car, Rodger mortally shot himself.
The horrific foray, from banging on the sorority house door to the crash and suicide, took less than 10 minutes.
The ‘toughest thing’
“This is the single toughest thing I’ve gone through here at St. Mark’s,” confided Father John Love, pastor of St. Mark University Parish the last five years. “I’ve been in other spots before, but this is the toughest.”
Those words don’t ring hollow, coming from the seasoned military chaplain, a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, 146th Air Wing in the Channel Islands. Ordained for the Los Angeles Archdiocese in 1990, he’s served two deployments to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, which provides life-saving care to members of the armed services seriously injured in Afghanistan and other world conflicts.
Still, the priest stressed it might have been much worse. “I mean, this could have been 100 kids dead,” he said. “He had a lot of weapons and ammunition but appeared to be a horrible shot. And he was so enraged that he wasn’t military precise. He just was shooting everywhere, apparently.”
The first thing Father Love did after learning of the violent spree was to walk around, asking groups of still-reeling stunned students, “Have you guys called your mom?” He says that sounds like an innocuous query, but it provided an avenue for healing conversations. There was more intense one-on-one counseling, too.
Right off the bat, he was greatly impressed with how students helped others during the mayhem, getting them to the ground fast and even trying to do CPR on those shot or hit by the speeding sports car.
On Saturday morning, students were bringing flowers and candles for makeshift shrines for the dead and starting fund drives. Others were simply calling their friends to check in and praying for those wounded and killed.
More than 200 people attended the Sunday evening Mass at St. Mark’s in nearby Goleta, many stopping before photo poster boards dedicated to three of the slain: Weiss, Cooper and Michaels-Martinez.
There was also one “In Memory Of” the shooter, Elliot Rodger, who in the 137-page single-spaced autobiographical manifesto he emailed out just before his rampage lamented: “All I ever wanted was to fit in and live a happy life amongst humanity, but I was cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance, all because the females of the human species were incapable of seeing the value in me.”
In his homily, Father Love brought up the eternal unanswerable — Why do bad things happen? Why does God allow evil into the world?
“The fact is that bad things do happen in the world,” he declared. “And we can either just say, ‘I no longer believe, and become bitter and lifeless. Or I can use those as moments to reach out to those in pain.’
“So that was the point I was trying to make, to speak to the students who came. I didn’t have any, you know, ‘Yoda-like’ [the Jedi master from the “Star Wars” movies] answers. I think a lot of priests want to come up with Yoda words of wisdom or something. But the fact is, like most tragedies, we can’t change the tragedy. But we can change our responses.
“And I just said those actions of love show the community that you’re not going to break, and you’re not going to lose sight of what’s most important in college — and that’s people helping other people,” he reported. “I said to some kids outside of the homily, ‘I imagine this is not the college experience you signed up for.’ And they kind of laughed and said, ‘No, but I’ll never forget the people that were around me these days.’”
After a pause during the phone interview, the pastor, who holds a doctorate in moral formation, had one last observation.
“It’s kind of like UCSB’s 9/11,” said Father Love. “It’s a lot smaller, but it’s just as impactful because these students knew each other. When they were out on a Friday night with their friends, walking around and getting pizza and going to parties, this was just the farthest thing from their minds.”
‘I don’t know’
It certainly was for Paul when he saw that black BMW drive by, before the gunshots, screams and sirens rang in his ears.
“I don’t know,” the graduating senior mused. “It really showed, like, how fragile life can be at times. I don’t know. Like, I was really lucky and stuff. When they gave me my pizza, it was to eat there. But I said it was to go and they had to package it. Right when they were about to hand it to me, I heard the gunshots. So it’s like, if I had taken the pizza and left before, I would have possibly been out there.”