The late afternoon sun beat down on Julissa Contreras as she browsed the offerings at a barbecue food tent at the Gilroy Garlic Festival on Sunday with her father and her boyfriend.
Then, Contreras said she noticed a man emerging from behind a row of tents at the popular summertime event in Gilroy, California. He was dressed in a military-style outfit and holding what appeared to be an assault rifle, she told The Washington Post. Four loud cracks rang out in quick succession. The man was shooting “left to right and right to left,” she said.
“Some people immediately knew what was going on and saw the guy and ran,” Contreras said. “Some people were still sitting there unsure.”
Three people were killed in the shooting, among them two children, a 6-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl, authorities said. The third victim was a man in his 20s, they said. A dozen other people were injured.
“It’s sort of a nightmare that you hope you never have to live in reality,” Gilroy Police Chief Scot Smithee said.
The attacker has been identified as Santino William Legan, a 19-year-old from the area, Smithee said at a briefing Monday morning.
Smithee said police engaged Legan in a gunfight within a minute and killed him, praising the officers for confronting the attacker so quickly. He also noted that they were outgunned – wielding handguns against a shooter firing an assault-style rifle – and said that without their prompt actions, “there absolutely would have been more bloodshed.”
Attempts to reach Legan’s relatives were not immediately successful Monday.
So far, early evidence in the case does not suggest that the shooting was connected to international terrorism, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The official cautioned that investigators were still gathering evidence.
A shaken Smithee, speaking to reporters Monday morning, said that officials had not determined a possible motive for the shooting, warning that the investigation would be lengthy.
“It seems that this was a random act, but again, we’ve got a long way to go before we can come to a determination what his motivation was,” he said.
Police were searching for a possible second suspect in the case, Smithee said, although he added that it was unclear what role that person may have had or whether he or she was involved in shooting. Smithee said that police have heard multiple reports about the attacker having someone with him but that “different people gave different versions” of what they saw.
A swath of local, state and federal authorities were helping respond to the shooting. On Monday, the FBI said it has deployed an evidence recovery team of about 30 people to help scour the sprawling crime scene and mark and map evidence. They are also trying to help investigators determine whether the attacker was driven by a specific ideology.
“Our preeminent and principal concern at this point is motivation, ideological leanings,” Craig Fair, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Francisco office, said at a news briefing. “Was he affiliated with anyone or any group? It still has to be ruled out, still has to be determined, at this point.”
The first reports of gunshots at the festival came in around 5:41 p.m. local time, just as the event was wrapping up, Smithee said.
In an interview with NBC Bay Area, Alberto Romero confirmed that his 6-year-old son, Stephen, had died. The boy’s mother and grandmother were also shot and injured, the news station reported.
“I lost my son,” Alberto Romero told the news station. “There’s nothing I really can do besides try to be with him until I can put him in his resting spot.”
Romero later added: “My son had his whole life to live, and he was only 6.”
The shooter was carrying an “assault-type rifle,” the city of Gilroy said in a statement early Monday. Investigators believe the suspect entered the festival area by cutting through a perimeter fence, Smithee told reporters. He noted that security at the festival’s official entrances is “very tight,” despite a lack of posted security cameras. In addition to a police presence, attendees are subject to bag searches and metal-detector wanding, he said.
“It’s just incredibly sad and disheartening that an event that does so much good for our community has to suffer from a tragedy like this,” Smithee said.
By early Monday, the festival area was still the site of an “active investigation,” Gilroy Mayor Roland Velasco said during the news conference. Velasco said authorities “plan on being out there all night.”
At the scene after 11 p.m. local time, a steady stream of emergency vehicles and officers in tactical gear back and forth across a line of police tape. Helicopters circled overhead. Dozens of officers were gathered on the park grounds. Many evacuees were stranded after the festival because their vehicles were parked inside an active crime scene. Some gathered on a bus outside the festival site, while others called ride-hailing services to get home.
“To have seen this event end this way, this day, is just one of the most tragic and sad things that I’ve ever had to see,” Brian Bowe, the festival’s executive director, said at the news conference. “We all feel so upset for those that are impacted – friends, families, neighbors. It’s just a horrible thing to experience, and we couldn’t feel worse.”
Edward and Jane Jacobucci were working at their Garlic Grater booth when gunshots echoed around the park. Jane said she saw the shooter up close.
“He was tall, young, thin. He had a camouflage outfit on with a big gun, and he was just going, ‘Boom, boom, boom!’ ” she told The Post.
Suddenly, her husband threw himself on top of her. “He actually threw me to the ground and just covered me, and then as soon as we heard it stop a little, we ran,” she said.
Meanwhile, Contreras said she and her father dove behind a food tent when the shooting started, separating from her boyfriend, Mario Camargo, who ran toward another group of tents. In their respective hiding spots, Contreras and Camargo both huddled with crying children and frantic parents as the mayhem unfolded around them. Some people froze, and others sprinted. Some appeared to play dead, Camargo told The Post.
Once they heard the gunfire stop, Contreras and Camargo each made a run for the entrance, eventually reuniting in the parking lot. Camargo said he saw two wounded people as he fled.
“One guy was able to talk. He was saying, ‘Just go! Just go!’ ” Camargo recalled. “People were crying, screaming, running in different directions. It was complete pandemonium.”
Videos uploaded to social media showed the chaotic scenes.
“What’s going on?” a person asked in one of the videos. Seconds later, a sharp crack echoed, prompting screams as people could be seen hustling to find shelter.
“Oh, they’re shooting,” a breathless voice could be heard saying.
Suzanne Lopez and Wendy Stroh had arrived 20 minutes early for their shift volunteering at the festival, around 5:40 p.m., when they heard an eruption of what sounded like fireworks and alerted emergency medical and security crews nearby.
“We turned to [the crews], we said, ‘It’s not firecrackers, it’s gunfire,’ ” Lopez recalled. “And then, they immediately got up, they gathered all of us, put us in the trailer.”
Lopez said there were 20 or so people in the trailer for hours, praying, receiving scant updates on what was happening outside from EMS crews, news sources and Facebook. She and Stroh were finally released around 11:20 p.m. local time.
“Why?” said Lopez of the shooting, “Really, that’s my question – why?”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, called the incident “nothing short of horrific.” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, also a Democrat, tweeted that the city’s police and fire department had been sent to Gilroy to help with what he called a “horrific shooting.” Smithee said officials in Gilroy were assisted by law enforcement agencies from across Santa Clara and Monterey counties. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ San Francisco field division and the FBI also responded to the scene, CBS News reported.
President Donald Trump discussed the shooting during an event in Washington, condemning what he called the “wicked murderer” in California.
“We grieve for their families, and we ask that God will comfort them with his overflowing mercy and grace,” he said.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., tweeted that her office is “closely monitoring the situation.”
“Grateful to first responders who are on the scene in Gilroy and keeping those injured by such senseless violence in my thoughts,” she said.
The Gilroy Garlic Festival, founded in 1979, is billed as “the world’s greatest summer food festival” and draws thousands of visitors each year, marking a proud tradition for the small city. Hours after the shooting, electric highway signs still directed passersby to festival parking. A nearby Walmart had a mock Gilroy Garlic Festival float adorned with sunflowers and baskets of fresh garlic on sale.
As night fell, the sights were a grim reminder of what had transpired hours before. Residents lamented how a wholesome family gathering known for bringing people together to enjoy traditions like garlic ice cream was torn apart by gunfire.
“We have the wonderful opportunity in this community to celebrate our family through our garlic festival,” Bowe said early Monday. “For over four decades, that festival has been our annual family reunion. It is such a sad, just horribly upsetting circumstance that this happened.”
Witnesses at the scene said the chaos and bloodshed will be hard to shake. Contreras said there was one moment that she couldn’t stop thinking about. When the gunfire broke out, she looked in the direction of the gunman and saw children fleeing an inflatable slide, all trying to squeeze through the same tiny exit.
“I’m never going to forget that image,” she said.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Faiz Siddiqui, Allyson Chiu, Meagan Flynn, Mark Berman