With pant legs rolled up against the heat, Etna Huberty struggled to fix a window screen in the small suburban house she just bought. In the living room, a German shepherd circled unpacked boxes.
A year after James Oliver Huberty was killed committing the worst single-episode mass murder in U.S. history, his widow said she also is struggling to organize her life.
It is a task that has not grown easier.
“At first I was numb. Now I think about it,” Etna Huberty said, her voice cracking and her eyes watering. “It’s not something you forget.”
Even if she could put the tragedy out of her mind, she said, she is not allowed to do so. Attention from the media, occasional death threats and questions from strangers who want to know if she is the Mrs. Huberty constantly remind her of that hot day last July.
Huberty said she has trouble sleeping at night. She misses her husband of 19 years, although more than once he threatened her and their two adolescent daughters with a loaded gun.
Last month, Huberty and her daughters escaped to this quiet San Diego County community from another suburb, Chula Vista, where they had moved shortly after the massacre. Huberty recalled bitterly that San Ysidro school authorities had “not permitted” her daughters to re-enroll in school there after the killings. Her daughters, Zelia 13, and Cassandra, 11, had gone to school with several of the young victims and survivors.
The girls attended school in Chula Vista for a year under assumed names. Even so, some people recognized them, Huberty said.
"(Zelia’s) picture wasn’t in the yearbook. I don’t know why,” Huberty said. “She was in band with A’s, but they wouldn’t let her go to the competition in National City. They said they didn’t have a uniform to fit her.”
Huberty said one boy taunted Zelia.
“He said, ‘I’ll get your gun,’ or something like that. She kicked him twice. He doubled up and she told him if he went to the office to tell, he’d get it worse,” Huberty said with apparent satisfaction.
The husky, middle-aged Huberty wore her husband’s watch during a recent interview and defended him as a hard-working man who fell on hard times.
Huberty said she believes that her husband bled to death rather than dying instantly by a sharpshooter’s bullet as police and coroner’s officials have said. She claimed she found more than one bullet wound when she examined his body, which was later cremated.
“He was all shriveled up; there was a lack of liquid in his body,” Huberty said, likening the way her husband looked in death to a slaughtered animal.
James Huberty had kept a small arsenal in the family’s San Ysidro apartment a block from the McDonald’s restaurant where he committed the massacre. Afterward, San Diego police confiscated all of the guns, including three murder weapons.
Etna Huberty said she wants the weapons not used in the crime returned, including a 9-millimeter derringer that was a gift from her husband to Zelia. Police said they have no intention of returning any of the guns.
Nonetheless, Etna Huberty said she owns at least one other firearm for home defense. She declined to specify what type, but said it is not an Uzi carbine like the one her husband used in killing 21 men, women and children.
“You can’t keep an Uzi on target,” she said.
Huberty, who is not employed, said she supports her family with income from rental property in Ohio. She also receives monthly Social Security survivors benefits of $1,203.
Huberty had hoped to make money by selling the book and motion picture rights to her life story. But a deal with Hollywood producer Larry Spivey fell through this year after the San Ysidro community expressed opposition.
Spivey said last month that he has no plans to resurrect the motion picture project. Huberty, however, said other deals are “possible.” She would not elaborate.
Huberty said she has little contact with residents of San Ysidro, nor did she know whether there is lingering bitterness toward her and her children.
“I really don’t know what they think, and I really don’t care,” she said. During a 45-minute interview she did not mention her husband’s victims or their families.
Huberty was uncertain how she would spend the first anniversary of the massacre.
“I’ve thought about it. What day does it fall on?” she asked wearily.
Her daughter, Zelia, answered without hesitation.
“It’s a Thursday.”