Man Kills 4 in Fitness Club, Commits Suicide
A weightlifter described as an angry loner dedicated to pumping iron opened fire with a shotgun at his San Diego-area fitness club Thursday, killing four people before returning to his car and killing himself, police said.
Two men in a senior citizens group working out at the gym for the first time were wounded in the rampage and were treated and released at a nearby hospital.
James M. Buquet, 19, who lived with his mother and stepfather in the rural community of Alpine in eastern San Diego County, drove up to the Family Fitness Center on Arnele Avenue at 12:18 p.m. and fired blasts from a single-barrel, 12-gauge shotgun, killing a man on the sidewalk and shattering the club’s plate-glass window, police said.
He then stormed into the club--crowded with lunch-hour exercisers and a group of children--and resumed shooting. Within minutes three women--including one who had just finished baby-sitting an infant and seven toddlers in the club’s day-care center--lay fatally wounded as terrified club members fled.
The children were herded out the front entrance by other day-care employees and escaped unharmed, police said.
Authorities in this city 20 miles east of downtown San Diego said Buquet had a history of mental illness and drug abuse, but offered no motive for the murder rampage.
“Unfortunately, it just looks like he wanted to do some killing and came here because he was familiar with the location,” said Lt. Bill McClurg, spokesman for the El Cajon Police Department.
Outside Buquet’s home in Alpine on Thursday night, Don de Camara, a lawyer and friend of the family, said the gunman had recently suffered bouts of depression over a serious knee injury, which would have required further surgery, and had been frustrated over having his fitness regimen interrupted.
He said Buquet had spent time in a drug rehabilitation center during high school because of problems stemming from chronic use of marijuana and LSD but had been drug-free for some years.
The Buquet family is “vehemently anti-gun,” de Camara said, adding that the gun “did not come from the house. As far as they knew, he had no guns.” He said Buquet had recently been seeing a counselor and appeared to be “getting his life in order.”
Mike Nesis, 26, said he was lifting weights when Buquet, who joined the fitness club three months ago and had become a regular, rushed into the workout area during the noon hour and began “shooting wild.”
“He was a crazy man, using curse words,” Nesis said. “He was a mad psycho. He shot people in the head and then he laughed. Everybody was screaming and yelling for 911 and begging for mercy. But he just kept on shooting.”
John Aubert, a 32-year-old Navy enlisted man whose child was playing in the day-care center, said he heard gunshots and rushed in, hoping to save his 2-year-old daughter, Melody.
“The whole place was full of smoke from gunshots and you could really smell it,” Aubert said. “People were screaming. I got inside and saw a woman shot and leaning against a mirror. I gave her CPR but I lost the pulse and we lost her.
“Thank God the children had already been taken out.”
Standing over at least one body to fire a second shot, Buquet reloaded several times and inflicted numerous chest and head wounds, police said.
“He entered firing,” Lt. McClurg said. “And he kept firing until he left.”
Killed were Charles Tucker, 37, of Spring Valley, shot on the sidewalk outside the center; Laxmi Patel, 19, a club member from San Diego; Helen-Mary Spatz, 36, a fitness counselor from El Cajon, and Rebecca Negretti of Santee, a woman in her mid-30s shot while working out on an exercise bicycle after finishing her shift in the child-care center.
Dan Ferrilo, 71, and James Pastore, 65, were wounded when Buquet fired through a wall and showered a senior citizen fitness group with shrapnel as they worked out at the club for the first time.
Witnesses said Buquet, dressed in a T-shirt, running shoes and gym shorts, circled the parking lot in his 1980 Datsun 280-Z coupe for several minutes before the attack. At one point tried to enter the club, apparently unarmed, but was turned away by employees who said he seemed angry. He then parked, jumped out of his car and, according to witnesses, shot Tucker before running into the club.
Buquet’s mother, Janet Buquet, said he told her Thursday morning that he was going to work out at the gym. Formerly enrolled at two community colleges, he spent much of his time at the club and kept almost completely to himself, said members who lifted weights alongside him. They said he was remarkable only for being so eerily quiet.
Don Hawkins, 48, a mobile home manager who often lifts weights at the club, described Buquet as a muscular, blond, clean-cut physical culturist with a menacing look and a no-nonsense demeanor.
“He was one of those kinds of guys you don’t want to cross,” Hawkins said. “He always had an angry look on his face. If you saw him coming down the street, you wanted to cross the street and get away from him.
“He was just a bundle of anger and looked very tough. He didn’t talk to anybody.”
Hairdresser Mike Lehre, 21, said he knew Buquet from the health club and the campus at Grossmont College in east San Diego. Grossmont officials said Thursday that Buquet had enrolled for the fall semester but had stopped attending classes. Officials at Cuyamaca College in El Cajon said he had attended classes there last spring.
Buquet’s neighbors in Alpine said he was a student at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon before dropping out, then got his high school diploma through correspondence courses and home study.
“He wouldn’t talk to anybody unless you talked to him first,” Lehre said. “I talked to him just yesterday (Wednesday). He said he was tired and (angry) about something but he wouldn’t say what. He’s not the kind of guy you ask questions about.”
When the scene of terror erupted Thursday, the children were playing in a day-care area near the weightlifting room, where many of their parents were working out.
“I heard the shots and I knew I had to save the babies,” said Lupita Huerta, 50, one of the child care workers. “I took the little one (a 6-month-old infant) in my arms and told the others to follow me. They were all scared, but they didn’t know what was happening. I got them all out the front door and away and safe.”
Linda Adams, 32, an off-duty San Diego County sheriff’s deputy, was working out with her husband, an off-duty San Diego policeman, while their 6-month-old daughter, Paige, slept in the day care area.
“I heard four gunshots, and the first thing I thought of was my baby,” Adams said. “But the shots and the gunmen were between me and the room where the children were. I ran out the back, and a few seconds later, the child care workers came out with the children, and we all sort of said a prayer.”
After the slayings, auto mechanic Danny Smout, 29, watched Buquet take his own life.
“He came running out and jumped in his Z, put the shotgun under his chin and blew the top of his head off,” Smout said. “People were still screaming and running, trying to be safe.”
In Alpine, where the Buquet family lives in a large two-story home, neighbor Carla Harris remembered the assailant--whom she had known for about 10 years--as a gifted, intelligent child, who liked to play basketball with his little brother in the cul-de-sac in front of the house.
Lee Boyd, an employee at the club and son of one of its owners, said a fitness center was the last place that he or anyone else ever expected such a massacre to occur.
“Who can imagine a tragedy like this in a health center?” said Boyd, 24. “This is where people who are concerned about nutrition and their bodies and staying healthy come. This is a place for people who want to live a long time.”
Perry reported from El Cajon, Granberry from San Diego. Times staff writer Sebastian Rotella also reported from Alpine.
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