A 19-year-old with a semiautomatic rifle shatters Gilroy’s beloved garlic festival, killing 3, including 2 children
Stephen Romero was a chatty 6-year-old who loved climbing on the tire swing in his front yard and telling people how excited he was to start first grade in the fall.
On Sunday evening, as the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival wound down, Stephen was playing near a bounce house with his mother and grandmother when shots rang out.
Stephen’s mother grabbed him and ran. The boy was shot in her arms. He died that night at a hospital, just after his father came to see him.
Three people were killed in the attack, and 12 were wounded. The Santa Clara County coroner’s office identified two children killed in the attack as Stephen and 13-year-old Keyla Salazar, both of San Jose.
A man in his 20s also was killed. Keuka College in upstate New York said that a recent graduate, 25-year-old Trevor Irby, died in the shooting.
“Any time a life is lost, it’s a tragedy,” Gilroy police Chief Scot Smithee said Monday. “But when it’s young people, it’s even worse. It’s very difficult.”
The popular food festival in the Santa Clara County city nicknamed the “Garlic Capital of the World” was about to close around 5:30 p.m. Sunday when, authorities allege, Legan opened fire. Smithee said the gunman was able to circumvent the festival’s security by entering from a creek area and cutting through a fence.
Witnesses reported that a man dressed in what looked like a tactical vest and camouflage fatigues had fired multiple rounds.
Three officers who were patrolling the park fatally shot Legan after he allegedly started firing at the crowd. They began shooting at the suspect in less than a minute, Smithee said, “despite the fact that they were outgunned, with their handguns, against a rifle.”
“We had thousands of people there in a very small area,” Smithee said, his eyes tearing up. “It could have gotten so much worse, so fast. I’m really proud that they got there as quickly as they did. There absolutely would have been more bloodshed.”
The military-style semiautomatic rifle used in the attack was purchased legally in Nevada on July 9, but is illegal to own in California, authorities said Monday.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, speaking to reporters at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, said: “How in the hell is that possible? I have no problem with the 2nd Amendment. You have a right to bear arms, but not weapons of goddamned mass destruction.”
Stephen’s family members said his mother and grandmother were wounded in the attack. His mom, Barbara Aguirre, was struck by two bullets, one in her hand and one in her stomach, according to Mario Ramos, 45, the family’s next-door neighbor of more than a decade, who recounted a story the family had told him.
After she was shot, Aguirre called her husband, Alberto Romero, who had stayed at home to study for an electrical exam and watch their 9-year-old daughter.
“They shot him,” she told her husband.
By the time Romero reached the hospital, Stephen was in critical condition. Minutes later, he was dead, Ramos said.
In his San Jose neighborhood, Stephen was a friendly and familiar face, a boy with dimpled cheeks who talked to anyone who passed his family’s corner lot.
Neighbors often saw the child outside his house, playing with the family’s French bulldog, Frankie, or watching his dad tinker with cars in the driveway.
“He was just a rambunctious little thing,” Ramos said. “He was so overly full of energy, running up and down the street. He didn’t care who you were. He just wanted to talk to anyone.”
Gilroy police said Monday that they had not determined whether a second person was involved in the shooting, as witnesses initially reported, or the gunman’s motive.
“Everyone wants to know the answer: Why? If there’s any affiliation with other people or groups of people that could potentially pose a threat in the future, that all plays in,” Smithee said.
Legan’s family is well-known in Gilroy. His grandfather Thomas Legan was a Santa Clara County supervisor before his death last year, according to his obituary.
In the hours before the shooting, a photo was posted on Legan’s Instagram profile, which has since been deleted, of what appeared to be the garlic festival, with the caption: “Ayyy garlic festival time come get wasted on overpriced [expletive].”
He also appeared to have posted a picture of a Smokey Bear sign warning about fire danger with a caption that instructed people to read the book “Might is Right” by the pseudonymous author Ragnar Redbeard.
Brian Levin, director of Cal State San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, said the obscure book, published in 1890, is glorified among white supremacists and that “the notion that people of color are biologically inferior is a key tenet of this book.”
“It stands out as among the worst bigoted screeds of its era promoting biological determinism and racial prejudice,” Levin said.
The FBI and sheriff’s deputies searched a triplex unit Monday in Walker Lake, Nev., that authorities believe Legan used in the days before the shooting, according to Mineral County Dist. Atty. Sean Rowe.
Early Monday, officers emerged from the Legan family’s two-story house, situated in the middle of a Gilroy cul-de-sac lined with stucco homes on Churchill Place, carrying several paper bags. Other investigators searched a dusty blue Nissan parked outside.
Neighbor Kawika Palacios, 29, says the Legan family has lived in the neighborhood for more than 18 years and mostly has kept to itself. Santino Legan, who is one of three children, was sometimes seen outside with his siblings boxing with their father, Palacios said.
Andrew Sanchez, a 19-year-old college student, said he saw police with flashlights swarm into the backyard that abuts his family’s property.
It stung, Sanchez said, to see the festival become the site of another mass shooting. His family buys weekend passes every year. Sanchez attended on Friday; his mother, Saturday.
In this town of garlic pickers and Silicon Valley commuters, the festival “is the one thing Gilroy has going,” Sanchez said.
“It’s hurting everyone in Gilroy,” he said. “That festival means so much to us, and it will forever be tainted.”
Founded in 1979, the Gilroy Garlic Festival bills itself as “the world’s greatest summer food festival.” The three-day event at Christmas Hill Park is hosted by community volunteers and raises money for local schools, charities and nonprofit organizations.
On Sunday night, Brenda Chizanskos, 52, was enjoying the final hour of the festival with her daughters, Jessica, 23, and Julia, 21. Jessica’s boyfriend, Bryan Vazquez, had joined them at a picnic table under an open shade tent near the Vineyard music stage.
The garlic festival was a tradition for them, a place to catch up with friends, to have a signature pepper steak sandwich or scampi, or have a picture taken in front of the 12-foot-tall garlic bulb with the propane flame lighting the top.
A San Jose classic rock band, TinMan, was ending its set. Vendors were starting to pack up. About 200 people had gathered in the bleachers, on hay bales, or under the shade tents, to listen to the music. The garlic princesses had just come through when Chizanskos heard one shot, then silence. She didn’t know what it was.
“That was shots! That was shots!” someone called out.
Festival-goers started running toward Miller Avenue, toward a gate where they had entered. Instinctively, Chizanskos and her family dropped to the ground. But Chizanskos was grazed by a bullet, and Jessica was hit in the right forearm. They started crawling across the grass, then took off running.
People were sheltering behind booths, hidden only by the plastic sheets. Some crouched beneath overturned tables propped against a fence. Police started swarming onto the scene. Some 20 people, including Julia and Vazquez, hid in the back of a semi-trailer that was being loaded with beer kegs before the shooting started.
Chizanskos and Jessica ducked into a portable toilet. Chizanskos fashioned a tourniquet from a scarf to slow the bleeding. Then there was silence. As quickly as the shooting started, it was over, all in a matter of minutes.
At a vigil Monday night outside City Hall, speakers grappled with grief, disbelief and anger.
“We cannot let the bastard who did this tear us down,” Gilroy Mayor Roland Velasco said to a roar of applause. “The person who did this took something from us.“
Nelson and Vives reported from Gilroy, Curwen and Branson-Potts from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Matthew Ormseth, Hannah Fry, Richard Winton, Colleen Shalby, Randall Roberts, Alene Tchekmedyian, Jaclyn Cosgrove, Taryn Luna, Alex Wigglesworth and Laura Newberry contributed to this report.
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