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After 20 years, survivors gather to remember Jewish center shooting

DEENA ILETO wipes her eye Saturday as she and her mother-in-law, Lilian, attend a remembrance ceremony for Lilian’s son Joseph, who was killed by a white supremacist Aug. 10, 1999, in Chatsworth. The killing of her brother-in-law was a call to action, Deena says.
Deena Ileto wipes her eye Saturday as she and her mother-in-law, Lilian, attend a remembrance ceremony for Lilian’s son Joseph, who was killed by a white supremacist Aug. 10, 1999, in Chatsworth.
(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Family and friends of victims gathered on Saturday to remember the day 20 years ago when a gunman opened fire on children and staff at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, wounding several people, before moving on to Chatsworth, where he killed a postal worker.

Standing outside the U.S. Post Office on Devonshire Street, where a plaque commemorates the letter carrier, parents and siblings of the victims called for stricter gun control laws, citing the rise in mass shootings around the country and recent violence in California, Texas and Ohio.

“People have asked me, ‘It’s been 20 years, so how does it feel?’” said Ismael Ileto, whose brother Joseph Ileto was killed in the San Fernando Valley attack. “I’m tired of the damn thoughts and prayers...I’m tired of hearing sympathies and condolences.”

He added: “Let’s do something to change the laws.”

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He and his loved ones have become part of a larger family that includes the victims wounded at the Jewish community center, Ileto said.

“We share the same experiences, and are still going through the same experiences every time we hear of a mass shooting or crimes of hate,” he said. “That’s happening way too frequently, it seems.”

On Aug. 10, 1999, Buford O. Furrow, a self-professed white supremacist and member of the Aryan Nations, walked into the lobby of the Jewish center armed with a semi-automatic weapon and started shooting, striking Isabelle Shalometh, 68, a grandmother and receptionist at the facility. The rounds also hit Benjamin Kadish, 5; Joshua Stepakoff and James Zidell, both 6; and Mindy Finkelstein, who was a 16-year-old high school senior at the time. All survived.

Furrow then stole a vehicle and drove to Chatsworth, where he fatally shot Joseph Ileto, 39, a Filipino American postal worker who was substituting on a mail delivery route, because he thought the worker “looked Asian or Latino.”

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Furrow was eventually sentenced to life in prison. The center has since closed.

“He fired 70 rounds in less than three minutes,” said Donna Finkelstein, Mindy Finkelstein’s mother. “Sound familiar?”

In the years since the shooting, Finkelstein has joined anti-gun violence movements, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Women Against Gun Violence.

“We can’t forget,” she said. “Every time I hear of a shooting, I just get that sickening feeling in my stomach.”

The anniversary of the shooting comes as people across the nation are reeling from three recent mass shootings, two of which are believed to have been hate-fueled.

A week ago in El Paso, a gunman traveled 650 miles to a Walmart, reportedly with the intention of shooting “as many Mexicans as possible.” He killed 22 people in what was one of the deadliest hate crimes ever against Latinos.

Hours later, a gunman killed nine people and injured dozens when he opened fire in a popular nightlife area of Dayton, Ohio, before being killed by police. Just days earlier, a man shot and killed three people, including two children, at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Northern California.

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We failed to learn the lessons of August 10, 1999,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Northridge). “What happened then now repeats with horrific frequency.”

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Doing nothing, he said, is not an option.

Deena Ileto clutched her mother-in-law’s hand and wrapped an arm around her as Sherman spoke, breaking away only to wipe away tears.

For Ileto, her brother-in-law’s death served as a call to action. She and the rest of the family now work alongside organizations such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice to push for gun control laws. They speak out against violence against Muslims and Latinos, she said, and have marched alongside the LGBTQ community at rallies in Washington, D.C.

“I was the first to be notified about what happened to our brother,” Ileto, 53, said. “We called him kuya, which is Tagalog for older brother.”

The recent spate of mass shootings, she said, brought her back to that day -- the hot summer weather, the news on the television, the word of a shooting.

“Watching them,” she said of the victims’ families, “it felt like we were watching ourselves.”

The Ileto family has turned Joseph’s name into an acronym, hoping to inspire action: “Join our struggle, educate, prevent hate, instill love, equality, tolerance for others.” Some wore shirts with the acronym written down their backs.

At 11:53 a.m., the family rose to their feet. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others in the crowd, they bowed their heads for a moment of silence, commemorating the minute Ileto was killed.

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