How Borderline shooting survivors revived a fallen friend’s legacy with a dance club

Juan Sarai looks at the Healing Garden at Conejo Creek North Park
Juan Sarai of Oxnard looks over as finishing touches are placed on the Healing Garden being constructed at Conejo Creek North Park in Thousand Oaks to remember the 12 lives taken and the 248 that survived the Borderline Bar & Grill mass shooting on Nov. 7, 2018.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Justin Meek surely would have appreciated the bench his family placed in his memory on the campus of Cal Lutheran University. It’s right beside the tree where he liked to hang in his hammock, within hollering distance of the corner patio where his big, bass voice sounded out on open-mic nights.

There’s also a flag pole dedicated in his name in front of the college’s pool, where he played water polo. “In Memory of Justin Meek. . . . Hero. Friend.”

But if Meek could take pride in a legacy, his sister thinks, it would be the friends and former classmates who gather nearly every Wednesday on a patio near the Student Union. There, on balmy nights beneath strands of white lights, the Cal Lutheran Line Dancing Club that Meek created dances on.

“It’s not a physical object with his name on it, as much as all of that means,” said little sister Victoria Rose Meek, who doubled as Justin’s best friend. “But it’s like Justin’s spirit is being lived out in all these kids. He would just think that is the coolest thing.”

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Jasmin Alexander, 25, far right in shorts, celebrates with friends at Borderline Bar and Grill on Nov. 7, 2018, the night of the shooting. Justin Meek, 23, far left in jeans, and Telemachus Orfanos, 27, in the back with a beanie, were both killed by the gunman.
Jasmin Alexander, 25, far right in shorts, celebrates with friends at Borderline Bar and Grill on Nov. 7, 2018, the night of the shooting. Justin Meek, 23, far left in jeans, and Telemachus Orfanos, 27, in the back with a beanie, were both killed by the gunman.
(Harrison King)

Thursday will mark the first anniversary of the Borderline Bar & Grill massacre, the senseless shooting that killed Justin Meek and 11 others. Since that terrible night, the city of Thousand Oaks has responded with remarkable compassion and grace, with a police officer assigned to each victims’ family, to make sure no need goes unmet, a writing project launched to provide the community an outlet for its collective grief and a garden to be dedicated Thursday afternoon in Conejo Creek North Park to continue the community’s “healing journey.”

The attack that shattered a night of celebration and camaraderie at the Borderline became all the more unforgettable because of what came next. A spate of wildfires swept the state the next day, with the Hill and Woolsey fires bracketing Thousand Oaks on the west and east. The latter would burn all the way to the ocean, destroying more than 1,000 homes along the way. That same day, the Camp fire decimated the town of Paradise, incinerating nearly 14,000 homes and killing 86 people.

Said Victoria Rose Meek, one of the 248 survivors of the shooting: “It felt like the apocalypse there, for awhile.”

That day, a year ago, started like many others. Though Meek had graduated the previous spring, his sister had kept the Line Dancing Club together. They planned to rendezvous with others for “college night” at the Borderline, the club just off the 101 Freeway and Moorpark Road, 10 minutes south of the college.

Meek still worked as a promoter for the club, getting a small bonus for each customer he lured through the doors. And he was good at his job — his buoyant personality and love of music inspiring others.

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Justin Meek is remembered by friends and family as a 6-foot-3, 275-pound gentle giant whose his buoyant personality and love of music inspired others.
Justin Meek is remembered by friends and family as a 6-foot-3, 275-pound gentle giant whose his buoyant personality and love of music inspired others.
(Channel Islands Social Services)

Meek, 23, planned to meet friends that night, to celebrate one’s birthday and to make plans for a trip home to Coronado, where he had gone to high school and where his mother and father, a Navy veteran, still lived.

An hour before midnight, he told his friend Fernan Diamse, “Only an hour to go!” Diamse would be celebrating his 36th birthday, so the two pals stepped to the bar to have a shot and a Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boy. They shared a laugh.

“We were talking about how American our situation was,” recalled Diamse, a Line Dancing Club regular and a Navy veteran. “We’re in a country bar, watching rodeo and drinking PBR, saying, ‘It can’t get any more American than this.’ ”

Dan Manrique, a former Marine and another member of the crew, had just arrived at the Borderline and stood near the door with Meek, while Diamse went to visit with Kelsey Lewis. Another originator of the Cal Lutheran Line Dancing Club, Lewis was working as a DJ that night on the dance floor.

Not long after, Ian David Long walked in the Borderline’s front door and began shooting. Witnesses described how the 6-foot-3, 275-pound Meek, a sometime security guard at the club, raised his arms and tried to block the gunman. Long shot him and his friend Manrique, then moved on, killing others as he went.

Meek’s sister and his friend Diamse were among more than 200 who were able to flee, many of them flinging themselves out of holes in the smokey plate glass windows that looked out on the freeway. Diamse and others created escape paths by throwing bar stools through the glass.

The assault ended after a CHP officer and Ventura County sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus rushed into the club. They engaged Long in a gunfight. Helus died of a shot fired by his fellow officer. Long retreated to the Borderline office where he killed himself with a gunshot to the head. A year later, his motive remains a mystery.

Meek’s friends and sister spent the remainder of 2018 regrouping and trying to heal. The bad dreams and survivor’s guilt clung to Diamse. But he found some solace in what his mother told him: “You were spared for a reason.”

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Meek’s sister stayed away from dancing for a time. But by last spring another club member organized a dance with another college. A spark was rekindled and, by this fall, Victoria Rose was ready.

A memorial to the 12 victims of the Borderline Bar & Grill mass shooting in Thousand Oaks continues to stand as people come to pay respects in front of the country-western bar frequented by college students at the one year anniversary of the shooting on Nov 7, 2018.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)
Kathy Dunham, left, Mother of Jake Dunham, 21, hugs Elsa Manrique, right, Mother of Dan Manrique, 33, both who were among those killed in the mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks. They visited at the memorial to the 12 victims that stands in front of the country-western bar frequented by college students as the one year anniversary of the shooting on Nov 7, 2018 draws near.
Kathy Dunham, left, Mother of Jake Dunham, 21, hugs Elsa Manrique, right, Mother of Dan Manrique, 33, both who were among those killed in the mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks. They visited at the memorial to the 12 victims that stands in front of the country-western bar frequented by college students as the one year anniversary of the shooting on Nov 7, 2018 draws near.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

“We started the club back again, back where we left off,” she said. “It’s just trying to get back a bit of that normality.”

On Wednesday nights, the speakers are dragged back on to the patio, the Dominoes pizzas are lined up on a table and students trickle in. Some of the young women wear shorts with their cowboy boots. But jeans and flip flops will do.

As soon as the music comes up, the regulars begin sliding and bobbing over the concrete. The song is pop — Jason Derulo’s “Get Ugly”— and Victoria Rose begins gently calling out instructions: “Right, left, swing, swing,” she begins. “Now triple right and coaster step, transfer weight, transfer weight, step, hitch.”

Thirteen women, two young men and one math professor gain a bit of momentum. There are occasional stumbles and giggles. They finish mostly in unison. And Diamse, who is playing DJ tonight, offers quiet praise: “That was good. Really good.”

Math professor Karrolyne Fogel saw some students lose focus and struggle after the tragedy. In recent weeks she joined the line dancers on the moonlit patio. She saw the balm that came with community and with movement.

“When you are dancing you are more in your body and less in your head,” Fogel said. “It’s just a powerful form of movement that joins the brain, the body and the emotions.”

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They group worked through a few more songs, before fading into the night. The Borderline remains closed, so Victoria Rose and a few others have adopted The Canyon, a club in Agoura Hills, as an alternative. It allows them to get their dance fix in, though it will never feel the same as the Borderline. And they remain hopeful that the club will reopen.

“It was more than a bar,” said Diamse. “It was a place of gathering. It was like ‘Cheers.’ It was a place where everyone knows your name.”

Thousand Oaks wasted no time in memorializing the victims known as the “fallen angels.” Community leaders saw other towns delay or bicker over tributes, something the Ventura County community vowed not to do.

The tributes will continue Wednesday morning with the dedication of a stretch of the 101 Freeway to Sgt. Helus. A short time later, Cal Lutheran will hold a vigil of remembrance. On Thursday, the Healing Garden — with 12 massive granite benches for each of the victims — will be dedicated in the city park. The campus will have a structure, inviting art and compositions about healing.

By Thursday, the anniversary will have passed and Cal Lutheran wanted a final event to embrace the notion of growth and pushing forward. It chose the Line Dancing Club to lead the campus community in a mass dance-in. Victoria Rose Meek will help lead “Boots in the Park.”

To Melissa Maxwell-Doherty, the school’s long-time pastor and now Vice President for Mission and Identity, that is only fitting.

“That is meant to be a day of growing,” said Maxwell-Doherty. “Even in the midst of sorrow sometimes the seeds of hope, and even joy, are stirred.”