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Stunned with grief after Saugus shooting: ‘The scares and trauma we see on TV came to Santa Clarita’

Saugus High School shooting vigil
From left: Priscilla Arquelles, 17, Kayla Hynes, 16, Gracyn Webb, 17, and Carli Chorpash, 17, hold each other as thousands gather at Central Park in Santa Clarita to remember those killed at Saugus High School.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Here in Santa Clarita, in this park that is forever changed, people crumple to their knees before the flag flapping at half-staff. Parents pray and sob, teenagers stare at the balloons, blue and silver for their school colors.

On Thursday, in the terrifying hours after a Saugus High School student pulled a .45-caliber handgun from his backpack, shooting five classmates and then himself, hundreds of parents sprinted through Central Park, frantically looking for their children, who had been bused here after evacuating.

Now, in a circle around the flagpole at Central Park, people leave candles and flowers, a teddy bear and a box of Kleenex tissues. They write notes to Dominic Blackwell, 14, and Gracie Anne Muehlberger, 15, who were killed, and one parent leaves a white rose bud and a note scrawled in blue pen:

For the families who had no idea that yesterday morning’s goodbye would be their last. For the mother left wondering how she didn’t know that something was seriously wrong with her son, that he would carry such hurt, anger, grief in his , mind, in that backpack...The scares and trauma we see on TV came to Santa Clarita yesterday. Our safe, quiet town lost that title yesterday. Now we’re just another statistic.

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On Friday morning, Yvette Mojica, a Saugus junior, knelt at the memorial and made the sign of the cross. Her mind was still stuck inside her forensic science class — replaying the moment she darted to the front of the classroom, locked the door and flicked off the lights. She crouched down with her classmates, certain they would all die.

I think there’s someone shooting, she texted her father. I love you.

Where? he asked. I love you too.

Then, she sent a string of two-word messages, switching between English and Spanish:

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They’re shooting

No vengas

Estoy bien

te amo

Don’t come to the school, she told him. She was OK. She loved him.

Tengo miedo, she wrote.

Marco Mojica knew that his girl — “mi baby,” he calls her — was scared, but he told her that she needed to keep praying.

Saugus High School shooting memorial
Vickey Nelson, left, Cindy Vincej and Criss Owens place flowers at Central Park in Santa Clarita for the victims of the shooting at Saugus High School.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)
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Twice in less than a month, a caravan of sheriff’s cars with blaring sirens has barreled north on the 5 Freeway, providing backup in Santa Clarita. The back-to-back emergencies stand like a horrifying echo to November in Thousand Oaks, when, just hours after the mass shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill, the sky turned dark red and hundreds of thousands fled their homes during a wildfire that would burn more than 1,600 structures.

This year, in Santa Clarita, fire came first.

The Tick fire started on Oct. 24 and burned several thousand acres and forced the evacuation of 40,000 Santa Clarita Valley residents. During the fire, as flecks of ash rained down, Santa Clarita Mayor Marsha McLean gave a somber news conference at Central Park.

“This,” she said, staring into the cameras, “has certainly been a harrowing couple of days.”

But when the winds finally slowed and moisture returned to the air, McLean thought the worst of the year was behind her. Then, on Thursday morning, the city manager called her at home. McLean hung up and after a few seconds the words Saugus High sunk in. She frantically dialed her granddaughter, a junior at the school, but the girl didn’t answer.

I’m OK, she texted. We’re on lock down.

472742-me-saugus-hs-school-shooting05-als-jpg
A sheriff’s deputy leads students from the campus. Authorities said the gunfire lasted 16 seconds.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

In those early minutes, before officials saw the surveillance footage of Nathaniel Berhow, who turned 16 the day of the shooting, putting the pistol to his own head, authorities thought the gunman might still be on the loose. McLean, like thousands of others across the valley, was terrified.

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“It seems like we just got through one tragedy with families losing their homes in the fire,” she said. “And then this? It’s really hard to describe.”

The haze of last week still feels indescribable to residents here.

Lynn White, whose daughter is a senior at Saugus, still finds herself rereading the message Olivia — “Liv,” as she’s saved in her phone — sent at 7:43 a.m. Thursday.

hey mom. there is a shooter on campus.

Omg, she responded.

one student got hit.

White panicked, desperate to stop the trauma.

Ok stay hidden, she wrote. I’m heading over there.

On Friday, Olivia, 17, and her best friend, Rachel Burson, a 16-year-old junior, sat at a Starbucks two miles from their campus and recounted their memories of that morning.

They drove to school together listening to Christmas music and then walked on campus to the spot where Olivia heads up a ramp to math class and Rachel hangs a right to her forensic science class. Every day, Rachel says, she tells her friend the same thing: “Bye, I love you. I’ll see you at brunch.” But that morning, in her rush to the bathroom, she’d left off the “I love you.”

In her forensic science class — the same one Yvette Mojica was in — Rachel remembers hearing what sounded like the snap of a wet towel. Maybe it was gunshots from the episode of “Forensic Files” they were watching? But then she heard it again. Yvette ran to the front of the classroom, pulling back a paper covering the window. Outside, students were sprinting. Yvette locked the door, and then returned, moments later, to the front of the classroom to barricade the door with a computer cart.

“She is so strong,” Rachel recalls thinking.

For two hours, Rachel sat in silence under a table with her knees to her chest. She heard sirens and screams and stomps. Olivia texted her from the other side of campus.

Rach, are you ok?

She was safe, Rachel wrote, but she’d just remembered that she had not said “I love you” that morning.

I love you so much, Olivia wrote back.

Eventually, seven men in uniforms walked into Olivia’s math class, and she and the others instinctively put their hands in the air. Officials led them out in a line, past the quad, where the shooting had happened. Olivia saw homework handouts and backpacks scattered on the ground — that moment, frozen in time. It finally hit her. This would be the legacy of her senior year. Not the Friday nights at In-N-Out or the football games. It would be this day — the deaths of her classmates.

Both friends say it still doesn’t feel fully real. Sure, they’d had drills and seen other schools on the news, but deep down they never expected it on their campus. Not at Saugus. And not, Rachel said, at the hands of the friendly runner she’d met in English class last year.

She and Berhow — “Nathan,” as he’d introduced himself — got paired up for a project last year, where they presented “Lord of the Flies.” They’d gotten an A, she recalled, and she’d found him sweet and smart. That’s what made this so scary, she said, that a kid she knew had stolen lives and forever changed Santa Clarita.

“Who can I trust?” she said, fidgeting with her long, blue nails. Then she turned to Olivia, who was smiling at her.

She knew she could trust her, Rachel told her best friend.


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