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California

San Bernardino shooting victims: ‘It’s hard to process so much loss’

The victims ranged from 26 to 60 years old. They hailed from across Southern California: Los Angeles, Fontana, Upland, San Jacinto and Santa Ana.

Many were health inspectors charged with making sure San Bernardino County’s restaurants, pools and other gathering spots were clean and safe for the public.

In their time off, they were known for enjoying life. One coached youth soccer, another dressed as Santa Claus for kids. One played a peasant dancing through the crowds at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Another cherished her job and family, having fled Iran as a child to escape the country’s Islamic Revolution.

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Massacres have now torn up schools, churches and theaters across the country. Still, relatives and friends of the victims couldn’t understand why Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the heavily armed couple who riddled a holiday gathering with gunfire, had to add San Bernardino to the list.

“It’s really hard,” said Jenni Kosse, 50-year-old environmental health worker who counted three friends among the dead. “It’s hard to process so much loss.”

In San Bernardino, several government buildings were closed. On Facebook, workers added a black bar to the iconic arrowhead on the county shield, and hundreds of people attended vigils across the Inland Empire.

Hours before finding out that her husband, Michael Wetzel, had been killed, Renee Wetzel wrote on Facebook: “So many prayers needed.”

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The 37-year-old was well-known in the tight-knit San Bernardino mountain communities where he was raised and still lived. He was often seen with several of his kids — three from his first marriage, three from his second, said family friend Arlene Arenas, 40.

He spent seven years coaching boys’ and girls’ soccer.

“He was super-tall, and the littlest of girls thought he was a giant,” said Arenas, whose daughter played on the team. “He had no qualms about letting them follow him around, or walking around like a monster, with the little ones shrieking and hanging off his legs.”

Speaking outside her Colton home, the wife of another victim, 52-year-old Nicholas Thalasinos, remained composed as she spoke to reporters in her driveway.

“As soon as I heard what had happened, I pretty much knew that he was gone,” she said. “I just had a feeling.”

Jennifer Thalasinos said her husband, who was outspoken about his conservative political views, was a health inspector who worked with Farook, one of the assailants, at the county’s environmental services division.

“They got along,” she said. “As far as I know, [Syed] got along with everybody. That’s what’s so shocking.”

The Thalasinos, both Messianic Jews, met online and had been together for 14 years. Thalasinos said her husband wore a tie clip with the Star of David.

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“My husband was just a very devout believer,” she said. “He became born again a couple of years ago and because of that I had a very strong faith, so I know that he’s in a much better place.”

By Thursday evening, little was known about Shannon Johnson, 45.

And some victims’ loved ones remained reluctant to say much, so soon. A relative of Isaac Amanios, 60, of Fontana, called him “an amazing father, brother, an amazing everything.”

The family of one the shooting’s youngest victims, Yvette Velasco of Fontana, described the environmental health specialist as “full of life and loved by all who knew her.”

Other family and friends wanted to discuss their heartache.

Aurora Godoy and her husband, James Godoy, had met in 2003 during a Junior ROTC class at Carson High School, her husband said.

They dated for about eight years before eloping in 2012. They bought a home in San Jacinto. And she gave birth to their son, Alexander, who will turn 2 in January.

Speaking by telephone as his son fussed in the background, Godoy said of her wife’s devotion to the boy: “It was all about him.”

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Kosse, the county worker who lost three friends, felt numb as she thought of returning to work and not seeing her colleagues.

Among those lost was Robert Adams, a 40-year-old health specialist from Yucaipa who left behind a 20-month-old daughter.

Adams and his wife, Summer, grew up in the Inland Empire and were high school sweethearts, Kosse said. They had tried to have kids for some time and adored their daughter, Savannah. Adams loved taking her to the park and uploaded new pictures of her to Facebook almost every night.

“When you saw the three of them together,” Kosse said, her voice breaking, “you just wanted to jump in the middle and think, ‘I want to have fun too.’”

Adams’ death, along with that of Thalasinos and Wetzel, whom she had known since high school, left her devastated.

“I just keep going through it in my head and picturing where they’re supposed to be — at their desks,” she said. “They’re not and they won’t be.”

On Facebook, Tamishia Clayborn grieved the loss of her sister, Sierra Clayborn, 27, of Moreno Valley.

“I just found out the most horrible news of my life,” she wrote. “RIP Baby sis I love you more than you ever knew.”

On her own page, Sierra Clayborn had just written that she loved her “blooming career” in public and environmental health. Her final Facebook post was a tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks.

Bennetta Betbadal, the Iranian immigrant, left behind a husband and three children, ages 10, 12 and 15.

She was married to a police officer and led a team of restaurant inspectors for the county, said Mark Russell, a friend who was acting as a spokesman for the family.

A fundraising page set up for Betbadal’s children said that she left for work Wednesday morning eager to deliver a presentation to her colleagues.

In Santa Ana on Thursday night, four generations of family gathered to grieve 31-year-old Tin Nguyen, who used to rise each day at 5 a.m. for her two-hour commute to work as a health inspector in San Bernardino.

The day of the shooting, she headed out to buy doughnuts for the office party, said her mother, Vanessa.

Nguyen was her only daughter. The two fled Vietnam to rebuild their life in a place they considered “a safe country where younger people would find their rewards through education.”

“She was such a good soul,” Vanessa said. “Only she can understand me — she understood everything I went through.”

The graduate of Cal State Fullerton had a huge family, whom she loved to gather for Sunday dinners, hiking trips and excursions to Las Vegas.

In recent weeks, Nguyen had been trying on wedding dresses to prepare for her wedding in 2017. She insisted on a ceremony in her beloved St. Barbara’s Catholic Church, a few miles from her house.

“She promised that no matter what, she would return to have her wedding there,” her mother said. “And now we’re having a funeral. What will become of our lives?”

The torment set in for Ryan Reyes early Wednesday afternoon, moments after he heard about the shooting.

His boyfriend of three years, a friendly, Renaissance Faire aficionado named Larry Daniel Kaufman, ran the coffee shop in building 3 at the Inland Regional Center, training developmentally disabled clients.

Reyes called him over and over, but the phone went straight to voicemail.

“Call me ASAP!” he texted.

There was no reply.

The next few hours turned into a torturous waiting game for the Rialto resident, as for many others. Many turned to prayer and social media. Some raced from hospitals to police stations; others patiently hovered at a local community center as traumatized shooting survivors were dropped off by the busloads.

Reyes watched the buses all evening — until there were no more.

alan.zarembo@latimes.com

hailey.branson@latimes.com

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

Times staff writers Marisa Gerber, Laura J. Nelson, Corina Knoll, Anh Do, Matthew Hamilton, Louis Sahagun, Ben Poston, Sarah Parvini and Taylor Goldenstein contributed to this report.

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