In the dining room of their Covina home, Joseph “Papa Joe” Ortega, his wife of 53 years and their children had been playing a late-night game of Texas Hold ‘Em after Christmas Eve dinner.
Their grandchildren played video games and hung out near the backyard pool.
On the second floor, the Ortegas’ 17-year-old grandson, Michael, pecked away at a computer.
There was a knock on the front door, and the squeal of an 8-year-old girl happily crying, “Santa Claus! Santa Claus!”
Seconds later, the girl was shot in the face by a man dressed as Santa Claus, and two of her uncles also fell to the ground, wounded. The Ortegas and three of their daughters, including the gunman’s ex-wife, dived under the dining table for cover. But it was no use.
The Ortegas, four of their children, two daughters-in-law and the teenager at the computer would all die at the hands of Bruce Jeffrey Pardo.
The account is gleaned from relatives in the U.S. and Mexico who have been in contact with loved ones who survived the Christmas Eve rampage.
The survivors among the 25 to 30 people celebrating Christmas Eve with the Ortegas have not spoken publicly. But law enforcement sources close to the investigation confirmed many of the relatives’ descriptions, providing the clearest picture yet of what happened inside the house.
The relatives paint a horrific scene of a gunman bent on carrying out executions and relatives struggling not only to escape but to save their loved ones amid the panic.
When Pardo arrived at the party, many of the adults were at the front of the house because people were beginning to leave, making them especially vulnerable in the attack, sources say.
According to relatives, one of the Ortega sons, Charles, recognized Pardo after the gunman shot his 8-year-old niece and his older brother, James.
“It’s Bruce!” at least one person reportedly cried. Charles Ortega was shot after his brother James was hit.
Irma Chapa Ortega, a first cousin to the adult Ortega children, who lives in Torreon, Mexico, said James and Charles Ortega struggled to get up even after they were wounded.
“Even bloodied, they got up, they stood up,” she said. “They tried to grab him, to stop him. But they couldn’t.”
The elder Ortegas, Joseph, 80, and Alicia, 70, and their three daughters slipped under the dining room table along with at least one daughter-in-law, Teresa, Chapa Ortega said. She said she has been in contact with some of the survivors.
Someone screamed, “Run! Run!” The Ortegas may have been killed while in the dining room, along with two of their daughters, Sylvia and Alicia.
The only one of their children to survive was Leticia, the mother of the wounded 8-year-old girl, who according to a 911 tape had briefly hidden under the table.
“I heard the shots,” Leticia told the police dispatcher in the 911 call. “Everyone started panicking and running, and we all dove under the dining room” table.
Chapa Ortega said her cousin Leticia made a break for it after seeing her wounded daughter stagger out of the house. A source close to the investigation said that although Pardo shot her in the face, the child may have saved herself by turning her head at the last moment.
The bullet struck her along the side of her jaw, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is open. Relatives and the source said it was possible that Pardo had lifted the girl before shooting her.
“I need someone to come over and help my daughter!” Leticia screamed at the dispatcher. “She’s . . . bleeding. She’s been shot on the side of the face!”
Some of the adults grabbed children and carried them out. Investigators believe that almost all of the younger people were saved because they were in the back of the house, closer to the television, possibly playing video games, when Pardo opened fire.
Although the 8-year-old was wounded, as was a 16-year-old girl who was shot in the back, the only minor killed in the attack was Michael Ortiz, the 17-year-old who was sitting at the computer on the second floor. Chapa Ortega said Michael was apparently killed by the explosion or fire started by two tanks that Pardo had fused together to create a device capable of quickly engulfing the home in fire.
A law enforcement source said it appears that Michael was killed as a result of the fire or explosion and was not shot.
Michael Ortiz’s mother, Alicia Ortiz -- the daughter of Joseph and Alicia Ortega -- was also killed.
Pardo -- whose murderous rampage was apparently triggered by his divorce from the Ortegas’ daughter Sylvia -- had planned to escape and had bought a plane ticket to Illinois. But he was badly burned in the explosion and ensuing fire, with second- and third-degree burns on his arms.
He drove 40 miles to his brother’s home in Sylmar, where he committed suicide. Los Angeles County Coroner’s Lt. Fred Corral said there was an exit wound at the top of Pardo’s head, suggesting he put the gun in his mouth before pulling the trigger. It could take as long as six weeks for a toxicology test to determine whether Pardo had any drugs or alcohol in his system.
“He wanted to kill everyone. Even his own mom,” Chapa Ortega said angrily Tuesday. “A monster, a monster. That man was a monster. He killed good, hard-working people who had many friends and who loved the United States.”
Chapa Ortega said her 84-year-old mother, who has been ill and hospitalized in Mexico, remains unaware of the deaths.
“My uncle [Joseph Ortega] adored my mother, his sister. Whenever he would leave us after a visit, he would kiss her and tell us, ‘Take very good care of my sister,’ ” Chapa Ortega recalled. “She knows nothing. The doctors won’t let us tell her. The doctors say she can’t know. She’ll die if she knows.”
Times staff writer Ari B. Bloomekatz contributed to this report.