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Kansas town, company mourn victims of workplace shooting: 'We are like a family'

Kansas town, company mourn victims of workplace shooting: 'We are like a family'
Alicia and James Ditty hug during a candlelight vigil at Heritage Park in Hesston, Kan., on Friday. A day earlier a gunman killed three people and wounded 14 others at Excel Industries. (Travis Heying / Wichita Eagle)

Grieving residents of this small Kansas town parked riding lawnmowers with American flags planted beside them along some streets on Saturday and adorned them with "Hesston Hustler Strong" signs in a symbolic reference to the lawn equipment brand from the factory where a gunman killed three co-workers.

The Excel Industries factory in the center of this community of 3,700 founded by Mennonite farmers has long been more than an economic hub. It is a source of pride that binds people together. It draws about 1,000 workers from small towns around the region, and everyone seems to either work there or know someone who does.

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The Hustler brand evolved in the 1960s from the tinkering of a man from a nearby town, John Regier. The quiet of Hesston was shattered on Thursday when Cedric Ford barged into the plant while about 300 people were working the second shift and opened fire.

Authorities say Ford, a convicted felon, was upset after being served hours earlier at the plant with a court order to stay away from a former girlfriend. In addition to three people killed, 14 were wounded, including two people shot as he drove to the plant. A police officer killed Ford in an ensuing gun battle.

Community members show their support for Excel Industries workers and their families in Hesston.
Community members show their support for Excel Industries workers and their families in Hesston. (Kyle Rivas / Getty Images)

Federal prosecutors Friday charged Sarah Hopkins, of nearby Newton, with one count of knowingly transferring a firearm to a convicted felon. Prosecutors allege that Hopkins, a friend of Ford's, knew he was a convicted felon when she gave him a semiautomatic rifle and a handgun.

On Thursday, it fell to Hesston Police Chief Doug Schroeder, one of a force of just six full-time officers, to rush into the plant without backup and kill the gunman in an exchange of bullets.

The police chief was hailed as a hero in the community. But city leaders on Saturday said there were many heroes that day, including some Excel workers who carried injured people out.

"At Excel, we are like a family," said Rick Lett, a friend since high school of one of the dead, 44-year-old Brian Sadowsky. Lett worked an earlier shift that day and recalled his friend's last words to him as Sadowsky arrived for the second shift: "Have a good evening, brother."

The other workers killed inside the plant were Josh Higbee, 31, and Renee Benjamin, 30.

For some families, multiple generations work at Excel. Karen Mosqueda worked the first shift and her daughter, Ashley, worked the second shift on the day of the attack. Ashley Mosqueda ran out of the building when someone shouted that there was a gunman. Some workers carried an injured colleague outside, taking their belts off to be used as tourniquets to stop the bleeding before going to nearby homes to get a blanket for him.

Ashley Mosqueda said that seeing the plant again when she attended a candlelight vigil Friday night brought the memories flooding back.

"It is going to be hard to walk back in, to take that first step," she said.

People are relying on their faith to get them through the days to come.

Among them are Bruce and Lori Weaver, lifelong Hesston residents, who attended Friday night's vigil. He is chief financial officer of a machine manufacturing company in nearby Moundridge, and she is an elementary school teacher. His brother is the Excel's plant information technology manager, and the father of their son's fiancee works in the office.

Lori Weaver was at the high school after the shootings Thursday, at a reception area set up there, and spent much of the evening praying for the victims' families.

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"We're very realistic. We're not in a bubble," she said. "We're going to support each other and trust God."

The city plans a town hall Sunday afternoon to answer questions from residents, and a special church service is planned that evening in the school gym. The city has embraced the slogan "Hesston Strong" in its recovery efforts.

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