The San Ysidro McDonald’s Shooting Massacre
An in-depth look at the tragic 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre that killed 21 people and injured 19 more.
At the time, the San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. 21 people were killed and 19 more wounded when a lone gunman entered a McDonald’s restaurant and opened fire in a 77-minute long shooting that would change the country.
James Oliver Huberty was born on October 11, 1942, in Canton, Ohio. As a child, he was known for having very few friends, with his only interest being target practice. Throughout his school years, Huberty was constantly bullied by his peers for his strange behavior. It didn’t help that in 1964, he graduated with a funeral director’s and embalmer’s license.
In early 1965, Huberty got married to Etna Markland, a woman he had met while at Malone College. By 1974, they had two daughters, Zelia and Cassandra. He was known for his history of domestic violence, often hitting his own children and holding knives to their throats. Etna continuously made attempts to get her husband to go to counseling, but he refused every time. Instead, Etna would pretend that she could read his future with tarot cards, which created a calming effect for Huberty.
Hubery’s home was filled with loaded firearms, to the extent that he could reach over and grab a gun wherever he stood in the house. They were all loaded, with the safety latch disabled. He feared that society was doomed to breakdown, through either economic collapse or nuclear war. He was fully prepared to protect his home and family through any kind of apocalypse.
On July 15, 1984, it all took a turn for the worse. Huberty had gone up to his wife, telling her that he thought he might be dealing with mental health issues. By July 17, he was calling the San Diego mental health clinic for an appointment. But Huberty was put on hold before being promised that someone would call him back. Huberty waited by the phone for hours, but no calls came in.
It would later be revealed that the receptionist had gotten his name wrong, writing down “Shouberty” instead of “Huberty.” And because of his shy demeanor and lack of previous hospitalization, he had been logged as a non-crisis inquiry, which pushed him to the back of the list.
The next day, Huberty and his family went to the San Diego Zoo for a day trip. While walking through the park, Huberty told his wife that he thought his life was over. Afterward, they ate at a local McDonald’s and returned home.
Later, Huberty walked into his bedroom and kissed his wife, saying that he wanted to kiss her goodbye. When Etna asked if he would be home in time for dinner, Huberty replied by saying he was, “Going hunting. Hunting for humans.” He threw a gun over his shoulder and grabbed a box of ammunition, telling his daughter, “Goodbye. I won’t be back.”
Huberty got in the car and drove down San Ysidro Boulevard. It was then that he pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot.
There was no going back.
At 3:56 p.m., Huberty entered the fast-food restaurant with a 9mm Browning HP semi-automatic pistol, a 9mm Uzi carbine, a Winchester 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. There were 45 customers in the restaurant, but they would be no match to Huberty.
Huberty first aimed his gun at 16-year-old employee John Arnold. He tried to shoot, but nothing happened. As he went to check his gun, the manager, 22-year-old Neva Caine, walked forward because she thought it was all one big joke. But before she even knew what was happening, Huberty shot once into the ceiling and then shot Caine right under her eye. She would die only minutes later.
Huberty then shot John Arnold in the chest and arm before telling everyone in the restaurant to get to the ground. He began to rant, saying that he had “killed a thousand” and planned to “kill a thousand more.” Victor Rivero stood up in hopes that he could convince Huberty to stop, but he was shot fourteen times.
Huberty soon turned his attention towards six women and children who were huddled together beneath tables and chairs. He first killed María Colmenero-Silva before fatally shooting nine-year-old Claudia Pérez. He then shot Imelda Pérez and Aurora Peña, then shot Jackie Reyes 48 times. Her eight-month-old daughter started to cry, and Huberty responded by killing the baby with a shot to the back of the head.
From there, Huberty went on to shoot Laurence Versluis, Blythe Regan Herrera, Mateo Herrera, Ronald Herrera, and Keith Thomas. Laurence, Blythe, and Mateo were killed, but Keith and Ronald managed to survive the gunshot wounds.
In an attempt to save themselves, three women hid underneath a booth. Gloria Ramírez and Arisdelsi Vuelvas Vargas shielded their friend Guadalupe del Rio, who lay with her body against the wall. Del Rio was shot several times but survived, while Vargas was killed with a gunshot to the back of the head. Remírez made it through the event unharmed.
The first 911 call was made shortly after 4:00 p.m., but police went to the wrong McDonald’s, which delayed their response by several minutes. Shortly after the call was placed, a woman named Lydia Flores drove through the food-pickup window, where she spotted shattered windows and heard gunfire. She quickly threw her car into reverse, crashing into a fence and hiding there until the shooting ended.
Only five minutes later, Astolfo and Maricela Félix, and their four-month-old daughter drove up to McDonald’s, assuming that the broken glass was no more than renovations happening in the restaurant. But as Huberty came walking towards them, they were quickly shown the truth. Huberty shot at the couple and their daughter, striking all of them with bullets. Running away from the scene, they handed their wounded child to a woman who ran the baby to the nearest hospital. All three members of the family would survive.
Soon after, three 11-year-old boys rode up to the McDonald’s on their bikes to buy some ice cream. People yelled at them from across the street to not go inside, but in the few brief seconds where they hesitated, Huberty shot all three boys. Omar Alonso Hernandez and David Flores Delgado both died on the scene, but Joshua Coleman managed to survive his wounds.
Next, an elderly couple named Miguel Victoria Ulloa and Aida Velásquez Victoria walked towards the entrance. When Migues opened the door for his wife, Huberty short Aida. Witnesses report watching Miguel cradle his wife’s body and shouting at Huberty before he too was shot in the head.
Ten minutes after the first 911 had been placed, the police finally arrived on the scene. They were quick to impose a lockdown in the area, preventing anyone else from stumbling onto the scene. They established a command center two blocks away from the restaurants, with multiple officers staking out around the McDonald’s.
At first, the police were unaware of how many shooters were inside, due to the high volume of gunfire coming from inside. But a witness who had escaped the restaurant informed them that there was only one man, who was shooting everyone he saw.
By 5:05 p.m., officers were authorized to kill Huberty if they got a clear shot.
As officers were put into place, Huberty walked toward the service counter and used a portable radio to search for news reports on his crimes. But instead, he turned on music and started to dance around while shooting six more employees that were hiding from him in the back.
He then opened fire on a fire truck that was parked nearby, wounding one person inside. Huberty then switched his focus to the already-wounded Jose Pérez, who was moaning out in pain. He shot the teenage boy in the head, then went on to throw a bag of french fries at Aurora Peña, shooting her in the arm, neck, and jaw.
At 5:17, Huberty moved closer toward the doorway near the drive-in window. SWAT Sniper Charles Foster was positioned on a roof of a post office across the street, allowing him to have an unobstructed view of Huberty through his sight.
Charles Foster took the shot.
The single-round traveled 35 yards, entering into Huberty’s chest and killing him almost instantly.
In the end, the entire shooting would last for 77 minutes. Huberty shot a minimum of 257 rounds, killing 21 people and injuring 19 more. Only 10 people got out of the restaurants unharmed, six of them having hidden in the basement utility room.
Six years after the tragedy, a permanent memorial was created for those who lost their lives during the San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre. The monument was designed by Roberty Valdes, who described the meaning behind the design by saying:
“The 21 hexagons represent each person that died, and they are all different heights, representing the variety of ages and races of the people involved in the massacre. They are bonded together in the hopes that the community, in a tragedy like this, will stick together, like they did.”
Resources for this episode include History.com and Murderpedia.