By Vince Echavaria
Three days after a shooting rampage through Santa Monica streets and the city’s community college claimed six lives, including the gunman’s, hundreds joined together to mourn, share feelings of anger and confusion and pay their respects to the victims whose lives were tragically taken.
The gathering began outside the Santa Monica College library, where the June 7 violence came to an end, and traveled past a makeshift memorial on campus, with family members, loved ones and community members walking together, many embracing each other, toward Corsair Field. The school had just welcomed back students earlier that day after they were placed on lockdown June 7 before police shot and killed the gunman, identified by authorities as John Zawahri, 23.
At the football stadium, where graduation ceremonies were held June 11, mourners remembered victims Carlos Navarro Franco, 68, his daughter, Marcela Franco, 26, who died two days after the shooting, and Margarita Gomez, 68. Authorities say the violence began when Zawahri fatally shot his father, Samir Zawahri, 55, and brother, Christopher Zawahri, 24, at his father’s home in the 2000 block of Yorkshire Avenue prior to carjacking a woman and forcing her to drive down streets where he randomly shot at vehicles en route to the college. Several people were injured in the rampage, police said.
Carlos Franco worked as a longtime groundskeeper at the community college and had taken his daughter, who had recently enrolled at SMC, to pick up textbooks at the campus when they were shot in his SUV.
“Carlos Franco was our colleague – a dear member of the Santa Monica College family,” said SMC President Dr. Chui Tsang, who embraced Franco’s widow, Ramona, during the procession to Corsair Field. “We remember him as a devoted father and husband and for his dedication to work and the family.”
Marcela, who was Franco’s youngest daughter and formerly a student at California State University-Dominguez Hills, was remembered by loved ones for her intelligence, outgoing nature and her determination to become a clinical psychologist, Tsang said.
Police say Gomez was shot to death by Zawahri as she stood outside the campus library, where the gunman attempted to shoot a number of others inside. Gomez lived near the college and regularly collected recyclables on campus, offering to give some donations to those in need.
“Margarita Gomez was our neighbor; we remember her for her radiating smile and her commitment to those less fortunate,” Tsang said.
For many gathered at the vigil, it was a chance to begin the healing process as a community stricken by tragedy. Mayor Pam O’Connor said the city needs to try to heal together, as “the loss is too much for any one of us to bare alone.”
“Over the next week and beyond we must commit to the healing process, to grieve, to adapt and to cope,” the mayor said. “As a community, we’ll grow stronger and from that strength we’ll discover how to truly heal.”
SMC professor Alex Schwartz noted that since the incident, he has experienced a mix of emotions from anger to frustration and confusion, but he hopes that bringing the community together can move the recovery process forward.
“I hope this can be a time of healing and growth; I hope we can all in our ways practice compassion to attempt slowly to heal ourselves, our community and our world,” he said.
On the first day back to campus following the tragedy a sense of confusion seemed to be commonplace for students, as they were still dealing with a range of emotion, said Parker Jean, SMC student body president. Jean said he too, remains in a state of confusion but he was pleased to see people from across the community share their support at the vigil.
“I think it was a very somber yet sobering event in realizing that if there’s any time to come together it’s now, and our ultimate goal should be how do we prevent this from happening again in the future,” Jean said.
Police are still trying to determine what may have led Zawahri, a former student at SMC, to set out on his killing rampage. Law enforcement officials told the Los Angeles Times that the gunman was suffering from mental problems and the newspaper cited court records indicating he faced troubles at home growing up with parents who had a bitter separation.
The Times reported that authorities were also investigating how Zawahri acquired a .44-caliber handgun and an AR-15 type semiautomatic rifle as well as up to 1,200 rounds of ammunition.
Police say the violence began when Zawahri fatally shot his father and brother at the father’s home, which was set afire, and wearing ballistic attire, he shot a woman in her car before carjacking another woman on the street outside the home. As he was driven down Santa Monica streets, police say Zawahri shot at vehicles, including a Big Blue Bus and the SUV driven by Carlos Franco. Zawahri then went onto the SMC campus where he shot Gomez and shot at others inside the library, where Santa Monica and SMC officers shot him, police said. The gunman’s body was taken outside the library where he was pronounced dead.
Asked if she believed the rampage was premeditated, Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks said, “I would presume any time someone puts on a vest of some sort, comes out with a bag full of loaded magazines, has an extra receiver, has a handgun and a semi-automatic rifle, carjacks folks, goes to a college, kills more people and has to be neutralized at the hands of the police, I would say that’s premeditated.”
SMC Police Chief Al Vasquez stressed that the rampage was not simply a school shooting, noting that the violence started off campus and came to an end at the college. “It’s unfortunate that the suspect chose SMC to continue his crime,” Vasquez said.
In the wake of another mass shooting in the U.S., some elected leaders called for the discussion on increased gun legislation to continue.
“This is the seventh mass shooting in the last year. Enough is enough. It’s well past time that Congress take action to keep these dangerous weapons off our streets,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Santa Monica). “My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this violence and their families. In the coming days and weeks, I will do all I can to pressure Congress to take up common-sense gun measures to fix our loophole-ridden gun laws that keep these violent weapons out of our communities.”
The Santa Monica College Foundation has established a memorial fund honoring Carlos Franco. Donations can be made to the Carlos Franco Family Memorial Fund by mail to: The Santa Monica College Foundation, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90405.