Many of us will remember 2019 as a year of tragedy in Odessa.
We’re no strangers to crime or violence here in West Texas. Stabbings, shootings and assaults, sadly, are just not uncommon here.
But 2019 would bring our community to our collective knees as gunman Seth Ator drove around Odessa randomly shooting people with an AR-style rifle that he obtained through a private gun sale, which allowed him to evade a federal background check that had previously blocked him from buying a gun.
The horror of just how cruel and dangerous the world can be came home that Labor Day weekend as seven people were killed and 25 others injured during Ator’s wild shooting spree that took him from Interstate 20 near Midland to central Odessa to a field near Odessa’s Cinergy Theatre where he got into a shootout with officers from multiple law enforcement agencies.
He was shot dead there in that field as a horrified crowd looked on after they had been evacuated from the movie theater.
The horror of that day isn’t really final just yet. Many questions remain unanswered — even where the deranged gunman got a weapon he was not legally allowed to own.
Texas Senator John Cornyn wrote an op-ed for the Odessa American in October about his Restoring, Enhancing, Strengthening, and Promoting Our Nation’s Safety Efforts — or RESPONSE — Act. The bill includes a number of provisions to “prevent attacks and make our communities safer,” he wrote.
He said the legislation takes aim at unlicensed firearms dealers who are breaking the law. In that op-ed he wrote that the “Midland-Odessa shooter failed a background check when he attempted to buy a firearm from a licensed dealer, but was still able to purchase his weapon from someone who appears to have been manufacturing and selling guns who never registered as a firearms dealer. By not registering, he was able to skirt the background check requirement and sell a weapon to the shooter.”
That is as close as we can get to discovering how Ator even had the AR-style weapon. That op-ed and reporting by the Lubbock Avalanche Journal from months ago that a Lubbock home was raided in connection with the gun sale.
Both the OA and CBS 7 have a number of Freedom of Information requests pending seeking more information on the shootings from both local and state law enforcement agencies.
They called him Seth
Both the AP and CNN have reported about a Feb. 11, 2011, incident in Amarillo when Ator’s distressed mother called the police and said her son wouldn’t take his mental health meds and that he had threatened to end his own life in a shootout with police.
That incident so troubled Amarillo cops that they recorded the floor plans of the property and shared the information with the city’s SWAT team. The then 28-year-old Ator was volatile and might hurt someone. Another officer stated in an incident report at the time that he believed Ator “will attempt to harm the police and the public.”
That was eight years before Ator would be fired from yet another job on Aug. 31, 2019. He would leave the job site and end up on the side of Interstate 20 after being pulled over by DPS Officer Chuck Pryor, who would become the first of Ator’s random 32 victims.
A December interview in Odessa with Brad and Brenda Grimsley and Brenda’s sister Kay Perea would reveal more about that first shooting on Aug. 31.
The Grimsleys and Perea were driving from their home in Mustang, Okla., to Pecos down I-20 to visit family when they saw Ator shoot Trooper Pryor.
The December interview with the Grimsleys was at the Odessa Chamber of Commerce where they had gone to meet with CEO/President Renee Earls and DPS Trooper Mike Baskerville. Baskerville came to the aid of the Oklahoma family that day as Brad Grimsley was shot in the stomach and feared he was bleeding to death.
It was striking how both the Grimsely’s and Perea repeatedly referred to the gunman as “Seth.” Perea even tearfully talked about how much she had thought about “Seth’s” mother since the day of the shootings and how his mother must be going through hell after the carnage that her son caused and how many lives are forever altered because of his actions.
The trio returned to Odessa in early December and on their way to finish that trip to Pecos started that Labor Day weekend. Brad Grimsley continues to recover from his injuries both physical and emotional.
He and his wife detailed how they still talk about that day and “Seth” each and every day. They wonder about all of the “what if’s.”
“What if I would have swerved and hit him with the car after we saw him shoot Trooper Pryor,” Brad Grimsley asked. “Could we have done something to him that would have saved others?”
The questions are ones that can never be answered.
Brad would be Ator’s second victim that day. The former Marine is thankful for his life and for Trooper Baskerville who helped keep him alive. The trio were also thankful for the hospital staff at Midland Memorial where he was treated and for the generosity of those who donated both to their GoFundMe page and to the Odessa Chamber’s community fund, which raised more than $1 million to aid those killed and wounded that day.
The gun debate
The year of 2019, as of Dec. 29, would have the highest number of incidents of mass shootings than any other year on record, the BBC reported this weekend. Mass killings are defined as four or more being killed in the same incident. In 2019, there were 41 incidents and 211 deaths. The deadliest were 12 dead in Virginia Beach in May and 22 dead in El Paso in August.
Though 2019 had the highest number of incidents, the death toll of 211 was eclipsed by the 224 people who died in mass killings 2017. That year saw the deadliest mass shooting in US history, when 59 people were gunned down at a festival in Las Vegas.
The debate over guns, gun laws and mental health care in the U.S. continues into 2020.
Out of this year of tragedy there were also bright spots. So many folks came together to help the victims that day. Strangers rushed to help a family on a busy street after their toddler was shot. Others would rush to unsuccessfully try and save the life of a fallen postal worker who had been shot to death in central Odessa.
There many, many examples of love, kindness and heroism that day.
People lined up at Medical Center Hospital to donate blood while others rushed in with food and blankets to aid family members waiting at MCH for word of the condition of loved ones.
There was a lot of be proud of in Odessa.
Medical Center Hospital, Odessa Regional Medical Center and Midland Memorial would all forgive any bills not covered by insurance for the victims.
GoFundMe’s were set up and filled up as people donated to help the victims both dead and alive. The fund was set up through the Odessa Community Foundation and several Odessans were named to figure out how to distribute the more than $1 million raised.
Remembering the victims
Joe Griffith’s life ended in his car at a stoplight in Odessa as he was shot to death in front of his wife and two young children. The family was on the way to take family photos.
He was 40 and a former math teacher who was a past golf pro at Odessa Country Club and an employee of B-Line Filter & Supply.
Friends and family remembered him as a man of faith who was always quick to help anyone who needed it.
A September Facebook post by Jennifer D. Johnston praised Griffith as a former MISD teacher. “(we are) all grieving the tragic loss of our former teacher Joe Griffith. Mr. Griffith was truly an incredible teacher; he taught us math better than anyone had ever done before. But most importantly, during the hard times of teenage years, he made us smile.
He was passionate about his students and loved us and we knew it. He was a bright light in the hallways and always fought to get smiles out of his students
Since the shooting Griffith’s sisters, Carla Byrne and Marcy Askins, have testified during House Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety hearings that they want common sense gun law reform.
“My brother owned guns and valued the Second Amendment,” Byrne testified in November. “I own a gun. We have an inalienable right to protect our lives and the lives of our children, but we also have an inalienable right to walk through our streets without being shot down.
“My brother was on his way on a peaceful Saturday afternoon to a family photo with his children and wife in the car and the next minute our whole town was in a virtual war zone,” she said. “The shooter should never, under any circumstances, have had possession of a gun. The Lubbock seller is covered in blood money and should be held accountable, but he won’t be because our system is broken.”
Odessa’s Hernandez family endured much during the Aug. 31 shooting spree. The family gathered at a car dealership as 18-year-old Nathan had saved his money and was purchasing a vehicle. What started as a family outing ended in terror as family members witnessed both Leilah and Nathan being shot.
Fifteen-year-old Leilah, an Odessa High School student, was the youngest who lost her life that day. Nathan was also shot. Their mother pushed her 9-year-old son under a car to shield him as the gunman’s bullets rained down on the family.
Their grandmother, Nora Leyva, later told the Washington Post that Nathan wrapped his arms around Leilah and was shot in the arm. Another bullet struck Leilah near her collarbone. “Help me, help me,” the girl said as she died, Leyva said.
More than 1,000 people gathered for Leilah’s funeral days later at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church. Leilah had celebrated her quinceañera in May and had just started her sophomore year. She was on the freshman basketball team last season.
Coaches called her soft-spoken and a young woman who put others before herself. She attended Ector Middle School and played basketball, volleyball and ran track and cross country. Former Odessa High basketball teammate Skylar Herrera. “You always wanted to be around her.”
Nathan Hernandez on Twitter wrote: “…I will always love you baby sis it’s sad it had to happen to you I wish [it] would have been me you still had your whole life ahead of you…I did my best to protect you im sorry baby.”
Mary Granados, 29, was making her U.S. Postal Service route that day and was shot to death while her horrified sister Rosie Granados was chatting with her via cell phone.
“I was on the phone with Mary and she started screaming and I thought she was getting bit by a dog,” Rosie told the Odessa American the day of the shooting.
The women were twins and were close and Rosie, who said she knew her sister’s postal route, rushed over thinking she would find her twin with a dog bite.
Her voice broke as she talked about how the two would have been 30 together this December and that her family moved to the U.S. from Mexico when they were 14. “..I wasn’t able to hug her or touch her..,” Rosie Granados said of that terrible day.
Mary would die there on the street in central Odessa as the gunman hijacked her postal service van and used it to continue his deadly shooting spree around Odessa.
Rodlfo ‘Rudy’ Arco
Rudy Arco’s family members have told numerous media outlets that the 57-year-old was a native of Cuba who lived in Las Vegas before moving to West Texas. He was troubled after the 2017 mass shooting left 59 dead and more than 500 injured.
Maria Arco told the Arizona Republic in September that he owned a trucking company and had sold everything he owned in Vegas to move to Odessa with his family. “in the hopes that things would be safer for him and the family.”
Ardy Arco told yourbasin.com that his father didn’t answer his phone following news of the shooting spree. His sister saw their father’s truck with bullet holes and police tape around it and news of his death would come later at the hospital. Rudy was killed while driving home from work that day.
Ardy called him an “all star” dad and said he taught him how to be a man and to take care of himself.
Family and friends and strangers posted and donated on a gofundme for Rudy. Many talked about fond memories of him growing up and how he will be missed. One wrote that “the nation is grieving with you.”
The 25-year-old Edwin ran into the backyard of his parents’ home near 38th and Walnut after he heard gunshots. He had recently moved to San Antonio but was home for the long Labor Day weekend. The AP reported he had a new job and life in San Antonio. That ended Aug. 31 in the yard after the gunman sped by shooting both Edwin and his brother-in-law. Family members have said Edwin was killed instantly. His brother-in-law was injured.
His sister-in-law, via GoFundMe, said he was full of life. “Every room he walked in he always had that room lit up with a smile and laugh. He made a difference in every soul he met, he made a mark.”
The U.S. Army vet was only 30 when he was killed near Ratliff Stadium that day as he drove to work by the gunman who, by that time, was driving the stolen mail truck. A memorial to his service still stands.
Writer Julie Anderson shared Kameron’s story with the Odessa American for Veterans Day. She described how Kameron had enlisted as a teen in 2007 telling his brother “this is where I’m supposed to be.” He faced battle and trauma and later PTSD but fought through it, family members said.
Kameron landed a job at Standard Safety & Supply and he was excited about his new life following his Army service. Family members never imagined this Army vet’s life would end alone in a work truck at the hands of a deranged gunman.
His brother Carlton Brown said the two did everything together and he was “always his biggest fan.”
The family turned to faith to get through the death of the young former soldier. “My family has a very strong relationship with God,” Carlton Brown told Julie Anderson following his brother’s death.
Raul Garcia died at Midland Memorial hospital after being shot through the cabin of his truck on Interstate 20 in Odessa.
The 35-year-old was a long distance truck driver who was driving to San Diego from the East Coast when he detoured to his hometown of El Paso to pick up his sons to join him on the final leg of his Labor Day weekend trip, the El Paso Times reported in September.
Trucking was his family business and he also used to ride on hauls with his own father. Raul’s four sons range in age from 3 to 14. Family members recalled he loved to help others in his family and that his kids and his truck “meant everything to him.”
Those who were injured:
Nathan Hernandez, 18, Odessa
Marc Gonzales, 38, Odessa
Zachary Owens, Midland Police Department
Timmothy Beard, 55, San Antonio
James Santana, Odessa Police Department
Glenda Dempsy, 62, Odessa
Marco Corral, 62, San Diego, CA.
Coy Edge, 53, Odessa
Joseph Glide, 60, Odessa
Anderson Davis, 17 months, Odessa
Daniel Munoz, 28, Yuma, AZ.
Robert Cavasoz, 38, Alice, TX.
Maria Boado, 27, Haileah, FL.
Efe Obayagbona, 45, Round Rock, TX
Bradley Grimsley, 64, Clarksville, TX.
Chuck Pryor, Texas Department of Public Safety
Timmothy Hardaway, 54, Brownwood
Quadri Fatai, 41, Houston
Jesus Alvidrez, 21, Gardendale
Lilia Diaz, 46, Odessa
Krystal Lee, 36, Odessa
Larry Shores, 34, Abilene
Coltyn Reyenga, 9, Odessa
Penny Moore, 55, Andrews
Wanda Silvas, 74, Midland
Casey Dennis contributed to this report.