Medal of Valor honoree hopes for community healing

Every time Odessa Police Department Det. Cpl. James Santana sees the scar on his right leg, feels soreness in his right wrist or watches a white postal van drive by he’s reminded of the events that unfolded on Aug. 31, 2019.

During that hot Saturday afternoon, a 36-year-old gunman terrorized Odessans for nearly an hour as he killed seven people and injured 25 others during a shooting spree that began on Interstate 20 in Midland County and ended with him being shot to death by multiple law enforcement agencies at Odessa’s Cinergy Theater.

Santana, 33, said from the moment he responded to the initial call until the mass shooting was over he never got a solid look at Seth Aaron Ator’s face. Santana explained the last time he saw Ator that the gunman had an assault rifle pointed at him as Santana was traveling in his Odessa Police Department patrol unit.

“Right past the rifle, I saw this blurred face. I didn’t get an actual look at (Ator’s) face,” Santana said during a recent interview with the Odessa American. “As soon as I saw the rifle, that instantly registered as a threat and my reaction was to duck over. I didn’t actually see any details about (Ator’s) face.”

Odessa Police Department Chief Michael Gerke said Odessa’s mass shooting created many chilling memories that people will have to live with for the rest of their lives.

“August 31, 2019, was a horrendous day for this entire area,” Gerke said. “Our hearts still go out to those families that lost loved ones and to the people who were injured that are going to bear those scars forever.

“Unfortunately, Cpl. Santana was one of those people who was injured and he is going to have to live with everything that happened for the rest of his life.”

As the one-year anniversary of the Odessa mass shooting approaches, Santana said he feels like it happened yesterday.

Santana said he still deals with survivor’s guilt but credits a strong support system including his wife, kids and attending The Bridge Odessa, with helping him get back to 100 percent.

He said he hopes someone reading his story will get the help they need for the community as a whole to continue the healing process.

“That’s something that tore me up for a long time and that’s something that counseling did help with,” Santana said. “Counseling can very much help in areas that you are struggling with.”

Santana spoke at length about what he experienced during Odessa’s mass shooting. These next paragraphs detail what Santana said about the events coupled with a police report issued by OPD Officer Taylor Box.

An OPD report details that Santana arrived at Journey Oilfield Service to assist Officer Box after Ator reportedly drove through the fence line of the property damaging it with his 1999 gold Toyota Camry. A supervisor at that business as well as Ator himself had called police that day about a work dispute.

Shortly after Box spoke with Ator on Santana’s personal cell phone, dispatch reportedly broadcast that a reckless driver at southwest Loop 338 and East Interstate 20 was in a gold colored Toyota Camry that was driving erratically and displaying a “long rifle.”

Santana said he heard the initial broadcast that Department of Public Safety Trooper Chuck Pryor was shot on Interstate 20 in Midland County. Santana said he started to head that way when another call came out about a gunshot victim on Loop 338 and Trunk Street.

Santana said that the victim has been shot in the leg through his door. Santana said he believed Ator was coming back to the area and he prepared for Ator to return, but the gunman never came back.

The calls kept coming.

Santana said he heard over the radio of gunshot victim after gunshot victim. Santana then made his way to different gunshot victims on the east side of Odessa. “At one point in time, we thought we were looking for three different cars and three different suspects,” Santana said.

Santana said the most frustrating part of Odessa’s mass shooting was that Ator didn’t leave an exact trail. Santana described the mass shooting as sporadic and as a nightmare.

“How do you pick up a trail on somebody driving around and shooting whoever he wants to? That was the most frustrating thing at that point that we weren’t able to know where he was going next,” Santana said. “It’s still frustrating to think about.”

During the hour-long rampage, law enforcement agencies attempted to track down Ator as he fired hundreds of bullets from his AR-style rifle. Ator reportedly obtained the rifle through a private sale, which allowed him to evade a federal background check. He reportedly failed a background check when he attempted to purchase a firearm in 2014 because he had earlier been adjudicated “a mental defective” and was temporarily committed to an institution.

Santana said he received word that Ator was traveling toward Odessa’s Cinergy Theater, so he and other law enforcement officers made their way to the movie theater. Santana said he helped clear the movie theater and determined Ator wasn’t inside the theater.

Santana said when he left that scene that another gunshot victim was reported at Highway 191 and Faudree Road. Santana started driving down Dr. Emmet Headlee Road, which runs behind Cinergy Theater.

Santana said there were a couple of patrol units in front of him and he looked down at the computer screen in his unit and at that time bullets started flying through his vehicle door. As soon as he heard the first shot, he looked over to see a rifle pointed at him. Santana ducked down and pulled over.

After Santana was shot in the right leg and right hand, he got out of his patrol unit to help Midland Police Department officer Zach Owens get into an ambulance. Owens was reportedly shot multiple times in the arm and hand as well as suffering from glass shards in his eye.

Santana said he then attempted to drive himself to Medical Center Hospital, but his commanding sergeant told him they would call an ambulance for him. Santana said he and another gunshot victim shared an ambulance on the way to MCH.

Santana was the lone OPD officer who was shot that day and he spent three days at MCH. Law enforcement agencies and hospital staff lined the exit to cheer and clap as Santana was released from MCH in a show of support.

“It didn’t know how to react really,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say or what to do. I wasn’t expecting it.”

For the next six months, Santana attended physical therapy and counseling to ensure his physical and mental abilities were back to normal. He said physical therapy helped him to strengthen his right leg and right hand, while participating in counseling got him to talk about what he heard and saw during the mass shooting.

Santana admitted he has only returned a couple of times to the scene where he was shot. He said it was emotional for him to see the paint outline where he was shot in his patrol unit. The paint outline has since faded.

The 33-year-old also explained that during the first couple of months after the mass shooting he would be in public with his wife and kids and he would be hyper vigilant, start breathing heavy, sweat and get really anxious. Santana said a lot of times when that happened that his wife would bring him home.

“Counseling helped and being able to talk about it,” Santana said. “I don’t want it to be one of those things where I don’t want to talk about it or it’s too hard to talk about.

“It’s one of those things that it’s in the past and I want it to help make this community stronger.”

Santana said he returned to patrol in April but was promoted to detective on June 30.

When he returned to OPD, Santana said his colleagues simply said “We miss you.” Santana was also honored during OPD’s annual awards and promotion ceremony on March 4 and he received the Operations Bureau “Officer of the Year” Award and the prestigious Police Medal of Valor Award.

“It was definitely an honor, but at the same time, I didn’t feel like that was something that I needed, because the entire day everything that happened was a joint effort not only by this department, but every surrounding agency that could help,” Santana said. “I think everybody that day needed to be recognized for what they did.”

Santana, an Andrews native, said that he has been with OPD for more than eight years. He graduated during the third session of the Odessa Police Academy on Jan. 6, 2012.

Gerke said Santana deserved the promotion to detective. The police chief also explained the detective can go as high as he wants to at OPD.

“Like all law enforcement agencies in this area, we’ve had trouble with retention,” Gerke said. “Turnover is what it is and we are shorthanded. When you find a quality individual like Cpl. Santana and you are able to keep him, that shows us that we are doing something right if we can keep someone like that.”