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Sunday, July 17, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Haunted By The Massacre At Mcdonald's

AP

SAN YSIDRO, Calif. - The image has come to epitomize that hot, sunny afternoon 10 years ago, when a 41-year-old unemployed father of two named James Oliver Huberty walked into a McDonald's restaurant and began shooting.

Three boys - two of them dead - lie sprawled on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, their bodies full of lead, their bikes fallen over their feet.

The surviving boy is not a boy anymore. Joshua Coleman is 21 years old, a mustachioed ironworker who helps build highway bridges and high rises.

The shadow of July 18, 1984 - and of the 21 adults and children who died in Huberty's rampage - haunts many who were there that day. But Coleman insists that he is not among them.

"I know exactly the day it happened, and I think of my friends every time," he says.

"As far as feeling sorry for myself or anybody, I can't let that stop my life. Nothing bothers me. Death doesn't bother me."

He remembers it well: He and his two buddies, Omar Hernandez and David Flores, had gone to buy some doughnuts. But Joshua wanted ice cream, too, so they rode their bicycles over to McDonald's.

They were on the sidewalk when 11-year-old Joshua heard the man yell. He turned and he was hit.

Lying on the broiling pavement, his right side riddled with shotgun pellets, his pals nearby and the gunman still shooting, Joshua had the presence of mind to play dead.

How?

"I don't know," he says.

"I got lucky. The fact he kept shooting at us. . . . You hear about an accident, and sometimes you think, `What would you do if you were there?' And I always thought I would play dead."

Huberty's outburst ended after an hour and 17 minutes, when he was killed by a police sharpshooter. In the aftermath, Joshua Coleman's parents enrolled him at a new school for a year to avoid scrutiny.

He never saw a therapist. Neither he nor his parents believed he needed it.

He still keeps a big shoe box of letters from the hundreds of people who saw the picture of him lying on the ground.

"You have a lot of courage," they said. And "Be strong."

Could have been a hero

He could have been a hero. If he hadn't run, maybe - just maybe - Ken Dickey, a 20-year-old college student working behind the McDonald's counter, could have saved somebody's life.

"I remember sitting in a chair for a long time, for days afterwards, and thinking `What could I have done?'

"I could easily have grabbed a metal object and bashed this guy across the head. That would have been the hero's route. I didn't feel I showed grace under pressure. I ran to a room in fear, hoping I didn't get shot."

When the shooting started, Dickey and a male co-worker fled to a basement utility room. Later, three female workers joined them. Eventually, a woman with a baby came down, and then a bleeding man.

They huddled in the hot, stale basement with gunfire sounding overhead. Finally, police knocked at the door and, though they were fearful, they opened it.

Officers told them to put their hand on the shoulder of the person ahead, and to look only at the wall to their left as they exited. He remembers seeing the spatters of blood.

Today, Dickey lives in the small town of Payette, Idaho, with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter. He teaches high school chemistry. He comes back to the San Diego area only to visit his parents.

"Sometimes I go four or five months and I don't think of it at all," he says.

Haunted by the memories

For years, Aurora Pena-Rivera couldn't talk about it.

About being shot in the jaw. About losing two friends and an aunt and a baby cousin. About them lying dead around her.

Simple things would trigger awful memories. "I remember I went to a restaurant, and this man was drunk and he was yelling. He got mad with one of the waiters, and I just broke down. I thought about that other man."

Therapy made things worse.

No more doctors, she told her mother. On her own, she learned to accept the loss, the guilt, the unanswered questions.

"Before I used to ask, `Why did it happen' and `why us?' I would say, `Why her? Why the baby? She doesn't have any sins.'

"But now I see that I'm just being selfish. If it didn't happen to us, it would have happened to someone else."

Aurora was 11. Her aunt wanted a fish sandwich. The group of six relatives and friends was standing at the counter when Huberty walked in; four died.

Aurora lay on the restaurant floor, her eyes closed tight, afraid to look. Then, like all kids, she got curious.

"I thought I heard him far away, so I opened my eyes and he saw me. He walked to the trash can, and he had some (guns) in there. He got his shotgun.

"That's when he shot me."

Now, Aurora Pena-Rivera is 21 and has a 9-month-old girl. An administrative assistant for the Navy, she has nieces and nephews who ask about the scars on her leg. Sometimes, she gets annoyed. She tells them she fell.

"It's my medicine"

Adelina Hernandez is still surrounded by children - she works at Sunset Elementary, the school Joshua Coleman's friend Omar attended. The children remind her of him.

"It's good therapy," she says. "It's my medicine."

The exuberance and vitality of the children who call her "Grandma" help Omar's mother each day. They help her forget the sight of her lifeless little boy, and of the hard days that followed.

These days, the feelings are not so intense.

But when it becomes unbearable, Hernandez, 63, finds comfort in a cassette tape she and Omar had made when he was 9.

Alternately playing the roles of reporter and interviewee, they ask each other simple questions in Spanish: "What is your name?" "Where do you go to school?"

Tears clouding her eyes, Hernandez says: "It's hard for a mom."

Gunman's family `surviving'

There were death threats. Etna Huberty's young daughters were taunted at school, and they moved twice within a year of the shootings.

Today, at age 52, she lives with her two grown daughters in the working-class community of Spring Valley, 20 miles east of San Ysidro.

Her home is a brown mobile home on a quiet street.

Etna Huberty filed an unsuccessful $5 million lawsuit against McDonald's, alleging that her husband's rampage was triggered in part by too many chicken McNuggets.

And she tried to sell her story to a Hollywood producer. But the public outcry was so strong, the project was dropped.

Etna Huberty's face is drawn; her expression one of agitated exhaustion.

She works as an in-home nurse. She told a reporter in late June she hadn't yet paid her rent. She was willing to do an interview for $400, she said. (The Associated Press did not pay Etna Huberty any money.)

Daughter Zelia was 14 at the time of the shootings, Cassandra 10. They had gone to school with many of their father's victims. After the shootings, they changed schools, enrolling under assumed names.

"They're surviving," says Huberty's friend, Ann Ruiz.

Two days after the shootings, Huberty apologized for her husband.

"Everyone is wondering why he would do such a thing," she said in a statement. "He was always very sad and lonely."

On July 17, he called a local mental-health clinic asking for an appointment.

A receptionist took his name, but he never got a call back.

On the morning of July 18, Huberty went to court to plead guilty to two traffic infractions. He and his wife and a daughter then ate at the McDonald's across from the courthouse, miles north of their apartment. Afterward, they went to the zoo.

They got home about 4 p.m. Huberty kissed his wife goodbye (she would later tell police that was unusual).

Then, he told her he was going to hunt people - just one of the crazy things he was always saying, she figured.

Huberty loaded his guns, got in his car, drove a block and parked. Toting an Uzi, a semiautomatic pistol and a shotgun, he strode to the McDonald's; 257 rounds later, he was dead.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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