Learning from the Survivors

November 14, 1993|By BILL GLAUBER

KILLEN, TEXAS — Killeen, Texas -- This is a killing ground as seen through the lens of a video camera.

There is a blue Ford pickup truck, passenger door ajar, parked in the dining area. Tables and chairs are overturned. Shards of glass are sprinkled on a carpet. Purses and shoes are scattered. A middle-aged woman lies motionless, her fingers inches from a cellular telephone. She is dead.

There are other murder victims. A woman, face pressed against a wall, lying under a metal serving line that holds trays laden with plates of food. A man and woman, his arm around her waist. More bodies by a wall, under tables, under chairs.

And in a corner, just outside the men's room, the lone killer, his face, like those of the people he murdered, covered by a cloth napkin.

On Oct. 16, 1991, 35-year-old George "Jo Jo" Hennard crashed his pickup truck through the front of Luby's Cafeteria, and then walked through a noontime lunch crowd, shouting "This is what Bell County has done to me," while shooting rounds from a Glock 9mm semiautomatic pistol.

In all, he would kill 23 people and wound 14 others before turning a gun on himself, ending the worst mass slaying by gunfire in U.S. history.

For the survivors of Killeen, though, the incident was more than just an image on a videotape.

"If you want to know what the survivors went through, then you have to begin with this," said Bruno Matarazzo, head of the Killeen Police Department's Crime Victim Assistance unit, after viewing a two-minute slice of color videotape.

These were ordinary citizens of small-town America. People like Suzanna Gratia, whose lunch-time family gathering ended with the death of her parents. And Dee Leasure, who crawled wounded from underneath the body of her best friend, and for months after, was haunted by nightmares and feelings of guilt. And Tommy Vaughn, whose selfish act became the stuff of heroism.

They and others were forced to come to grips with what is in essence an American phenomenon -- the gunman who terrorizes a public place, leaving behind not just bodies, but brutalized survivors.

From Kenosha, Wis,. to San Francisco, individuals and communities have been touched in recent months by gunmen who turn a fast-food restaurant, a diner, a post office, a library, a fitness center, or a law office into a scene of horror.

While memories of those incidents remain fresh and raw, it is the Killeen murder-spree that provides a textbook look into the psyche of the survivors.

How do you survive while others perish? How do you go on with living after coming face to face with dying? How do you venture out into public after having stared into the face of a murderer? These are questions that hundreds now face.

No one keeps exact figures, but Jack Levin, a sociology professor at Northeastern University, estimates 20 to 30 multiple killings occur each year in the United States, involving 200 to 300 victims. The numbers account for only a fraction of the nearly 24,000 homicides annually in this country.

"This is still a rare phenomenon, but, yes, it's growing," said Mr. Levin, co-author with James Alan Fox of "Mass Murder: America's Growing Menace."

Bulletproof glass and metal detectors can be installed. Employers can more closely monitor disaffected employees. But in an open society, where semi-automatic weapons are plentiful, sudden, unpredictable mass murder in public places can and does happen.

How do you survive?

Listen to the experts. Listen to the victims of Killeen.


What Suzanna Gratia remembers most vividly about the day she went to Luby's for lunch, the day her parents died, was this: She wasn't packing her handgun.

The .38-caliber Smith & Wesson that she normally tucked into her purse was sitting in her car. In Texas, it's a misdemeanor to carry a concealed handgun, and Ms. Gratia did not want to imperil her license as a chiropractor.

Besides, who would think that a Bosses' Day trip to the most popular restaurant in Killeen, a central Texas city of 70,000 hard by Fort Hood, could lead to death?

"I guarantee that I could have saved my parents that day," she said. "He [Hennard] was up, I was down. I had the perfect place to prop my arm. Fifteen feet away. I was totally calm. Totally. Don't ask me that stupid question,'Could you have done it?' Oh, shoot, yes."

Ms. Gratia, 34, has a plain-spoken bluntness that propelled her into becoming an unofficial spokeswoman for the 162 diners and workers who were in Luby's the afternoon of the siege. She has been interviewed by Maury Povich and Geraldo Rivera, and featured on "48 Hours."

Always, she speaks up for the right of citizens to bear arms.

Ms. Gratia says that she survived the ordeal of the shooting intact. That she needed no counseling. That she picked up with the rest of her life.

But as she speaks of those moments in Luby's, she gets off her chair and crouches, appearing to relive the incident. And even as her voice stays level, her hands shake.

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