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Verras Gray of La Mesa has poured her life into Born Aviators Insurance Services. Over the weekend, she was willing to put her life on the line to save it.

With a bat and golf club, she was poised to protect her shop above Hoffer’s Cigar Bar from roving youths spreading mayhem late Saturday and early Sunday.

“We weren’t going to let them set our building on fire,” said Gray, 54, whose business is in downtown La Mesa. “They would have to hurt us in order to do that.”

A volunteer paints over tagging at La Mesa Springs Shopping Center, where looting and vandalism occurred Saturday night.
A volunteer paints over tagging at La Mesa Springs Shopping Center, where looting and vandalism occurred Saturday night. Photo by Chris Stone

Having joined in making nine 911 calls, but with La Mesa police outnumbered, Gray was left with a male patron of the cigar and beer bar to defend the building on La Mesa Boulevard.

She admits being “scared as hell” as she saw the adjacent Union and Chase bank branches go up in flames. But when looters threatened, they backed off.

“They came up and said: ‘I’ve got some respect for a woman who’s going to defend her business,’” she recalls.

La Mesans were tender as well as tough Sunday as thousands flooded the hardest hit areas, carrying brooms, dust pans, scores of boxed pizzas and countless water bottles — which could be found all over The Village commercial district.

Mayor Mark Arapostathis, touring the La Mesa Springs Shopping Center on 45 minutes’ sleep, was moved by a “completely organic” effort to erase the night’s scars.

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“People woke up and saw (the need),” he said. “And beyond just cleaning up, their presence here has given relief to the businesses that burned down.”

Only feet from the entrance to Vons, which was looted after a mostly peaceful police-station protest at the nearby Civic Center, “Dr. A,” as he’s known in the town of 60,000, said the rioting was the worst thing that’s happened to him since his father passed away when he was 6.

But speaking of the arsonists, the longtime educator said: “Their evilness has been wiped away by the love of La Mesa coming out. … This is the real La Mesa, the La Mesa that cares…. It’s devastating. But this right here gives hope and it’s a step in the right direction.”

Arapostathis had been touring his town’s devastation since daybreak, about 6:15 a.m., when he encountered good Samaritans asking how to help. They began repairing, painting and cleaning.

“They were just being present for the business owners … some had lost so much,” he told CBS8 San Diego. It turned despair into hope, he said.

Signs of hope and help were everywhere Sunday ahead of a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. citywide curfew.

Richard Delaney of Jamul and his wife, Laurie, brought a long piece of wood with a statement of support attached. They invited people to sign the fence-sized slat. A couple hundred did.

“The thugs that did this aren’t going to win,” said the contractor who sometimes works in La Mesa. “We just need to stand together in love.”

Katie Quijada of La Mesa arrived at the La Mesa Springs center around 9 a.m. with brooms and other gear. She offered spritzes from a Germ-X hand sanitizer bottle to anyone who needed it.

Caryn Christensen of Lakeside helped Roundtable Pizza pass out donated slices. “I just jumped in and started helping serving,” she said. “Trying to be the good.”

Zed Hill, associate pastor of Rock Church in El Cajon, said 50-60 congregants converged at the Vons center. “We’re a do-something church,” he said. “Always want to be a solution to the problem.”

Julio Audelo of Anchor Church in San Diego led a prayer across the street from Randall Lamb. They also sang “God bless America.” A member of Bugles Across America, a native La Mesan who gave only his first name, Frank, later played taps nearby.

Meakalia Gilman, 16, and Grossmont High School classmate Sofia Kruse, 15, worked on a chalk message — “La Mesa Love Heals” — near the fire-gutted Randall Lamb building on Palm Avenue. “We’re just trying to do what we can,” said Meakalia.

Said Sofia, who lives a couple blocks away: “We could hear the police sirens all night, and … smelled the smoke. It was horrible. I kind of just want to make everyone else feel a (little better).”

They did their work near an alley where the side of the building — with windows smashed out — had a large LA MESA STRONG message covering up graffiti.

That became the name of a new Facebook group aimed at connecting businesses needing help with those interested in coming to their aid. The “Volunteer Revitalization Group” had more than 1,000 members within 12 hours.

Keri Crown is one of the administrators of the La Mesa Strong Facebook group. She said more than a thousand people turned out Sunday to help with the cleanup.

And a GoFundMe drive — titled La Mesa Business Disaster Recovery — sought to raise $50,000. It surpassed $62,000 early Monday. (The goal then was raised to $75,000.)

On Sunday, Sharp Grossmont Hospital said at least two protesters we’re treated for injuries Saturday.

Steve Clay, whose family has been in La Mesa since 1920, is the 17-year owner of a Postal Annex franchise south of Vons.

Vandals shattered windows and wrecked his computer — “obviously thousands of dollars” in damage, he said. Insurance will cover it, thankfully.

“It’s overwhelming the gratitude of the people that came out at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Clay said, “[They] showed up with wood, saws, hammers [to] just do it, and helped out.”

Wendy Fenstermacher gave him a hug. Referring to the destruction, she told him: “This is NOT what La Mesa is about.” She circled her arms to take in the hundreds pitching in to clear debris. “THIS is what La Mesa is about.”

Phil Hoffman, 12-year owner of Hoffer’s Cigar Bar, said he didn’t come out the previous night (“I wasn’t going to risk my life for that”) and didn’t know till Sunday morning that tenants were guarding his popular hangout currently closed amid COVID.

Like many other business owners, he planned to board up his windows to stave off a sequel. (It didn’t happen. Sheriff’s deputies were present. Even federal Homeland Security Department vehicles were seen on the street.)

“I don’t know how many of the perps are in this crowd, walking by to see what happened,” he said, likening them to arsonists who like to inspect their work.

Vice Mayor Bill Baber, who joined the mayor at the Vons inspection, said people who rallied outside the police station during the daylight were part of a reasonable civil rights protest.

“They had every right to do it,” he said. “That’s not what was happening last night. Last night was a class of criminal that was different.”

Insurance broker Gray — the lady wielding the golf club — said she was at Lowe’s buying a barbecue when clients began calling from New York and Miami, asking: “What’s going on in La Mesa?” She went “flying” to her business.

“I love what I do. And you can’t let them win,” she said. “We weren’t going to run from this.”

Addressing the vandals, she said: “I could have been sleeping when you popped off a Molotov cocktail and killed me. You’re criminals. We had a sign up on our window: ‘I can’t breathe.’ But your message is now gone. It’s gone.”

She said her business represents every dime of her retirement.

“It’s me,” she said. “And I’m going to live and breathe that business. … I’m going to have the last word, and it isn’t going to be their words.”