The San Diego City Council on Tuesday commemorated the 30th anniversary of the McDonald’s massacre in San Ysidro, in which 21 people were shot dead and 19 others were wounded by a mentally disturbed gunman.

“Not only did this tragic incident change the lives of countless families and members of our community, and the community at large, but it also changed the way police departments responded to shootings,” said Councilman David Alvarez, who represents the area. “In the midst of this devastating event, our communities came together.”

On July 18, 1984, James Oliver Huberty, a 41-year-old unemployed security guard, went into the fast-food restaurant on W. San Ysidro Boulevard armed with an Uzi automatic rifle, shotgun and pistol and began firing. He was eventually killed by a police sharpshooter.

A victim with a police officer outside the McDonalds in San Ysidro, where a gunman killed 21 people in July 1984. Photo credit: rmarpul via YouTube.

One of the victims that day was Alberto Leos, now a San Diego police lieutenant in charge of recruiting.

Then 16, he said he saw children and mothers shot and killed. He and a few co-workers hid in the back of the eatery, but Huberty found them about 20 minutes after the shooting started, he said.

“He ended up killing them in front of me, and I was wounded,” Leos told the council members. “The hardest part for the last 30 years was living with the fact that I couldn’t do anything to help them. I was in a position where I didn’t have any kind of weapons to defend myself –  to help them.”

Despite five bullet wounds, he managed to crawl downstairs and hid in a closet, where he used his shoelaces as tourniquets for his bleeding arms and legs. Leos said the pain was so bad he bit into a cloth so Huberty wouldn’t hear him.

“Not knowing what was going to happen, not knowing what the future was going to be, I was very distraught; I was very dizzy from all the blood loss,” Leos said. “So I said a quick prayer, and this is what the prayer was – God, give me the strength to get through this to see my family one more time. If you keep me here and give me a second chance at life, I’m going to do something good with my life.”

He said it took four years to heal physically, mentally and emotionally, though he still suffers “on occasion.” The community helped his family get through the long recovery, and he likes to give back, he said.

Leos said he joined a small law enforcement agency while he finished school, and has been with the SDPD for 20 years. His current position is critical to refilling the agency’s ranks, which have been reduced by retirement and officers leaving for nearby departments.

“I’m doing the best that I can,” Leos said. “I think I’ve come a long way, and I’m not done yet.”

The lieutenant received a standing ovation from the council members, staff and audience.

SDPD Chief Shelley Zimmerman said his story showed “something very positive” came out of the tragedy.

– City News Service

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