Calif. shooting echoes a long-ago restaurant tragedy

Remembering what happened in a Killeen, Texas, Luby’s 27 years ago.
Photograph: Mark J. Terrill/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Reality Check

Wednesday’s shooting inside the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif., marks the third restaurant mass shooting I’ve covered, a dubious distinction if ever there was one. Each has been a stomach turner, starting with the event that foreshadowed what happened in California, not to mention Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Parkland, Orlando, Virginia Tech and Columbine. Long before those tragedies, there was Killeen, Texas, where 23 people were killed inside a Luby’s Cafeteria.

That was all the way back in 1991, before mass shootings became the familiar news events they are today. A 35-year-old man disappointed with his love life crashed his pickup truck through the Luby’s plate-glass front wall, calmly exited the vehicle, and started shooting the startled lunch customers. He carried on a verbal tirade against women (14 of his 23 victims were female) as he fired, killing 10 people with a point-blank shot to their heads.

Police arrived while the shootings were still underway, but George Hennard refused to halt his rampage. He was wounded by the authorities. Seeing no means of escape, he shot and killed himself. We won’t call him victim No. 24 because he doesn’t deserve that description.

The most chilling point in reporting the incident was talking to an executive of Luby’s, who I'd managed to get on the phone the day afterward. Clearly he was in a state of shock. The chain’s leadership had coincidentally been meeting in the company’s Houston headquarters when word reached them of the tragedy. Later, they admitted, they'd had no idea what to do—the event had been unimaginable.

Help came in the form of a reminder that competition doesn’t preclude restaurateurs from helping fellow restaurateurs in time of need. Dick Starmann, a McDonald’s executive from the days Ray Kroc was still involved, cold-called Luby’s public relations executive, who answered without knowing who was on the line. “Lesson one: Don’t answer your own phone,” Starmann told her before introducing himself. 

He went on to explain that McDonald’s had contended with a similar tragedy in 1984, when a gunman walked into a unit in San Ysidro, Calif., and murdered 21 people before being shot and killed by police. That incident is largely forgotten today, in part because of McDonald’s quick and laudable response (it tore down the unit and built a memorial to the victims in its place).

Starmann provided Luby’s with a rough game plan to follow. It was an act of kindness and concern drawn by empathy and a desire to protect the industry’s image as a safe place. 

The Killeen story stayed front-page news for days as the world tried to figure out, why? Why a Luby’s? And why kill strangers just because you’re convinced women are snakes, as Hennard attested while repeatedly pulling the trigger? 

My search for that answer led to a telephone conversation with Frank Mankiewicz, former press secretary for Robert Kennedy and one of the staff members who was with the senator when he was assassinated in 1968. At the time I spoke with him, Mankiewicz was a celebrity employee of  a Washington, D.C., public relations agency where a friend also worked, and my buddy got me an interview.

Mankiewicz offered a theory that restaurants had become the new town square, a high-profile stage for inferior-feeling individuals who wanted to grab the world’s attention and show how powerful they really were. 

The real shock of Mankiewicz’s comments was the suggestion that more restaurant mass shootings could follow. And as Wednesday night proved, he was correct, regrettably. 

What should a restaurant do if a shooting should erupt on the premises? Here's what authorities recommend.

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