SAN YSIDRO, CA — At just before 4 P.M. on July 18, 1984, 41-year-old James Oliver Huberty stepped into a McDonald’s restaurant armed with a 9mm Browning HP semi-automatic pistol, an Uzi 9mm submachine gun, and a Winchester 1200 pump action shot gun. He carried hundreds of rounds of ammunition with him, as well.
Forty-five customers and 10 workers had been inside the McDonald’s. Over the ensuing hour and a quarter, Huberty executed 21 victims and wounded another 20 before a SWAT sniper took out the mad gunman himself.
A self-described “survivalist,” Huberty had been taking part in that apocalyptic movement throughout the early 1980s. He stocked up on weapons, canned goods, and other supplies to protect himself and his family from what he saw as society’s imminent collapse.
In 1983, the Hubertys moved briefly from Ohio to Tijuana, Mexico, before relocating to San Ysidro just outside San Diego. James, who had been a welder, found work as a security guard, but got fired from the gig on July 10, 1984, exactly one week before his murderous meltdown.
It’s painful to realize that Huberty himself attempted to get help just prior to the massacre. On July 17, Huberty told his wife Etna he suspected he suffered from psychological issues and he called a mental-health clinic to seek counseling.
Etna said the clinic assured him they would call him back later that day to set up an appointment. Huberty then sat by the phone waiting for several hours, before giving up and taking off on his motorcycle.
After the fact, it turned out the receptionist had misspelled the James’ last name as “Shouberty.” She also concluded from Huberty’s calm and friendly tone that it was a “noncrisis” situation. Bad call on that front.
The next morning, July 18, Huberty took his wife and two daughters to the San Diego Zoo. They ate lunch at McDonald’s. Etna said Huberty spoke to her with an air of doom, announcing that his life was over. Citing the clinic’s failure to get back to him, Huberty said, “Well, society had their chance.”
That afternoon, James Huberty embraced Etna and said, “I want to kiss you good-bye.” He turned then to his daughters and said, “Good-bye, I won’t be back.” When Etna asked where her husband was heading, he replied, “I’m going hunting. Hunting humans.”
Huberty entered the McDonald’s with guns drawn. He attempted to blast a 16-year-old employee with a shotgun, but the weapon jammed. He switched to his Uzi and cut down the manager. Seconds later, Huberty shouted, “Everybody, on the ground!”
Calling the terrified workers and patrons “dirty swines,” Huberty announced that he had wiped out “thousands” before them while fighting in the Vietnam War and he intended to do the same to “a thousand more.” Huberty, in fact, had never served in the military.
With heartbreaking viciousness, Huberty unloaded on six women and children huddled together in fear. One customer who attempted to talk to him, he shot 14 times. He shot an 18-year-old girl 48 times. He placed his pistol against the back of an eight-month-old baby and squeezed the trigger. Unbelievably, the attack escalated from there.
Huberty targeted families hiding by the restaurant’s play area. He decimated the teenage kitchen staff. Through a broken window, he three boys who rode into the parking lot on their bicycles. He murdered an elderly couple as they approached the front door. He marched outside and executed an entire family in their car. Anyone who twitched or moaned got fired upon again until they died.
Police arrived at 4:10 P.M. They locked down the six-block surrounding area and posted a SWAT sniper on a roof across the street. It took the marksman until 5:17 P.M. to get a clear shot at Huberty, but the second he did, he fired. The bullet pierced Huberty in the chest and exited through his backbone, killing the killer on the spot.
In total, the “McDonald’s Massacre” lasted 77 minutes. Huberty fired at least 245 rounds of ammo, killing 20 one the spot and critically wounding another 20. One female victim died the next day. In keeping with San Ysidro’s demographics, almost all those shot were Mexican or Mexican-American.
The grotesque number of casualties required that wakes for the dead be held at the San Ysidro Civic Centre. The nearby Mount Carmel Catholic Church, where many victims worshipped, held a grim marathon of funeral masses.
Today, a memorial monument stands on the ground where the restaurant had been. McDonald’s donated $1 million to a survivors fund. Etna Huberty raised hackles when she accepted money from that fund.
Two years later, Etna sued McDonald’s for $5 million, claiming that, at least in part, the monosodium glutamate in the company’s food drove her husband to madness. She didn’t win.
At the time, the San Ysidro McDonald’s Massacre stupefied humanity. It was the single-highest-casualty lone-assailant mass shooting in American history. It’s a tragic record that stood until 1991, when 23 died in Texas with the Luby’s restaurant attack. And then that record fell. And then it happened again. And again. And it happens still.