APTOPIX California Festival Shooting

Robbie Ramirez, 10, holds onto his father, Robert Ramirez, during a vigil for victims of a Sunday evening shooting that left three people dead at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, Monday, July 29, 2019, in Gilroy, Calif. (AP)

GILROY, Calif. (AP) — Only a few days ago, Gilroy was known for one thing: garlic. The rural community near San Francisco lived and breathed the prized, pungent crop.

Now it’s the site of the latest U.S. mass shooting.

A 19-year-old gunman slipped into the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival on Sunday evening and fired a military-style rifle before police shot him to death.

Hundreds of residents held a candlelight vigil Monday night to mourn a 6-year-old boy, a 13-year-old girl and a New York college graduate who were killed.

As they raised votive candles, long tapers or tea lights, they also raised their spirits in the defiant cry of “Gilroy Strong.”

A sign with the phrase underneath an American flag covered in two garlic cloves hung from the front of the stage.

“We cannot let the bastard that did this tear us down,” Mayor Roland Velasco declared to cheers.

It was the cry heard so often after shootings at schools, parks, movies, nightclubs and festivals nationwide.

The shooting brought out renewed demands for national gun control by politicians in California, which already has some of the strictest firearms laws in the nation. Gov. Gavin Newsom called for controls on high-powered, high-capacity guns that he labeled “weapons of mass destruction.”

“It keeps happening, over and over and over again, on their damn watch,” Newsom told reporters. “I can’t put borders up in a neighboring state where you can buy this damn stuff legally.”

The shooter, Santino William Legan, legally purchased the military-style rifle this month in Nevada, where his last address is listed. Under a California law that went into effect Jan. 1, residents younger than 21 are barred from buying guns unless they are in the military or law enforcement. Those 18 and up can buy guns in Nevada.

Authorities sought a motive for the killings. On the day of the attack, Legan urged his Instagram followers to read a 19th century book popular with white supremacists on extremist websites. He also complained about overcrowding towns and paving open space to make room for “hordes” of Latinos and Silicon Valley whites.

Legan also posted a photo from the Gilroy Garlic Festival minutes before opening fire, saying, “Come get wasted on overpriced” items. His since-deleted Instagram account says he is Italian and Iranian.

Authorities said they are reviewing his social media for clues. They say he appeared to fire at random and that police patrolling the event responded within a minute and killed Legan as he turned the weapon on them.

Five people were still in hospitals, Bay Area station KTVU reported Tuesday.

Legan grew up less than a mile from the park where the city known as the “Garlic Capital of the World” has held its three-day festival for four decades, attracting more than 100,000 people with music, food booths and cooking classes.

Police searched Legan’s vehicle and his family’s home, leaving with paper bags. Authorities also searched an apartment they believed Legan used this month in remote northern Nevada.

Big Mikes Gun and Ammo, which appears to be a home-based internet gun shop in Fallon, Nevada, said on its Facebook page that Legan ordered the rifle off its website and “was acting happy and showed no reasons for concern” when the store owner met him. The post said the owner was “heartbroken this could ever happen.”

The shooting followed mass killings in California that include an attack at a Thousand Oaks bar where 12 people died in November and a 2015 terrorist attack that killed 14 in San Bernardino.

Police had training in responding to an active shooter. While they prepared for the worst, they never expected to use those skills in Gilroy, roughly 80 miles (176 kilometers) southeast of San Francisco.

The city required people to pass through metal detectors and have their bags searched. Police, paramedics and firefighters were stationed throughout one of the largest food fairs in the U.S.

Legan bypassed those security measures by cutting through a fence, Gilroy Police Chief Scot Smithee said. Some witnesses reported a second suspect, and authorities were trying to determine if he had any help.

The gunfire sent people in sunhats and flip-flops running away screaming. Some dove for cover under the decorated food booth tables. Others crawled under a concert stage, where a band had started playing its last song.

The youngest victim, Stephen Romero, described by his grandmother as a kind, happy and playful kid, had just celebrated his sixth birthday in June at Legoland in Southern California.

“My son had his whole life to live, and he was only 6,” his father, Alberto Romero, told San Francisco Bay Area news station KNTV after the shooting.

Also killed was 13-year-old Keyla Salazar from San Jose. The teen was eating ice cream with family when they heard gunshots and began to flee, said her aunt, Katiuska Vargas.

The teen stayed back to keep pace with a relative who uses a cane and was shot with a bullet that otherwise might have hit the woman, Vargas said. Keyla’s stepfather was wounded as he went back for her.

“She was such a caring person,” Vargas said. “She would give everything to other people ... We lost a really beautiful life.”

The oldest victim was Trevor Irby, 25, who graduated in 2017 from Keuka College in upstate New York.

Troy Towner said his sister, Wendy Towner, was at the festival with her business, the Honey Ladies, when she saw a man with a gun climb over the fence. She yelled at him: “No, you can’t do that!”

The gunman shot her in the leg and her husband three times, while a young girl dragged their 3-year-old son under a table, Towner wrote on a fundraising page he set up for his sister.

Legan then approached the couple as they lay motionless on the ground and asked if they were all right. They didn’t move, fearing he would finish them off, Towner wrote.

Towner said his sister underwent surgery and was expected to have long-term nerve damage, while her husband faces many surgeries.

Candice Marquez, who works for Wendy Towner and her husband, Francisco, told The Associated Press that she had gone to the bathroom and saw the gunman heading to their tent. She said her 10-year-old niece helped the toddler to safety.

“She was brave,” Marquez said.

Jan Dickson, a neighbor who lives across the street from the Legan family, described them as “a nice, normal family.” She said Santino Legan had not lived there for at least a year.

“How do you cope with this? They have to deal with the fact that their son did this terrible thing and that he died,” Dickson said.

Jeffrey Jackson is the managing editor of the Owatonna People's Press. He can be reached at 507-444-2371 or via email at jjackson@owatonna.com

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