Terror in Granada Hills


It couldn’t happen here. But it did.

Standing in the blazing August sun, the parents of the children and counselors at the North
Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills did their best to stay calm. Hour after hour,
as announcements came over loudspeakers from the police who were keeping them and the
packs of reporters at bay behind yellow-taped barricades, the mothers and fathers hung onto
one hope: that their children were safe.

At 10:26 a.m., white supremacist Buford O. Furrow stormed the lobby of the JCC and
opened fire with a 9mm machine gun, wounding first the receptionist, Isabelle Shalometh,
68, who was grazed by bullets as she was making a phone call. The gunman continued
shooting as he walked down a short hallway, injuring three children, one critically, and a
16-year-old camp counselor. He then fled the center.

“I was on the telephone and I heard the popping,” said a middle-aged center secretary after
the shooting. “I turned and I saw a shadow. I saw something in his hands, but I wasn’t taking
any chances, and I went down on my knees. And then Isabelle screamed something like, ‘I’m
hurt, I’m shot!’ She crawled behind the reception area, saying, ‘Oh my God, oh my God!’ Her
blood was on the floor…. And all I know is that I went numb.”

Carli Morgenstern, 17, was one of three counselors watching over 14 kindergartners and
first-graders in the “Aleph” classroom. Morgenstern said she heard the gunshots and then
saw the wounded counselor run into the room, blood dripping down her leg. The other
counselors frantically gathered the children together and ran to the center’s parking lot and
then across the street before heading for the convalescent home next door.

Morgenstern said that the center had held no fire drills and that the counselors had not
received any training in how to handle an emergency.

“I never thought about security or that we didn’t have a security guard,” she said later. “It
never bothered me. This is such a friendly place; everybody knows everybody else.”

News of the incident shot over phone lines and television sets, into living rooms and cars
stuck in traffic and through corridors of offices where parents had been working, secure and
unknowing.

The atmosphere at the scene, that of a deranged carnival, did little to quell loved ones’ fears.
Cameras and news trucks crowded the barricaded street. Reporters outnumbered anxious
parents, 3-1. News helicopters crowded the sky, making it impossible to hear police and fire
officials’ constantly changing announcements. Even the police were overwhelmed, both by
the response to the tragedy and by their increasingly desperate attempts to locate the
shooter.

Meanwhile, inside an Episcopal church where the children had been moved to by police,
Morgenstern and the other counselors attempted to keep their young charges occupied.

“The kids really didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “We told them it was bad people
making a lot of noise, and that seemed to satisfy them. And then the police came and
brought crayons and markers, and then we ate lunch and watched TV.”

By a strange and fortunate twist of fate, about 20 of the 300 campers were away on a field
trip to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles that day. Another group of campers was also
on a field trip, which was later diverted to a local park after word of the shootings reached
organizers of the trip.

Immediate Response

As the scope of the tragedy became clear, help from area agencies streamed into the North
Valley. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles helped coordinate an emergency
response, sending teams of social workers from the Jewish Family Service and other
agencies. (The seven Los Angeles-area Jewish community centers receive $3.2 million
annually from the Federation, the most of any affiliated agency.) Ellen Wolsky, a social
worker with Jewish Big Brothers, who counseled children after the 1994 Northridge
earthquake, arrived at the scene Tuesday with co-workers to offer support for the children
and their parents.

“I think most of the kids were very traumatized by the events today, and we can also expect
to see reactions down the line,” she said. “Frankly, though, when I was thinking of coming
today, it was for the parents. I saw them on the news, and some of them were quite hysterical
— not that I blame them.”

The Federation worked with local law enforcement authorities and the FBI to help coordinate
a response and prepare accurate statements for the massive media attention that
descended upon the shooting site. The Federation sent rabbis from the Southern California
Board of Rabbis to the two hospitals where victims had been taken. As hundreds of calls
poured into the Federation’s switchboard, the organization also helped synagogues and
Jewish schools organize emergency security measures. It was, said Federation president
John Fishel, the organization’s most far-reaching emergency response since the Northridge
quake.

At Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, Rabbi Gilbert Kollin, the president of the Board of
Rabbis, visited with the parents of a 5-year-old boy who had been shot twice but was not
severely wounded, according to doctors. “The parents seem to be doing as well as can be
expected at a time like this,” Kollin told The Journal, adding that his own congregation in
Pasadena planned to hold a “prayer rally” on Thursday evening to allow people “to come
together and express their feelings.”

Meanwhile, calls of support came from every quarter. Representatives of Muslim, black,
Christian and other organizations phoned the Federation to voice their support and
condolences, according to Fishel. On Wednesday, the day following the shooting, the
center’s Jewish preschool and camp were temporarily moved to the Episcopal Church of
Saint Andrews across the street, and a meeting with crises counselors, coordinated by the
Federation, was planned for JCC members Wednesday evening.

President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Gov. Gray Davis and Mayor Richard Riordan all
issued public statements of concern and support. “To the victims and their families, like all
Americans, I offer our prayers and thoughts,” Clinton said. Davis announced the formation of
a security task force to conduct “safety audits” at synagogues, schools and day-care centers
on a voluntary basis.

The Los Angeles Fire Department received credit for a rescue effort that no doubt saved the
life of the 5-year-old boy whose two wounds were most life-threatening.

City Councilman Hal Bernson, whose 12th district includes the NVJCC and whose daughter
is a Jewish communal worker, got the City Council to approve a $25,000 reward for
information leading to the capture of the gunman. The state offered a $50,000 reward, and
Rabbi Gary Greenebaum of the American Jewish Committee announced that his
organization was offering a $10,000 reward.

The LAPD went on tactical alert until the shooter was apprehended. At a press conference, a
clearly emotional LAPD Cmdr. David Kalish said the man who “sprayed 70 rounds at the
height of children’s desks” would be wise to just turn himself in. In the end, Furrow did just
that (see story, page 11).

“I take solace from the recognition that the Jewish people are not alone,” said Rabbi Bradley
Shavit Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.
“Our God has not abandoned us; neither have our fellow Angelenos and Americans.”

Jeffrey L. Rouss, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los
Angeles, credited the counselors for thinking and acting quickly to find a secure place for the
children. “The counselors and our staff, our maintenance people, they were, in many ways,
the heroes,” said Rouss. “The counselors, many of whom are teen-agers, had been trained
to care for the children before themselves, and they stood by their responsibilities. I was very
proud of all of them.”

The Question of Security

By about 3 p.m. on Tuesday, parents were finally reunited with their children, some at a
church near the JCC and others off-site with the children who had been on the two field trips.

As of press time, the wounded receptionist, Isabelle Shalometh, and the counselor, identified
as Mindy Finkelstein, 16, were both treated at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in
Granada Hills and then transferred to Kaiser Permanente facilities in Mission Hills and
Woodland Hills, respectively. Both were later released. The most seriously injured child, a
5-year-old boy, underwent seven hours of surgery at Providence Holy Cross and was listed
in serious but stable condition. According to a hospital spokesman, the boy lost 30 percent
of his blood after bullets tore through his leg and abdomen. Dr. Clarence Sutton, Jr., the chief
surgeon who operated on the boy, told reporters the boy, “tried to reach out and touch the
people around him,” as he was rushed into the hospital, gasping for air. The boy was later
transferred to Children’s Hospital, where he faces several more hours of surgery.

A 6-year-old boy, flown by helicopter to Children’s Hospital, was in fair condition after
doctors removed one bullet from his backside and treated his left leg for a fracture caused
by a bullet passing through his calf. Another 6-year-old boy, shot in the left foot, did not
require surgery and was treated at Granada Hills Community Hospital and released. The
Journal has withheld the names of these children at the request of the families.

The North Valley JCC and all other community centers were open Wednesday, with
additional security working in cooperation with the LAPD. The North Valley JCC also
planned to hold a Shabbat healing service that will be open to the entire community (see
box).

But as parents and children struggled to overcome the shock, and the Jewish community
came to grips with yet another outburst of senseless gun violence so close to home, attention
has been turned on the security of Jewish institutions across Los Angeles. By Wednesday,
Fishel was in meetings with Rouss, law enforcement officials, Jewish educators and
communal leaders to map out short- and long-term security strategies.

Rouss released an announcement that stated security at each of the Jewish community
center sites in the Los Angeles area had been stepped up (see accompanying story). But
the official announcement made little difference to the victims or witnesses of the shooting.
Home, safe with her parents Tuesday night, Carli Morgenstern said she was still scared.

“I heard them say on the news the camp is open tomorrow, but I’m not going,” she said in a
low voice. “I don’t want to go back.”

Naomi Pfefferman and Diane Arieff contributed to this story.