September 16, 2019

The Shots That Shattered Our Calm

The day began like any other summer day at the North Valley Jewish Community Center — hot and heady with promise. Children lined up at the back of the site for field trips, or unpacked their gear to go swimming. Office workers answered phones and filed papers. Counselors accompanied kids to the arts and crafts room. Nothing indicated this would be anything other than a normal camp day — until a white supremacist walked into the lobby, spraying bullets and shattering the Los Angeles Jewish community’s calm.

Ten years ago, on Aug. 10, 1999, avowed white supremacist Buford Furrow Jr. drove to Los Angeles from Washington state and took aim at random victims, injuring three children, a teenage camp counselor and the Granada Hills JCC’s receptionist. Then he fled and went on to murder a local postal worker. For those involved, the memories remain as fresh as the day it all happened.

The Attack
Furrow, a parolee, came to Los Angeles with an agenda and an arsenal of weapons. As he later told police, he wanted to issue “a wake-up call to America to kill Jews.” He exited the 118 freeway looking for a vulnerable target. He walked into the JCC on Rinaldi Avenue carrying a Glock semi-automatic pistol and a rifle, and, without warning, he began shooting.

According to various reports, police identified receptionist Isabelle Shalometh, then 68, as the first person wounded in the attack. Shalometh, who recovered and is now retired, was the most vulnerable, the person who greeted all visitors. 

Nearby, Mindy Finkelstein, 16, a counselor, was walking camper James Sidell, 6, to the arts and crafts area. As Furrow continued to spray bullets, Mindy was hit twice; one of the bullets that went through her leg was later found to have grazed James’ foot and was still in his shoe.

Standing behind Mindy and James when the shooting started was another 6-year-old, Joshua Stepakoff, who sustained two shots to his leg. The final victim, Benjamin Kadish, 5, nearly bled to death from bullets that had perforated his colon and severed the main artery in his right leg. In the end, Furrow emptied 70 rounds as he made his way around the community center before fleeing to nearby Chatsworth.

Furrow then car-jacked a woman’s Toyota, came upon postal worker Joseph Ileto, 39, making his rounds and shot and killed the Philippines-born man. Furrow later told investigators that he considered Ileto a “good target of opportunity” because he was not “white” and worked for the federal government. 

Breaking News
Donna Finkelstein was a counselor at Monroe High School at the time. She remembers walking across campus and being stopped by someone saying she had an important phone call. Finkelstein felt no need to rush — it was probably just a parent calling to inquire about the school’s magnet program. But on the other end of the line was her next-door neighbor, a trauma nurse at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, calling to say that Finkelstein’s 16-year-old daughter, Mindy, had just been wheeled in on a gurney and recognized her. “Call my mom,” the girl said. “I’ve been shot.”

As soon as she heard the news, Finkelstein dropped to her knees, stunned.

“I knew immediately it was a hate crime,” she said. “I knew it couldn’t have been a robbery — what is there to rob? I knew it wasn’t gang activity. It had to be a hate crime.”

Mindy’s injuries, although serious, were not life threatening. But another child’s were, and police were having a difficult time identifying the camper who had been rushed over by ambulance as soon as the paramedics saw he would not survive a helicopter ride to Childrens Hospital. Mindy was the one to finally identify Benjamin Kadish.

Meanwhile, Loren Lieb, a Los Angeles County Department of Health worker, was being driven by a co-worker back to the Valley, all the time grappling with the twin torments of knowing something had happened at the center, and of not knowing which, if either, of her two sons — Joshua and Seth Stepakoff — had managed to escape. The only solid information she had was what her mother had told her: that a man with a gun had come to the JCC.

“My mom was at her book club meeting, which happened to meet at the church next door to the Jewish Community Center,” Lieb explained. “All of a sudden, the SWAT team is surrounding the building and my mom is told they have to evacuate. So my mom starts to go out, knowing her only two grandsons are next door and she can’t even get to them.”

Lieb’s feelings of guilt were tremendous. She was working earlier hours that summer to accommodate the boys’ camp schedule, and that morning she had left home before the rest of the house was awake. She recalls the long ride to the center, listening to the radio and hearing that 6- and 8-year-old boys had been shot.

“I was trying to stay composed, but I kept thinking my boys were gone,” her voice breaks, even now. “And I hadn’t even said goodbye.”

Lieb got to the JCC and was taken by ambulance to Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. Along the way, police assured her Joshua was going to pull through.  (Her other son, Seth, was being held with the other campers off-site until police were sure the area was secure.) Her husband, Alan Stepakoff, met her at Childrens. Joshua had had the presence of mind to tell paramedics that his father worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Lieb saw the hole that went through Joshua’s leg from one bullet, straight through the bone; another bullet entered his hip, traveled under his skin and stopped just short of the spine. The boy underwent surgery to repair the leg and to remove the second bullet, with doctors commenting that it was a miracle he had not suffered more damage.

The Aftermath
With the exception of Benjamin Kadish, each of the children was released within a week. Ironically for several of the injured children, this had been their first experience of a Jewish summer camp. Perhaps that is why Loren Lieb and Alan Stepakoff sent Joshua and Seth back to camp the Monday after the shooting.

“The kids just had to get back to some normal routine and be with their friends, doing what they would usually do,” Lieb said.

Joshua seemed to be OK with camp. He had a harder time dealing with his instant celebrity — he enjoyed the toys and cards sent to him from all around the world, but Lieb said it was difficult dealing with the strangers who would come up to him.

“We’d go out somewhere, and here’s this cute kid on crutches, and everybody would ask, ‘How did you break your leg?’ and he would say, ‘I got shot.’ And then they would realize who he was. So we stopped going out, because he hated the attention.”

Fear took hold of Joshua — of loud noises, sirens, the sound of helicopters. He refused to sit in a certain area of the living room; it took him two years to finally tell his parents “I don’t want to sit there because if someone comes in the door, I’d be the first one shot.” Only with counseling, and time, could he finally reach a place where fear did not dominate his life.

As the oldest of the child victims, Mindy Finkelstein had the greatest awareness of her situation. Unlike Joshua, she reveled in her celebrity and made it through her next year of school as a senior at Chatsworth High School with her bubbly personality intact.

Then came the move to Santa Barbara to attend the University of California. Suddenly, all the trauma that she had pushed away swept over her like a wave.  She stopped eating and became increasingly depressed. Finally, her parents came to take her home.

“She was like a zombie,” Finkelstein recalls. “It was very unnerving. Our entire focus as a family was just getting her well.”

Mindy took a year off, then returned to Santa Barbara where she completed her degree in film studies. She worked for several years in television production and is now looking to pursue a career in event planning for nonprofits (see accompanying story). 

Following the shooting, both Donna and David Finkelstein, along with Loren Lieb and Alan Stepakoff, became outspoken advocates for gun control. Loren and Donna helped found the San Fernando Valley chapter of the Million Mom March, a national organization founded by Donna Dees-Thomases, a New Jersey mother, in the wake of the NVJCC shooting. That organization later joined forces with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Loren Lieb is currently an officer in the local chapter of the Brady Campaign, as well as a vice president of the California Executive Council.

The Kadish family took a different tack. Benjamin’s injuries were critical, and he required months of physical therapy and additional surgery. Like the other children, he became a symbol to many of the terrible effects of hate crimes, and newspapers followed his story for months. As the intense spotlight of media attention began to fade, Eleanor and Charles Kadish sought to bring some sort of normalcy back to their lives. 

There were also legal matters to sort out. The Kadishes joined a lawsuit against the gun manufacturers, along with Joseph Ileto’s mother, Lillian, and several other victims. That case is currently pending further action, after portions of the suit were rejected by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The same group also filed suit against the Washington State Department of Corrections for failing to adequately monitor Furrow, for which the plaintiffs were awarded $2.25 million in 2008. Eleanor and Charles Kadish independently filed suit against the North Valley Jewish Community Center, Inc. in 2001, but the case was dismissed later that year.

A Jewish Identity Altered
Furrow did not get away with his crimes. He turned himself in to FBI authorities in Las Vegas the day after the shooting and later accepted a plea agreement that spared him the death penalty. He is currently serving two consecutive life terms plus 110 years, without possibility of parole or early release.

Furrow said his goal was to frighten the Jewish community and to inspire other white supremacists to take up arms. If the Jewish community became more wary as a result, it also became more interconnected with other groups.

On Monday, Aug. 10, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, with the participation of the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Southwest office, will host a memorial at APALC’s offices on Wilshire Boulevard.  Mindy Finkelstein, Joshua Stepakoff, Ben Kadish and their families all plan to attend. A few days earlier, on Aug. 7, Mindy and Joshua will speak at a memorial service held at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge. The pair is also working on a 5K/10K Walk/Run against gun violence to be held in October (see box on Page 12).

Mindy said her pride in being Jewish helps fuel her activism.

“I don’t practice Judaism in a traditional sense, just holidays and camps, but I’m very proud of it, even my name,” she said. “It’s not something I want to refute; it’s something I want to take charge of.”

Eleanor Kadish said she has heard the same from Ben. Although he did not return to the JCC camp, he continued his Jewish education at the family’s synagogue, Temple Judea West, where he had his bar mitzvah. Now 16, he tells his mom about the times when he’s spoken out at his high school in defense of his faith.

“He hears kids making comments about ‘those Jews,’ and he always stands up and asks, ‘Why do you say that?’ If anything, this experience has made him more outspoken and assertive. We’re proud of him.”