Why did dad-of-two James Huberty gun down other people’s kids?
It was another busy summer’s afternoon at McDonald’s in San Ysidro, San Diego, California.
But 18 July 1984 was about to go down as a horrific day in US history.
At 4pm, as families sat eating burgers and fries, a balding man wearing camouflage trousers and a black T-shirt burst in. He was heavily armed. Ready for battle. And all hell was about to be let loose…
‘Freeze!’ he yelled, firing at the crowds of diners and employees.
His bullets killed a 4-month-old baby girl, other children, mums and dads.
The gunman showed no mercy. He told people to lie down or he’d shoot them. Then he shot them anyway. He picked off people outside the restaurant, including two schoolboys who were murdered as they cycled up for burgers.
The killer, who used a shotgun, rapid-fire rifle, and a handgun in his murderous assault, was James Oliver Huberty, 41.
In a siege lasting nearly an hour-and-a-half, he killed 21 innocents and injured many more. Five of the dead were under 11 years old.
His grisly attack finally ended when police snipers fired from the roof of an adjacent building, killing him.
Police found piles of bodies inside the restaurant. The windows were riddled with bullets.
At the time, it was the worst shooting in the US by a single gunman.
‘It looked like something I’ve never seen before in my life – men, women, little children all shot,’ said San Diego Police Chief William Kollender.
But why would James Huberty – a father-of-two – commit such an atrocity?
Born in Canton, Ohio, in 1942, he was raised by his grandmother after his parents divorced.
Aged 3, he contracted polio, which left him with leg paralysis and needing braces. He couldn’t play sports and seemed an unhappy child.
‘He acted so queer, just kept to himself,’ a neighbour recalled.
Others remembered a violent streak, an obsession with guns. He’d shoot the heads off cabbages and run into the woods at night for target practice.
Then his behaviour turned sinister. He shot a neighbour’s cat. Hurting animals can be the first step for murderers. For Huberty, it was a sign of things to come.
After his grandmother died, Huberty left home. His father was now remarried to a teacher with children of her own. Neighbours say Huberty didn’t get on with his stepmum.
When he visited, he’d get out of his car with a gun, fire a round of shots to signal his arrival.
He went on to marry, and he and his wife had two daughters. The family lived in middle-class suburb Massillon, in Ohio.
When the girls invited their friends over, they’d be shocked to see Huberty’s gun collection spread across the table. He was also seen toying with a switchblade knife.
But Huberty was only ever in trouble with police once before the shooting – for being drunk and disorderly at a petrol station. He was fined and paid court costs.
The Huberty household wasn’t a stable one. Huberty jumped from one job to the next. He even trained as a funeral director and embalmer.
His funeral-parlour boss remembered him as a ‘loner’, with a ‘short, quick, temper’.
Huberty then found work at a steel plant but, when it shut in 1981, and he lost his job, he ranted to colleagues of his despair.
‘If this was the end of his making a living for his family, he was going to take everyone with him,’ a former workmate said.
‘He was always talking about shooting somebody. He says, “Hey, I got nothing to live for. I got no job or anything.’’
People began to see Huberty as someone to avoid – he was always complaining, always holding a grudge…
In January 1984, the family moved from Ohio to San Diego for a better life. They rented a tiny apartment, and Huberty found work as a security guard.
The dream soured when he lost his new job – more failure, more financial worries.
He talked obsessively of war, even walked up to a policeman one day and announced he was a ‘war criminal’, despite having never served in the Forces.
His wife suspected he was having a breakdown. She said he was constantly sad and lonely.
The day before the massacre, she apparently urged him to call a mental-health clinic.
The following morning, Huberty was in court for traffic offences, but the judge let him go with a fine.
He took his family to McDonald’s – not the one he would later attack – and then for a trip to San Diego zoo.
Looking at the caged animals, Huberty told his wife, ‘Society had their chance…’
Was this the moment he made his awful decision?
Back home, he changed into combat gear and headed for the door. He told his wife he was going ‘to hunt humans’.
His wife later said she didn’t understand what he meant, and he was ‘calm’ when he drove off to McDonald’s.
An autopsy confirmed that Huberty wasn’t under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
After the massacre, his wife claimed the man she’d loved ‘would never have done this…if he had been in his right mind.’
With Huberty lying dead among his victims, no-one knew for sure why he did it. But it seemed that years of rage and disappointment had built up like a pressure cooker. And, on 18 July 1984, James Huberty finally exploded – with utterly devastating results.