Mike Blake / Reuters

Long-troubled San Bernardino in shock over mass shooting

Tragedy is another blow to a bankrupt city dealing with high poverty and crime rates

SAN BERNARDINO, California – Trouble is not new to this city 60 miles east of Los Angeles, which has been bankrupt for three years and has the distinction of being the poorest city of its size in California.

But what happened Wednesday at a social services center here has shaken the city. Two heavily armed people, dressed in tactical gear, killed 14 people and wounded 17 at the large complex of government and other offices.

Terry Jones, a social worker, was waiting for his daughter in a parking lot across the street from the center. She is an office clerk in the complex, and was safe. 

The thought that a mass shooting could happen in San Bernardino is shocking but he said, “It has to happen somewhere because it’s happening everywhere.”

San Bernardino — home to the first McDonald's — was once a robust middle-class city but it was hit hard by the housing bust and recession. After that, unemployment in the San Bernardino-Riverside metropolitan area soared as high as 15 percent and foreclosures peaked at 8.8 percent in 2009, four times the national average.

The 2010 Census ranked San Bernardino the second-poorest city among the nation’s 100 largest — second to Detroit. About 52 percent of the county’s population is Hispanic. 

Gangs have long been active in San Bernardino County, which had the third-most gang members in the country, according to an FBI report from 2011. The city of San Bernardino leads the county in the number of people living on the streets, in shelters and transitional housing, according to the latest homeless count taken in January 2015.

The city’s downtown core is struggling. Pawn shops line the street leading to City Hall. The city's Convention and Visitors Bureau, which played up its connection to the fabled Route 66, ran out of money and closed in 2013.  Adjoining hotels, including a Radisson, are closed.

On Wednesday, police cars blocked several intersections. Police helicopters whirred overhead throughout the afternoon. Freeway access to the area near the shootings was closed part of the afternoon. Government offices throughout the area, including courts, closed.

Bonnie Mills, a 28-year-resident of San Bernardino, lives near the city's downtown and is a former area director for Neighborhood Watch. She said the city is drug- and gang-infested. She has dubbed the area near her home and the community center  “Zombieland,” referring to the homeless people and drug addicts who wander through the park near downtown. 

Before law enforcement identified Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and 27-year-old Tashfeen Malik as the suspects who died in a shootout with police, Mills, 64, wove the nation's current Islamophobia into the local shootings, saying, "I think it’s ISIS. ... They’re indoctrinating gang members … It angers me. We’ve been way too complacent. We’re not hard enough, not tough enough.” Mills used another name for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has not been connected to the event. 

“We need the community to come together,” said Ramiro Cortes, a district manager for Target. Workers from nearby Target Mobile stores brought water and juice to the Rudy C. Hernandez Community Center, where people waited to be reunited with loved ones.

Ramiro Cortes, center, and colleagues
Haya El Nasser

"The city is a big melting pot like most cities in California but if there was ever a time for the community to come together … ,” said Cortes who paused, and continued, “You can throw out race, color, gender, whatever it is — now is the time for people to love one another. If this tragedy sparked something in people to become more aware of things that happen around the world, then so be it. All we can do is go from this and be better people altogether.”

Pointing to the cooler of drinks he was delivering, he said: “Tragedies like this, families waiting having the anxiety of not knowing what’s next, hey, the least I can do is bring some water, some Kool-Aid for the kids."

Among those waiting was Hector Guerrero, 27, a civil engineer who left his job in Los Angeles shortly after the late-morning shootings at the Inland Regional Center.

Guerrero’s wife, Andrea Rivera, 27, who works at the complex, called him soon after the shootings, telling him she had been put on lockdown and later transported to another location. 

She “was a little freaked out,” he said. For more than five hours after the shooting as busloads of other survivors arrived at center, Guerrero waited. “I’ve been in touch with her and she was still being interviewed by police,” he said.

Pamala Ledbetter
Haya El Nasser

Pamala Ledbetter, 32, grew up here, and was waiting for her sister. Wednesdays are the one day of the week that her sister Jenny, who works with autistic children, goes to the center to do some paperwork.

“She called and texted: ‘There’s a shooting. I need you guys’” said Ledbetter, adding she wanted to protect her sister, and gave only her first name.

Ledbetter said Jenny was barricaded inside for a while before being evacuated by bus to a church. While waiting for Jenny, Ledbetter got word that her daughter’s elementary school was on lockdown.

“It’s too close to home,” she said. “It’s scary.”

By 5 p.m., Ledbetter's sister's cell phone had lost its charge but she knew that her sibling was going to be transferred to the Hernandez Community Center.

Ledbetter couldn’t wait to take her home for what turned out to be an eerie coincidence. The entire family had planned to celebrate Thanksgiving Wednesday evening, because some of them had been out of town during the holiday last week.

“We’re definitely having Thanksgiving Dinner today,” she said.

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