ODESSA, Texas (KMID/KPEJ)- Four years have passed since a lone gunman swept through the Basin, claiming the lives of seven people and injuring more than two dozen others in a mobile mass shooting that extended from parts of Midland into Odessa. Today, the community unites to contemplate the tragedy and pay tribute to the lives that were lost.
For many, it’s a day that is still hard to think and talk about; for some it’s unequivocally referred to as “Odessa’s darkest day”.
“It seems like yesterday, and it seems like several years back…I think from a law enforcement standpoint, it’s not about dwelling on the events that transpired but solidifying our resolve and what our intentions are and what our role is in society, and that’s to either prevent mass shootings or stop them as quickly as they begin,” said Midland Police Department Chief Seth Herman.
“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t think about that day,” said Odessa Police Department Chief Mike Gerke. “That was one of the most horrific days I think this area has ever seen, if not the most horrific. I’ll take that day to my grave.”
On August 31, 2019, Seth Ator traveled between Midland and Odessa firing shots at random vehicles for more than an hour before he was shot and killed. It was nothing short of chaotic, as detailed in a Texas Rangers report released more than two years after the shooting.
“This unprecedented act of random mobile violence created a huge challenge to law enforcement officers and emergency medical responders as they tried to locate, contain, and stop the violence, while simultaneously dealing with the dead, dying, wounded, panic-stricken, and oblivious people they came across. The sheer number of 911 calls, understandably, overwhelmed 911 communication operators with information about multiple locations, multiple and greatly differing suspect descriptions and suspect vehicle descriptions. Social media posts and personal communications flooded the area with unconfirmed and unsubstantiated rumors of violence at multiple locations in Odessa and Midland that were never targets of violence. Law enforcement officers had to respond to these alleged sites of active violence at locations such as department stores, and shopping malls,” the report stated.
It’s a situation that Chief Gerke said he doesn’t expect to encounter again, especially with new technology that was not available to the department at the time.
“We have a real-time crime center with a wall of video boards that we can track things that are going on in the city. Then (2019), we didn’t have that…I sat in that very room (the real-time crime center) on August 31 with a pen and a pad of paper trying to piece the puzzle together,” Gerke said. “We had no cameras that we had access to around the city that could’ve helped us track, we didn’t have license plate readers…we have all those things now.”
Additionally, departments across the Basin, including MPD and OPD, in partnership with the Texas Department of Public Safety and Sheriff’s Offices from Midland and Ector Counties, have consistently trained on how to respond to an active shooter situation.
“Active shooter training is not just training where you can check the box. You have to practice. If you don’t practice it, you will lose your effectiveness…this is how you keep your citizens safe…it’s like a football team, like a baseball team; you’re going to play like you practice. if you don’t practice, you’re not going to play very well,” Gerke said.
“Training builds confidence and that’s what we need, we need somebody to go in there and take care of business right now if something goes down,” said Ector County Sheriff Mike Griffis.
It is crucial to remember that not a single first responder hesitated to spring into action on that day.
Medical staff at area hospitals have also practiced their response to situations such as this, in order to ensure that the doctors and nurses and every other medical care provider knows how to help in a crisis.
“We look at crisis a little different now…you always think it can’t happen to you…people always thought that drills were a waste of time and a waste of resources, but we drill now. We still drill and it has a different feeling to it cause we know that it can happen, and I think it’s changed our safety plan. I think it’s made us all look at life a little differently just to know how short life really is and how quickly things can change,” said Medical Center Hospital President and Chief Executive Officer Russell Tippin.
The community also now benefits from the Texas Active Shooter Alert System, legislation proposed by State Representative Brooks Landgraff and signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott in 2021.
“The passage of the Leilah Hernandez Act means that Texans will be able to receive timely alerts, similar to Amber alert messages we currently receive, if there is an active shooting taking place in their area. This alert system could have saved the lives of some of my constituents back in 2019, like high school student Leilah Hernandez. The goal of this legislation is to save lives and prevent mass violence while protecting the constitutional rights of law-abiding Texans,” Landgraff said upon the bill’s passing.
Landgraf crafted HB 103, known as the Leilah Hernandez Act, after working with the families of victims from the mass shooting. Leilah Hernandez, a 15-year-old Odessa High School student, was the youngest victim killed that tragic day. Leilah’s mother, Joanna Leyva, provided powerful testimony in support of the bill at the Texas Capitol, explaining how an active shooter alert system could have saved Leilah’s life.
Following the tragedy, the community has come together to reflect, remember, and persist in its journey of healing. This year was no exception; City leaders, in partnership with the University of Texas Permian Basin gathered for a sunrise service to honor those who lost their lives, and show their families that they have not, and will not, be forgotten.
Leilah Hernandez was shopping for cars with her family when she was gunned down. The OHS sophomore was a member of the basketball team and had just celebrated her Quinceanera in May. Her brother, Nathan, was also injured in the shooting; the family called 911 for help multiple times but were unable to connect with a dispatch operator amid the chaos.
Edwin Peregrino, 25, was visiting his parent’s home in Odessa when he heard gunshots. He ran outside to check on his loved ones and a bullet killed instantly. The young man and beloved uncle had moved out of his family’s home just weeks before the shooting.
Joseph Griffith, 40, was driving a vehicle occupied by his wife, son, and daughter when he was shot and killed. The family were on their way to have family photos taken. Griffith was described as a well-loved teacher and devoted family man.
Mary Granados, 29, was nearing the end of her shift as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service when the gunman hijacked her postal vehicle. Granados was on the phone with her sister when a shot rang out. Her twin, Rosie Granados, said she heard Mary scream, followed by silence.
Rodolfo “Rudy” Arco, 57, was a father of three and husband of 20 years. He and his family moved to Odessa in 2018 to run their trucking company; he was killed on his way home from work.
Kameron Brown, 30, was a U.S. Army veteran and served in Afghanistan after joining the military in 2007. The Brownwood resident had been working for an oilfield equipment company in Odessa for about a year when his life was cut short.
Raul Garcia, 35, was a truck driver from El Paso. He was heading home to spend time with his wife and children when he was killed along Interstate 20.
A memorial, known as the Bright Stars Memorial, is currently in the final stages of completion and will soon be installed on the UTPB campus. The memorial will pay tribute to the victims, survivors, ad first responders who bravely sprang into action that fateful day.
“Jim Sanborn did an incredible job creating something that is very powerful, and it will allow people to go and have a place to grieve and to heal,” said Odessa Arts Executive Director Randy Hamm. “The pieces (of the memorial) they all have the names of the victims and their life dates and quotes from family members, from survivors and from surviving family members…this art piece is more than just something to look at, it’s incredibly powerful and so moving…it’s the most important piece of public art that I wish we never had to do.”
Hamm is not alone in hoping that the community will use the sunrise service and art installation to heal; Chandra Wiginton of the Family Resiliency Center is hoping for the same, but said healing takes time and sometimes, the journey lasts a lifetime.
“Right after the event happened, we saw the community come together like I had not seen before. There was a heightened or renewed sense of camaraderie, friendship and compassion, the community outlook kind of changed, we got a little bit closer, we started paying attention to our neighbors a little bit more. Healing is a process and you’re never gonna forget, I think if you can’t forget then the healing will always feel a little bit undone or incomplete but as we process, as we talk about our feelings and kind of work through them and we give ourselves permission to feel them and then choose different feelings to replace that with so, instead of being angry, maybe we get to the place where we’re gonna forgive, and that’s hard and it’s not something that happens overnight, it’s not necessarily something that happens within four years. For some people that will be a lifelong journey. The more we talk about it and the more we focus on moving forward and we can come together to heal I think it will be better for people.”
You can learn more about the center here.