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January 17, 2020

Hindsight 2019: Shootings shocked Morgan Hill

South County still in recovery after deadly incidents

In 2019, Morgan Hill and South County were rocked by two horrific mass shootings that resulted in seven deaths and more than a dozen people injured.

On June 25, a disgruntled employee of Ford Store Morgan Hill opened fire with a handgun on two of his supervisors hours after the shooter was notified he was being fired from the automobile dealership. Killed in the shooting were Ford Store Parts and Service Director Brian Light, 59, and Parts Manager Xavier Souto, 38, both of San Jose.

Morgan Hill police said Light died while trying to stop the gunman, Steven Leet, also of San Jose. Light was able to delay Leet, who was armed with two handguns, while about 35 Ford Store employees and customers escaped the building. A few minutes later, as police were arriving at the scene, Leet shot and killed himself outside the Condit Road dealership.

“It is likely that through those actions, (Light) prevented us having additional victims at the scene yesterday,” Morgan Hill Police Chief David Swing said at a June 26 press conference.

Just over a month later, the region was shocked by the tragic Gilroy Garlic Festival shootings on July 28 at Christmas Hill Park. Police and the FBI said this month they are still investigating the “domestic terrorism” incident that claimed the lives of Stephen Romero, age 6; Keyla Salazar, age 13; and Trevor Deon Irby, age 25, and injured 14 others.

Surviving victims—including Morgan Hill resident Nick McFarland—filed a lawsuit against the Garlic Festival Association in October, alleging that the festival failed to provide adequate security.

Investigators have yet to specify the motive of the gunman, a 19-year-old Gilroy resident. The FBI has said they have found evidence of the killer’s interest in multiple radical ideologies before the shootings.

While the tight-knit South County communities of Morgan Hill, Gilroy and San Martin continue to try to make sense of the bloodshed—previously unimaginable so close to home—local residents, business owners and public officials have come together to help each other recover.

By July 1, a GoFundMe page set up for the families of Light and Souto had gathered more than $115,000. As of this week, the amount raised was more than $142,000.

By October the South County community, buoyed by #GilroyStrong optimism, had donated more than $1.7 million to the Gilroy Foundation’s Gilroy Garlic Festival Victims Relief fund. All proceeds donated to this fund support the victims’ families and survivors of the July 28 shooting.

Garlic Festival organizers have vowed that the 42nd annual festival will return as scheduled in 2020. But the association will proceed with a new executive director, as Brian Bowe announced in December that he will be resigning that post as of February.

In December, Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Santa Clara County officials stood together as they announced and promoted a Dec. 14 gun buyback event in Gilroy. This buyback—which ultimately garnered 493 unwanted weapons from area residents—was a direct response to the shootings in Morgan Hill and Gilroy, according to authorities.

Discussion of the shootings continued for months at official public meetings. In November, the City of Morgan Hill—at the direction of the city council—added a “Firearms Safety” page to the city website. This page, found at morgan-hill.ca.gov/1877/Firearm-Safety, contains information about state, federal and local firearms laws; mental health and suicide prevention resources; how to keep firearms safe in the home; where to acquire gunlocks; information on gun violence restraining orders; resources for parents and troubled children; and how to contact police and city officials.

Morgan Hill City Councilmember John McKay noted that the Ford Store shooting brought home the grim reality that such incidents can happen anywhere, and the Garlic Festival incident exacerbated that new collective awareness. He explained that creating a lasting sense of safety will require the involvement of all sectors of the community.

“Responsible gun owners should also consider being part of activities and programs to help make those in the community feel comfortable, and know who they are,” McKay said. “People need to understand that not everyone with a gun out there is a threat. I think we are forever changed, and now we know we are vulnerable.”

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