No surrender

The shooting rampage in a Los Angeles Jewish day-care center draws attention from around the world, but does little to soften the resolve of gun supporters.

Published August 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

This city's biggest manhunt in years ended on Wednesday morning, not with a victorious denouement, but with an almost ham-handed act of self-destruction. Buford O'Neal Furrow Jr. walked calmly through the front door of a public building and announced himself to the world as if to mimic the way the shooting at the Jewish center in Granada Hills had begun 22 hours before.

"You're looking for me," he told officers at the FBI field office in Las Vegas, just before 9 on Wednesday morning. "I killed the kids in Los Angeles."

It scarcely seemed possible that Furrow, 37, had missed the blitz media coverage on television and radio, and the news that he had not in fact killed anyone when he walked into the North Valley Jewish Community Center in the San Fernando Valley and fired about 70 shots from an AR-15 Bushmaster. Incredibly, only one of the five people who were shot, a 5-year-old boy, was critically injured, with four bullets in his stomach and leg. Four others -- two boys, a 16-year-old student counselor and a 68-year-old staff member -- were treated for injuries and listed in good condition by Wednesday.

Equally amazing, Furrow had managed to slip the dragnet thrown down by Los Angeles police officers, FBI agents and the city's entire SWAT team for 12 hours on Tuesday. Hundreds of officers scoured Southern California looking for him on Tuesday night. After fanning out through the streets, searching house to house with police dogs, the force descended on the 7 Star Suites Hotel in Chatsworth, a few miles from the shooting. Furrow had carjacked a green Toyota Corolla shortly after the shooting and parked it in the hotel lot. The massive police contingent was convinced its prey was inside.

But Furrow had fooled them all. The Washington state ex-con committed an act so banal that no one thought about it as a possibility -- he took a taxi, and headed to Las Vegas, 231 miles from here. After spending the night at a hotel somewhere in that city, he turned himself in to the FBI. Although it was not confirmed on Wednesday, an FBI agent told the Associated Press that Furrow had wanted Tuesday's shooting to act as "a wake-up call to America to kill Jews."

Furrow was extradited to Los Angeles Wednesday, where he will face federal charges of murder and illegal possession of a firearm in the death of Filipino-American letter carrier Joseph Ileto, in addition to attempted murder charges for the Jewish center shooting. If authorities find Ileto was targeted because he was Filipino, Furrow will be charged under federal hate crime laws, which could earn him the death penalty.

It did not take long after Furrow's identity was announced on Tuesday night to ring bells among those who track the activities of white extremists. The Southern Poverty Law Center said it had a file on Furrow, including a photo of him in full Nazi uniform at an Aryan Nation meeting. Washington state police officers remembered Furrow for having threatened to kill his ex-wife and rob banks.

At a top-brass news conference at Los Angeles police headquarters on Wednesday, Chief Bernard Parks praised the well-knit cooperation between his department and the FBI for "a major case coming to a conclusion." Mayor Richard Riordan praised the "quick and professional work" of Parks' 140 or so officers on the case.

But only one of those who faced reporters at Wednesday's briefing voiced the real unease underlying this entire case -- that a mix of extraordinary luck and happenstance might have saved the city from a far bigger tragedy. A San Fernando Valley police officer admitted to reporters quietly that hours after Tuesday's shooting, "I had a sick feeling in my stomach. We didn't have a whole lot."

Indeed, the police found only one clue during the entire event -- the red van abandoned before the carjacking near the Van Nuys Airport 20 minutes after the shooting. The van was traced to Furrow, who had bought it only a few days before in Tacoma, Wash., and made him the prime suspect in the case.

Inside the van, a haul of thousands of bullets, survivalist literature and a military tactical handbook offered more insight than hundreds of officers had been able to gather in their searches through the city.

At police headquarters on Wednesday, Parks and Riordan looked shakily relieved that they had somehow managed to escape a Columbine-style massacre with no suspect in custody. "We're just pleased he did not carry out a more spectacular plan," Parks told reporters.

With no one killed, the preschoolers from Granada Hills moved down the block on Wednesday, to a neighborhood Episcopal church, where well-wishers hung signs on the fence. "Our [heart]s are with you," read one in magic marker. And on the dashboard of a police car sat a note from a small boy, evidently dictated to an adult, that read: "Thank you policeman for saving us from the gun, because I want you to be my friend. I was scared."

Americans still have good cause to be scared if they listened to the reactions of politicians in gun-friendly states on Wednesday. Several told the Associated Press that they had no intention of changing their stand against gun-control laws, despite four mass shootings this summer.

"The safe, personal possession of firearms is a highly honored tradition here and so far, there is not a highly compelling need for gun-control laws," said state Rep. Bill Fuller, a Democrat from Lafayette, Ala., who chairs the state's House Judiciary Committee.

And Arizona state Sen. Randall Gnant doubted that this shooting rampage would reverse years of affection his state has for the National Rifle Association. "I just don't think this Legislature, given the state's Wild West history, is going to be inclined to take this issue on."

That is, perhaps, until the next gun owner walks through another front door of another public building, and unloads yet another firearm on its occupants.

By Vivienne Walt

Vivienne Walt is a frequent contributor to Salon. She was recently on assignments in Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran.

MORE FROM Vivienne Walt

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Gun Control Guns