The San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre was a mass murder that occurred on July 18, 1984, in a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, California, United States. James Oliver Huberty killed 21 people (including five children) and injured 19 others.
James Oliver Huberty was born in Canton, Ohio on October 11, 1942. When he was three he contracted polio, and even though he made a progressive recovery, the disease caused him to suffer permanent walking difficulties. In the early 1950s, his father bought a farm in the Pennsylvania Amish Country. His mother refused to live in the Amish country, and soon abandoned her family to do sidewalk preaching for a Southern Baptist organization. Her abandonment would leave a profound effect on the young James, who became sullen and withdrawn.
In 1962, Huberty enrolled at a Jesuit community college and earned a degree in sociology. He would later receive a license for embalming at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1965, he married Etna, a woman he met while attending mortuary school. They had two daughters, Zelia and Cassandra. The Huberty family settled in Massillon, Ohio near Canton, where James worked as an undertaker at the Don Williams Funeral Home. They were forced to relocate to Canton in 1971 after their house in Massillon was set ablaze.
Huberty found work as a welder for Union Metal Inc. while living in Canton. He and Etna had a history of violent behavior. Domestic violence was frequent in the Huberty household, with Etna once filing a report with the Canton Department of Children and Family Services that her husband had “messed up” her jaw. She would produce tarot cards and pretend to read his future to pacify him and his bouts of violence, thus producing a temporary calming effect. Etna instructed her daughter Zelia to physically assault one of her classmates at a neighbor’s daughter’s birthday party. In a related altercation with the child’s mother, Etna threatened the woman with a 9 mm pistol; the Canton police arrested her but failed to confiscate the weapon. Huberty shot his dog, a German Shepherd, in the head when a neighbor complained about the dog damaging his car.
Huberty, a survivalist, saw signs of what he thought was growing trouble in America, and believed that government regulations were the cause of business failures, including his own. He believed that international bankers were purposefully manipulating the Federal Reserve System and bankrupting the nation. Convinced that Soviet aggression was everywhere, he believed that the breakdown of society was near, perhaps through economic collapse or nuclear war. He committed himself to prepare to survive this coming collapse and, while in Canton, provisioned his house with thousands of dollars of non-perishable food and six guns that he intended to use to defend his home during what he believed was the coming chaos. When he moved from Ohio he left the food behind but brought the guns with him.
Huberty had an uncontrollable twitch in his right arm as a result of a motorcycle accident, a condition that made it impossible to continue as a welder. He was the builder owner of a six unit apartment complex in Canton which he had to sell before he could relocate from Canton. A real estate brokerage made a generous offer on the property and came to some sort of agreement with Huberty. Then, much to Huberty’s dismay real estate company reneged on its part of the deal or at least Huberty thought so. This triggered a series of legal wranglings including lawsuits and disciplinary filings against the brokerage as a response to his having to settle for a lower sales price of $115,000.00 for the building that he had thought he had sold for $144,000.00. After the San Diego mass murder incident which Huber perpetrated, his wife would recite the failed Ohio real estate deal as a principal motivating factor for his behavior as she claimed he still sulked over the episode.
Other setbacks plagued Huberty before leaving Ohio. The factory, Union Metal Manufacturing, where he had worked as a welder closed abruptly. On August 17, 1983, he was rear-ended aggravating a pre-existing back condition. Huberty also sued the other driver. Huberty may have also lost significant value in the sale of his personal residence and had to take a “loan assumption” from the buyer just to get the deal done.
The Huberty family left Canton in January 1984 and briefly stayed in Tijuana, Mexico. They then returned to the United States and settled in San Diego’s San Ysidro neighborhood. Huberty was able to find work as a security guard. He was dismissed from this position two weeks before the shooting. His apartment was three blocks away from the site of the massacre.
Before the shooting
On the day before the massacre, Huberty had called a mental health center. The receptionist misspelled his name on intake as Shouberty. Since he had not claimed there was an immediate emergency, his call was not returned. He and his family went to the San Diego Zoo on the morning of July 18, and they ate at a McDonald’s restaurant in the Clairemont neighborhood in northern San Diego a few hours before the massacre.
Before Huberty left for McDonald’s with his weapons, his wife Etna asked him where he was going. Huberty responded that he was “hunting humans”. Earlier that day he had commented to her, “Society had its chance.” When questioned by police, she gave no explanation as to why she failed to report this bizarre behavior. A witness who spotted him as he left his apartment and proceeded down San Ysidro Boulevard with two firearms phoned the police, but the dispatcher gave the responding officers the wrong address.
Huberty used a 9 mm Uzi semi-automatic (the primary weapon fired in the massacre), a Winchester pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, and a 9 mm Browning HP in the restaurant, killing 21 people and wounding 19 others. His victims were predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American and ranged in age from 8 months to 74 years. The massacre began at 3:59 p.m. and lasted for 77 minutes. He had spent 257 rounds of ammunition before he was fatally shot by a SWAT team sniper, Chuck Foster, perched on the roof of the post office adjacent to the restaurant.
Although Huberty stated during the massacre that he had killed thousands in Vietnam, he had never actually served in any military branch. Eyewitnesses stated that he had previously been seen at the Big Bear supermarket and later at the US Post Office. It was surmised that he found the McDonald’s to be a better target.
Due to the number of victims, local funeral homes had to use the San Ysidro Civic Center to hold all the wakes. The local parish, Mount Carmel Church, resorted to holding back-to-back funeral masses to accommodate all the dead.
After razing the ravaged site, McDonald’s built another restaurant nearby and gave the former property to the city, which established the Education Center on the site as part of Southwestern Community College. This location was built in 1988 as an expansion of its off-campus locations. In front of the school is a memorial to the massacre victims, designed by Roberto Valdes, consisting of 21 hexagonal white marble pillars ranging in height from one to six feet and each bearing the name of one of the victims. Valdes, a former student at Southwestern, said of the sculpture “The 21 hexagons represent each person that died, and they are different heights, representing the variety of ages and races of the people involved in the massacre. They are bonded together in the hopes that the community, in a tragedy like this, will stick together, like they did.” Every anniversary, the monument is decorated with flowers and on the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, candles and offerings are brought on behalf of the victims. The location of the monument and the former McDonald’s is at 460 West San Ysidro Boulevard.
In response to the incident, the city of San Diego increased training for special units, and purchased more powerful firearms to counteract future situations. The San Ysidro incident also led police departments across the United States to provide their officers with higher power firearms and training for stopping violent criminals and keeping all those around them safe.
The families of the deceased victims along with the surviving victims together tried (unsuccessfully) to sue the McDonald’s Corporation and the local franchisee. The cases were in San Diego Superior Court and were consolidated. The court ultimately dismissed before trial on defendants’ motion for summary judgment, but the plaintiffs appealed. On July 25, 1987, the California Court of Appeal (Fourth District, Division One) affirmed summary judgment for the defendants because (1) McDonald’s or any other business has no duty of care to protect patrons from an unforeseeable assault by a murderous madman; and (2) plaintiffs could not prove causation because the standard reasonable measures normally used by restaurants to deter criminals, like guards and closed-circuit television cameras, could not possibly have deterred the perpetrator (who did not care about his own survival).
In 1986, Etna Huberty, James’s widow, also tried (unsuccessfully) to sue McDonald’s and Babcock and Wilcox, his longtime former employer, in an Ohio state court for $5 million. She claimed that the massacre was triggered by the combined mixture of eating too many of their chicken nuggets and working around highly poisonous metals. She alleged that monosodium glutamate in the food, combined with the high levels of lead and cadmium in his body, induced delusions and uncontrollable rage. An autopsy did reveal high levels of the metals, most likely built up from fumes inhaled during 14 years of welding. Autopsy results also revealed there were no drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of the killings. Etna Huberty died in 2003.