Hundreds attend vigil for Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting victims

GILROY – Hearts heavy with grief, hundreds of people gathered outside Gilroy City Hall on Monday night to remember the three young lives lost in Sunday’s mass shooting at the annual Garlic Festival – and to send a message that while the terrible tragedy was a defining moment, it would not define the South Santa Clara County town.

“We cannot let the bastard that did this tear us down,” a defiant Mayor Roland Velasco said to cheers from the crowd.

Eileen Stillwell, a fifth-generation resident of Gilroy, came to the vigil to both offer and seek solace.

“I’m hoping that it never happens again,” the 60-year-old said. “It just hurts. And it felt like if I came tonight I would get some healing. I wanted to do something, even if it’s just hugging a new person.”

Stillwell, a past festival volunteer, found two new people to hug – Ron Esparza and Leeanne Christensen. All three live within a mile of one another but Monday was their first time meeting.

“My heart is broken,” said Christensen, 54, fighting back tears. “Completely broken.”

Esparza said he was angry, not sad.

“This is a rough summer for us,” the 61-year-old said, referring to the shooting at the Ford dealership in Morgan Hill on June 25. He still had the candle he held at a vigil for those victims.

“I couldn’t throw it away,” he said. “It’s been in my car. I didn’t think I’d need it so soon.”

Morgan Hill Mayor Pro Tem Rene Spring also recalled the shooting at the dealership.

“Things like that don’t happen in Gilroy. They don’t happen in Morgan Hill. But they do,” he told the crowd. “You have a lot of friends in Morgan Hill and they will come down over and over to be with you.”

Spring was among a number of speakers who spoke during the vigil. The overarching message was one of hope and recovery, but at least two speakers called for gun reform.

“Courage is defined by this: friends, families and strangers coming together in face of a tragedy,” said Hina Moheyuddin, 25. “When will this tragedy end? I appeal to our elected officials. I ask, just as a human, when is enough enough? Policy makers need to start taking action.”

Santino William Legan, 19, of Gilroy, killed three people with an AK-47-style assault rifle before being fatally shot by officers armed with handguns, according to authorities. The victims have been identified as 6-year-old Stephen Romero of San Jose, 13-year-old Keyla Salazar of San Jose and 25-year-old Trevor Irby, of Romulus, New York.

Susan Freiburg, 62, retired from Gilroy High School last year. She didn’t know Legan, who graduated in 2017, but she taught Lesley Sanchez, 15, who was shot in the hip and airlifted to Stanford Hospital.

“Waiting for the list of names to be released was absolute dread,” Freiburg said. “I knew I would know someone and I did.”

Justin Bates, 24, of Hollister, was among the dozen-plus festival goers who were hit by gunfire and survived. Freshly released from the hospital and leaning on a single crutch, he said he attended the vigil to give his condolences to families who lost loved ones.

“Everyone is coming together and showing so much love for everyone,” he said. “It’s really beautiful how the community is handling the most terrible situation that could have happened.”

Bates is already making plans to attend next year’s festival.

“You’ve gotta be strong and gotta pray,” he said. “Depending on how the security is next year, I’m not going to let this guy (Legan) get the better of me. I hope Gilroy doesn’t let this guy get the better of them.”

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