The McDonald’s Massacre

I took a break for vacation last week but I’m back with a new post about a truly horrifying crime.  On July 18, 1984, a man named James Huberty launched what we know simply as the McDonald’s massacre in San Ysidro, California.  His attack on unsuspecting diners and employees lasted over an hour.

James Oliver Huberty killed 21 people and wounded 19 at a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, California
James Oliver Huberty, the San Ysidro McDonald’s slayer

The Shooter

James Oliver Huberty was a native of Canton, Ohio.  Outwardly normal in many respects, he struggled with inner demons. He was introverted and often sullen and a dedicated collector of grudges.  He believed in government conspiracy theories. Huberty also expected that US-Soviet relations would deteriorate into a doomsday scenario.  To prepare for the anticipated apocalypse, he collected non-perishable food—and guns and ammo.  There is also evidence that he was occasionally violent to his wife and daughters.

Huberty initially worked toward a sociology degree at Malone College in Canton (where he met his future wife). Later studied at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  After graduating, he worked as an embalmer for two years.  He then decided to become a welder, a craft he practiced in Louisville, Kentucky for two years before securing a more lucrative welding job with Babcock & Wilcox in Akron.

Successful as a welder, Huberty and his wife bought a house in Massillon, Ohio.  When a fire destroyed that house, they bought a second house on the same street and built a six-unit apartment building on the site of their first home.  All was well until Babcock & Wilcox closed the unit where he worked and laid him off.

The Hubertys Move

After selling the apartment building and the house in Massillon, Huberty moved his family to Tijuana, Mexico, assuming that his money would go further there than in the United States.  Although his wife and girls embraced their new life in Mexico, Huberty did not.  After only three months, the family moved to San Ysidro, a largely poor district of San Diego just north of the US-Mexico border.

Life on the American side of the border was not significantly better for Huberty.  He signed up for and attended a federally funded program to train as a security guard. After finishing the training, he landed a job with a security firm in Chula Vista in April 1984.  But this job lasted only three months.  On July 10, 1984, his employer dismissed him, citing poor work performance and general physical instability.

For the next few days, Huberty drifted until, on July 17, he placed a call to San Diego mental health clinic requesting an appointment.  Since he was calm and gave no indication of urgency, and because the receptionist who took the call misspelled his name, he did not receive the immediate callback he expected.

The next day, July 18, Huberty took his family to the San Diego zoo.  They lunched—ironically—at McDonald’s and later returned home.

The McDonald’s Massacre

Shortly after the Hubertys returned from the Zoo, Huberty donned a maroon T-shirt and green camo pants.  He kissed his wife goodbye and left, remarking that he was “going hunting…hunting for humans.”  This odd statement did not alarm Mrs. Huberty as he was apparently in the habit of making similar remarks.

Huberty drove his black Mercury Marquis to the parking lot of the McDonald’s at 460 West San Ysidro Boulevard.  There were 45 customers in the restaurant when Huberty walked in at approximately 3:56 p.m.  He carried with him a Browning Hi-Power 9 mm handgun, an Uzi 9mm carbine, and a Winchester 1200 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, along with a box and a cloth bag with hundreds of rounds of ammunition for each weapon.

For the next 77 minutes, terror reigned.  Huberty shot employees and customers indiscriminately regardless of age or gender.  Emergency services received the first of many calls at 4:00 p.m. but dispatched police to the wrong McDonald’s, which was two miles away.  It was another ten minutes before the first officer arrived on the scene.  Huberty fired at his patrol car.  Police quickly established a command post and locked down a six-block area around the scene.

Bullet holes in the windows after the McDonald's massacre in San Ysidro, California
Bullet holes in the windows are a grim reminder of James Huberty’s deadly attack at McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California (ABC News)

Taking Down a Killer

Because Huberty was firing rapidly and switching between his three guns, police were unsure how many shooters were in the restaurant.  It was also difficult to see through the windows, now spider-webbed by bullet holes.  One person who escaped the melee told police that there was only one shooter and no hostages.

Finally, at 5:17 p.m., Huberty stepped toward a door near the drive-through window.  A SWAT officer posted on the roof of the nearby post office fired a single shot that ruptured his aorta, killing him instantly.  The horror was finally over.  The McDonald’s massacre left 21 people dead and 19 others wounded.

After the Attack

Astonishingly, within two days, McDonald’s had repaired and refurbished the restaurant and was ready to reopen it. But after discussions with community leaders, the company decided not to do so.  The renovated restaurant was quietly demolished on September 26.

At the time, the San Ysidro massacre at McDonald’s was the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman.  A shooting at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas would shatter this unenviable record only seven years later.

Memorial to the victims of the  McDonald's massacre at the former site of the restaurant in San Ysidro, California
Memorial to the San Ysidro McDonald’s victims at the former site of the restaurant

McDonald’s constructed a new restaurant nearby and eventually sold the land where the attack occurred to Southwestern College. The college set aside a 300-square-foot area for a memorial to the victims.  Southwestern unveiled the memorial designed by one of its former students on December 13, 1990.

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Public Enemies

Public Enemies

This week I review one of my favorite true crime books, Brian Burrough’s Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34.

Instead of looking at a single crime like I did in last week’s blog, the book I review this week covers many crimes and many criminals over a two-year period.

I have always found the so-called public enemies era of the 1930s fascinating and Burrough serves up the whole period in one readable book.  Although it is not a new book (it came out in 2004), it is both detailed and authoritative.

The Public Enemies Era

American in 1933 was in the depths of the Great Depression.  While most people plodded along trying to eek out a living, a flamboyant few who turned to crime became celebrities because of the daring nature of their deeds and the creativity of newspaper writers.  Bank robbers like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, kidnappers like the Barker-Karpis gang and Machine Gun Kelly, and gunmen like Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd all became famous—and infamous.  Audacious robberies and thrilling escapes were fodder for newspapers eager to boost circulation.  The stories were also cheap entertainment for a public short on money for recreation.

Public Enemy: John Dillinger mugshot
John Dillinger

When the new administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933, Attorney General Homer S. Cummings launched a War on Crime that lasted until 1936.  Cummings may have wanted to use crime-busting to boost his own popularity, but J. Edgar Hoover outmaneuvered him and focused attention–and credit–on himself and the FBI (it was just the Bureau of Investigation until 1935).

The Book

Previous books on this subject tended to focus on one outlaw or group of outlaws rather than the entire period.  Also, until relatively recently, the FBI’s files on this period were not available to researchers.

Burrough states his central aim in writing this book was to “reclaim the War on Crime for the lawmen who fought it.”  He does an excellent job of this, while not whitewashing Bureau’s early mistakes.  He begins by recounting the Kansas City Massacre, the killing of one Bureau agent, three other lawmen, and a prisoner in front of the Kansas City, Missouri train station in June 1933.

The FBI’s first foray into the War on Crime was not promising.  Inexperienced in real criminal law enforcement, agents’ early efforts were amateurish and prone to bone-headed mistakes, some of them deadly.  For example, agents missed several chances to capture John Dillinger, who seemed to have no trouble eluding them.  In one instance, a botched raid on a Wisconsin hunting lodge resulted in the deaths of an innocent civilian and one of the Bureau’s own agents.

Public Enemy: Lester Gillis a.k.a. George "Baby Face" Nelson mugshot
Lester Gillis a.k.a. George “Baby Face” Nelson

Slowly, over the course of three years, the FBI learned from its mistakes and began to evolve into a truly professional crime-fighting organization.  This evolution didn’t happen overnight, but as one reads through the book, the progress is plain to see.  One by one, the marquee gangsters fall, often to FBI bullets.

By 1936, only one major gangster remained at large: Alvin Karpis, the brains of the Barker-Karpis gang.  The FBI arrested him in New Orleans in May 1936, and he went on to spend more time in Alcatraz than any other prisoner on “The Rock.”

Public Enemy: Alvin "Old Creepy" Karpis mugshot
Alvin “Old Creepy” Karpis

Incidentally, of the first four men the FBI designated Public Enemy Number One, Karpis is the only one captured alive.  He went on to outlive many of the 1930s gangsters and lawmen, including J. Edgar Hoover himself.


Public Enemies is both informative and entertaining.  At times, it reads more like an adventure novel than history.  Burrough also does a commendable job of keeping the large cast of major and supporting characters straight.  He also corrects some misinformation that arose either from FBI distortions or highly exaggerated newspaper accounts.

The result is a period-piece snapshot of the lives of Depression-era gangsters and lawmen.

Public Enemy: Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd mugshot
Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd

As I said at the outset, Public Enemies is one of my favorite true crime books.  I’m probably prejudiced because I have a strong interest in the period and subject matter. But I think any true crime fan will enjoy this book.  I highly recommend it.

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The Ruxton Murders

Photograph of Dr. Buck Ruxton around the time of the murders.
Dr. Buck Ruxton

Like last week’s blog, the Ruxton murder case is one of domestic homicide.  The Ruxton murders are a case from England in the 1930s.  The case is famous for the minute detail used by the forensic examiners and the innovative technique used to identify the victims.

A Grisly Discovery

September 29, 1935 was a Sunday.  A woman out for a stroll looked down from a bridge along the Edinburgh-Carlisle road in Scotland and saw what looked like a human arm on the stream bank below.  After notifying police, investigators found seventy pieces of human remains.  Forensic pathologists concluded that the remains were of at least two bodies but probably nor more than two.

The killer appeared to have gone to great lengths to remove any identifiable features from the bodies.  The heads, when found, had the flesh and eyes removed along with most of the teeth, leaving little more than bare skulls.

A Clue to the Victims

Investigators’ first order of business was to identify the victims.  They found an immediate clue when they discovered that some of the remains had been wrapped in newspaper.  The paper was the Sunday Graphic dated September 15.  This was a special edition of the Graphic published and distributed only in the Lancaster district of northern England.  When police learned that a woman had been reported missing from that area, they knew they were on to something.

The missing woman was Mary Rogerson.  Mary was twenty years old and employed as a nursemaid to the three children of Dr. Buck Ruxton and his wife, Isabella.  Ruxton claimed that his wife had left him, which authorities viewed as a sinister coincidence.

Dr. Ruxton was born Bukhtyar Chompa Rustomji Ratanji Hakim in what was then Bombay, India.  At some point, he anglicized his name to Buck Ruxton.  He met Isabella in 1927.  Friends and neighbors presumed her to be his wife, but famed pathologist Sir Sidney Smith contends they were never formally married.  Regardless, Dr. Ruxton kept himself in the spotlight by demanding several times that police attempt to find his missing wife.

Forensic Science Reveals the Truth

Professor Dr. John Glaister had whole sections of the Ruxton house dismantled and reassembled in his Glasgow laboratory.  His painstaking investigation discovered human blood in many areas, especially in the bathroom.  Although DNA testing was decades away, the blood stains were an important clue, nonetheless.  Additionally, Mary Rogerson’s mother recognized an item of clothing that police found with the remains as her daughter’s by portion that she herself had mended.

Meanwhile, Professor James Brash used a new technique to identify the victims.  He superimposed a photograph of one of the skulls over a portrait if Isabella Ruxton.  The result was an eerily obvious match.  Every detail in the photograph fit Mrs. Ruxton’s skull.  However, the same technique did not produce as conclusive results for Mary Rogerson because Brash did not have a good portrait of her to work with.

Portrait photograph of Isabella Ruxton (L) and James Brash's superimposition of the unidentified skull (R).
Portrait photograph of Isabella Ruxton (L) and James Brash’s superimposition of the unidentified skull (R).

Convicted of Murder

Given the evidence, it is not surprising that a jury found Dr. Ruxton guilty and Mr. Justice [John] Singleton sentenced him to death.  The Ruxton murders generated quite a bit of public interest at the time and, surprisingly, despite the overwhelming nature of the evidence and the nature of the murders, ten thousand people, including six thousand Lancaster citizens, petitioned the Home Secretary to intervene and grant a reprieve.  He declined, and Dr. Ruxton was hanged at Strangeways Prison on May 12, 1936.

An Epilogue

The Ruxton murders had an interesting postscript. The Sunday following Dr. Ruxton’s execution, the News of the World published his signed confession.  He had written the confession, sealed it in an envelope, and given it to one of the paper’s reporters just two days after his arrest for murder.

Dr. Ruxton had a reputation for being very jealous and unduly suspicious that his wife might be paying attention to another man.  Twice police had been called to his house for what we call today domestic violence.  No one knows for sure, but it is unlikely that Dr. Ruxton intended to kill his wife.  They probably got into an argument that escalated out of control and ended in her death.  Mary Rogerson probably discovered evidence of the crime and became the second victim.

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