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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