Gilroy Shooting Victims Share Harrowing Stories of Survival

Wendy Towner was standing behind the vendor tent for her family business, the Honey Ladies, at the Gilroy Garlic Festival on Sunday, July 28.

A staple at many Bay Area farmers markets, the Honey Ladies was selling its garlic and habanero varieties that afternoon. Then, Wendy saw a man climbing a fence behind the row of booths and carrying an assault rifle. The mother of two ran toward him, screaming, “No, you’re not gonna do this here! This isn’t gonna happen!” says Wendy’s sister Christine, who lives high in the Santa Cruz Mountains, as does Wendy.

Christine wasn’t at the festival, but she’s kept in close contact with those who were, particularly her sister.

Over the course of about a minute, the gunman injured 12 victims and took the lives of three more: 6-year-old Stephen Romero, 13-year-old Keyla Salazar and 25-year-old Trevor Irby, a recent Santa Cruz transplant. Christine believes that her sister prevented the death toll from climbing even higher.

In charging gunman Santino William Legan, Wendy momentarily startled him and alerted others to take cover, Christine says. “She was just trying to stop it and slow it down and hope that she could save everybody,” Christine says. “She was so upset that she couldn’t save those three lives.”

Wendy was the first one shot that day. Her husband Francisco Aguilar, who ran after her, was the second.

After the first two victims fell, Legan’s gun jammed. He walked over to where Wendy and Aguilar lay in the grass and asked, in a calm voice, if they were OK, Christine says her sister recalls. They played dead. Then, Legan dropped his magazine next to Wendy’s head and opened fire on the crowd.

Wendy and Aguilar’s 3-year-old son was playing on a nearby inflatable slide, and he started running through the gunfire toward his parents. A family friend’s 11-year-old granddaughter grabbed the boy and pulled him into the booth and under a table.

Santa Cruz’s Brynn Ota-Matthews, 26, and Gabriella Gaus, 26, were also on the slide when Legan opened fire.

The two friends, who work together at Westside pizza restaurant Bantam, ran to the festival parking lot. “We didn’t ever look back,” Gaus said at a press conference last week. There was a moment when she thought the noise of the gun was some kind of joke, but once she saw the shooter, she said her body told her to run.

Legan shot and killed himself once police arrived upon the scene, about a minute after the shooting began. Gaus was grazed by several bullets across her back, and she was treated and released. Ota-Matthews was shot in the back and said she will now live her life with a bullet in her liver.

At the press conference, the first person Gaus thanked was a man named John—at least she thought that was his name. He was the one who picked the two up in his car and drove them to the hospital. She said she didn’t feel safe until she was in the car.

For Wendy’s husband Aguilar, the minutes after the attack were precarious. He was losing blood quickly, and first responders initially didn’t think that he would survive. He was shot twice in the shoulder and twice in the leg. One bullet hit his femoral artery.

“They were not sure he was gonna make it to the hospital,” Christine says, adding that the doctors now expect both victims to make a “pretty good recovery.” Wendy will need plastic surgery, and she will wear a leg brace for the rest of her life. Aguilar will need skin grafts. Between the two of them, they’ve had nine surgeries. In the initial days of the couple’s hospitalizations, Christine brought a cell phone so they could Facetime from separate hospitals. Now, the two are staying in nearby rooms, and Wendy is able to visit her husband in a wheelchair.

Gaus and Ota-Matthews say they’ve been unable to stop the same images from constantly replaying in their minds: escaping the inflatable jungle gym, running through the crowd of people, Gaus screaming at the realization she had been hit. “It was just the most terrifying place for us to be,” Ota-Matthews said.

The women struggled to understand the gunman’s motives, which federal authorities are now scrutinizing in a domestic terrorism investigation announced on Tuesday. Photos released of 19-year-old Legan seemed in sharp contrast to the memories of Gaus, who said she looked the shooter in the eye seconds before she realized what was happening.

“I remember looking at him and just like staring at him until he started rapid-firing. Shot once, pause, and then rapid fire,” Gaus said. “So I remember in between those few seconds just staring at him, and he was like a trained military professional.”

The women said neither of them have fully grasped how this will change their day-to-day life. Gaus was discharged from the hospital the night of the shooting but had barely left her house four days later.

“I sound really bleak and sad, but I hope that I feel a sense of general trust towards humanity—because right now, I really don’t,”  said Gaus. “I feel paranoid when I leave my house. I don’t know who I can trust. Even going to the grocery store, people are looking at me,  and you don’t know I’m a victim because my clothes cover my wounds and whatever. But it just feels really sickening to me every time I leave my house. So, I think someday, I hope to feel really positive, to have a positive outlook. But right now, it’s not really there.”

Neither Ota-Matthews nor Gaus have health insurance, but as of today, GoFundMe.com campaigns had raised $39,000 for Ota-Matthews and $15,000 for Gaus. 

Two other GoFundMe fundraisers for the Towner and Aguilar family had raised more than $95,000 combined, in addition to another by Mountain Bible Church. The family has felt positively overwhelmed by the wave of support.

Christine can’t forget when she first arrived at the hospital with Wendy’s 15-year-old daughter, their pulses racing and pumping with adrenaline. Wendy had a breathing mask over her face and was wrapped up in cords attached to machines. But as soon as the two of them saw Wendy, they felt a sense of relief wash over them.

“It’s one thing to have someone tell you that your family member’s alive,” Christine says. “It’s another to actually see them and physically touch them. That sense of relief that they’re actually OK—you don’t get that full effect until you can actually see for yourself.”

Gaus nor Ota-Matthews thanked the first-responders, doctors and medical staff who cared for them in the wake of the attack. (Photo by Jennifer Wadsworth)

2 Comments

  1. I hope the victims know that many, many people are sending healing, protective, loving thoughts and prayers to them in hopes that they will soon feel safer and regain their trust in humanity.

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