It was several hours before Williams received the news she dreaded. She turned to her mother. “We need to go see Wendy,” she said. “She needs someone right now.”
Around that time, Thornton was busy leading a prayer vigil at Calvary. About 600 people had showed up, tense but still hopeful for good news. By the time Thornton realized Sparks was gone, the church’s executive pastor was already at the hospital, telling the young woman’s parents she was missing. Now he had to tell them she was dead.
By Thursday evening, everyone had heard the terrible story: A Marine Corps veteran, dressed in a black trenchcoat and a dark baseball cap, had walked toward Borderline Bar & Grill with a Glock .45-caliber handgun and shot the security guard. He then shot a 20-year-old woman at the cash register and fired into the crowd. According to survivor testimonies, patrons were momentarily confused, then scattered, screaming in utter chaos. They dropped to their knees, crawled under pool tables and stools, and ran and hid in the attic and restrooms. Bodies tripped over one another, bar stools crashed through windows, and limbs flailed as people scrambled out exit doors and windows.
By the time the gunshots stopped, 12 people were mortally wounded. The 13th was the gunman himself, reportedly killed by a self-inflicted wound. Two victims were military veterans. Two others were planning to enlist. One was 10 days away from his 21st birthday. Another had survived the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, but not this one.
Throughout the day, more details trickled out, giving personality to the 12 victims: A father’s fishing buddy; a proud owner of a new coffee shop; a music-loving freshman at Pepperdine University; a recent California Lutheran University graduate who reportedly died while saving others; a Borderline employee who had just bought her first car. The last victim, 54-year-old Ron Helus, was a 29-year veteran sergeant at the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office. As a first responder, he had charged the scene before the gunman shot him several times.
Jim Crews, the lead pastor of a new church plant in Thousand Oaks, was watching the news about the shooting when he saw a familiar face. “Hey, that’s my Starbucks buddy!” he realized. During his weekly Bible studies at a local Starbucks, Crews would regularly strike up conversations with local police officers: One of them was Helus.
For Crews, it all felt like déjà vu. This September, he launched Atmosphere Church at a golf course right across the street from Borderline. Eleven months earlier, Crews was pastoring another church in Las Vegas when the country’s deadliest mass shooting took place in that city. A member of his original church campus in Bakersfield, Calif., Bailey Schweitzer, was among the 58 concertgoers who died at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival.
Crews remembers hurrying to meet and comfort devastated parents. That first Sunday service after the tragedy, he saw many new faces in the pews, including survivors, hotel employees, performers, and an FBI investigator. The image of their ashen, shell-shocked faces never left his mind.
Now, here he was in supposedly one of the safest cities in the nation, again witnessing the same anguished faces.
On Thursday evening, Crews joined a prayer vigil at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, where people still walked around dazed. Groups from about 10 different local churches stood in prayer circles to pray for victims and survivors. As more people arrived, phones began buzzing with evacuation alerts about a wildfire that had broken out that afternoon. Soon, sirens and honks from ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars reverberated throughout the streets.
“In one day, it went from a sleepy town to the most chaotic city in America,” Crews said. As he drove home that night, he watched the early blazes of the Woolsey Fire soaring some 50 feet in the air: “It was like the apocalypse was happening.”
The community had little time to process the shooting. That evening and for days afterward, thousands of residents in Thousand Oaks and the surrounding areas evacuated their homes.
Williams was one of them. She had just returned from visiting Sparks’ mother at the hospital when she saw the fires fast approaching her house in Simi Valley. She grabbed her Bible; dragged her horses, chickens, and goats into a truck; and fled.