GILROY, Calif. (KION)
Gilroy Police Chief Scot Smithee was heading home the evening of July 28, 2019 when he heard a message come through on his police radio – "active shooter at the Gilroy Garlic Festival."
“Did I hear what I thought I heard? It is also disbelief,” Smithee tells KION in an interview one year after the tragedy.
Dozens of agencies quickly responded from all around the Central Coast and Bay Area. A massive search around Gilroy started as law enforcement tried to contain the scene and learn what just happened. While in the days after the shooting it was announced there was no second gunman that day at Christmas Hill Park, in the moments following the shooting Smithee says people were coming up to officers explaining the possibility of a second person involved.
“There were some differences that led to believe ‘maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s not’. But it is something we could not take likely. We had to make the assumption there could be another threat out there” Smithee says.
The threat at the Gilroy Garlic Festival was over in just 60 seconds. Three officers charged the lone gunman, shooting him, before the suspect turned the gun on himself.
But in those 60 seconds, unimaginable tragedy. More than a dozen people were wounded, many by gunfire, three of them were killed – Stephen Romero (6), Keyla Salazar (13) and Trevor Irby (25).
To this day, there is still no officially confirmed motive for why the shooter attacked the garlic festival. But it was known quickly that his social media posts showed signs of anger and hate.
“I think there is way too much negativity in the world. I think the online process that a lot of people use to communicate and get their information doesn't help that,” Smithee said.
However, Gilroy was strong. The slogan “GILROY STRONG” became a rally cry to mend the physical and emotional wounds, including for law enforcement officers. When asked about these acts of generosity towards law enforcement, including a young girl who delivered cookies just a few days after the shooting, Smith described how important these acts were.
"The emotion for our staff, especially the staff that were there and had to deal with this, was significant,” he said. “But to have those people show up and show that level of support, that was the greatest thing that could have possibly happened and start the road to recovery.”
Vigils quickly turned to rallies and concerts. Gilroy’s Mayor announced on Tuesday that $1.9 million has been raised for victims of the shooting. "Gilroy Strong" merchandise is still seen in local store windows.
“I think the community has come together like you can’t even imagine,” Smithee says.
The 2020 Gilroy Garlic Festival was supposed to be this past weekend. The COVID-19 pandemic means we’re getting this sign instead - “we look forward to 2021.”
“I think we were all looking forward to being able to do another garlic festival this year,” Smithee said. “I think it would have been a bit steps towards healing, being out there and having a positive experience. So it’s hard. I believe a year from now we will be ready to host it again.”