Stories of those who died in the mass shooting in California
Most of the 14 people killed at a holiday banquet in San Bernardino County, California, worked in the same county public health department as the man who showed up with his wife and sprayed the hall with gunfire.
An official list of the dead was released Thursday, and families, friends and co-workers came forward to share some of their stories:
NICHOLAS THALASINOS, 52
He identified as a Messianic Jew and passionately defended Israel, actively debating about religion in online forums and in person, his friends said.
Only two weeks ago, Thalasinos, of Colton, was having a heated on-the-job discussion about the nature of Islam with Syed Rizwan Farook, his fellow restaurant inspector and one of the shooters.
Thalasinos’ friend, Kuuleme Stephens, told The Associated Press that she happened to call him while he was working with Farook and that he brought her into their debate, loudly declaring that Farook “doesn’t agree that Islam is not a peaceful religion.”
She heard Farook counter that Americans don’t understand Islam, and Thalasinos responded by saying, “I don’t know how to talk with him,” she said.
Thalasinos’ wife, Jennifer, told the AP the two “probably did have debates” but “I never got the impression it was in a bad way.”
“It was more, you know, just having discussions about religion and faith,” she said.
She said she believes her husband died a martyr because of his faith but he never indicated that Syed had radicalized. She said she did not believe her husband was individually targeted.
“They all got along really well. So it’s shocking,” she said.
AURORA BANALES GODOY, 26
Godoy was married and the mother of an infant son, her aunt, Rebecca Godoy, said in Facebook post that linked to Godoy’s own page.
“Yesterday in the shootings in San Bernardino many families were affected. Ours was one of them,” Rebecca Godoy wrote. “We will keep her flame alive so that her young son does not forget his special mother.”
Cindy Quinones, a cousin of Godoy’s, said her husband was devastated by the death of his wife.
“I feel like numb. It hasn’t hit us yet. We’re still trying to make sense of all this,” Quinones said at a vigil held Thursday night in San Bernardino.
YVETTE VELASCO, 27
Velasco is being described by her family as smart, motivated and full of life.
In a statement, her relatives said she was “loved by all who knew her.”
“We are devastated about what happened and are still processing this nightmare,” the family said.
Velasco is survived by her parents and three sisters.
“Please pray for our family and the other families who have lost a loved one as a result of this terrible tragedy,” her relatives wrote.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Velasco’s relatives searched everywhere for her. Mindy Velasco, her aunt, called hospitals, police and evacuee centers in a harrowing search for information, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“I’m fearing the worst,” she told the paper. “She would definitely be in contact after something like this.”
Elizabeth Faron, a friend of Velasco’s from college, remembered her friend as “amazing, very sweet, friendly and affectionate.”
BENNETTA BETBADAL, 46
She was born in Iran in 1969 and came to the United States at age 18 to escape the persecution of Christians after the Iranian Revolution, according to a family statement on a fundraising account set up in her name.
Her cousin, Melani Betbadal, referred reporters to the statement and declined further comment.
She first settled in New York City but eventually moved to Rialto, California. She and her husband, a police officer, were married in 1997 and have three children ages 10, 12 and 15.
Betbadal graduated from California State Polytechnic University in Pomona with a degree in chemistry and took a job as a health inspector with San Bernardino County.
Her husband, Arlen Verdehyou, told The Daily Breeze that he and his wife exchanged texts at 8 a.m. Wednesday. He told her that he had withdrawn money from the bank and would do some Christmas shopping. Betbadal had recently decorated the family’s Christmas tree.
She was planning to give a presentation at the annual holiday meeting Wednesday and was excited about it, the family said.
“It is the ultimate irony that her life would be stolen from her that day by what appears to be the same type of extremism that she fled so many years ago,” the family said in the statement.
SIERRA CLAYBORN, 27
Her friends say she stood out as someone who always had an encouraging word.
Timothy J. Lee remembers meeting Clayborn in a hip-hop class at the University of California, Riverside. She was active and outgoing, praising classmates when they mastered a routine.
“She always had something encouraging to say,” Lee said.
After graduating in 2010, Clayborn worked jobs in retail and at a bank before landing a position at the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. Like a number of other victims, she inspected restaurants.
Matthew Peairs, 27, a manager at Red Baron Pizza in Big Bear Lake, California, said Clayborn visited the restaurant a day before the shooting to complete an inspection.
“She was one of the nicest health inspectors that we’ve ever had,” he said. “She talked to us like normal people, not just doing her job.”
He said they discussed their holiday plans and she mentioned she was going to the department’s Christmas party Wednesday.
“She was stoked about the party,” Peairs said.
Word spread Wednesday among Clayborn’s friends that she was missing. FBI agents later visited her family’s house to tell them that she was killed in the attack.
“It’s definitely going to be different without her,” Lee said.
ROBERT ADAMS, 40
The Yucaipa resident, who worked as an environmental health specialist for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, met his wife when they were teenagers and the two became high school sweethearts before eventually getting married.
Before the tragedy, they were planning their 20-month-old daughter’s first trip to Disneyland next week.
“Our worst fears were confirmed today: our beloved Robert will not be coming home to us. He was a loving son, brother, husband and daddy to Savannah,” his family said in a statement Thursday.
Adams loved his job and considered his colleagues family, the statement said. His wife, Summer, also worked for the county.
A fundraising page for Summer and their daughter has raised more than $25,000.
Megan Neforos, who set up the page, said she knew Adams’ wife through a Facebook group for mothers of young children.
“He was her high school sweetheart. This is tragic for her,” she said. “He was an incredibly loving father and devoted husband.”
LARRY DANIEL KAUFMAN, 42
The Rialto resident, who went by Daniel, ran an independently owned coffee shop inside the Inland Regional Center where the county health workers were using a hall for their holiday banquet. The shop’s workers included people with developmental disabilities, which can include epilepsy, autism and intellectual disabilities.
Friends remember Kaufman as a larger-than-life character who liked to dress up in homemade costumes for events like Comic Con, dance in parades and whose big smile could light up the room.
“He was super creative, charismatic, full of life and good cheer,” friend Greg Fox told The Associated Press.
Each spring, he participated in the Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Southern California. Sue Honor, director of the guild that Kaufman belonged to, remembers him dancing in countless parades.
“Some of the days would be hot and dusty, and he’d be dancing through the whole thing,” she said.
Fox remembers meeting Kaufman at an annual Los Angeles Comic Con for comic book and science fiction fans. Kaufman came dressed each day in an elaborate new costume and wore contact lenses that “made his eyes glow in a mystical shade,” Fox said.
Prior to the coffee shop, Kaufman worked at several bookstores, Honor said.
“He’s a people person, so he always wanted a job where he could interact with people,” she said.
MICHAEL RAYMOND WETZEL, 37
Friends and fellow church members appealed for help supporting his widow, Renee, a stay-at-home mom in Lake Arrowhead, California, and children.
“Michael was the most amazing person,” Renee Wetzel said in a statement, issued through her friend Celia Behar. The couple had five children from previous marriages and one child together.
“He was my best friend and an incredible father who was loved by all. I have never known a better person,” the statement said. “He loved his work and his family so very much. Without him, this family will never be the same. We appreciate all the love and support that everyone is showing.”
Behar runs a blog for mothers where Renee Wetzel frequently posted, and she turned there to ask for prayers shortly after learning that her husband, an environmental health supervisor, could have been attacked.
“My husband was in a meeting and a shooter came in. There are multiple people dead/shot. I can’t get a hold of him,” she wrote.
After last month’s deadly shootings in Paris, she posted a vacation photo on Facebook, overlain by the colors of the French flag.
After her husband’s death was confirmed, she posted a Bible passage: “When my heart is overwhelmed lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”
The Lil’ Mamas blog set up an online fundraiser for the Wetzel family on Thursday and quickly raised tens of thousands of dollars.
Church of the Woods also asked its members to pray for the extended family: “Please continue to pray for Renee, his children, and his former wife Amy as they process this terrible tragedy and loss of their husband and father,” the church said in a statement.
DAMIAN MEINS, 58
He was passionate about serving his community, a message he took from the priests at his Catholic high school in Riverside and carried throughout his life.
Meins never strayed far from his church or its teachings, said Walter Hackett, who met Meins some 40 years ago in high school.
“Service to others, helping others. He very much took that to heart,” Hackett said.
Hackett called his friend “a good, good guy.”
“Funny and smart and tall. A real quick smile, very friendly and outgoing,” he said. “It’s a real hard hit for all of us who knew him.”
Meins married his high school sweetheart, now a Catholic school principal, and they raised two daughters, one a teacher. Meins was fondly remembered as the guy who dressed up as Santa for school pictures, according to a parent’s social media posting Thursday.
Meins’ Facebook page, where he can be seen smiling with his family in front of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, says he studied business administration at the University of Redlands starting in 1991. In 1979, he graduated from UC Riverside. He was also retired from the Riverside County after working there for 28 years.
In addition to working in the public health department in San Bernardino, Meins was an extended care coordinator at St. Catherine of Alexandria School in Riverside, where he also helped kids create Christmas art projects and religious murals, Hackett said.
Meins received a community award for his work in Riverside, which was based on “compassion, courage, forgiveness, generosity, humility, inclusiveness, integrity, kindness, respect and service.”
A living Rosary for the Meins family was held Thursday.
SHANNON JOHNSON, 45
Johnson was the lone victim who lived in Los Angeles, commuting for more than an hour by train each morning to San Bernardino County, where he worked as a health inspector.
Girlfriend Mandy Pfifer said Shannon liked to finish all his paperwork on the train so he had extra time to chat with colleagues, including Farook.
“Shannon said it was like a little United Nations,” said Pfifer, a longtime member of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Crisis Response Team. “Shannon loved everybody.”
The mayor’s office said in a statement Thursday that “we have learned that one of our own ... is among those who lost their lives.”
Johnson grew up in Kentucky and Georgia and played baseball at a college in Georgia, said his ex-wife, Tina Johnson, who lives in South Carolina. She said they were married for six years in the 1990s.
He loved to watch sports and “had memorized all the stats,” she said.
He also loved to make people laugh.
“He had southern down-home type of humor,” Johnson said. “It was not dry wit.”
Pfifer said that on their last morning together, she woke up unexpectedly at 3 a.m., feeling the need to spend a couple extra hours with him.
“So that’s really special,” she said, breaking up. “That’s a really special memory.”
TIN NGUYEN, 31
Born in Vietnam, Nguyen was 8 when her family left that country for the United States. After attending Cal State Fullerton, Nguyen worked as a food inspector with the county health department.
On Thursday, some of the small businesses that she inspected posted condolences about Nguyen.
“It was such a pleasure to have her as our Inspector,” wrote Darla’s Cake Design. “Many food facilities are nervous when the Health Inspector shows up....but we always had a pleasant experience along with laughter.”
“Her heart was bigger than the sun and her personality was addicting,” wrote friend Kim Oanh on Facebook.
She was supposed to get married at a Catholic church in 2017, her family told media outlets, and had been planning the wedding alongside her mother.
The day before Nguyen was killed, she celebrated her fiance’s 32nd birthday.
ISAAC AMANIOS, 60
Isaac Amanios was a supervising environmental health specialist.
NFL player Nat Berhe wrote on Twitter that Amanios was a relative.
“My cousin’s name is Isaac Amanios and he was a great human being. Thoughts and prayers are with my family back in CA.”
Berhe, who is on the injured reserve list for the New York Giants, is from San Bernardino. He began tweeting about the shooting when it happened — and then discovered his cousin was a victim.
“Just got word that one of my cousins was among the 14 killed yesterday, I’m so sick right now.”
The LA Times wrote that Amanios is survived by his wife and three children.
Chris Nwadike, a worker with the San Bernardino Department of Public Health, told The Associated Press that of all the employees in the environmental division, Syed Rizwan Farook — one of the shooters — was the friendliest with Amanios.
Nwadike said Amanios was originally from Eritrea and that he and Farook sometimes spoke Arabic together. Syed’s Arabic was not very good, Nwadike said.
The two also frequently left the office together on their way to restaurant inspections.
HARRY BOWMAN, 46
Bowman, a lover of the outdoors who doted on his two daughters, had only recently been hired as a statistical analyst for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health.
For several years, he had been an expert on data sets and mapping for the University of Southern California’s National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events.
“He was a great guy, very friendly, always willing to help,” said Isaac Maya, the center’s director of research and transition, who recalled writing a glowing letter of recommendation when Bowman decided to change fields.
“We had a very nice lunch for him at the University Club” when he left, Maya said.
At the center he’d used his expertise in software, mapping and data sets to evaluate the risk and economic impact of terrorist events in order to guide authorities in their planning and decision making.
Bowman, who lived in Upton, was also a dedicated member of the Roman Catholic Church who frequently taught religious classes.
Much of the rest of his free time was spent hiking or visiting with his school-age daughters, whose college education he was saving for.
“This is a tragic loss for our family, much like it is for all families around the world who have experienced this kind of violence,” his family said in a statement. “There are no words that express our sadness in losing such a special person.”
Bowman was also a native of Pennsylvania, and that state’s governor, Tom Wolf, offered his condolences following what he called this “senseless violence.”
JUAN ESPINOZA, 50
Espinoza, of Highland, was remembered by a former co-worker.
Scott Wyatt met Espinoza about 10 years ago when Wyatt worked in a juvenile court teacher and Espinoza was a corrections officer.
“He was a simple guy, quiet, a person who didn’t like attention, just liked to do what he had to do,” said Wyatt. “This hits close to home.”
According to media reports, Espinoza was a health inspector with San Bernardino County.
A Mexican federal official said Espinoza was born in Mexico and emigrated to the United States more than 20 years ago. Mexican consular officials contacted Espinoza’s family anyway to offer assistance, but the family said none was needed at the moment. The official was not authorized to be quoted by name.
Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus in Anaheim, California; John Rogers in Los Angeles; Michael Kunzelman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Mark Stevenson in Mexico City; Amy Taxin in Colton, California; and news researchers Rhonda Shafner, Barbara Sambriski and Adriana Mark contributed to this story. Drew reported from Raleigh, North Carolina and Lush from St. Petersburg, Florida.