Gilroy Dispatch reporter Jaqueline McCool was the first reporter given escorted access to the scene of the July 28 mass shooting at Christmas Hill Park, which is still closed to the public. Here is her account of that somber visit.
It’s been a month since FBI agents swarmed the scene of the Gilroy Garlic Festival at the city’s Christmas Hill Park.
The park, like the city, is still healing.
The final day of the festival ended in tragedy when a shooter opened fire on the crowd with a semi-automatic weapon, killing Stephen Romero, 6, Keyla Salazar, 13, and Trevor Irby, 25. Thirteen others were injured by the shooter, who fired 39 times before turning his AR-15 on himself in the midst of a shootout with police.
Christmas Hill Park is a crown jewel for Gilroy: the site for youth soccer games, a place where Gilroy parents pick up their kids after school, and the home, for four decades, of the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival. The 52-acre park has been closed to the public since July 28.
Private security officers protect the entrance at Miller Avenue this week to ensure that only city maintenance vehicles are admitted.
Two make-shift memorials sit on either side of the street at the Uvas Creek levee and jogging/bicycle path. Flowers that had been left at the two memorials after the shooting have wilted and some of the signs have blown away, but teddy bears and messages of “Gilroy Strong” still remain.
City staff gave the Gilroy Dispatch a guided walk-through of the park Aug. 22.
Walking into the site from Miller Avenue, the street is vacant. A month ago it was jammed with tens of thousands of visitors walking through security checkpoints. Then for a couple of weeks, dozens of police vehicles lined both sides of the route. The only vehicles in the site have a “City of Gilroy” logo, with a truck bed full of leaves and other natural debris.
There is a large pile of grass seed at what was the entrance to Gourmet Alley, a long line of tents where schools, churches and restaurants offered assorted garlic-based foods.
At the northwest corner of the park, where police say Santino Legan stood, carrying a semi-automatic rifle and a backpack with high-capacity magazines, all is quiet.
Where the inflatable obstacle course was erected, there is nothing but a large patch of brown grass.
City staff isn’t sure exactly where the shooter had entered, but the police are fairly certain that the piece of the fence Legan had cut through was taken as evidence by the FBI.
Now, a section of fence near Uvas Creek has been covered with new fencing.
The only view from where the shooter stood that day is of a tractor poking small holes in the ground for the grass seed. The field that had been filled with families, with a lemonade stand in the center, is empty and dusty.
After the FBI concluded its search for evidence, and vendors and attendees of the festival collected leftover belongings, the City of Gilroy regained control of the park grounds and continues to keep it closed as crews methodically rake, seed, top-dress and sod large sections of the park.
The site typically undergoes some kind of restoration following the festival, but officials say this year’s work is more extensive because it was delayed.
The grass is typically brown following the long festival weekend, but a month without water left the grass dry and the park resembling a wasteland. New seed is being planted so grass can regrow, though portions of the park remain brown, a grim reminder that healing and new growth will take time.
The city offered no timeline for a reopening of the park.