L.A. Jews in disbelief

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LOS ANGELES — The sound of gunshots came first and then a 16-year-old counselor, her leg wounded and dripping blood, came running into the classroom at the North Valley Jewish Community Center.

Carli Morgenstern, a 17-year-old counselor helping to oversee 14 kindergartners and first-graders in the room, was caught completely unprepared.

She had never received training on how to handle an emergency. In her time at the center, there had never even been a fire drill.

"I never thought about security or that we didn't have a security guard,"Morgenstern said. "It never bothered me. This is such a friendly place."

That atmosphere, however, was shattered Tuesday morning when Buford Oneal Furrow allegedly burst into the lobby of the Granada Hills center and fired some 70 shots from a 9-millimeter automatic weapon.

He reportedly calling his actions "a wake-up call to America to kill Jews" upon his arrest Wednesday morning in Las Vegas.

Five people at the center were injured — including a 5-year-old boy who was severely wounded. Also hurt were a 68-year-old woman, the 16-year-old counselor and two 6-year-olds.

During his flight from police, Furrow, 37, also allegedly shot to death a 39-year-old postal worker near the community center.

While he wasn't able to meet his goal of killing Jews, Furrow did indeed sound a wake-up call, prompting responses nationwide and causing Jewish institutions across America to reevaluate their security.

Responding to security fears, the United Jewish Communities and the Anti-Defamation League formed an alliance on Wednesday to spread security awareness, especially as the High Holy Days and the Jewish school year near. In the coming weeks, the groups will open a security hotline and will post the ADL's security handbook on the Internet.

Nowhere was Furrow's "call" more loudly heard, however, than in the North Valley JCC.

The incident began around 10:45 a.m. According to various news sources, a middle-aged man entered the building and without a word began shooting, wounding first the receptionist, Isabelle Shalometh, 68, who was grazed by bullets as she was making a phone call. The gunman continued shooting as he walked down a short hallway. He then fled into an area behind the center.

Morgenstern, in the classroom as the shooting was taking place, said that after the injured counselor ran in, she and two other counselors in the room frantically gathered the kids together. Together, they ran to the center's parking lot and then across the street before heading for the convalescent home next door.

Within minutes of the shooting, news of the incident shot over phone lines and television sets, into living rooms and cars stuck in traffic and through corridors of offices where parents had been working secure and unknowing.

One of those parents, Robert Goldberg, had been about to head out the door to his job when his wife called him. He ran out to his car and took the fastest route he could, listening to the radio and trying not to panic as he thought about his daughter, Jessica. He arrived in time to hear police announce that the parents of all the children with injuries had already been notified and were being taken to area hospitals.

Goldberg said the experience was "very frightening."

"My first reaction [after the announcement] was relief, but then I started thinking, my God, my child is safe but there are five people with gunshots in them," he said.

Goldberg said Jessica, 9, had been attending programs through North Valley for almost a year. His wife, Susan, said she had never heard of any threats against the North Valley center.

"It's a shame. This has been like a home to her," said Susan Goldberg. "But if this is religiously motivated I'm not going to keep her here. I'm the daughter of survivors and we cannot afford to forget we need to keep our guard up."

The atmosphere at the scene, that of a deranged carnival, did little to quell loved ones' fears.

Cameras and news trucks crowded the barricaded street. Reporters outnumbered anxious parents three to one. News helicopters crowded the sky, making it impossible to hear police and fire officials' constantly changing announcements. Even the police were overwhelmed, both by the response to the tragedy and by their increasingly desperate attempts to locate the shooter.

Police officers, after putting their weapons in their holsters following a search of the JCC campus, led a chain of children holding hands across a six-lane road, followed by staff members carrying younger children.

Meanwhile, inside a church where the children had been moved by police, Morgenstern and the other counselors attempted to keep their young charges occupied.

"The kids really didn't know what was going on," she said. "We told them it was bad people making a lot of noise and that seemed to satisfy them. And then the police came and brought crayons and markers and then we ate lunch and watched TV."

By a strange and fortunate twist of fate, about 22 of the 300 campers were away on a field trip to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles that day. Another group of campers were also on a field trip; the trip was later diverted to a local park after word of the shootings reached organizers of the trip.

Help from area agencies streamed into the North Valley.

Ellen Wolsky, a social worker with Jewish Big Brothers who counseled children after the Northridge Earthquake, arrived at the scene Tuesday with co-workers to offer support for the children and their parents.

"I think most of the kids were very traumatized by the events today and we can also expect to see reactions down the line," she said. "Frankly, though, when I was thinking of coming today it was for the parents. I saw them on the news and some of them were quite hysterical — not that I blame them."

Despite a massive manhunt — police were at the scene within four minutes of the shooting — Furrow managed to escape.

He carjacked a car shortly after the shooting, and then took two cabs to Las Vegas. The chase ended Wednesday only because Furrow turned himself into FBI officials in Las Vegas. The Associated Press reported that Furrow walked into the office and said simply, "You're looking for me, I killed the kids in Los Angeles."

While officials were at first reluctant to classify the shooting as a hate crime, Furrow's statement combined with background information seemed to indicate it was.

"There is no doubt about it that this is now a hate crime," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, according to AP.

The Associated Press also reported that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which maintains a database of white supremacists, has information that Furrow belonged to Aryan Nations in 1995.

"I have a picture of him, Furrow, in a Nazi outfit," said Mark Potok of the Alabama-based center.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center said a book written by a former member of the American Nazi Party was found in a van believed to have been used by Furrow. The van also contained large amounts of ammunition and other weapons.

Furrow is a resident of Olympia, Wash. According to newspapers in the area and wire service reports, he had lived with Debbie Mathews, widow of Robert J. Mathews, founder of the hate group called the Order.

Mathews was killed in 1984, when his hideout caught fire during a shootout with federal agents.

Twenty-two Order members have been accused of numerous crimes, among them the 1984 murder of Alan Berg, a Jewish talk-show host in Denver.

According to Reuters news service, Furrow has a history of psychological problems. Court papers obtained by Reuters indicated that Furrow recently spent about 5 1/2 months in prison in Washington state for threatening a psychiatric worker with a knife. The court papers quoted him as telling police that he sometimes had fantasies of going on a shooting rampage.

"Sometimes I feel like I could just lose it and kill people," Furrow told a King County sheriff's deputy in Washington after his arrest last year, Reuters reported. He told hospital staff members he had been feeling suicidal and thought of shooting people at a mall.

Tuesday's shooting comes on the heels of two other attacks that have shaken Jews across the nation.

On June 18, arsonists set fire to three Sacramento-area synagogues. Two weeks later, a gunman near Chicago injured six Jews during a deadly shooting spree aimed at minorities.

After Tuesday's attack, the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America immediately put out an action alert to the 275 centers, urging them to beef up security and contact their local law enforcement authorities.

In Denver, New Orleans, Boston, the District of Columbia and communities in New York, Maryland and Michigan, security was immediately heightened. Also, at the Maccabi Games in Columbus, Ohio, extra security was brought in to oversee the events.

In Sacramento, where the FBI is still investigating the June arson attacks, the Associated Press reported that the Shalom School — which itself was a victim of arson in March of last year — combined its classes into one and locked the classroom door Tuesday. Police also stationed a car outside, and the school hired extra security.

Jeff Rouss, executive director of the North Valley JCC, released an announcement stating security at each of the Jewish Community Center sites in the Los Angeles area had been stepped up. In an interview, he said, "We had no reason to think that something like this could happen. We had no indications."

But the official announcement made little difference to the victims or witnesses of the shooting. Home safe with her parents Tuesday night, Morgenstern, the 17-year-old counselor, said she was still scared.

"I heard them say on the news the camp is open tomorrow, but I'm not going," she said in a low voice. "I don't want to go back."