Drawn to Las Vegas for the Music, Victims’ Retreat Turned Into a Trap – New York Times

The weekend was perfect for an escape. It was Las Vegas, the poster city for getting away, and a dazzling lineup of entertainment beckoned, a three-day country music festival known as Route 91.

For the devoted, there was no other place to be last weekend, and they came from all over. They flew in from Toronto and Tennessee. They drove from New Mexico and California. Some had talked about the trip for months, counting down to it on their Facebook pages and gloating to friends about their plans.

In the final hours of the festival late Sunday night, the thousands who had journeyed to the Las Vegas stage suddenly found themselves under fire — a weekend retreat turned into a trap. At least 58 people on the festival grounds were killed.

The victims were co-workers who did not know one another well, but had bonded over their love of country music. They were teachers, city employees, an off-duty police officer. They were childhood friends who had reunited for the concert and a mother of two who wanted to take a romantic weekend trip with her husband, leaving the children behind with their grandparents.

One woman who was killed, Michelle Vo of the Los Angeles area, had recently ended a relationship and moved into her own apartment, reaching for independence, a friend said. She had taken up paddle boarding and golf; the weekend in Las Vegas was spent meeting new friends.

“She was just starting her life,” said a close friend, Casey Lubin, 32, a banker. “That’s why I don’t understand how this could happen.”

For some, the weekend in Las Vegas was both ritual and reward. Adrian Murfitt, a 35-year-old from Anchorage, had just spent a grueling summer working as a commercial fisherman. He had fond memories of attending the Route 91 festival last year, so he booked another trip to Las Vegas to congratulate himself for a summer’s work well done.

“He had such a great time when he went before, and he wanted to treat himself for a successful fishing season,” said his sister, Shannon Gothard.

For one couple, the Route 91 festival was a way of making amends. Chris Muniz of Gallup, N.M., forgot his wedding anniversary last year and decided to make it up to his wife, Lisa Romero-Muniz, with a road trip to Las Vegas. She was overjoyed, taking Friday and Monday off work for the long weekend, said Rosie Fernandez, her friend and supervisor at the high school where they worked.

“She was beyond excited,” Ms. Fernandez said. “For her husband to remember her anniversary and do all of that, this was a big thing for her.”

The authorities have not yet identified all of the people who perished, but with 58 dead and about 500 others injured, the mass shooting on Sunday was one of the deadliest in American history. The notion that many had waited with such anticipation for the weekend — saving up extra money and days off from work to make it happen — made those memories all the more painful for grieving relatives.

Susan Smith, 53, got permission to take Monday off from her job as an office manager at an elementary school in Simi Valley, Calif., so that she could stay up late at the concert Sunday night with her friends. By Tuesday, students there were wearing red, white and blue to school in Ms. Smith’s memory.

Cameron Robinson, 28, had taken Monday off from his job as a management analyst for the city of Las Vegas to attend the festival with his boyfriend, Bobby Eardley.

The creator of a smartphone app that eased navigation for attendees of the city government’s annual conferences, Mr. Robinson was a frequent volunteer at city events, and had been given a promotion last summer, according to Brad Jerbic, the city attorney and a family friend.

“That’s what he wanted most that weekend, to be with his boyfriend and to listen to country music,” Mr. Jerbic said.

Mr. Robinson was shot in the neck, Mr. Jerbic said. He died shortly after 10 p.m. on Sunday night, in Mr. Eardley’s arms.

Photo

Top row, from left: Sonny Melton, Susan Smith, Jordan McIldoon, Jessica Klymchuk, Rachael Parker.
Middle row, from left: Sandy Casey, Quinton Robbins, Lisa Romero-Muniz, Adrian Murfitt, Hannah Ahlers.
Bottom row, from left: Jennifer Parks, Heather Alvarado, Jack Beaton, Stacee Etcheber, Melissa Ramirez.

The police in Las Vegas said there was no pattern to where the people who were fatally shot had been standing on the festival grounds when the gunfire broke out. To some survivors, there seemed to be a chilling randomness to where the shots fell. Nowhere seemed safe or certain.

Brian MacKinnon, a friend of Mr. Murfitt’s, was standing next to him when Mr. Murfitt was struck by a bullet. Another woman within arm’s reach was shot in the head. Mr. MacKinnon escaped unharmed.

“Sadly, he died in my arms,” Mr. MacKinnon wrote on Facebook. “I don’t really know what else to say at this time. I’m really sorry.”

Jennifer Parks, 35, a kindergarten teacher and mother of two from Lancaster, Calif., was at the festival with her husband, Bobby. As children growing up in California, they were always together, so close that their names seemed to run together into one: Jenny-and-Bobby.

“I guess she always had a little crush on him,” said Ms. Parks’s aunt, Rhonda Boyle.

They were together on Sunday night in Las Vegas, when the shots began at the Jason Aldean concert. Mr. Parks was wounded in the arm and a finger, her family said. Ms. Parks was killed.

In the hours after the shooting, several of those who survived credited the quick actions of their loved ones. In the chaos of the sudden, unending shots, people had rushed to try to help spouses, friends, even strangers.

Before he was killed, Jack Beaton, of Bakersfield, Calif., shielded his wife, Laurie, from gunfire, his family said. His father-in-law, Jerry Cook, told BakersfieldNow.com that Mr. Beaton had covered his wife’s body with his own, and was shot himself. “He told her he loved her,” Mr. Cook said. “Laurie could tell he was slipping. She told him she loved him and she would see him in heaven.”

Mr. Beaton’s son, Jake, paid tribute to his father on Facebook. “Lost my best friend,” he wrote. “I love you so much more than you could ever imagine. Please watch over our family. You will forever be remembered as our hero!”

When Sonny Melton, 29, and his wife, Heather Gulish Melton, heard the sound of gunshots in Las Vegas on Sunday night, he grabbed her and began to run, trying to shield her from the shots.

“I felt him get shot in the back,” Ms. Gulish Melton told WCYB, a television station in northeast Tennessee. “I want everyone to know what a kindhearted, loving man he was, but at this point, I can barely breathe.”

Concertgoers had to make split-second decisions. Run or drop to the ground? Call for help or wait for it to end?

After a first round of shots, Stacee Etcheber’s husband, Vincent, told her to run, he recalled to family members. An off-duty officer with the San Francisco Police Department, he stayed behind to try to help.

Then a second round came. Ms. Etcheber, 50, a hairdresser, was killed.

When the shooting began, the three-day festival was winding down. Some people had already packed up for the weekend. The concert starring Jason Aldean was a last hurrah, the big act of the final night.

Jordan McIldoon, 23, a mechanic from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, was there with his girlfriend. His parents said they had expected him to fly home on Monday; instead, they flew to Las Vegas to identify his body.

The family of one victim, Kurt Von Tillow, 55, memorialized him with the patriotism that he and many at the concert shared. Mr. Von Tillow was “the most patriotic person you’ve ever met,” his brother-in-law, Mark Carson, told KCRA, a local NBC News station for Cameron Park, Calif., the small town in the Sierra foothills near Sacramento where Mr. Von Tillow lived.

On Monday, friends and family gathered at the Cameron Park Country Club, where Mr. Von Tillow was a member. At his home, family members set up a memorial with an American flag and played the national anthem.

“Guarantee you, he’s covered in red, white and blue right now, with a Coors Light in his hand, smiling with his family and listening to some music,” Mr. Carson said.


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