Shooting victims loved history, fitness, baking

September 8, 2011 - 3:35 AM
IHOP Shooting

Eduardo Sencion, 32, seen in a photo provided by the Carson City Sheriff's Office, is the suspect in a shooting rampage at an IHOP restaurant in Carson City, Nev., on Tuesday morning, Sept. 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Carson City Sheriff's Office)

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Before the breakfast-time massacre killed three National Guard members and sent tremors of fear through Nevada's state capital, Sgt. 1st Class Miranda McElhiney drew a happy face on a poster board outside her office door and wrote her last message to the world: "staff meeting. Will return by 11:00."

She never returned. What should have been a routine gathering over pancakes and eggs at an IHOP Tuesday morning ended in panic, terror and death when a gunman burst into the Carson City restaurant and released a blaze of bullets that struck every uniformed Guard member in the dining room. A patron was also killed before the attacker fatally shot himself in the head.

Among the four people killed by the gunman in the still-unexplained shooting was an Iraq War veteran who loved military history, a Navy crewman who had served in Afghanistan and a devoted grandmother who crocheted blankets for every pregnant woman in her life.

"This is unquestionably the most devastating attack in Carson City's history," Sheriff Kenny Furlong said on Wednesday. "Yesterday our town was shocked to the core."

Exactly what set the gunman, 32-year-old Eduardo Sencion, off — and whether the grocery store employee had some kind of grudge against the military — remained unclear. Family members told police that Sencion was mentally troubled, but he did not have a criminal history.

Along with 31-year-old McElhiney, the other victims killed in the shooting were: 38-year-old Sgt. 1st Class Christian Riege of Carson City; 35-year-old Major Heath Kelly of Reno; and 67-year-old Florence Donovan-Gunderson of South Lake Tahoe. Donovan-Gunderson was a civilian who was sitting near the Guard members when she was shot. Her husband, Wally Gunderson, was also shot and remained in the hospital late Wednesday, her daughter said.

For the victims' families, the uncertainty surrounding the mass killing amplified the pain of their loss.

"That's the worst part, not understanding, and that it was something beyond her control," said Cindy Dopf, the daughter of Donovan-Gunderson. "Just the wrong place at the wrong time."

Kelly's stepmother, Noretta Kelly, said she felt like his death was "unreal," given that he had survived a tour in Iraq, a childhood in the New Orleans area and had moved to a safer place.

"It's just kind of like — it wasn't right," she said.

Sencion's family members declined to speak with reporters. The doors were locked Wednesday at the family's Mi Pueblo market in South Lake Tahoe where he worked. Messages of condolences were left on a note taped on the front door: "In our prayers. Always keep love in your heart. Prayers with the families. In my thoughts."

Off to the right was a newsstand displaying the front page of the local newspaper with the banner headline "Tremendous Tragedy."

"He was a happy guy. He was always smiling," said Art Panchal, who runs a motel near the Sencion family market and often shopped there. "He would help people out."

Panchal said he was "totally surprised" by the news of the shooting.

"I don't know why he freaked out," Panchal said.

Sencion, who did not have a military record, had at least one previous encounter with the law. He was taken into protective health custody by South Lake Tahoe police in April 2000. He fought with officers during the incident but was not charged.

No court order was involved, said Lt. David Stevenson. He declined to release any other details because the Carson City shooting investigation remains active.

Witness accounts and 911 calls made from in and around the IHOP paint a frantic scene from the moment Sencion stepped out of his blue minivan with a "Support Our Troops" sticker on it and began firing into the restaurant parking lot just before 9 a.m. He continued his attack in the IHOP, where he aimed at each of the five Guards members gathered for their staff meeting at a table in the back of the restaurant.

"There's a shooting in the IHOP! Get there right now!" Ralph Swagler, owner of Local's BBQ next door, told 911 dispatchers as shots rang out in the background. "Now he's coming back out. He's shooting people in the parking lot! He's shooting at us now!"

Kathy Chaney, of Dayton, Nev., was just feet away from the National Guard members when the shooting began.

"I heard screaming. I heard glass shattering. I heard a woman moaning," she recalled. "...When I looked up I just saw debris flying, it was almost like in slow motion — like confetti."

Chaney said that as she huddled beneath the table, three men who work for a cable company took charge and started yelling for those inside to leave the restaurant through an emergency exit.

Sencion then returned to the parking lot, when he fired at several other businesses before shooting himself in the head.

In all, seven people were wounded in the attack. Their names were not released, but authorities said three of them were released from the Carson-Tahoe Hospital on Wednesday.

Maj. April Conway of the Nevada National Guard said one of the three released was a Guard member. That leaves one Guard member still hospitalized, along with three civilians.

The four victims killed in the attack were all described as men and women who actively served their communities. There are no known connections between the victims and Sencion.

Kelly was a decorated officer and avid student of military history who was known for his dry sense of humor. He was married with two kids.

Kelly's stepmother said he always wanted to be a soldier.

"That was his goal — he wanted to defend the United States," said Noretta Kelly of Terrytown, La.

Riege, an armor crewman, was known as a fitness buff. He served in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010.

Donovan-Gunderson was not in the military, but her husband was a retired U.S. Marine Corps member. They were at the IHOP because Donovan-Gunderson had a dentist appointment in Carson City Tuesday.

Donovan-Gunderson worked in the credit department of Harrah's Lake Tahoe casino for 10 years before she retired in 1999, casino spokesman John Packer said. Wally Gunderson was a security guard at the casino until 1998, Packer said.

Donovan-Gunderson's daughters recalled their mother as a giving person who made blankets for the elderly and chatted up everyone she met, especially pregnant women.

"The next thing you knew she would show up with a blue or pink blanket," Dopf said. "If she didn't know what they were having, she would make a green or yellow one."

It became such a signature trait that her grandchildren asked for the blankets she had made for them after learning of her death Wednesday.

"The first thing they said was, 'we will never go to Legoland with her again,'" Dopf said. "Everything she did was for the grandkids."

McElhiney, of Reno, was the youngest of those killed. She was an administrative sergeant who had been in the Guard for 13 years. She was remembered for baking birthday, wedding and graduation cakes for anyone who asked and mentoring young women entering the male-centric Guard.

McElhiney was "a fireball. She told you how it was. She didn't hold anything back," said Kaylee Rutledge, 18, a recent high school graduate scheduled to start Guard training next week.

Rudledge called and messaged McElhiney on Facebook after the shooting to make sure her friend was OK. When she didn't hear anything back, she knew something was wrong.

Rudledge said a Guard commander told her McElhiney was shot in the stomach and survived an initial surgery Tuesday morning. She appeared coherent and was talking to those around her. But after a second surgery, McElhiney faltered.

"I know she is proud of the way she passed because she was in uniform and everyone will know that she served her country well," Rutledge said.

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Associated Press writers Michelle Rindels, Oskar Garcia and Cristina Silva in Las Vegas and Scott Sonner in Carson City contributed to this report.