Harold Hatley and Frank Velasquez: Killed at a Pismo Beach Denny's in 2006

Harold Hatley
Harold Hatley

The harrowing March 2006 shooting rampage at Denny's in Pismo Beach -- which left two South County residents and the gunman dead and two others injured -- ended in a matter of minutes.

The families of those killed, Harold Hatley and Frank Valesquez, both of Grover Beach, and residents of the small coastal towns continue to grapple with what is now remembered as one of the bloodiest public shooting sprees in San Luis Obispo County history.

"It still doesn't feel real sometimes," said Hatley's daughter, Sharie Serrano. "We try to put it behind us, but that is impossible."

Shortly after noon March 15, 2006, a homeless man named Lawrence Edward Woods walked into the restaurant, muttering and looking dazed, and began shooting.

Valesquez, 64, was shot within seconds and died in front of his wife and great-granddaughter. His death left his wife, La Vina, 72, on her own for the first time in decades.

Hatley, 72, was killed while trying to wrestle Woods to the floor. Woods then turned the gun on himself.

Despite a lengthy investigation and an exhaustive background check, the Pismo Beach Police Department was unable to determine what spurred Woods to action.

Former neighbors of Woods told stories of harassment, threats and unstable behavior. A surveillance tape, which captured the entire scene as it unveiled, showed that Woods was focused solely on men. A Louis L'Amour book found in Woods car was opened to a shootout scene.

But nothing could determine exactly what caused 60-year-old Woods to walk into the restaurant and open fire.

Sgt. Jake Miller was one of the first officers to arrive. He was walking out the back door of the police station to go to lunch when the first 911 call came through.

"Over the radio we heard someone shooting inside and screams," Miller said.

There was little that could be done.

"When you get there and see something like that, you say, 'If I could have just been there 10 seconds earlier,' 'If I had just had lunch there,' " he said.

"You ask yourself what more you could have done to prevent something like this."

But there is a positive side, Miller said. "Knowing that something this sinister can happen, it is important to realize that we as a community can pull together."

Indeed, the tragedy brought Denny's and the local community closer, said Debbie Atkins, director of public relations for the company.

After the restaurant was closed for several weeks after the shooting for remodeling, many of the regulars returned.

Hundreds of people attended the funerals of both victims. The families were showered with cards, flowers and words of condolence. Family members say that support helped ease the pain.

Harold Hatley was honored by the Grover Beach City Council for his heroic actions. The Grover Beach Parks and Recreation Department is working to place a memorial bench and plaque in Grover Heights Park.

The memorial, designed by San Luis Obispo landscape architect David Foote, is a flagstone monument that will be placed in the center of the park.

Hatley, who lived two blocks from the park, often walked there with his granddaughter to play.

"Having a memorial at the park for his grandchildren to visit will make it a very special place for our family," said Serrano, Hatley's daughter.

"My dad could have been the first one out of there but he stayed," she said. "He would do it again if he had the chance. I never thought of him as a hero -- he was always just my dad.

"But now, he is definitely a hero in my eyes. I am proud of what he did."