Special Reports

Top story of 2006: Tragic shooting at Pismo Denny's still feels unreal

Police officers make entry into a Denny's restaurant in Pismo Beach, Calif.,  Wednesday, March 15, 2006 following a shooting inside the restaurant. (AP  Photo/Michael A. Mariant)
Police officers make entry into a Denny's restaurant in Pismo Beach, Calif., Wednesday, March 15, 2006 following a shooting inside the restaurant. (AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant) AP

Editor's note: Here is the story Tribune staff chose as the biggest story of the year in 2006. The article, originally published on Jan. 1, 2007, is reprinted below.

The harrowing March 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.

But 10 months later the pain and shock live on.

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, 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.

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

'Together, we can do this'

Valesquez's family members rely on each other to get through each day.

His death left his wife, La Vina, 72, on her own for the first time in decades. The family visits her often — driving her to see the ocean, to eat lunch and to place flowers at her husband's grave.

Five-year-old Alexis, who watched her great-grandfather die, and Allyssa, another great granddaughter, named stars in the sky for Valesquez. When times are tough, they look up to sky and know he is with them, said grandson John Tanner.

"Both the girls still talk about him every day," he said. "Everything is about grandpa."

The holidays are hard. For the first time in 30 years, Christmas cards arrived addressed only to La Vina. But the family continues to pull through.

"My grandma says she can't believe such a good person's life was cut so short," Tanner said. "It is hard for her to believe that he is gone, but she is strong. Together, we can do this."

Community pulls together

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

"This is a strange and unusual crime for our city," said Police Chief Joe Cortez. "Why did it happen? What caused him to go there? We have no idea."

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.

Community members reached out to employees.

And after the restaurant was closed for several weeks after the shooting for remodeling, many of the regulars have returned and sales are steadily increasing, Atkins said.

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.

Special place for a hero

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, and some residents hope the park is named after him.

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.

Final approval is expected within a few months. Because the Lucia Mar school district owns the park, the school board will review the design in January, and the city council will review it in February.

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."