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Odessa Reflects On The First Anniversary Of The August 31st Mass Shooting

By Mitch Borden

A year ago today, a man drove through Odessa, firing an assault-style rifle in an extended rampage that killed seven people and injured at least 25 others. 

Now locals are left to wrestle with their memories of the tragedy as the community figures out how to move forward and heal.

Odessa was held hostage for about an hour as a lone gunman drove through the city, targeting people seemingly at random.

The gunman, Seth Ator,  tore through the city’s streets as he aimed his rifle at pedestrians and drivers alike. His rampage lasted 64 minutes, beginning in the outskirts of Midland at a traffic stop where he opened fire on police before taking off towards Odessa. The shooting came to an end when he was killed by police in a shootout outside a local movie theater. 

The 36-year-old oil field worker had a history of mental illness and lost his job earlier that day. Previously, a judge had barred him from purchasing or owning firearms because of his mental state. Ator had also failed a background check when attempting to purchase a firearm from a licensed dealer in 2014. But he was able to purchase the assault-style rifle he used in the Odessa shooting through a private seller. In Texas, private gun sellers are not required to run background checks.

Two of the people killed that day were Joseph Griffith and Leilah Hernandez. Their families are now suing both the man believed to have sold a rifle to the Odessa gunman and a company that manufactures gun parts. They are seeking over $1 million in damages.

Carla Byrne, Joseph Griffith’s older sister, told the press that this lawsuit is about taking action to curb gun violence. A year since the shooting, she said nothing’s been done to prevent a future gunman from getting their hands on firearms like the one used in Odessa. She said her family and the Hernandez family felt they needed to do something. 

“My brother had a life that was stolen from him. But, I know with 100% certainty that I cannot sit idly by and just be sad,” Byrne declared before filing the lawsuit. 

She wants the lawsuit to push lawmakers to pass legislation requiring background checks on all firearm sales. She also believes the man who allegedly sold the rifle to the gunman bears some responsibility for the mass shooting and wants to hold him accountable. 

“We refuse to sit back while unlicensed gun sellers sell guns to people like Seth Ator,” Byrne said, “who come to them with a long history of criminal behavior and mental illness.”

The gunman not only killed Byrne’s brother, Joseph Griffith, while he was driving with his wife and kids, Ator also shot Hernandez, a 15-year-old girl who was out shopping for a new car with her family. He also carjacked and killed a postal worker, while she was on the phone with her twin sister.

During the shooting and in the hours directly following, Michele Racca, Odessa’s director of public safety communication, tracked the gunman’s attacks. 

“August 31st. You know, that date is etched into my mind,” said Racca. 

Racca’s dispatchers picked up all of Odessa’s 911 calls that day. Around 1,100 ended up coming in, many with people desperately pleading for help on the other end of the line. 

Over the last year, according to Racca, her staff hasn’t really talked about the mass shooting because “It’s still an open wound.” 

Many locals said it took a long time to regain their sense of security. For weeks and even months, just getting into a car to run an errand felt dangerous. 

Odessa Police Chief Mike Gerke describes the shooting as “absolutely random and senseless.”   There was no clear reason ever found that could explain the violence committed by the gunman. The inexplicable senselessness Gerke believes was what  “really shook this community to the core.”

He explained, “You ask why? Whoever did anything to this guy to create this and really there’s not an answer.”

The shooting has never left his mind over the last year. As the anniversary approached, Gerke described the memories of the day as growing heavier.  

Gerke is confident that a year on from the shooting, Odessa is safer. 

But he also admitted, “It probably could happen again. Do we have processes and things in place get to [a shooter] quicker — hopefully, yes.”

Odessans are reacting to the first anniversary in different ways. To some, it seems like the shooting just happened, while for others that day feels far away.  For Reverend Dawn Weaks, the past year has felt like moving through molasses, so to her, it seems like the shooting happened “one million years ago.” 

On the day it happened, she was comforting families as they waited at an Odessa hospital for news about their loved ones’ conditions. She remembers some family members still had blood on their clothing. 

Weaks explained that, in her experience, the first year after a traumatic event is just about getting through birthdays, anniversaries, and making it to the second year.

“In my experience with grief, the second year is the year when healing begins,” she said

On this somber anniversary, Weaks joined with other faith leaders to organize a drive-in service tonight to remember the shooting. Weaks believes despite the pandemic it’s important for the community to come together. 

“To learn from it,” she said, “To ring some kind of goodness and neighborliness and peace that wasn’t there before because we’ve gone through this together.”

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.