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25 Years Later: Memories of Luby's shooting fade but don't die

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Totaling about 700 double-sided pages in its permanent home in the record room at the Killeen Police Department is Case No. 91-030945 — the department’s only print testament of the sunny day in October 1991 that left a 25-year shadow over the city of Killeen.

Within those pages are dozens of interviews, testimonies, evidence release forms and autopsy reports centered on the 12 minutes in which George Hennard, 35, of Belton, rammed his blue 1987 Ford Ranger XLT pickup through the plate-glass window of a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen with hell in tow.

Hennard used two semiautomatic 9 mm pistols, a black Glock 17 and a stainless steel Ruger P89, to snatch the life from 22 people scattered around the Luby’s dining room and food service line. The 23rd and final victim succumbed to her wounds three days later. It was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history at that time.

Twenty five years removed from that day — Oct. 16, 1991 — few of the details of Hennard’s rage are not known.

The former merchant marine paced the building, shouting profanities at the female patrons in the restaurant, asking them, “B----, was it worth it?” and saying, “This is what the women of Bell County made me do.”

He took no hostages and made no attempt to escape, as if he planned to spend his last moments on Earth exacting revenge on his imagined tormentors.

After an exchange with police, Hennard put the Ruger P89 to his right temple and pulled the trigger.

It was over in 12 minutes — an eternity for those hiding silently under tables and chairs.

What the detailed case files won’t tell you is that 25 years later, the memory of the sorrows, victories and acts of heroism inside Luby’s that day have faded but not died.

This is the brief story of that day through the eyes of three men who survived it — and who lived with the memory of a gunman’s ruthlessness for the 25 long years that followed.

'IT JUST HAPPENED TO BE THAT DAY'

The Rev. Kirby Lack, of Trinity Worship Center in Copperas Cove, was settling into his seat at a two-person table near the window in Luby’s with his friend Michael Griffith, a veterinarian in Cove, just before 12:40 p.m. Oct. 16, 1991.

It was a beautiful mid-October day without a cloud in the sky and temperatures hovering in the high 80s. More than 100 lunch-hour customers packed Luby’s for National Bosses Day while Lack and Griffith made the rounds and exchanged greetings with friends and a group of seven ministers who were in the restaurant that day before taking their seats. They were soon engaged in a conversation about salvation — and death.

Griffith had recently sat at the death bed of a pastor in Cove who was concerned with the state of Griffith’s soul, he told Lack. Griffith was afraid that when he died no one but his wife and two kids would come to his funeral and mourn him.

“I just laughed at him and told him, ‘I’m your friend. I love you, and I’ll be there for you,’” Lack said. “He said, ‘OK, we’ve got four people.’ Those were our last words to each other.”

Across the restaurant, Tom Vaughn, a mechanic at the Brown-Eakin dealership, was joining eight of his co-workers for a birthday celebration. He was just getting through the food line so he could join his co-workers at a table in the corner at the far northeast end of the restaurant.

“It just happened to be that day,” Vaughn said. “I had just passed the dessert line — I turned out being the last one through.”

Killeen Police Department officer Al Morris was attending an auto-theft seminar at the Sheraton Hotel, now the Courtyard by Marriott, seconds from the restaurant, and stood in the lobby during his lunch break, watching the parking lot outside.

About 12:39 p.m., Lack looked out the window away from Griffith and noticed a blue pickup speeding past the Luby’s parking lot and suddenly careening left toward the restaurant.

“I got a look at him, and I saw his eyes, and they were huge,” Lack said. “It didn’t take a mathematician to know he was going to drive right through that window at a high speed.”

HENNARD'S ENTRANCE

Moments later, Hennard’s pickup sailed through the first window to the east of the restaurant’s entrance, just feet behind Lack and Griffith’s location, running over a table of diners and continuing to drive forward into another before coming to a stop.

Griffith, in an attempt to brace himself and stand, toppled the shared table and fell to the ground. Lack had stood up just before the truck came through the glass and ran toward the driver’s side of the truck, thinking the man driving could have been injured in the crash.

That was when he saw an arm extend through the driver’s side window with a gun in hand. The first shooting victim was a female cashier whom Hennard shot at close range.

Vaughn had seen the truck come through the window and was preparing to help the driver.

“I took maybe two steps when the first two shots went off, and I knew right off the bat it was shots,” Vaughn said.

Statements from witnesses when they first saw Hennard were tainted by trauma only hours after the shooting, according to case files.

Some said he was Hispanic, with red hair, or overweight. The clearest recollections were that he stood about 6 feet tall with a blue checkered shirt, sunglasses, dark-colored pants and feathered dark hair.

But everyone remembered the confusion — and then panic — when the gunshots continued.

THE MASSACRE BEGINS

Among the first shots fired were at Lack, who stood at the pickup’s bumper watching Hennard exit his vehicle and swing the gun toward him. Lack ducked out of the way as Hennard fired multiple times and dove under a table next to a friend of his, Lt. Col. Steven Dody, 43, who was retiring from the military that day, and a new recruit, John Romero Jr., 33, whom Dody was training.

Hennard turned his weapons on confused patrons at the serving line just inside the entrance to the west, popping off a seemingly endless stream of bullets. He then began to stalk the restaurant, singling out victims.

“You expect people to do more and say more, but it’s really quiet, really weird. You don’t expect it,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn ducked under a table with his co-workers and heard Hennard fire and reload two magazines of ammo. The restaurant had fallen silent as Hennard made his rounds. Vaughn held a hand to the dealership secretary’s mouth to prevent her from screaming and drawing the gunman’s attention.

“Somewhere in that third clip, we all realized ‘this is not good,’” Vaughn said.

As the gunman walked through the restaurant screaming abuse at the female patrons and putting bullet after bullet through victims’ foreheads, Vaughn decided to act.

“I said to myself, ‘It’s now or never, I’m not going to wait here,’” Vaughn said.

Standing 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighing 347 pounds, Vaughn tried to kick his way through one of the plate glass windows at the back of the restaurant. The sound of Vaughn hitting the window attracted the attention of Hennard, who plugged multiple shots into the wall next to the glass.

Vaughn, knowing that getting through the window was his last chance, stood up and threw his body at the glass. Luckily, the window shattered and dozens of patrons followed him through the hole.

“When I went through the window, I was trying to get myself out,” Vaughn said. “It was self-preservation. It was God’s intervention that made me 347 pounds at the time, gave me a way to get through the window.”

The first person Vaughn came across outside was a member of the fire department, which was responding to a shooting call.

“He asked me how bad it was, and I said, ‘It’s going to be bad,’” Vaughn said. “He said, ‘How bad?’ and I said ‘At least 15 or 16.’ He couldn’t believe it.”

'YOU COULD HAVE HEARD A MOUSE'

While Vaughn was making his escape, the restaurant remained quiet as patrons avoided Hennard’s attention.

“After the fifth or sixth bullet, you could have heard a mouse,” Lack said. “It just went stone quiet.”

Among those going silent was Lack, who was hiding under a table with Dody and Romero when Romero suddenly crawled out from under the table on his knees and looked up at Hennard.

Hennard promptly shot him in the chest.

Lack and Dody shifted over to Romero and held the hole in his upper chest to stanch the bleeding.

“I was suppressing his chest, trying to stop the bleeding and he was so calm,” Lack said. ‘He was lying with his arms straight to his sides, he crossed his feet, and he was just laying batting his eyes. He was peaceful.”

While the two men were tending to Romero, Hennard shot both Dody and Lack, striking Dody in the chest and severing his spine and hitting Lack in the back and thigh.

As Hennard approached, Dody yelled at the gunman to stop and leave them alone, and Hennard shot him just below his lip. Lack felt Dody’s last breath as Dody fell to floor right next to him.

The bullet that entered Lack’s back tore through his bladder and partially exited his torso. Lack, now laying on his stomach, decided to play dead.

As Lack laid silently on the floor, he felt Hennard walk and stand over him, his feet on either side of Lack’s thighs. He kicked Lack once, to see if he was alive. Lack didn’t move.

Instead of walking away, Hennard put one of his guns to the back of Lack’s head to finish him off.

“I felt the barrel as he pushed it right against me,” Lack said. “As he pushed, I literally said my last prayer, which was quick. I said, ‘God, if I die, I’m coming home,’ and that was it.”

HENNARD'S END

At the moment Hennard put his gun to Lack’s head, two police officers, Kenneth Olson and Chuck Longwell, entered the restaurant through the hole Hennard created, soon followed by Morris. Perhaps startled by the officers’ yells, Hennard pulled the trigger inches to the right of Lack’s head and the bullet went through the carpet next to his face.

“I thought I was dead. I open my eyes and looked — and I’m expecting to see Jesus — and there was nothing,” Lack said.

Hennard engaged the officers as he retreated to an alcove along the western wall leading to the restaurant’s bathroom.

Minutes before, Morris had noticed people running from the direction of the restaurant while he was in the hotel lobby. After a woman told him there was an active shooter in Luby’s, Morris retrieved his service weapon from his vehicle and ran west toward the shots. When he entered the restaurant, he immediately saw the gravity of the situation.

“I didn’t know how many exactly he had shot, but when I got in there I saw some of the people and knew they were gone,” Morris said. “Their faces were completely white, almost to the point that they looked like mannequins. There was just no blood in the faces.”

After the officers entered the restaurant and watched Hennard retreat to the bathroom alcove, Olson engaged Hennard from his position at the driver’s side of the pickup while Morris peeled off behind the truck, climbing over the dead and wounded to fire on Hennard from a clearer angle in the heart of the dining area.

“We were telling him to give up,” Morris said. “But he said ‘No, I’m going to kill more people.’”

In his final moments, Hennard had to shell out bullets from one clip to load into his weapon because he had dropped one of the pistols and the magazines weren’t compatible. The bullet that entered Hennard’s skull had been loaded by his own hand.

After 12 minutes of terror, Hennard lay dead in the bathroom alcove, his wide eyes staring at the ceiling above. Twenty-two of the dead lay scattered through the restaurant. Another 20 people were seriously injured.

Lack was pulled from the restaurant by paramedics once the scene was secured. Before he was dragged away, Lack crawled to his friend, Griffith, who had blood leaking from his head.

“His body was warm, but I tried to feel for a pulse and couldn’t feel a pulse,” Lack said. “I tried to shake him and yell at him, and there was no response. He was gone.”

25 YEARS LATER

Lack is still the pastor at Trinity Worship in Cove and a city councilman, and uses his experience and its aftermath to spread the message of God’s healing.

While in the hospital convalescing, Lack suffered from drug-induced nightmares, imagining the gunman had a cousin that was headed to Metroplex Hospital, where Lack was admitted, to finish the job. Exhausted by the drug regimen, Lack said he took matters into his own hands.

“I told my pastor friend to get his Bible, come to my bed and pray over me,” Lack said. “From that day, I’ve never had another nightmare. No bad dreams. I’m not afraid.”

Lack still returns to the site of the shooting, now a Chinese buffet restaurant in the original building, and sits near the spot where he was shot to remind himself that past doesn’t control him.

“Bad stuff happens to good people,” Lack said. “It’s not necessarily by design, but you have a choice.”

One of those choices, Lack says, is to become a concealed handgun license holder — one of the legal side-effects of the Luby’s shooting that has dramatically changed the state. Both Lack and Griffith had left their firearms in Lack’s car that day, and Lack believes that had he or someone in that restaurant had a weapon, many lives could have been saved.

Vaughn now owns his own body shop in Belton — Elite Autoworks — and has lost much of his 347 pounds after a recent gastric bypass surgery.

It’s not the only part of him that has changed.

“It changed me, things that you do every day came from it,” Vaughn said. “Not a day goes by where I don’t watch the people that come around me. Not in a scared way, but I just want to know what they’re doing. When I go to a restaurant, I just want to see who’s coming in and who’s going out. Out of second nature, I’ll look for ways to get out.

“It’s like going through a massive car wreck, if you walk away you count that as a blessing. You have to just take it and run with it.”

Morris retired from the Killeen Police Department in 2000 and does transportation contracting work from his home in Florence. He says the memory of the shooting always comes back around.

“I don’t think you’ll ever forget. Every time there’s a shooting at another location, you’ll always remember the Luby’s massacre,” Morris said. “It’s never going out of your mind. Every year when Oct. 16 comes up, you still remember like your birthday or anniversary.”

None of the three hold any ill will — just unanswered questions — toward the man who brought darkness to the city of Killeen.

“You really have to feel sorry for him because you have to ask ‘What was eating you up so bad inside that you had to go ahead and do that?’” Vaughn said.

“I don’t understand, but I don’t hate, I don’t dislike him — he means nothing to me. He killed my friends and ruined a lot of lives,” Lack said. “I don’t care what he was going through. Whatever he was going through, that’s not a good excuse for bad manners — and I think it goes beyond bad manners with him.”

Although 2½ decades have passed, Morris said that some survivors and family still struggle to cope with the tragedy of that day — but it’s time to let old wounds heal.

“It is honestly time to move on,” he said. “That ordeal is done. Hennard was taken care of, even by his own hand. I wish he had done it before he went in there, but they have to move on. Tomorrow’s always another day.”

kyleb@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7567

kyleb@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7567

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