Advertisement

Mass murderer: 'always very sad and very lonely'

By
BILL CARDOSO

SAN DIEGO -- One day last winter, James Huberty nonchalantly approached a police officer in San Ysidro, the dusty, southernmost outpost of this sprawling city, and proclaimed himself a war criminal.

This, according to his wife, was about the time he began 'hearing voices and seemed to be talking to people who were not there.'

Advertisement

It was the time, in her words, when 'he became obsessed with ideas about war.'

And it spelled a frightful early warning system to what on July 18, 1984, would became a colossal mental breakdown and make Huberty the most nefarious name on America's rapidly lengthening roster of mass murderers.

After representing himself as a war criminal, this man who had never seen a moment of military combat climbed into the back seat of the police car and was driven away.

'I tried to follow in our car, but could not keep up,' said Etna Huberty, his wife of 20 years.

So she returned to their apartment to await the call from the police.

'Instead, an hour or so later, my husband knocked at the door.' He told his wife he had been taken to the federal building at the Tijuana border, interviewed, set free, and had walked two miles back to their Cottonwood Street apartment.

Advertisement

Six months later -- too late for his victims -- the police call came.

James Huberty had indiscriminantly sprayed at least 140 rounds of 9mm slugs at anything that moved inside or outside a McDonald's restaurant popular with Mexican visitors and American residents.

The night before, he told Etna he had been praying.

'He told me God was 10 feet tall and had a long, gray beard,' she recalled. 'He said something about Christ, like he's not as tall as you think he is, or something.'

On that same eve before he would slay 21 innocents, the Hubertys sat on a sofa in their $450 a month two-bedroom apartment and watched a television rerun of 'The Pink Panther.'

'He had been very, very nice -- he even brought some muffins he had toasted,' she said. After the movie, her husband sat in his favorite chair with his eyes closed.

'His mouth was going and his hand was moving. I didn't know whether to try to talk to him or take his arm and shake him -- try to wake him up and say, 'Stop this and shape up.''

Instead, Mrs. Huberty said, she left him there and went up to bed.

Advertisement

She poignantly characterized her troubled husband as, finally, 'always very sad and very lonely.'

And so, apparently, he was.

James Oliver Huberty was born Oct. 11, 1942, in Canton, Ohio, one of two children and the only son of Earl Vincent Huberty, a steel mill worker and part-time farmer, and his wife, Icel Evelyn, whose union was doomed to dissolve.

Young Jimmy, his sister, Ruth, and their parents were regular in their attendance at local United Methodist Churches.

'They were Bible-toters,' said Gene Hofacre, an Ohio schoolmate who became a veterinarian in Yorba Linda, Calif. The assumption, according to Hofacre, was that Huberty would enter divinity school.

But Jimmy was, to others who knew him in the steel mill cities of Canton and Massillon and the nearby farming community of Mount Eaton, an unremarkable loner, a wallflower in horn-rimmed glasses who seldom had a thing to say.

'He just didn't participate much, other than maybe an interest in the Future Farmers of America,' Hofacre remembered.

It came as something of a surprise to his peers when Huberty graduated in 1960 from Waynedale High School and entered, not divinity school, but embalming school.

He seemed to have found his place in life and graduated with honors from the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science in Pennsylvania. In 1964-65 he worked at three Canton funeral homes.

Advertisement

Huberty liked embalming and other technical aspects of his calling, said Don Williams, one of his employers, but his introverted personality caused him to fail in the vital task of dealing with the bereaved.

'He simply wasn't cut out for this profession,' suggested Williams. 'He acted like he just wanted to be left alone.'

Huberty and Etna, a San Francisco native, married during his internship under Williams and in 1965 the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors issued him first a funeral director's license and later an embalmer's license.

By then, however, Huberty had decided to don welder's goggles and, after training at Lincoln Electric Welding School in Cleveland, went to work at Macombers Manufacturing Co. in Louisville, Ohio, in 1966.

Three years later he was back in Canton, a welder at Babcock and Wilcox, which made replacement parts for the steel industry.

There he earned seniority.

This good stretch lasted 13 years. Etna worked as an elementary school substitute teacher. They bought a house in Massillon, and their daughters, Zelia and Cassandra, now 14 and 10, were born. Huberty even finished college after 16 years of sporadic higher education and earned a sociology degree in 1976 from Malone College in Canton.

Advertisement

A next-door neighbor of that era, Vaughn Mohler, became wary of Huberty after an eerie incident. It seems one of Huberty's German shepherds scratched his master's car. 'He took the dog out back and killed it,' Mohler said. 'Shot it right there.'

'Huberty said, 'There, I took care of it,' Mohler recalled. 'And that's how he handled business.'

Later, Mohler became disturbed by late-night thumping sounds emanating from his neighbor's two-story frame house. Huberty, Mohler eventually discovered, was taking target practice in his basement shooting range.

According to Massillon police, Huberty was charged in 1980 with being drunk and disorderly after a gas station incident. No fine was imposed but Huberty had to pay $46 in court costs.

Over the years, hundreds of complaints were logged against Huberty by Massillon police, mainly for his noisy and free-running German shepherds, noted officer Ron Davis.

Terry Kelly, who worked with him as a welder, remembered that Huberty was 'always talking about shooting somebody.' Kelly said Huberty was concerned with 'survivalist' techniques and weaponry and believed nuclear war loomed.

'He talked about the end of the world,' said Kelly. 'He and his family were going to be the only ones left. He talked about going off into the woods.'

Advertisement

The American Dream burst for Huberty in 1982. The welding plant closed and he joined the growing list of unemployed in the nation's manufacturing midsection.

'Utility rates soared,' said his wife. 'We were caught in a terrible squeeze.'

Instead of going off into the woods, the family moved in the fall of 1983 to Tijuana, where Huberty believed they could live economically.

But the sale of their house last September, which they thought would bring a profit, resulted in what his wife said was a $69,000 loss.

'He did not fit into the Mexican community,' his wife said. 'He knew no Spanish. He felt lost, rejected and hopeless.

He called Tijuana police, who stopped him for speeding on his 1982 Honda motorcycle, 'monkeys,' she acknowledged, but said he was not simply a racist, despite his increasingly radical behavior and beliefs.

'If anything, he was a Nazi,' she said. 'He thought he was German but he wasn't. He acted like he was German.'

Police said there was no sign of a racial motive in Huberty's act, although many of the victims were Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

The move to Tijuana lasted but three months. Huberty did not like the litter or the congestion of the city, with a burgeoning population smaller only than Los Angeles and Vancouver, Canada, on the Pacific coast.

Advertisement

By the start of 1984 they were north of the border in the first of their two San Ysidro rented apartments. ---

Jim Huberty's demons apparently came and went.

The day before his mayhem, Huberty met neighbor Joe Palacios, 27, a freelance bounty hunter who chases bail-jumpers, as they emptied trash at their Averil Road building. 'He asked me how I was doing. 'So-so,' I told him. Then, I told him I was looking for two Mexicans. One likes to steal trucks and the other is a heroin dealer.

'This is the same day,' said Palacios, 'that a neighbor told him two Mexican kids on bikes tried to break into his wife's van and he was still seething about it. So, he says to me, 'Those f--- Mexicans are always getting into everybody's business.

'I looked at him, you know? I'm Mexican. He didn't show any respect to say a thing like that in front of me. So, I said to myself, why bother having conversation with this man? I cut him off. He seemed to realize what he'd done because his face turned red.'

'In his mind, everything in Ohio was done right and he could not adjust to the way things were done in California,' Etna Huberty said. 'I asked him if he wanted to go back to Ohio but he said, no, that there was nothing there but cold winters and high utility bills.'

Advertisement

Huberty qualified for a federally funded security guard training program as a low income, unemployed applicant, and on April 12 was issued a permit by the Bureau of Collections and Investigative Services to carry a .38 caliber revolver or a .357 magnum on duty.

Huberty got a job guarding a condominium construction project but was fired July 10. 'But that did not seem to worry him too much at the time,' said his wife.

'Christ told him about something that happened when he was 9 years old,' his wife said.

'He was standing in a street and there was a legionnaire on a horse,' said Mrs. Huberty, recalling her husband's visions. 'And a 15-year-old boy stabbed the horse and the legionnaire fell to the ground.

'And when he got up he had his sword drawn and grabbed three people and wanted to know if they knew who this boy was. And they told him, yes, and he gave them each a gold piece.

'The next day the legionnaire went to the boy's house and killed his parents with his sword. Then, he put the sword in the hands of the young boy who stabbed his horse and said, 'There, you've killed them.''

Advertisement

A week later, after a family outing at the zoo, Huberty announced to his wife that he was 'going hunting, hunting for humans.'

He changed his yellow short-sleeve jersey for a maroon T-shirt and camouflage fatigues, and climbed into his Mercury sedan at 4 p.m.

He drove the half block down the dusty, parched slope from apartment 9 at 135 Averil Road, stormed the restaurant at 522 W. San Ysidro Blvd. and for the next hour showed mercy toward none. His utter hatred was finally stilled by one bullet from police sniper Charles Foster.

Latest Headlines