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Three wounded when man opens fire at parish festival

A rifleman enraged by a custody battle shoots his ex-girlfriend and two others in Granada Hills, authorities say.

May 18, 2008|Andrew Blankstein and David Pierson | Times Staff Writers

A rifleman angered by a custody dispute with his ex-girlfriend opened fire Saturday at a parish school festival in Granada Hills this morning, wounding the woman and two other fair-goers before being tackled by bystanders and arrested by an off-duty police officer, authorities said.

Witnesses described scenes of terror and panic as the man nonchalantly brandished a .22-caliber rifle made to look like an M-16 assault rifle and fired into booths at the fair.

The shooting took place shortly before the 11 a.m. start of the festival on a baseball field on the grounds of the St. John Baptist de la Salle church and school at Chatsworth Street and Hayvenhurst Avenue, authorities said.

Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Steven Ruiz said Fernando Diaz Jr., 33, arrived at the festival and sought out his 9-year-old son, who attends the school, and his estranged girlfriend, who were both near a booth in center field.

Diaz "walks up carrying a tennis bag on his shoulder, puts it down, embraces his child, and then removes the rifle from the bag and aims it" at his ex-girlfriend, Ruiz said. "He fires multiple rounds, hitting her and two others. People were screaming, running and ducking for cover."

He is being held in lieu of $1.5-million bail at the LAPD Van Nuys station on suspicion of three counts of attempted murder.

The ex-girlfriend, 29, was shot in the arm and was listed in stable condition.

A 45-year-old man who was shot in the leg and a 43-year-old man who was shot in the chest also were in stable condition. The victims were not identified, Ruiz said.

Diaz was subdued by half a dozen bystanders after he appeared to have difficulty firing his weapon, he said.

"He either had to change out his [clip] or his gun may have jammed," Ruiz said. "That was when people jumped on him."

One of the first to tackle the man was Jeff Sempelsz, whose son attends the school. Sempelsz was hanging prizes at his coin-toss booth, waiting for the parish priest to bless the event, when he heard the gunshots.

"I heard a pop, pop, pop sound that sounded like balloons breaking," he said. "I saw a guy with a rifle about 50 feet away. . . . Then I saw kids running away screaming, and I thought, 'This is not funny. This is serious.' "

Sempelsz said he saw the rifleman holding the gun in front of him, with his finger on the trigger. "He looked so calm," he said.

Sempelsz then made eye contact with a parent outside his booth, and the two men charged the shooter, he said. Sempelsz tackled him at the waist, and the other parent hooked the neck of the gunman, who fell on his back. The two parents ripped the gun out of the assailant's hands and used their knees to pin him down.

"He was big but he wasn't fast," Sempelsz said. "He didn't get mad until more people piled on him."

Moments later, off-duty LAPD Officer Mike Williams, alerted by a call from his fiancee, arrived and handcuffed Diaz.

Police said that Diaz was on parole for an unspecified crime and that a restraining order was in place to prevent him from being near the school or his son and ex-girlfriend.

An inspection of the tennis bag uncovered 20 bullet rounds, police said. Only three shots were fired.

"This could have been a really horrific scene, much worse than it was," said Los Angeles Police Deputy Chief Michel Moore.

Hours after the shooting, the field was eerily empty with unmanned booths, international food stands and an idle Ferris wheel and miniature roller coaster.

Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said the parish had 5,000 to 7,000 families and an affiliated school.

"It's one of our larger parishes," Tamberg said. "This is festival season."

Tamberg, who used to attend the church, went to the site.

"They're real heroes," Tamberg said of the two men who first subdued the gunman. "They jumped a guy with an ugly-looking gun. Thank God they were there."

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andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

david.pierson@latimes.com

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