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Heroes one day and helpers the next

Granada Hills church members carry on their kindergarten fundraiser a day after subduing a gunman.

May 19, 2008|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

On Sunday, Christopher Mahony sat fiddling with an audio mix-board as the rhythms of a Celtic band jangled from a festival stage at St. John Baptist de la Salle in Granada Hills. A day earlier, he had helped carry a man wounded by a gunman to a parish kitchen, where he used a towel to stem blood flowing from the victim's chest.

On Sunday, Jeff Sempelsz stood by as children flipped dimes toward rotating plates for prizes. But a day earlier, Sempelsz rushed the man who had already wounded three people.

The day after the gunman, angered by a custody dispute with his ex-girlfriend, shot her and two men, hundreds of families and children enjoyed the festival under the sweltering San Fernando Valley sun.

Fernando Diaz Jr., 33, is being held in lieu of $1.5 million bail at the Los Angeles Police Department's Van Nuys station on suspicion of three counts of attempted murder. He could be arraigned as early as today.

The three shooting victims, including the man shot in the chest, are listed in stable condition and are expected to recover.

The church could have easily called the yearly festival off. But there was never much debate about what parishioners would or should do. The event, which raises money for buildings to house the parish school's kindergartners, resumed Sunday -- with hours extended to 9 p.m.

"If we didn't go forward, then the shooter won," said Karen Tibbitts, business manager for the church. "We need the money, and we've had this festival for 21 years. We need a nice place for our children."

Despite the apparent normality, with children slipping down the Super Slide and munching on nachos, and entire families trying to stay cool holding dripping ice cones, the specter of the shooting hovered over the event -- especially for those who lived through it.

Volunteer crisis counselors from the county and the city stood ready to provide what mental balm they could. And LAPD officers walked between the booths.

"I was glad to see so many police here. I counted 10, if not more," said Alfonso Alvarado, 41, as he sat at a table under a tent, finishing off a meal with his wife, Ramona, and his daughters, Tatiana and Angelina, 13 and 9.

As he moved buttons on the sound board, Mahony said the festival needed to happen.

"It's very important. This is a major fundraiser for the parish," he said.

Mahony, the father of two children who attend the parish school, said he was setting up the music stage Saturday when he heard the shots and people screaming. He saw the gunman as a woman ran with the man who had been wounded in the chest.

"She and I dragged him around back behind to the kitchen," said Mahony, a nephew of Cardinal Roger Mahony. "The lady and I started applying pressure on him to stop the bleeding. When he came running, he was very excited. But when he realized he was shot, he was in shock."

In the early afternoon, Sempelsz, 49, took some time away from manning his booth and walked with his 9-year-old son Kerry, looking for a counselor. His boy had a fitful sleep the night before.

His two sons had been at the festival when the shooting happened, Sempelsz said, and that gave him the drive to rush toward the attacker, who had apparently kissed his own 9-year-old son just moments before opening fire in front of him.

Sempelsz said it was a fellow parishioner, Charles Sternberg, 46, a retired Navy pilot also at a booth, who first went after the gunman.

The two men first caught a glimpse of him after hearing the popping of his .22-caliber rifle, watching him walk backward behind the Super Slide.

Sempelsz said Sternberg tackled first; then he followed.

Soon, Sempelsz said, a "parade of parents," including an off-duty Burbank officer, piled on top of the gunman.

Sempelsz said he was glad the festival went forward.

"I think if we let this one bad guy ruin the whole thing," he said, "we give him the satisfaction."

--

hector.becerra@latimes.com

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