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As fifth rampage victim dies, Santa Monica College struggles to cope

Student Marcela Franco, 26, dies with her family by her side, college officials announce. Her father, Carlos, a groundskeeper at the campus, was also killed in Friday's shootings.

June 09, 2013|By Frank Shyong, Angel Jennings and Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times
  • "My heart goes out to them," said Rebeca Encina after leaving flowers at a memorial to Carlos Navarro Franco and his daughter Marcela Franco, who were fatally shot during Friday's rampage.
"My heart goes out to them," said Rebeca Encina after leaving… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

A fifth victim of the Santa Monica shooting rampage died Sunday as Santa Monica College students and staff tried to cope with the violence and prepared to return to the campus Monday.

Student Marcela Franco, 26, died with her family by her side at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica College officials announced. Marcela, who had just enrolled for summer classes at the school, and her father, Carlos Navarro Franco, 68, a groundskeeper at the college, were shot in the father's SUV in a campus parking lot.

Authorities are still trying to determine what caused John Zawahri, 23, to open fire on Santa Monica streets before ending up on the campus, where he was killed in a shootout with police. Law enforcement sources have said he was suffering from mental problems. Sources said Sunday that his mother, who was out of the country when the shooting occurred, is now back in California.

But Sunday, the Franco family was not interested in those answers.

"For now, we are not asking why anymore," said Marcela's aunt, Margaret Quinones-Perez, 58. "We have to just shut down, or we can't function."

Carlos died at the scene and Marcela was rushed to the hospital. Quinones-Perez and other family members spent a painful two-day vigil there before deciding Sunday morning to take her off life support after doctors decided there was nothing more they could do. She had never regained consciousness.

Quinones-Perez remembered her niece as "smart, beautiful, sexy, frisky, outgoing."

Marcela wanted to be a clinical psychologist. When her main college, Cal State Dominguez Hills, couldn't provide the units she needed to graduate in the fall, she decided to take the courses at Santa Monica, where her father worked.

"She was smart, obviously really pretty, and just very loving," said Marcela's boyfriend, Ryan Payne, 26, who also spent the weekend by her side. They had been dating exclusively for only about a month, but "it's been the best month of my life," he said.

Dressed in black and armed with high-powered weapons, Zawahri began his rampage shortly before noon Friday by killing his father, Samir Zawahri, 55, and his brother, Chris, 25, at their Yorkshire Avenue home and setting it on fire, authorities say. He then forced a woman to drive him to the college.

On the way, Zawahri randomly fired at cars and shot at a city bus, injuring several people, police said. He shot at the Francos' red SUV as they exited a campus parking lot.

Once on campus, Zawahri fatally shot an unidentified woman outside the library, then made his way inside the building, where police shot him as students ran or huddled in terror.

As authorities continued their investigation Sunday, the usually bustling campus and the neighborhoods along the gunman's path struggled to regain some sense of normality.

With the main campus still closed Sunday, some students and staff went to a satellite facility on Bundy Drive a few miles away to receive counseling or simply talk about their experiences. Local restaurants and vendors donated food for the sessions.

Eric Minzenberg, an anthropology professor, said he was in his classroom with about 25 students when the school was placed on lockdown. He sprang into action, locking the door and barricading it with desks and chairs. He said seeing SWAT officers on campus and police helicopters overhead had left him shaken.

But some of his students witnessed far worse, Minzenberg said. Some were in the library when the gunman opened fire inside, and one saw police kill him. Minzenberg said he sought support at the crisis center in hopes that by talking to a professional, he could begin the healing process.

"I'm just feeling a little agitated and a little helpless in a situation like this," he said. "One of our greatest fears is to have some mentally unstable student come and start shooting."

Student Signe Elvin-Nowak, 22, said she opened her home after the school was placed on lockdown because many of her friends could not retrieve their cars. She said she was not prepared for the graphic accounts. Her friend, Marta Fagerstroem, had been on the bus shot up by the gunman.

"We have to go on with our lives as if nothing has happened, but there are several people" who died, Elvin-Nowak said. "The only thing we really can do is talk and talk and talk until we can't talk anymore."

Her roommate, Sara Lindgren, was struggling to deal with "what if?" The fashion merchandising student often hangs out in the library between classes. She said she would have been there studying if she had not been attending a school-sponsored fashion show.

The school is scheduled to reopen Monday, with graduation set for Tuesday. Lindgren said she is not quite prepared to go back, but she has to take makeup finals and one will be inside the library, where the gunman was shot.

"We drove by our school yesterday and it was like an eerie feeling," Lindgren said. "Everything looks the same, but it is not the same."

Santa Monica College President Chui L. Tsang described victim Carlos Franco as "a dedicated husband and father" who had tended the school grounds for 22 years. Several of Franco's relatives work at the college.

Tsang on Sunday announced a memorial fund for the family. Donations can be sent to the Carlos Franco Family Memorial Fund via the college website at http://foundation.smc.edu/ or by mail to the Santa Monica College Foundation, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica 90405.

The 6 p.m. graduation ceremony Tuesday will also be part memorial service for the Franco family. Campus Police Chief Albert Vasquez said officials were "still putting details together" for the event at the school's Corsair Field.

frank.shyong@latimes.com

angel.jennings@latimes.com

jean.merl@latimes.com

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