Margarita Gomez walked the Santa Monica College campus each morning and afternoon, collecting cans and other recyclables to help pay the bills. She didn’t have much money, but friends said she regularly saved some of the change she got for her cans and gave to charity.
Her apartment was across the street from the school, where she was a familiar face.
The 68-year-old usually didn’t check the college for recyclables on Fridays, her son said. But she was outside the library the day authorities say John Zawahri carried a semi-automatic rifle onto campus and opened fire, striking Gomez before going inside the building. She was taken to Ronald Reagan-UCLA hospital, where she died Friday afternoon.
Zawahri killed four others, authorities say, before he was fatally shot by police. The roughly 10-minute rampage began at the home the gunman shared with his father and ended at the college campus.
Gomez’s son said he had heard about the shootings and couldn’t reach his mother on her phone. He assumed she was safe.
“Still I cannot believe it,” Rafael Torres said Monday. “I think she’s going to come back.”
Gomez grew up in Mexico but had lived in Santa Monica for nearly three decades, her son said. The mother of two loved her city, her church and her grandchildren, he said.
Torres said his mother’s 19th Street home has been flooded by visitors, and her answering machine is full of messages.
“The hardest thing is we could not say, ‘I love you, Mom,’ before she died,” he said. “We never thought it was going to be a bullet.”
Although she had worked at a ceramics company for almost 20 years, Torres said his mother didn’t get much of a pension. She collected cans to make ends meet.
“She didn’t have too much money to pay the bills,” he said. “I don’t want [anybody] to think she’s homeless.... Around the college, everybody knows her. Nobody knows her name because she never got in trouble. She was the lady with the cans.”
In a statement, Santa Monica College President Chui L. Tsang called Gomez a “familiar figure on campus,” someone “who was always happy.”
“She was just the nicest lady,” said David Dever, the manager of the college bookstore. “She would come by the bookstore regularly and always had a big smile for us.”
The college has set up a memorial fund in her name.
Gomez spent Thursday mornings with the Senior Latino Club in Virginia Avenue Park, just a few blocks from her home. The group gathers to eat lunch and play bingo, and raises money for charity organizations.
Although she didn’t have much money herself, Gomez “was always willing to help,” group member Margarita Lopez said. Each month, Gomez would bring a plastic bag of pennies and nickels for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The donation – 50 cents for Gomez and 50 cents for her sister – came from her recycling money, Lopez said.
Gomez brought her last bag of coins to the club the day before she died.
“I couldn't even count the coins because it was so touching,” Lopez said. “But that's the way she was.”
Times staff writers Matt Stevens and Joseph Serna contributed to this report.