By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications
When the popular Gilroy Garlic Festival was winding down, and volunteers looked forward to ending their long day in the hot summer sun, shots rang out. One CDCR employee was already at the festival, in his gear, helping other agencies provide security.
With more than two decades of correctional experience under his belt, Agent Stephan Sandoval is no stranger to high-stress situations, but this was different. Families, children and the elderly mingled with vendors, listened to live music, watched cooking demonstrations or took part in other family friendly activities. He’s worked the festival a half-dozen times over the years and didn’t expect this festival to be any different.
“For most of the day I could smell varying degrees of garlic in the air with a mixture of other aromas as you passed through the vendors area. The warmish day had people enjoying the garlic laden food, the various bands, and beer. Families were enjoying their day at the event without a care in the world as to what was about to happen,” Sandoval recalls.
The July 28 shooting left 17 wounded and three people dead. The shooter also took his own life.
Sandoval began his career in 1997 at California Men’s Colony, the only officer from his academy class assigned to that institution. In 2002, he transferred to Parole.
Inside CDCR caught up with the agent to get his reaction to that day.
How did the incident begin from your perspective?
At approximately 5 p.m., the Rover team I was assigned to for the day was instructed to cover an area by an amphitheater to prepare for the 6 p.m. end time for the event. All rover teams were sent to locations throughout the park to assist with the flow of traffic that would be exiting. The attendees were either walking to parking lots to board shuttle buses or walking toward nearby neighborhoods to their cars.
I glanced at my phone to see that it was 5:30 and soon I would be off my feet. It was in the mid- to upper-80s most of the day and being in full gear I was sweating through my second change of shirts for the day. Within minutes of checking the time, the “pops” rang out. At first the team looked at each other and said or thought to themselves “fire crackers?” Then within seconds a series of multiple “pops” were heard. Then we knew it was real.
As the event unfolded, I saw some panic, some chaos, fear, on the attendees’ faces. I also saw event volunteers coming to the aid of the wounded. One thing that sticks out in my mind was the swarm of law enforcement heading to the area where the incident started not knowing what the outcome would be for them.
One thing that became clearer later as another officer described his view of that period, was although a lot was happening at that moment, it all seemed to be on mute. The only thing I remember hearing was the radio traffic and my partner giving directions and asking questions. The attendees that we ran by seemed to be a silent background to the whole scene.
What was going through your mind at the time?
At the moment, the first thing was to get to the point where the situation had occurred and see who we could help. Seeing people with blood splattered on them and loved ones asking for help, was difficult. Trying to remember the training I have had, in and out of the department.
Being the sole DAPO Agent working that day, I never felt out of place with them.
Secondly, as my heart was racing, with details unfolding, I thought of my family and if would I see them again. As my partner and I took cover behind a truck in the vendor’s parking lot, I took a moment to text both my wife and daughter but with the onslaught of cell use it was slowing my messages.
What actions did you take during the incident?
Initially, we joined all teams running to where the radio traffic directed us to, directing people we came across to the nearest exit point. With hearing of a possible second shooter on site, my team partner, an officer from Campbell PD, provided coverage while at least two Gilroy Police Officers conducted CPR and other medical treatment on victims. The covered area was a section used by attendees for seating to hear the nearby bands on the stage, eat, drink on hay bales.
When a truck near a vendor’s booth was brought over and the one shooting victim, later pronounced deceased, was loaded into the back, we joined up again to conduct searches of the area as a team. Early on I saw a young man, tall burly and several tattoos running up both arms was in a complete daze and panicked over not knowing where his two young children were. I could not get any information from him about his two children, both under 10 years old. Even the simplest clothing details escaped him. We directed attendees that were still lingering in the area to the nearest exit and area where they could wait for further instructions. We made our way over the stage area where the band was off to the side of the stage seeking cover. After searching under the stage we directed the band members over to an area that was set up as a temporary “safe” spot.
How long were you at the scene?
At that point the newest instructions were to move towards the nearby vendor parking lot to search for the possible second shooter. Over the next few hours we held the area along the fence line where it was believed the gunman had entered the event. As multiple outside agencies responded, some specialized in very specific skill sets, they fanned out through the area surrounding the event grounds.
As the Gilroy officers on our team merged with their own agency and new responding teams, I joined another team that was lacking members to continue to monitor an area assigned to us. I arrived early for a shift that was scheduled to start at noon and was allowed to leave around 10:30 p.m.
Later in the evening, as details became clearer and I was allowed to leave, a sense of relief settled in and overall exhaustion. I did find a bottle of water in my pocket of my pants that had been cold minutes before the incident and hours later was warm and undrinkable.
The outside courses I attended such as “The Bulletproof Mind,” “Detecting Danger,’ and the “San Bernardino Terror Attack” gave me some perspective. I was better off from having taken those courses as it somewhat gave me an idea of what I could feel at the time plus the days and weeks after it concluded.
To the Gilroy Police Department’s credit, they held a “psychological debrief” the week following and it was a time to sort out our views and thoughts for all the law enforcement who worked that day.
If someone is attending an event such as this, and there is an active shooter, what is something you wish the general public knew?
Be aware of your surroundings. Know where the exits are and know where the people you attended with are. I think people should seek resources that show proven examples of ways to react in these situations. If you are totally blind on how to act, react, or respond in an incident like this, it could be fatal.