A Story of Mass Violence | A Catalyst Project | KXAN.com

Drunk and stewing in anger, Barry Chvarak, 21, stood up from the bar of the Starburst Lounge, turned to his twin brother and said he was "going to shoot up the place." It was 1:45 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1980, last call. The bartender had just flipped on the house lights of the country and western dive bar tucked in the Northeast outskirts of El Paso. Chvarak walked to the parking lot toward his truck, but he wasn't leaving.

He retrieved a semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle, loaded it outside and walked back into the lounge. Chvarak would later struggle to explain his motive in that moment. The threat seemed so outlandish, his own twin didn't consider it serious. The next minute would seal Chvarak's fate: five innocent people murdered and three others wounded. It would be, until 2019, the worst mass shooting in the city's history.

After that tragic night in the Starburst, mass shootings in Texas would steadily increase and reach deadly new heights in 2018 and 2019. In September, Gov. Greg Abbott outlined executive orders and legislative plans that state leaders hope could decrease the violence. Now, a KXAN investigation digs into two tragic mass attacks in 1980 and the following 40 years of mass violence.

 

Fateful night out

Shirlene Masterson can still remember hearing sirens in the night as she struggled to fall asleep Feb. 3, 1980. Her youngest daughter woke her in the morning, saying three men were at the front door.

"There was a detective and a police and a pastor," Masterson said.

The men asked if she was the mother of 20-year-old Randy Wayne Steele. There had been a shooting at a nearby bar, the Starburst Lounge, they informed her.

"Your son is dead," Masterson recalls being told. "When he died, part of me died with him."

Shirlene Masterson holds a portrait of her 20-year-old son, Randy Steele, fatally shot at an El Paso nightclub in 1980. (KXAN Photo)

In the years that followed, Masterson would learn more about the awful events inside the bar and how her son died. Unknown to investigators at the time, the tragedy would display the hallmarks of many shootings to come: an obscure lone shooter, a mysterious cause, a random crowd and heroes sacrificing themselves to save strangers.

Masterson would often find herself driving back by the Starburst and stopping her car. Something drew her back to the last place her son was alive. That habit stopped after the Starburst was leveled. The corner lot became a car wash; then the car wash was abandoned. Now the blighted lot collects trash. Like the demolished lounge, the memory of the Starburst attack has vanished for many in the city.

But Phil Sell still remembers it. He was only 19 years. That night he was out drinking and playing pool with a couple of friends.

Sell recounted the fateful night to KXAN alongside his wife in their home in northeast El Paso. He's lived his whole life in that working-class area, just miles from the former Starburst Lounge location. At the time of the shooting he had just started working for U-Haul, and he still works there 40 years later.

The Starburst was the local hangout, with its linoleum floors, drop ceiling, coin-operated pool tables and cramped dance floor. There was nothing out of the ordinary the night of the shooting.

Sell had his back to the door when it started.

There were "a couple of pops, and I turned around," he said. "Somebody punched me is what I thought at first."

Sell reached for his chin, found his hands covered in blood and stumbled toward the bathroom.

"There were people screaming. It was chaos," Sell said. "At that point, any rational thought was gone. I just needed to see what happened to my face."

A bullet hit Sell's cheek, exited near his chin and pierced the shoulder of a nearby woman. She lived. When Sell emerged from the bathroom, the shooting had stopped.

(Left) Phil Sell around 1980, the year a gunman entered the Starburst Lounge and shot him; (Right) Sell today with his wife, Marjey, at their El Paso home (Sell Family/KXAN Photo)

"There were three women that were basically, you know, on top of each other," he said. "I remember the first woman laying there with a bullet hole dead center, as I remember, in her forehead."

Every witness in the bar would ultimately give their description of the shooting to police. Each of those statements, all collected in a 263-page police report obtained by KXAN, offers its own macabre perspective of the attack.

Gary Onopa, 19, said he looked up from the pool table when he heard a firecracker noise. He could see Chvarak unloading his rifle from near the front door and saw three women near the bar fall in heap.

Patrick Kilbane said he was sitting two seats from a woman who was shot in the forehead.

"He made one sweep with the rifle and then started back again, firing continuously," Alan Fritz, 19, told investigators.

Chvarak pulled the trigger of the .22 caliber Marlin model 60 semi-automatic at least 14 times. One of Sell's friends, Roger Miller, charged and disarmed Chvarak. He smacked Chvarak twice across the face and head with a pool cue, breaking the stick in half. Chvarak dropped the rifle and another man stashed it in the bar's office. If those men hadn't stepped up, Chvarak may have kept shooting. He had more bullets in his pocket.

Chvarak never tried to run. After his gun was taken, he simply sat at the bar until police arrested him. As officers whisked him away to the station, he muttered to an officer.

"Why I did that, I don't know," Chvarak said. "I guess I'm going to prison."

(Left) Barry Chvarak, 21, in 1980 under arrest for the shootings at El Paso's Starburst Lounge; (Right) Chvarak, 61, serving five life sentences at the Bill Clements Unit, up for parole review in August 2020. (Crime Scene Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

Chvarak was charged with five counts of murder. He pleaded guilty and received five concurrent life sentences. He remains in a state prison outside Amarillo.

KXAN wrote to Chvarak and requested an interview, but he did not respond.

Marjey Sell, Phil's wife, was instrumental in organizing opposition to Chvarak's first parole chance in 2000 and subsequent parole opportunities.

Beginning in 2000 when Barry Chvarak was first eligible for parole, survivors and family members of the Starburst Lounge shooting victims began signing petitions to support denying the convicted murderer's release from prison, repeating the process every few years. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

For those involved, the trauma of the night would linger. Sell said his couldn't sleep through nightmares of the dead women in the bar.

"That image, you know, for a long time, I would wake up with that image in my head," Sell said.

But the nightmares would fade with time. Sell began dating his future wife, Marjey, shortly after the shooting. They now have two children and remain in northeast El Paso.

40 years later, Phil Sell never expected he would be helping his son, a local firefighter named Dylan, grapple with his own mass shooting experience. Mass violence struck El Paso again in August 3, 2019. A gunman opened fire in a Walmart, killing 22 and injuring 24 more. Dylan Sell was called to the scene. He helped with the wounded and reentered the Walmart to retrieve gear that was left inside in the chaos, Marjey said.

"The dead were… they were still in there, and he saw everything," she said. "The one person that really understands is his dad, you know, one of the few people that's been through it. I think he's been helpful a lot, because Dylan can open up to him and talk to him about the trauma and the carnage and the horror that he saw."

The Walmart suspect, Patrick Wood Crusius, 21, was not tackled or attacked inside the supermarket. He fled the scene and later surrendered to authorities outside the store. Crusius was indicted for capital murder, and prosecutors said they are seeking the death penalty.

Sell said he "wholeheartedly believes" that if someone in the vicinity of either shooting had proper training it would have saved lives. Sell said he is in favor of people being armed, but even simple first aid techniques, like how to stop a bleed, should be available to everyone.

"Until the minute, the second it's happening, you have no idea how you're going to react. The only thing you can do is prepare," Sell said.

 

State on alert

State leaders are pushing for mass attack training, including medical intervention and defensive tactics taught by Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) based at Texas State University facility outside of Maxwell.

At a House committee meeting Sept. 17, Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said the state's offensive approach to threats has dwindled in recent years. He said there should be a focus on strategies that could prevent a mass attack before it happens. However, in the event of an attack, McCraw said training is valuable.

"A femoral bleed on average is only about two minutes before the person bleeds out. The average response time for a police officer is three." —Off. CJ James, ALERRT trainer

"Texas State University and the ALERRT program… the citizens response active shooters, those are very important programs... teach people what they can do in those situations," McCraw said. "What can we do to raise public awareness?"

ALERRT trains first responders and civilians. KXAN visited a training session in October. CJ James, an ALERRT instructor and police officer with the San Antonio Police Department, said the triage techniques they teach originated on foreign battlefields and achieved significant reductions in fatalities.

"They started training all servicemen for deployment on… these very basic medical interventions, and they've seen a 66% reduction in battlefield fatalities," James said. "So, we can start looking for the same reduction in numbers for our shooter incidents."

Many of the methods are simple to learn: CPR, tourniquets and blood loss prevention to save the injured. They also teach how to evacuate and evade a shooter. If a person can't run from an attack, ALERRT teaches people how to blockade themselves from an attacker. Finally, for when there is no other option, they teach self-defense techniques.

While ALERRT's lessons focus on attack scenarios, state leaders say they want to focus on strategies that stop an attack before it ever happens.

Abbott's multipart plan, laid out in September following the Walmart attack, includes beefing up public awareness of the state's Suspicious Activity Reporting Network overseen by DPS. The legislature created House and Senate committees focused on mass violence. The reporting network has existed for years — a law passed in 2011 led to its creation — and lawmakers want more Texans to be aware of it.

Abbott's office failed to respond to repeated requests for an interview about these mass attack strategies. KXAN also requested emails sent and received by the governor's communications team related to our report and mass shootings. The governor's office sent that request to the Attorney General's office, claiming the contents could be barred from disclosure.

KXAN also requested data on the number of suspicious activity reports made to DPS over several years. DPS bounced the request between its open records and communications offices for nearly two months before providing answers.

DPS has seen a rise in the number of suspicious activity reports received over the past three years. Fusion center leaders attributed the uptick in suspicious reports to the multiple mass attacks in recent years. According to state records, DPS has taken in more than 13,000 suspicious activity reports in the past five years.

 

Suspicious reporting

The legislative committees are charged with assessing the impact of recent mass attacks. The panels will look at ways to keep guns out of the hands of people who wouldn't pass a firearms background check. They are also examining how the internet and dark web can promote mass violence and radicalization.

State Rep. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, sits on the newly created House Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety. KXAN spoke with Blanco at a makeshift memorial erected outside the El Paso Walmart, which is inside his district. Mourners have placed thousands of prayer candles, crosses, flower bouquets, flags and handmade signs from across the world at the site.

Blanco agreed that ALERRT-type training is important, but he said the state needs to look beyond a "bandage approach."

"We need to look at the root causes of this type of violence, and is it the easy accessibility of assault weapons? Is it the radicalization on social media of these extremist groups? Those are things that I think we can tackle and mitigate a lot of this violence that is happening in our community," Blanco said.

According to polls from the University of Texas and our media partner, the Texas Tribune, Texans' attitudes on stricter gun control laws have fluctuated over the past six years. A February 2013 poll found 44% of people surveyed said gun control laws should be stricter, 36% said the laws should stay the same and 16% said they should be less strict.

Six years later, an October 2019 poll found 51% of Texans said gun laws should be stricter, 28% thought gun control laws should remain as they are and 13% said gun control laws should be less strict and 8% unsure. The polls had a 2.83% margin of error, according to Texas tribune polling results.

There are myriad state and federal laws regulating gun ownership, possession and purchasing. Most types of weapons can be bought and owned. Outside of federal gun laws that are included in Texas statute, the state does not place restrictions on possessing or carrying long guns, like rifles and shotguns. Texas requires a concealed handgun license, and a 2015 law signed by Abbott allows licensees to openly carry the weapon in a proper holster. There are more than 1 million Texans with a license to carry, according to DPS data. You can read more about Texas gun regulations here.

Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, sits on the House committee with Blanco. He said the Legislature should be able to make changes that help keep guns out of the hands of people that shouldn't have them.

"If you look at the situations that we've had in the recent past — you have individuals who have gained access to weapons that shouldn't have," Moody said. "Whether that be because of a lack of safe storage, or we weren't getting information uploaded quick enough to the background checks, or the fact that a warrant for your arrest in Texas doesn't trip the wire on a background check. That's just a simple legislative change."

Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso state lawmaker who sits on the House Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety, speaks with KXAN following a mass shooting at a WalMart in 2019 in his hometown, addressing a call for more civilian response training to better prepare for future attacks.

Both Moody and Blanco said the state should enhance communication between law enforcement agencies and make it easier to share intelligence and handle threats faster.

To improve communication, Abbott wants to ramp up funding and resources for the state's fusion centers, which focus on intelligence gathering and resource deployment. There are 80 fusion centers total, and Texas has eight. The centers house local, state and federal law enforcement and emergency agencies and allow them to quickly communicate and transfer information, said Dustin Liston, a lieutenant with the El Paso Police Department and director of a fusion center in the city.

"In years past, people in the intelligence communities would silo information and be very protective of the information they had, whether it be a lack of trust or whether it be wanting to use that information for their agencies," he said. "The fusion center is designed to get all those different agencies together so they can share information.

Liston said it should give people peace of mind to report something suspicious. Law enforcement will investigate it, he said, and if nothing is wrong then nothing will come of it.

"Sometimes people have a little bit of a suspicious attitude about what intelligence units do, and we are governed by a lot of different laws that protect people's rights," Liston said. "The evidence shows that most people knew something, or at least had a suspicion, before something happened."

The fusion centers will also be monitoring concerning online communication, like the type of rhetoric that the radicalized Walmart shooter used in a racist manifesto he posted online minutes before opening fire. Crusius traveled hundreds of miles across the state to specifically target Mexican-Americans, according to investigators.

The Walmart shooting was part of a recent spike in deadly shootings in Texas. In 2017, a gunman opened fire in a church in the small town of Sutherland Springs that left 26 dead and 20 wounded. In 2018, a student attacked his local high school in Santa Fe, south of Houston, leaving 10 dead and 13 wounded. Mass shootings have also hit Midland and Odessa, Greenville and Deer Park in 2019.

Since 1980, Texas has experienced at least 32 mass shootings with 208 people killed and 254 wounded, according to data compiled by KXAN from various government and media sources.

The 32 mass shootings includes only events with three or more victims, not including the shooter, since 1980. KXAN did not include the 1966 University of Texas at Austin tower shooting because of its significant separation from 1980.

Nationwide, there were 28 mass attacks in 2017 and 27 mass attacks in 2018, according to reports compiled by the U.S. Secret Service. The Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center published the reports to help identify information that would improve prevention of these types of attacks.

The assessment found that in 84 percent of those mass attack incidents, the attacker exhibited some type of concerning communication prior to the attack, such as expressing a desire to commit mass violence or interest in a past attack, making racist remarks or threats, or showing a desire to purchase a weapon.

A recent thwarted attack has shown that monitoring suspicious online behavior can work. On Nov. 4, FBI agents arrested 27-year-old Richard Holser in Pueblo, Colorado, for pursuing a plot to bomb a Jewish synagogue and buying dummy explosives from undercover agents. Federal authorities began investigating Holser, after getting a tip about his troubling online posts.

Unfortunately, in 1980, there were no internet forums or social media posts that could have hinted at Chvarak's intentions. Nor were there fusion centers to gather and process information or a central suspicious activity reporting system to collect tips.

"He made one sweep with the rifle and then started back again, firing continuously."
—Alan Fritz, Starburst shooting witness

Police would investigate every aspect of Chvarak's life trying to find a motive. They dug into his school years and work histories, hobbies and traumas, alcohol use and friendships. Every success and failure in his life was analyzed to pinpoint a possible cause of the attack.

But investigators didn't find much. Chvarak was no manifesto writer. Psychologists found his intelligence level at the bottom end of below-average. He didn't appear to have a particular drive or motivation to commit an act of mass violence.

He liked to ride motorcycles, shoot rabbits in the desert and drink 15 beers a day. After the attack, he did make a statement to investigators that hinted at violent thoughts.

"I have always wondered what it would feel like to shoot someone," Chvarak said in statement made to El Paso police.

He also told police he had recently asked a friend who fought in Vietnam what it was like to shoot a person.

"In my mind, that was a little more premeditated than everybody thought, that he didn't just snap at the bar, that the thought process was kind of already in place," said Marjey Sell. "He's got the .22 in his car… apparently, he'd been thinking about it."

In hindsight, El Paso authorities hardly had a chance to intercept Chvarak before his deadly rampage 1980.

Later that same year, 800 miles away on the other side of the state, law enforcement in Daingerfield would be similarly unaware of a former school teacher stockpiling weapons and making plans to kill.

 

'This is war'

The Daingerfield congregation of First Baptist Church was mid-verse into the hymn, "More About Jesus," when the shooting began. It was about 11 a.m. on June 22, 1980, and the massacre was broadcast live on KEGG, a local AM station.

Cheryl Hendrick was seated near the back of the packed church, a row behind her seven-year-old daughter, Gina Linam.

KXAN obtained audio played in court of the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Daingerfield, Texas, on June 22, 1980. KEGG-AM radio was broadcasting the service live when the attack happened. Warning: Graphic Content.

"He come through the doors, screamed out, 'This is war.' And Gina heard the noise, and she turned. When she did, a bullet got her right in the temple and it come out between her eyes," Hendrick recounted in an interview with KXAN. "I took her feet, and I gently pulled her to me - and I was patting her, telling her it was going to be okay. But when I looked under the bench, I saw her brains, and I knew it wasn't going to be okay."

Hendrick's daughter was one of five killed, and 10 more were wounded in the attack. Had it not been for several heroic church members, more would have died. The shooter entered wearing two flak jackets and a metal military helmet. He carried an M1 carbine rifle, an AR-15 assault rifle with two magazines taped together, a .38 revolver and a .22 pistol.

Chris Hall, a high school sports star known for his speed, jumped on the shooter's back. Hall fell off and escaped down a back stairwell, somehow evading two nearly point-blank shots aimed at him. It would take the two largest men in the church to end the attack.

James "Red" McDaniel, 53, and Kenneth Truitt, 49, tackled and drove the shooter back, splintering the church's backdoors and landing on the back steps. The shooter gunned both men down during the struggle then ran. He shot himself in the head just across the street from the church.

Cheryl Hendrick (right) looks at a photo album with her youngest daughter, Jennifer Cortez (left), at the First Baptist Church of Daingerfield; Hendrick's oldest daughter, Gina Linam, killed in the church sanctuary in 1980 at age 7, is pictured in the foreground. (KXAN Photo)

"I don't think he shot himself in the head on purpose, but God and him are the only ones who know the answer to that," said James Long, a former student of King's and church member present at the shooting.

The churchgoers would be horrified to learn the shooter's identity: Alvin Lee King III. In the town of 3,000, nearly everyone knew King: the brilliant, angry, 46-year-old oddball former high school math teacher.

Judy Pollan had worked alongside King in the Daingerfield school system, where she rose through the ranks from teacher to district superintendent. Judy and her husband Gary were inside the church with their two children during the attack.

When the shooting first began, Judy thought someone had thrown firecrackers in the church as a prank. She quickly realized it was a gun and hid with her two kids under a pew. It wasn't until later, as the Pollans helped shuttle wounded to a hospital, that Judy learned the gunman's identity.

"Gary told me it was Al King, and it absolutely... it about made me physically ill," Judy said.

King was prone to searing fits of rage. He had gotten in trouble for intentionally running over animals while he drove a school bus, she said.

After leaving the school system, King became a truck driver and a recluse on his farm. Eight months before the attack, on Oct. 24, 1979, he was indicted in Morris County for incest. His daughter came forward, claiming King sexually assaulted her for years.

(Left) Alvin Lee King III is pictured in a Daingerfield Schools yearbook from the early 1970s, teaching high school math; (Right) King sticks out his tongue, as a police officer escorts him to a preliminary hearing to face five counts of murder following a local church shooting (Daingerfield Schools/AP Photo)

Judy served on the grand jury that indicted him. She heard the details of King's alleged sexual assault straight from his daughter's mouth. King attacked the church the day before his incest trial was set to begin. KXAN attempted to contact King’s daughter for comment, but she could not be reached.

"Everything seemed off about him," Judy said.

A police investigation into King would reveal more disturbing details. In 1966, King shot his father in the face with a shotgun in his parents' house in Corpus Christi. That death was ruled an accident.

He was stockpiling weapons on his Daingerfield farm and had applied for Soviet Union citizenship, which had been denied. Prior to the attack, King had been asking First Baptist Church members, many of whom had worked at the school, to serve as character witnesses in his incest trial, but all of them had refused.

King's daughter had come forward after confiding in a close friend, 20-year-old Stanley Sinclair, who urged her to report the sexual abuse to police. Two months after King's daughter spoke with police, Sinclair was stabbed to death by two men in broad daylight in Houston. Sinclair's father claimed King had hired hitmen to get revenge for the incest charges, but Houston police never reopened the unsolved murder case and the contract-killer theory was never proven, according to media reports.

Psychiatric evaluations revealed King was highly intelligent, scoring 151 on an IQ test administered after he shot himself in the head and had a frontal lobotomy.

The First Baptist Church of Daingerfield's former sanctuary still stands following 1980's mass shooting. The congregation now uses the building as a fellowship hall. (KXAN Photo)

Pollan said she and others were worried King's defense team, led by top-flight criminal defense attorneys Percy Foreman and a young Dick DeGuerin, were positioning for a possible insanity defense.

But King's trial never came.

At a change-of-venue hearing on Jan. 18, 1982, the prosecution played a recording of the KEGG audio broadcast of the attack. Worshippers could be heard singing before an eruption of gunfire and screaming. King had never heard the recording before. That night he tore a towel into strips and hanged himself in his Morris County jail cell, according to interviews and media reports.

"Al King committed suicide, and I don't mind telling you it was the greatest relief in the world," Judy said. "We were so afraid that he would get off with insanity."

King's suicide brought a level of closure to the attack, but the pain would linger for everyone involved. Over the years, each new mass shooting would renew that pain.

The church attack in Sutherland Springs was particularly painful. Judy said she was asked to speak with survivors to help them cope.

Handwriting in a district clerk log from 1980 details the five murder charges pending against Alvin Lee King III. (KXAN Photo)

All of the people interview by KXAN, both in Daingerfield and El Paso, agreed that something must be done, but there was no consensus on specific actions.

Gary Pollan advocated for practical measures, like church security, as an important strategy to stop an attack.

"Security teams are going to be the first line of defense," Gary said.

Judy said mental health resources and interventions are critical.

"It's so important to have interventions for students who are really angry, who are really resentful, who really come off as wanting to punish others," she said. "When people are identified as being a possible threat or something, I just think somebody needs to keep track of them."

Phil Sell, of El Paso, agreed that training on wound care and injuries is key. Sell said he carries a tourniquet and quick-clot kit in his pocket every day. Sell said self-defense training and knowledge of how to escape from an attack are good skills, but nobody knows how they will respond to gunman opening fire, he said.

"I'm here to tell you that you have no idea how you're going to react in a situation like that, until it happens to you," Sell said.

While nobody agreed on a specific approach to ending the violence there was a common refrain from both El Paso and Daingerfield survivors: something needs to be done.

"Doesn't matter if you're a Republican. Doesn't matter if you're a Democrat. You bleed the same blood. You have the same hurts. It affects your lives," said Cheryl Hendrick. "We've got to pull together as a country to save our own."