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California bar shooting stuns idyllic Thousand Oaks: 'Nothing ever happens here'

In the shadow of the Santa Monica Mountains in Ventura County, Thousand Oaks was recently named the third-safest city in America.
Mourners comfort one another during the procession of Sgt. Ron Helus, who was killed in the shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill, in Thousand Oaks, California, on Nov. 8, 2018.
Mourners comfort one another after the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California.Apu Gomes / AFP - Getty Images

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — With a barrage of bullets inside a packed bar here, a gunman killed 12 people — and shattered an idyllic community’s long-held sense of safety.

The shooting happened late Wednesday at the Borderline Bar and Grill, a popular venue. Among those killed was Ventura CountySheriff Sgt. Ron Helus after rushing in to try to stop the shooter, who was later found dead at the scene.

On Thursday, stunned Thousand Oaks residents struggled to absorb the previous night's events.

“Nothing ever happens here. Never, never, never,” Bob Zappia, a 30-year resident of Thousand Oaks, said while picking up breakfast at Foster’s Donuts, several minutes from the Borderline. Zappia, who drives for Uber and Lyft, said he has picked passengers up from the bar before and described it as a “wholesome” pub that doesn’t usually get rowdy.

Thousand Oaks, Zappia added, is not a place that generally makes the news.

In the shadow of the Santa Monica Mountains in Ventura County, Thousand Oaks is about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Named the third-safest city in America this year by data analysis website Niche, it is an upscale community of about 130,000 residents, according to latest census figures.

It has earned accolades as a great place to raise kids, and its public schools are among the top in the nation.

The affluent city boasts thousands of acres of natural open space and includes gated communities that attract celebrities. A community attitude survey conducted on behalf of the city last year found that 96 percent of residents held favorable views of their quality of life there.

In a promotional video on the city website, residents describe Thousand Oaks as a vibrant place filled with restaurants, nature trails and major corporations, including biopharmaceutical company Amgen.

“This is a little piece of heaven.”

Among those in the video is Chris Harrison, host of ABC’s “The Bachelor” series, who moved to the area after growing up in Texas.

“This is a little piece of heaven,” he said of Thousand Oaks.

At the Borderline Bar and Grill, Wednesday is the weekly “college country night” for students; while there is just one small university, California Lutheran University, in Thousand Oaks itself, there are more than a dozen within a 30-mile radius of the city center, including Moorpark College 8 miles away, Pepperdine University 14 miles away and California State University Northridge 20 miles away.

California Lutheran students described the Borderline as a favorite haunt, where they could kick back midweek or on weekends.

On Wednesdays, patrons listen to country music and take line-dancing lessons from a DJ, they said. Several students said they knew the bar staff so well, they felt like family.

“It’s a place you would go in the middle of the week just to detox and get away from the pressure of studying,” said freshman Christopher Noji, who has barely missed a Wednesday night since school started. “It’s like our safe place. It’s a sanctuary. Now I guess that is lost.”

Noji was ready to go to the Borderline on Wednesday night but said he and his friends changed their minds at the last minute.

“I had a biology test today. People were tired. We just weren’t feeling it,” Noji said. “It’s a blessing. It’s a miracle, to be honest.”

Pepperdine junior Madeleine Carr said she and her roommate had thought about going the the Borderline Wednesday night, but her roommate decided not to because of homework, so Carr didn't go either.

“When I heard it, it seemed just really surreal, that the place that you just, maybe an hour ago, were like, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll go’ — just like the odds of that occurring and just the close-to-home nature of it … it just blew my mind.”

The full list of victims' names had not been released as of Thursday afternoon. A family reunification center was set up at the Alex Fiore Thousand Oaks Teen Center, where relatives and friends anxiously waited for news.

Tucker Gibson, 19, arrived looking for an update on a friend from childhood who couldn't be reached after the shooting.

"I don't know where he is," Gibson said. "I wanted to hear about my friend. They said he's missing still," he said as he left the center. His friend, Blake Dingman, 21, was later confirmed by his family to be among the dead.

Meanwhile, at La Reina High School, where a scheduled blood drive was taking place, hundreds of people were waiting in a line that stretched far down the block to donate.

"This is our community," said Terri Healy, 56, of Simi Valley, who was in line with co-workers from the medical office where they work, which is next door to the Borderline. "You just want to do something."

Kimberly Gausman, 40, a mother of two, waited for more than an hour and a half to donate blood. When she saw the huge line of donors, she said she "welled up with tears, because it does give some comfort."

Ventura County sheriff's Sgt. Julie Novak told NBC News affiliate KNBC that the attack would not change the giving nature of the area.

"Thousand Oaks is not going to be defined by this shooting," she said. "There is good out there. And I’m just so proud of this community."

Stan Ziegler, a captain and spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department, said part of what makes Thousand Oaks such a desirable place to live is its strong "community feeling."

He said he hoped residents would not stop living their everyday lives as a result of the shooting.

“We don’t have to live in fear,” he said.

Richie Duchon, Phil Helsel and James Rainey reported from Thousand Oaks. Elizabeth Chuck reported from New York.