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Fresno, Calif., plant workers deal with grief, fear in wake of shooting

This news story was published on November 8, 2012.
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By Tim Sheehan and Marc Benjamin, The Fresno Bee –

FRESNO, Calif. — Grieving relatives and co-workers marched Wednesday evening in somber remembrance for two men slain by a co-worker in a Fresno meat processing plant the day before.

About 60 people gathered for the candlelight vigil across the street from Valley Protein on Hedges Avenue east of Blackstone Avenue. Some wept and others hugged outside the plant where Salvador Diaz, 32, and Manuel Verdin, 34, were fatally shot Tuesday morning. Arnulfo Conrriquez, 28, and Fatima Lopez, 32,were wounded before the attacker, Lawrence Jones, killed himself.

Employees on the first shift were to report to work at 5 a.m., but Wednesday was for grieving and remembering. With the plant shut down for the day, still-stunned employees talked to grief counselors.

What continues to mystify investigators, company owners and workers is why Jones, a former parolee with a lengthy criminal record, opened fire inside the plant and why he chose those victims. Two of the four had worked at Valley Protein for only a week, another for a few months.

“Nobody knows why it happened. There were no arguments that ensued or anything that led into this,” Valley Protein president Bob Coyle said.

Some found comfort in prayer at Wednesday night’s vigil. They shared memories of the dead.

Diaz “was one of the funniest people you could talk to, watch a movie with and laugh with,” said his cousin, Ofelia Olea. He loved to eat at Pizza Hut and Wendy’s.

But he had a serious side, she added, and he was working hard to turn his life around after being associated with gangs.

“I know his past hasn’t been the greatest, but he was changing,” Olea said. “He was going to work, he was doing what he needed to do to change his life.”

He had no wife or children of his own, but Olea said he enjoyed spending time with his sister’s family and taking care of her children.

Verdin’s friend, Chris Martinez of Fresno, offered an impassioned prayer at the vigil for the victims, their families and their co-workers.

“Some of them are confused, and they don’t understand how something like this could take place,” said Martinez, who used to work with Verdin at another meat company. “They were at work trying to support their families, and somebody came in and gunned them down.”

Martinez said Verdin lived in Parlier with his wife, who also works at Valley Protein, and their 2-year-old son, Manuel Jr. “She’s taking it pretty hard, but we’re here to take care of her,” he said.

“The Manuel that I knew was there for his kid. He was a loving father and husband,” said Martinez, who is with Victory Outreach Fresno West. “The man I knew was a happy, good character, he was responsible and just wanted to do right for his family and be there for his son.”

Earlier Wednesday, about 50 employees gathered to meet at the plant. Counselors from the Fresno Police Department were there to help.

“Our idea, with the counselors’ direction, was to let everyone talk about their feelings about what happened yesterday, what they saw, what they feel right now and what they’re going to feel like coming back to work tomorrow,” Coyle said.

Coyle said employees are baffled by the violence: “Some people wanted to know if anybody else knew anything or saw anything about why this happened, and of course nobody did,” he said.

“I think they just wanted some reassurance that things are going to be OK, and we’re working hard to make sure they are.”

Because some workers expressed lingering fear about returning to the plant, Coyle said, police counselors will continue to be available.

Jones was about 3 ½ hours into his shift when he walked up to Diaz, put a .357-caliber derringer to his head and fired. Verdin was next, shot in the head in the same methodical way. Then he shot Conrriquez in the neck; Conrriquez remains hospitalized in critical condition at Community Regional Medical Center.

Police think that amid the plant’s noisy machinery, employees — some wearing ear protection — might have been unaware of the shooting. Lopez, who saw what was happening and ran, was shot in the buttocks. She was treated at the hospital and released Tuesday.

Jones also put his gun to the head of a fifth employee, Esteban Catano, who was spared because Jones’ four-shot gun was out of ammunition.

After the shots rang out, Coyle said, Jones went into a quick-freeze room in the plant and was confronted by a manager who was trying to figure out what was going on. “That’s when he (Jones) left the building,” Coyle said.

Out on the street, Jones apparently reloaded his gun, put the weapon to his head and fired a single shot. He was declared dead at the CRMC emergency room.

Verdin and Conrriquez had worked for the company for only a week, and Diaz started working at the plant in June, said Coyle’s wife, Michelle, who handles Valley Protein’s human-resources duties. Lopez has been with the company for about two years.

More details came to light Wednesday about Jones’ background, including his discharge from parole supervision 11 months after he served about seven years in state prison for auto theft — his third stretch in the California prison system since 1991.

A Fresno County mental health evaluation in 2004 diagnosed Jones with intermittent explosive disorder, drug-induced psychotic disorder and dependence on multiple substances including amphetamine, marijuana and alcohol. He was seen many times by jail psychiatric services staff who described him as mentally unstable.

“The majority of the contacts have been crisis-related,” wrote psychologist Adrian Della-Porta. “He has a history of acting out around his court dates. He has consistently refused medication offered to him.”

Jones had two robbery convictions in Alameda County and Fresno County, according to court documents. His most recent prison sentence originated in Fresno, where he led police on an hourlong chase in a stolen vehicle 10 years ago.

Jones was sentenced to 10 years and eight months. He was paroled in June 2011, and released from parole in May.

An autopsy on Jones was conducted Wednesday by the Fresno County Coroner’s Office, but it may take a week or more for results of toxicology tests to determine if he had drugs or alcohol in his system.

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