S1/E7: Erica Pratt / McDonald’s Massacre


Erica Pratt

Monday July 22, 2002

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


7-year-old Erica Pratt was playing with her 5-year-old sister Naliyah just outside their grandmother’s Southwest Philadelphia home. A white car with two men pulled up beside them and one of the men called to Erica by name. When Erica approached the car, a man in the passenger side opened the door and pulled her into the car. The only other eyewitness, 6-year-old Rani Byrd attempted to help Erica, but was pushed down to the ground before the driver sped away, leaving Naliyah hysterical after witnessing her sister’s abduction. By the time Naliyah and Rani were able to describe what happened to nearby adults; the car was nowhere to be found.

The kidnappers blindfolded Erica and bound her hands and feet with duct tape. They took her to an abandoned row house in North Philadelphia, just 12 miles from the abduction site. She was taken to a dark basement and left alone there while her kidnappers attempted to ransom her for $150,000.

While it seemed odd that a working class family would be targeted for a ransom, a rumor had been going around the neighborhood that Erica’s family had received $150,000 in the form of a life insurance payment after Erica’s uncle had been shot and killed the month before.

The rumors…were not true. There was no way the family would be able to come up with the money to get Erica back.


July 23

After a sleepless night for Erica’s family, police were starting to put together a list of suspects. They announced that 29-year-old James Burns and 23-year-old Edward Johnson were wanted for questioning.

Even during this announcement, Erica was doing her very best to free herself. She gnawed for hours on the duct tape that kept her immobile. Miraculously, she was left alone long enough to succeed in chewing through the tape enough to move about the darkened basement. She felt her way to the steps leading up the main level of the house. There was a locked door barring her escape. She didn’t give up. She kicked at the door until a wooden panel gave out, creating the opening that allowed her access to a window. Erica punched out the window and screamed for help. Thankfully, two boys had been playing nearby and heard her plea for help. They found a pair of police officers and led them to the house.

Other than a cut on her cornea and emotional trauma, Erica was unharmed and returned to her family.

Philadelphia police Chief Inspector Robert Davis said “’It amazes me that a girl who is only 7 years old has the composure to take the time to gnaw her way out of the duct tape and get out.”


July 25

Police arrested James Burns and Edward Johnson.

July 26

Erica Pratt was named Time’s Person of the week. An article was written praising her for her courage and perseverance.

July 30, 2003

Almost exactly a year after the abduction of Erica Pratt, Burns and Johnson both plead guilty to their respective charges, and were handed down their sentences. Burns was the driver of the car: he received 14 and a half to 49 years in prison. Johnson was the man who physically grabbed Erica from the street: he received 10 to 37 years in prison.

While Erica’s story rightfully received media attention, many similar stories of African-American children being abducted are never covered in the press. Critics have drawn attention to what has come to be known as “Missing White Girl Syndrome” when discussing the disproportionate news coverage.  Coined by PBS anchor Gwen Ifill , the phrase describes the privilege afforded by news media to white female victims of abduction. While news coverage of such crimes are obviously warranted, it often overshadows the many cases of missing people of color. Some have called it institutional racism, while others argue that it’s a matter of serving public interest.  It has been argued that Erica Pratt’s story would never have come to light if she had simply remained missing.

As of 2013, Erica was planning to attend Florida A&M for Veterinary Medicine. When asked what advice she would give to other young survivors of kidnapping, she said counseling helped her, but warned that counseling alone is not a cure-all. She said the kidnapping is never far from her thoughts and she still doesn’t like walking alone on the street.


San Ysidro McDonald’s Massacre

October 11, 1942

James Oliver Huberty was born to Earl and Icle Huberty in Canton, Ohio. James contracted polio when he was three years old. While he made a nearly full recovery, he would forever struggle with walking difficulties as an effect of his illness.

James was still a preteen when his father moved the family to Pennsylvania, where he bought a farm in Lancaster County, also known as Amish Country. Icle was unwilling to live in an Amish area, so she left, abandoning her family entirely.


James Huberty attended Malone College in Canton, where he met Etna Markland. The two began dating. Huberty studied sociology but would soon change his pursuits and his school. He began studying the funeral service program at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. He maintained his relationship with Etna Markland despite living in different states.


Huberty and Markland were married and settled in Canton. Huberty then obtained his embalming license and started working at a funeral home. After two years he decided funereal work was not for him, so he decided to become a welder.  The couple then made a short move to Massillon, just 8 miles west of Canton.

Over the next few years, Huberty began to show signs of mental instability and became progressively abusive to Etna. She eventually filed a report with the Canton Department of Children and Family Services after Huberty hit her hard enough to dislocate her jaw. Nevertheless, the couple stayed together.


The Hubertys’ first daughter, Zelia was born.


Etna gave birth to their second daughter, Cassandra.

Despite having the seemingly ideal American life; a career, a family and a house, Huberty personally felt the pressures of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. He believed Soviet aggression was rampant and that the breakdown of society was approaching, whether through nuclear war or economic collapse. He theorized that international bankers were manipulating the Federal Reserve in order to bankrupt the United States. Moreover, he thought the American Government was complicit by enacting regulations that caused small businesses to fail.

Huberty identified as a survivalist and surrounded himself with firearms. He was almost literally within arm’s reach of a gun anywhere in his home. He stocked his house with thousands of dollars of non-perishable food in preparation for the inevitable chaos that would follow the collapse of society as we knew it.


Huberty found himself out of work after a plant closing in Canton Ohio. He moved his family to Tijuana, Mexico. He left nearly all their possessions in storage when they moved, with the notable exception of his gun collection. While Etna, Cassandra and Zelia adapted well to their new environs, James Huberty became uncommunicative and dour. After just two months, Huberty uprooted his family again and relocated them to an apartment in San Ysidro, a suburb of San Diego, California. Huberty found work there as a security guard at a condominium.

July 10, 1984

Huberty was let go by his employer.

July 15

James Huberty confided in his wife that he thought he may have a quote unquote mental problem.

July 17

To his credit, Huberty took it upon himself to reach out to a mental health clinic. He called and left his name and number with the receptionist, who assured him his call would be returned within an hour or two. Etna later said Huberty sat silent beside their phone for several hours, but when the call never came, he stormed out of the house and drove away on his motorcycle.  It was later revealed that the receptionist had written Huberty’s name down wrong and logged his call as a non-crisis inquiry, due to his calm and polite manner. Unfortunately, non-crisis inquiries weren’t considered urgent and had a 48 hour window for return calls.   By that time, it would be far too late.

Huberty returned home an hour after he left. His mood had changed considerably. He seemed…happy.  The whole family biked to a nearby park after having dinner and Huberty and Etna later watched a movie together.  Huberty’s good mood was a welcome change for Etna, Zelia and Cassandra.  It wouldn’t last long.

July 18

Huberty took Etna, Zelia and Cassandra to the San Diego Zoo.  While there, he lamented to Etna that since the mental health clinic hadn’t returned his call, his life was over, and said “Well, society had their chance”.

The family had lunch at a McDonald’s located in the Clairemont area of San Diego. Upon returning home, Etna relaxed in their bedroom, while James gathered a makeshift carry-all using one of the family’s blankets. He then went into their bedroom, leaned over towards Etna and said “I want to kiss you goodbye”.

When Etna asked him where he was going, Huberty said “I’m going hunting humans”.

As Huberty walked out the front door, he looked to Zelia and said “Goodbye. I won’t be back.”

He loaded the blanket into his black Mercury Marquis. Inside the blanket were a 9mm Uzi Carbine, a 9mm Browning HP semi-automatic pistol, a Winchester 12 gauge pump-action shotgun, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition for each of the weapons.

After considering a supermarket and a post office as the outlet for his rage, Huberty, for reasons unknown, decided on the McDonald’s on San Ysidro boulevard just a block from his home.  He pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot at approximately 3:55 PM, right before the dinner rush. Still, the restaurant was busy enough, with 45 customers inside.

Huberty entered the building. He aimed his 12 gauge at John Arnold, a 16 year-old employee. The assistant manager on shift saw Huberty and tried to warn Arnold, but it was too late. Huberty pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Thinking it was a very bad joke, Arnold walked away while Huberty inspected the shotgun. He cleared the gun and shot it into the ceiling before picking up the Uzi. He aimed it at 22-year-old Neva Caine, the on-shift manager. Huberty shot her beneath the left eye, claiming his first victim. She died within minutes after being shot.  He then immediately switched to his shotgun again and shot Arnold in the chest.

It was now 4PM. The first call of a shooting was received by police. Four police patrol units and one supervisor were dispatched.  A description of Huberty was received and broadcast. Huberty began screaming at his hostages, saying “Get on the floor you dirty swine. I’ve already killed thousands in Vietnam. I’ll fucking kill a thousand more”

Huberty had not, in fact served in Vietnam. He was never even enlisted in any military branch.

Victor Rivera, a 25-year-old patron, tried to talk Huberty out of shooting any more people. Rivera was there with his wife and two young children. He begged Huberty to spare them.  This angered Huberty, who aimed his Uzi at Rivera and shot him. After Rivera fell screaming in pain to the floor, Huberty shot him thirteen more times, repeatedly telling him to shut up. Rivera died in front of his young family.

Wendy Flanagan was in the kitchen area getting ice when the gun fire started. She initially mistook the noise for firecrackers and continued working.  Her co-worker, Maggie Padilla ran toward her, grabbed her hand and told Flanagan to run. As the two ran towards the basement entrance, Padilla tripped and fell. Flanagan let go of her hand and continued into the utility room in the basement.  A split second decision that would forever haunt her.

Flanagan was joined by other customers and McDonald’s employees. She later said “We stayed in there, we listened to the gunfire. I would hear people beg for their lives, babies crying, and the rapid gunfire, and then the moms screaming, and quiet again.”

One of the people she heard begging for their life was Maggie Padilla. After failing to reach the utility room, Padilla hid behind the counter with her coworkers, Alex Vasquez, Alberto Leos, Paulina Aguino , Elsa Borboa and customer Guillermo Flores. Flores was on the phone with police when Huberty jumped over the counter and said “Oh, there’s more.”  He then became enraged and screamed “You’re trying to hide from me, you bastards!”

As Huberty pointed his Uzi at the group, one of the women repeatedly screamed “No me mates!” or “don’t kill me” in Spanish. Huberty opened fire.  The three men jumped up and ran; Flores was able to make his way to an emergency exit while Vasquez found another exit, but Leos was grabbed by one of the women and pulled to the ground.   All three women were shot multiple times, then shot in the head to ensure their deaths. Leos was wounded, but somehow managed to crawl under a table.

An elderly couple, oblivious to the situation, walked toward the McDonald’s entrance. 74-year-old Miguel Ulloa began to open the door for his wife, Aida, when Huberty shot her in the face with his shotgun, killing her instantly.  Ulloa cradled his wife in his arms and wiped blood off of her face. He began cursing Huberty and shouting at him. Huberty walked up to Ulloa and fatally shot him in the head.

Outside, Lydia Flores was driving with her two-year old daughter and decided to stop to grab something to eat. As she pulled into the parking lot she stopped near the food pickup window. She saw shattered windows and heard gunfire. She immediately reversed her car when she saw Huberty himself. Luckily, he either didn’t notice her or didn’t care, as she was able to hide in her car with her daughter until the massacre was over.  At the same time, three eleven year old friends were approaching the McDonald’s from the other entrance when they heard a man yelling to them from across the street. They had no idea what he was saying, but they stopped their bikes in the parking lot to look at him. Just then, gunfire rang out from within the building. Alternating between the Uzi and shotgun, Huberty shot Joshua Coleman in the back, arm and leg, Omarr Hernandez multiple times in the back, and David Delgado multiple times in the head. Coleman was critically wounded, but survived. Hernandez and Delgado died at the scene.

62-year-old Laurence Versluis was shot and killed by Huberty, who then turned his attention to the families near the PlayPlace area of McDonald’s. Ronald and Blythe Herrera were dining with their 11-year-old son Mateo and his friend, 12-year-old Keith Thomas. Blythe tried to protect Mateo while Ronald shielded Thomas with his own body. As Huberty approached them, Ronald Herrera told Thomas to stay still. Huberty opened fire, killing Blythe and Mateo Herrera, and wounding Ronald Herrera and Keith Thomas. While Thomas didn’t escape injury, Herrera took the brunt of the gunfire and most likely saved Thomas’ life.

It is at this point that police realized they had been mistakenly dispatched to a McDonald’s two miles from the site of the shooting.

While the police were rerouting, another unsuspecting family approached the McDonald’s. Astolfo and Maricela Felix were planning to go through the drive-through with their four-month old daughter, Karla. Astolfo noticed a broken window and assumed the restaurant was undergoing renovation. Huberty saw their car and walked outside toward the young family. Astolfo saw Huberty, but mistook him for a repairman until he saw the guns. By then, it was too late. Huberty opened fire with his Uzi and shotgun, striking all three occupants of the car. Maricela was shot in the face, arms and chest, Astolfo was hit in the head and chest. Little Karla was shot in neck, chest and stomach. Amazingly, all three survived. Maricela held Karla in her arms and pleaded for someone… anyone to save her baby. Astolfo was able to take Karla and hand her off to a stranger. Police accompanied the stranger to the hospital, where Karla was treated.

Officer Mike Rosario was the first to arrive at the scene and reported that shots were being fired at him.  He requested a code 10, or SWAT alert. A special weapons and tactics team was assembled. A paramedic unit that arrived to the scene, but was also kept at bay by gunfire from Huberty.

Back inside the building, Huberty continued his reign of terror. He shot at anyone that moved. Families huddled under tables and against walls. Mothers and fathers shielded their children with their own bodies.  Two women were doing their best to protect nearby children. They huddled together and though they offered no resistance, Huberty targeted them. He shot 19-year-old Maria Colmenero-Silva with a single, fatal gunshot to the chest. He then took aim at 9-year-old Claudia Perez. He used his Uzi to kill her by shooting her in the chest, back, leg, hip, thigh, cheek, stomach and head.

That same spat of gunfire wounded Perez’s 15 year old sister Imelda, who sustained one bullet wound to the chest.  Huberty next shot 11-year-old Aurora Pena in the leg with a shotgun. Before he could shoot Pena again, her 18-year-old aunt, Jackie Reyes shielded her with her own body. Huberty shot Reyes 48 times with his Uzi. Reyes had been pregnant. Both she and her unborn baby were dead. Reyes also had an 8 month old son, Carlos Reyes, who sat beside his mother’s body and began to sob. He was shot and killed with a single pistol shot to the middle of his back.

By this time, a command post was established two blocks from the McDonald’s.

Inside the utility room, Flanagan heard someone trying to get in, hitting the door, then sliding down. It was Alberto Leos. Though wounded by the five bullets that tore through his body, he had managed to crawl to the basement. As his co-workers used shoelaces for makeshift tourniquets, Leos bit into his own clothes to keep from screaming from the pain.

He later said: “Not knowing what was going to happen, not knowing what the future was going to be, I was very distraught. I was very dizzy from all the blood loss, so I said a quick prayer, and this is what the prayer was — God, give me the strength to get through this to see my family one more time. If you keep me here and give me a second chance at life, I’m going to do something good with my life.”

Police were on the scene and tried to aid victims of the shooting, but Huberty suppressed any and all rescue attempts with gunfire. He seemed to have eyes everywhere. In fact, police initially thought there were multiple shooters, since different types of firearms were being used in rapid succession. Shattered windows made it hard for police to see inside the restaurant. A SWAT team had joined police. A sniper was positioned on the roof of the post office next to the McDonald’s. The sniper had authorization to kill Huberty on sight.

24 year-old Guadalupe del Rio was with her friend, 31-year-old Arisdelsy Vargas, who attempted to shield del Rio when Huberty began shooting in their direction. Vargas succeeded in saving her friend’s life, at the cost of her own. While Del Rio was hit multiple times in the neck, chest, abdomen and back, she was not critically wounded. Vargas was shot once in the back of the head and died the next day.

Huberty moved on and fatally shot 45-year-old banker Hugo Velazquez with a single shot to the chest.

Running low on ammunition, Hubert narrowed his focus and stalked through the restaurant looking for survivors. He heard a moan and approached a table where 22-year-old Gloria Gonzalez and 18-year-old Michelle Carncross lied dead. Their friend, 19 year-old Jose Perez, was wounded but still alive.  Huberty shot Perez in the head, killing him instantly.

Huberty continued walking around the restaurant. Aurora Pena, whose pregnant aunt had shielded her earlier, opened her eyes after the long absence of gunfire. She saw Huberty looking right at her. Angered, he cursed at her and threw a bag of french fries at her before shooting her in the arm, neck and chest with his shotgun. Amazingly, Pena survived the assault.

Over an hour had passed since Huberty fired his first shot. Huberty might have thought he had killed every person in the McDonald’s as he continued walking around the building.

One final shot rang out.

SWAT sniper Charles Foster finally had a clear line of sight to Huberty. He took his shot, killing Huberty with a bullet to the chest that left a one square inch exit wound in his back. Huberty fell onto the floor in front of the service counter and died moments later.

The SWAT team secured and entered the McDonald’s. When it was all said and done, 21 lives were senselessly taken that day.

Due to the high number of victims, local funeral homes had to use the San Ysidro Civic center to hold services.

The survivors had their lives changed that day.

Maricela Felix is blind in one eye and loss the use of one of her hands. Her daughter, Karla, was just a baby at the time, so thankfully doesn’t remember the events of that horrible day. She still bears the scars, however; one on her stomach and several on her back. If that wasn’t enough of a reminder, half of the bullet that entered her head remains there to this day.

Alberto Leos, who prayed that he would do something good if his life was spared, made good on his promise. Leos spent three months in the hospital, undergoing five surgeries before spending two years in physical and psychological therapy.  In 1987, he fulfilled his childhood dream, and became a police officer. He has had a celebrated career and has worked his way through the ranks to become a Captain in the San Diego police department.

Etna Huberty was criticized for not reporting her husband’s behavior and his statements of intent before leaving the house that mid-July day. She never gave an explanation as to why she stayed silent. Just a year after her husband killed 21 people, Huberty unsuccessfully tried to sell the book and movie rights for her life story. After opposition from the San Ysidro community, the deal fell through. She died at age 60 on October 1, 2003 after battling breast cancer.

Zelia Huberty was just 12 years old in 1984. While she didn’t fully grasp the horrible reality of the massacre at the time, but has said “If I could go back in time I probably would have killed my father before any of this would have occurred.”

The San Ysidro Boulevard McDonald’s was refurbished and renovated within 2 days of the massacre. The plan was to open the restaurant for business as soon as possible. Community leaders pushed back on that plan, and McDonald’s wisely agreed to raze the building on July 28th. The corporation donated the property to the city of San Ysidro. It was bought in 1988 by Southwestern College, with a 300 square foot area dedicated to a memorial for the 21 victims that died at Huberty’s hand.

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