The Luby's Cafeteria Massacre of 1991

Apr 30, 2015 - by Robert Walsh - 0 Comments

Luby's Massacre (Photo: New York Daily News)

In a great twist of Texas-style irony, the mass murder at Luby's Cafeteria in 1991, where 23 were shot to death and 20 wounded, led not to calls for gun-control but to the passage of legislation signed by Gov. George W. Bush that eased the way for citizens to obtain concealed-carry licenses.

by Robert Walsh

On October 16, 1991, unemployed merchant seaman George "Jo Jo" Hennard committed what was at the time the largest mass murder in U.S. history at Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, when he shot to death 23 people and wounded 20 others before taking his own life 13 minutes after his rampage began. The Luby's massacre is still America’s third-largest mass shooting ever and the largest non-school mass shooting in American history.

A Loner

George Hennard
George Hennard

But why? What would drive a person to do something so appalling? And what kind of man was George Hennard

The answer to that would be a very disturbed, deeply troubled man, according to many who knew him, although nobody felt he had the potential for such a crime. In an interview with The New York Times shop clerk Mary Mead described Hennard's general demeanor and the difference in him just before the shootings:

“George never smiled when he came in here. He just seemed like he had the world on his shoulders. He was a loner. He never talked. But yesterday he seemed almost calm, even a little friendly, for the only time I can remember. Usually, I was scared of him.”

Mead had cause to know Hennard on a passing basis as he bought breakfast at her workplace, six days a week. Other acquaintances describe him as combative, impatient, rude, troubled and a loner. One occasional drinking buddy, Tom Snyder, described him as particularly obnoxious when drunk. In short, George Hennard was never a people person.

Hennard was 35 years old at the time of the shootings, his birthday was the day before the massacre. He was unemployed and down on his luck. The son of a housewife and retired Army officer, Hennard had previously served two years with the U.S. Navy, gaining an honorable discharge before joining the Merchant Marine in 1977.

His discharge from the Merchant Marine in May, 1989 was less than honorable. He lost his place aboard ship when marijuana was found in his room while his ship was docked in Oakland, California. A second drug bust cost him his seaman’s papers without which working at sea, the only job he seemed happy in, was no longer open to him. He became progressively more embittered, rude and difficult around people in general from then on. The loss of his job signalled the beginning of his own decline.

Colleagues aboard ship were glad to see him gone. As much as Hennard enjoyed life at sea, his shipmates didn’t seem to enjoy sharing a ship with him. Speaking to The New York Times, Ike Williams, port agent for the national maritime union in Wilmington, California, summed up Hennard’s behavior towards his shipmates:“He was very loud and he appeared to be combative at times. He would come in with a very cold look and be very argumentative, loud, boisterous, sometimes cursing and swearing.”

Hardly atypical behavior in a sailor, a certain amount of roughness isn’t unusual in that line of work. Hennard’s boorishness and roughness was more obvious than usual and certainly more than was comfortable for his shipmates. According to Williams, Hennard never lasted long aboard any ship he was assigned to. After his drug bust, Williams recalled Hennard asking for a letter of recommendation enabling Hennard to regain his seaman’s papers and return to the Merchant Marine. Williams didn’t provide one.

In February, 1991, only months before embarking on his mass murder binge at Luby's, Hennard learned that his attempt to regain seagoing status had been denied. This fanned the flames of Hennard’s entrenched rage at the world and, rather than face his own personal difficulties, he decided to take out his frustrations in the most destructive way possible.

Hennard immediately started his preparations for seeking his revenge. He took a trip to the town of Henderson, Nevada, where he visited Mike’s Gun House owned by Michael Buchanan. There he purchased two pistols and plenty of ammunition. Despite his having a history of drug abuse, he had little difficulty in purchasing his weapons. That ease of purchase would soon cost many innocent people their lives.

The Massacre at Luby's Cafeteria

Lubys Massacre Truck (Photo godfatherpolitics.com)Hennard spent his time between buying his guns and committing his crime unemployed, living at his mother’s house in Benton. Unemployed and unemployable, at least at the only occupation he was suited for, he brooded, waited and planned. Benton isn’t far from Killeen but, while Benton is a small town, Killeen is a larger town owing to the nearby military base at Fort Hood. Both are typical Texas towns made up of urban sprawl and predominately honest, hard-working people, different only in their size and only a short drive apart.

Hennard began his assault on Luby's at the height of the lunch hour by crashing his pickup truck through the glass front of the cafeteria at 12:39 p.m. As the pickup truck came smashing through the glass, the stunned diners were showered with glass fragments. Initially thinking the truck had crashed accidentally, some of the diners went to help the driver only to be shot down where they stood. Hennard instantly stepped out of his truck, one gun in each hand and, bellowing “This is what Bell County did to me! This is payback day!”  and opened fire.

Carrying Glock 17 and Ruger P89 pistols with plenty of spare clips, Hennard methodically circled the cafeteria where about 140 people were now scrambling to avoid the onslaught. As he roamed around the dining room it seemed to be most intent on killing women, frequently passing over men who were equally at his mercy. He seemed to pick his targets with more care than the typical lone gunman, many of whom simply kill anybody who appears in front of them. He also went largely for shots most likely to be fatal -- 10 of the 23 people killed were murdered with gunshots to their heads rather than Hennard aiming randomly. With seemingly total focus on killing as many people as possible, he stalked round and round the cafeteria like a predator, picking his targets, killing with an almost automatic precision and absolute ruthlessness.

The Victims

The first to die was local veterinarian Michael Griffith who, with bitter irony, had approached the crashed pick-up to offer assistance, thinking this was simply an ordinary road accident. Among the first to be wounded (and both of whose parents died in the shooting) was Suzanna Hupp, later to become a Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives and an opponent of gun-control legislation. Hupp normally carried a .38 revolver in her purse, but had left the weapon outside in her car. She’d left her gun outside to avoid breaking strict Texas rules at the time of the shooting, rules expressly forbidding carrying concealed firearms in a public place. Thus, perhaps when she most needed her gun, it was outside and entirely out of reach. Her father charged Hennard and was fatally shot. Her mother was murdered cradling her dying husband. Customer Tommy Vaughn managed to evade the gunfire. Throwing a table through the windows, he created an escape route for himself and many others in the cafeteria while Hennard continued methodically picking his targets, aiming and firing his guns with an almost-military precision.

More victims swiftly followed. Hennard repeatedly emptied and reloaded his pistols with fresh clips, intent on causing the maximum carnage. Loading, aiming, firing and reloading, Hennard stalked through the building methodically slaughtering the diners as he went. Bodies and dozens of spent cartridges littered the floor and a miasma of cordite fumes tainted the afternoon air. Panic-stricken diners hid behind chairs and under tables, intent on avoiding the bullets flying in all directions as Hennard wreaked havoc.

When police officers responded to a 911 call from Luby's, Hennard fired at the officers and was fired upon. He was seriously wounded in the exchange. Hennard retreated into a restroom and shot himself in the head. At 12:52 p.m., only 13 minutes after the assault began, he was dead.

He left behind 43 dead and wounded customers. Women were the principal victims of Hennard’s rampage. Of the 23 people killed, 14 were women and nine other women were wounded. The men shot by Hennard were seemingly an afterthought and he didn’t injure any minors.

Investigation

Subsequent investigations by local police uncovered Hennard’s obsessions with serial killers and a particular obsession with a song by rock band Steely Dan entitled "Don’t Take Me Alive," a song about a violent criminal engaging in a last stand against law enforcement. The owner of the record store where he bought the album described Hennard as unable to cope with his place in life, having lost his career and harboring an apparent desire to be remembered for something, regardless of what it might be. The store clerk also described Hennard as having a particular obsession with "Don’t Take Me Alive." Lyrics include:

"A man of my mind can do anything...Here in this darkness I know what I’ve done, I know all at once who I am."

Police also discovered a 1989 calendar at Hennard’s home. Remarks scrawled on the calendar included: "They shall live with what they have created and they shall find no redemption in what they have done."

His final remark was: "There is simply no hope and not a prayer."

Police also discovered two videos. One was a documentary on the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 during the Lockerbie bombing of 1987. The other was on serial killers and mass murderers including James Huberty’s California massacre, similar to Hennard’s own crime. It seems that Hennard had been researching mass murder and shooting massacres for some months before committing his own

Misogyny

Hennard’s misogyny is attested to by two events, one prior to the massacre and his actions during it. Before the shootings he had stalked two local teenagers whose names he didn’t know. They lived near his mother’s home in Benton at which he often lived between seagoing jobs. He sent the two young women a letter praising their individual "virtues" but stating that: "All women of Killeen and Belton are vipers!" No evidence has so far been discovered for his having any other motive than a hatred of women and pent-up bitterness and rage at the world in general and his own place in it. The precise reason for his hatred of women is also unclear, although it’s often the case that individuals like Hennard are seldom popular with the opposite sex and often bitterly resent the fact.

FBI profiler John Douglas concurs with the idea of a lone gunman looking for revenge upon a society he despises. In a "48 Hours" documentary Douglas, one of the pioneers of criminal profiling, described those who engage in mass murder:

“They have a long history of personal life failings. They want to manipulate, dominate, control somebody because they feel that this insignificant nobody (meaning themselves) has been manipulated, has been dominated and controlled for his or her life and now ‘Here’s my opportunity to dish it out. I can call the shots, I can make the decision whether this person will live or die with just a snap of my fingers.'"

According to Northeastern University Sociology Professor Jack Leven there are several criteria under which mass murderers are most likely to act. First is frustration. Life isn’t going their way, they’re not getting breaks and opportunities that they feel they deserve and are entitled to. The fact that others seem to be getting those breaks and opportunities, in Leven’s view, while the mass murderer is not, tends to fuel their personal fire. Second is isolation, a resentment of the fact that they don’t feel themselves a part of mainstream society. They feel rejected, frustrated and bitter. They act methodically, often planning their crimes over a long period, picking out a potential target and planning thoroughly. Loss also plays a part, loss of status, of a particularly cherished job, a bereavement, things that breed upset and emotional turmoil in most of us, but seldom to a degree where suicide or mass murder become an option. According to Leven, most people confronted with these problems relieve their frustrations and resentments in other ways and try to make the best of life’s difficulties.

Of those who don’t or can’t cope in more conventional ways, a few will take their own lives. Unable to stand life’s pressures they seek any available means to relieve them. A very few, like George Hennard, decide to take others with them. They decide, in their own minds, to restore their status and lost pride, relieve their frustration and resentment by striking out at anybody and everybody, striking with homicidal fury at society in general.

Leven argues that George Hennard fits this category perfectly and that it was Hennard’s own personal demons that led to the Luby’s massacre. Hennard selected women as his particular target while others have been indiscriminate (such as Charles Whitman) or selected for alleged political motives (such as Joseph Paul Franklin) or ethnicity and/or religion. A common thread is that, while they may particularly hate a particular group or groups within society, spree killers like George Hennard are fuelled by resentment, rage, declining personal fortunes, an inability to deal with life as it stands and an equal inability to look to their own personal deficiencies and failings. They prefer to believe that their misfortunes are the fault of their victims, denying most or all blame that might be better directed at themselves.

The Aftermath

The response to the incident was strong and fast. The local community quickly rallied round to bury the dead and comfort those injured and bereaved by Hennard’s massacre. Local pastors worked hard to comfort their parishioners while local hospital staff worked back-breaking hours to deal with the wounded. Local law enforcement worked equally hard, trying to find as much information as possible on Hennard to try and establish a motive for his crime. His troubled personal life, drug use and rampant misogyny were all cited as contributing factors in the Luby’s massacre. The response within the State of Texas didn’t stop there.

In 1995 the Texas Legislature passed a so-called "shall issue" gun law. This law required that all qualifying applicants should be issued a "Concealed Handgun License" provided they passed the criteria also laid down within the law. A Concealed Hangun License is mandatory within Texas for anybody to carry a concealed firearm, but the new law removed discretion on the part of the issuing authority. Provided an applicant met the criteria, a license would now automatically be issued.

The criteria are strict and an application is paid for by the applicant. If the applicant fails the mandatory tests then the license is denied. In order to qualify an applicant must have a clean criminal record, attend at least 10 hours of classes with a state-certified instructor, pass a 50-question test, pass a 50-round shooting test and pass two background checks. One of the tests is "shallow" and the other a "deep" background test. Both checks are aimed at ensuring that concealed-carry licenses are only granted to those the state feels are safe to have them. Each license lasts four years.

The change had been campaigned for by one of the Luby’s survivors, Suzanna Hupp. Hupp has testified at hearings and events all over the United States in support of concealed-carry laws and served in the Texas House of Representatives on the Republican ticket between 1997 and 2006. She declined to seek re-election after that period. The new law was signed by then-Texas Governor George W. Bush prior to his seeking election as President.

The town of Killeen (since rocked by two massacres at nearby military base Fort Hood) constructed a memorial to those killed and wounded. Built of simple pink granite, it bears the names of the dead and the date of the massacre, October 16, 1991. It stands behind the Killeen Community Center, not far from the former Luby’s Cafeteria.

As for Luby’s itself, it has long since closed down. After the cafeteria had been cleaned and repaired it went back to serving customers as it had before George Hennard’s rampage. Business, however, began to suffer. Despite a redesign and its owners doing their best to keep it going, it closed permanently on September 9, 2000, later re-opening as a Chinese-American buffet under the name Yank Sing.

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