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One Year Later, Lasting Grief and Renewed Resolve for Father of Victim of Isla Vista Rampage

Progress has been made with gun-safety legislation, law-enforcement policy and mental health care, but some say much work remains

Bob Weiss, who lost his 19-year-old daughter, Veronika, in the May 23, 2014, Isla Vista murder rampage, speaks out on Oct. 1, 2014, in favor of gun legislation put forward last year by Assemblyman Das Williams (pictured at right) and state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson.
Bob Weiss, who lost his 19-year-old daughter, Veronika, in the May 23, 2014, Isla Vista murder rampage, speaks out on Oct. 1, 2014, in favor of gun legislation put forward last year by Assemblyman Das Williams (pictured at right) and state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

Bob Weiss will be avoiding the memorial events going on this weekend at UC Santa Barbara and nearby Isla Vista, following the advice of newfound friends who also had a family member killed in a mass shooting.

The first anniversary is always rough, they said. You’ll have enough to deal with without taking on other people’s grief.

So, Weiss will stay home with his wife in Thousand Oaks when residents across Santa Barbara County and the country remember and honor their daughter, Veronika, and the five other UCSB students lost a year ago Saturday after a mentally ill gunman went on a warpath around Isla Vista on May 23, 2014.

The university will host a candlelight vigil at 7:30 p.m. in Storke Plaza before a processional of hundreds marches to People’s Park in the adjacent college community, where a new memorial garden is planted.

Everyone will gather in memory of Veronika, Katherine Cooper, Christopher Ross Michael-Martinez, Weihan “David” Wang, George Chen and Chen Yuan “James” Hong.

Weiss will sit that event out, but he’ll never stop telling legislators, college students, members of the media and whoever will listen about his daughter.

That’s how he honors her.

He works to keep the tragic incident at the forefront to inspire change, along with a number of local organizations, agencies and institutions that see the anniversary as a time to look back at what’s been done and what more we can do to prevent future heartbreak.

“It’s a real simple message: At the rate our country is experiencing gun violence, the time will come soon when every family is affected by gun violence,” Weiss told Noozhawk this week. “At a certain point, if we don’t curb that, it’s going to get a lot closer to home.

“People keep getting on airplanes even though they read about a plane crashing yesterday, and they do it because they don’t think it will ever happen to me. It’s in everybody’s best interest to have better gun safety.”

                                                                        •        •

Weiss and Richard Martinez, whose son, Christopher, was also fatally shot, have tirelessly worked with elected officials and served as advocates for gun safety, with Martinez famously reciting “Not one more” on many occasions. 

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, reiterated that quote Friday in a statement, acknowledging her continued efforts to “not sit idly by until the next senseless tragedy occurs in our country.”

In the aftermath, state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson brought forth two laws, the first requiring local law enforcement agencies to develop policies encouraging officers to search California’s database of gun purchases before conducting a “welfare check.”

County sheriff’s deputies conducted one of those visits at 22-year-old Elliot Rodger’s Isla Vista apartment in the month prior to the shooting, but failed to find any issue or to locate his rounds of ammunition and automatic weapons.

Jackson’s second law takes effect early next year and creates a gun violence restraining order, which would allow family or authorities to obtain court orders to temporarily take guns from a person demonstrating a tendency toward violence.

Mental health has become another passion for Weiss, who sees 22-year-old shooter Elliot Rodger as another victim, one who came from a background of bullying, isolation and rejection whose cries for help went unanswered.

In the past year, county mental health services has implemented several new initiatives, but efforts don’t necessarily stem from the tragedy, said Suzanne Grimmesey, chief strategy officer of the county Department of Alcohol, Drug & Mental Health Services.

One such program launches new outreach on college campuses to train students and staff to detect early psychotic symptoms. The initiative, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, also supports educational materials and mental health awareness at Allan Hancock College, Santa Barbara City College and UCSB.

Sheriff Bill Brown said he hoped his department’s extensive report on the incident would help mental health experts shed light on how to prevent future events.

“Our hope is that by them examining materials, it will give us some insight into what prompted him to cross this line,” Brown said. “How can we prevent this in the future? That’s a question that always gets asked. I think the bottom line is there has to be a way to identify and treat people with serious mental illness and to encourage treatment to them and their families while not stigmatizing the issue.”

The sheriff wouldn’t comment on the efficiency of his department’s welfare check — the Sheriff’s Department and others have been sued by some of the victims' families because of the outcome — saying only that 20/20 hindsight makes a judgment unfair, especially since deputies must balance civil rights and what they can legally do.

Brown did say the department has already adopted the gun database search into its welfare check policies.

"We never forget the six vibrant, young bright UCSB students who were so innocent and so tragically taken from all of us on that terrible evening," he said. "We always need to have a place in our hearts for them."

                                                                        •        •

UCSB has dramatically shaken up its level of involvement in Isla Vista, taking on more responsibility for the community where so many of its students live.

The university has helped fund permanent safety fencing along Del Playa near the bluffs, more officers for UC Police and more lighting and sidewalks on streets, to name a few. It will also soon have more counseling services located inside a soon-to-be renovated portion of the IV Neighborhood Clinic building on Embarcadero del Mar.

“Our efforts to improve the quality of life in Isla Vista, to build upon its vibrant and diverse culture and to better integrate it with our academic community have begun to bear fruit and lead to significant changes,” UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang said in a statement to the university community. “The leadership demonstrated by our students, faculty and staff members, alumni, donors, and members of the broader community has shown that change in Isla Vista is not only necessary but also possible. It will take concerted effort and cooperation to bring about lasting solutions. While Isla Vista remains a work in progress, given the many positive changes already in motion, I am confident we will continue to move forward together with even greater momentum.”

Outgoing UCSB Associated Students president Ali Guthy hopes students will hang on to the drive to change the culture in Isla Vista. The senior’s organization strove this year to quantify how it spends resources in the area. 

Student leaders also established “pizza with police” events, helped create alternative events to alcohol-fueled Deltopia and Halloween celebrations and passionately advocated for AB3, a state bill that aims to create a Community Services District to govern Isla Vista, a densely populated, unincorporated community of about 23,000.

Assemblyman Das Williams, who introduced AB3 late last year, is still steering that bill through the legislative process.

“I think that everyone wants this time and the weekend to really reflect the strength and all of this progress and the change that’s happening in Isla Vista,” Guthy said. “In face of tragedy, and celebrating lives of students lost, it’s really a time to come together.”

The new memorial at People’s Park, the one with a bench designed in honor of each of the six victims, is likely something Bob Weiss’s family will visit in the coming weeks.

He will see the waves and water representing his daughter’s love of water polo and renew his resolve and advocacy for gun safety.

“It’ll take time, but it’ll happen,” Weiss said of gun laws. “State by state or city by city, it’ll be a long and hard road.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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