Thousands attend emotional vigil for Saugus High shooting victims

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SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — An emotional community vigil that drew thousands of community members, including family and friends of the victims, officials, first responders, students and religious leaders, was held Sunday evening in Santa Clarita to honor the victims of last week’s shooting at Saugus High School.

The 7 p.m. event was themed “Saugus Strong” and was held in the city’s Central Park. It was also streamed live on the Santa Clarita Valley TV website.

Family members and friends of the murdered students shared poignant memories, as well as remembrances of good times.

Riley Muehlberger, a Navy serviceman who went to the podium alongside his brother Brady, choked back tears as he spoke about his late sister, 15-year-old Gracie Anne Muehlberger. “I watched you grow up day by day,” he said. “It felt like my little sister was becoming a young lady. You were cool as a freshman, much cooler than me. How funny you were. You always put a smile on my face. Thank you for being my sister.”

Gracie’s parents issued a letter which was read by two family friends. “Gracie adored her brothers. She was always hugging them and giving them kisses,” wrote Gracie’s father, Brian. “I called her my sweet pea, daddy’s little sweet pea.

“Gracie loved to dance and sing. She was a natural performer. She played soccer and then fell in love with dance,” he wrote. “She grew up into a young sweet woman. She had beautiful blue eyes and a shining smile like her mother, and they gave them to other people all the time.

“She knew at times she was not one of the popular kids. But she remained strong and held her head high no matter what. She was always ready to give a hand to anyone who needed help.

“Gracie will never learn to drive a car. She’ll never go to her formal dance. And she will never get to find a young man to fall in love with,” he continued. “On the morning of this tragedy, we have a ring video of her leaving. She left with a pep in her step, ready to take on anything that day would bring.”

Brian  Muehlberger went on to thank the first responders especially Sheriff’s Detective Daniel Finn, “who was the first on the scene and by our daughter’s side when she died.”

Emma, a friend of 14-year-old Dominic Blackwell and fellow ROTC member, said she met Dominic in the seventh grade.

“He was always so funny. He would tease me and I would tease him about being short,” Emma said with emotion. “He was smart and funny and always ready to help people. My heart hurts for my loss and for his parents. I will miss him. We love you. We miss you and we will never forget you.”

Joshua, another friend of Dominic’s, said he knew him since Dominic was 5 years old. “He always had a big smile on his face. He played with my siblings and was the most energetic kind I knew.”

Dominic’s uncle said, “He brought love and joy to everyone he met. He used to call me by my brother’s name just to get a reaction from me. I really enjoyed being heckled by a 4-year-old,” which brought a chorus of laughter from the crowd. “God picks special people to do special things. In these dark and painful times, we must look to the light for hope,” he said.

Dominic’s aunt was distraught. “There is never any justification to take innocent lives, and there will never be a way to rationalize that. To know that we will never get to hold him or see him smile again. He’s gone forever and we are broken. Please give us our moment and remember Dominic and Gracie and the other wounded girls.”

Meanwhile, officials with the William S. Hart Union High School District announced that Saugus High School will remain closed until Dec. 2, although students will have limited access to the campus starting Tuesday to pick up their belongings and for counseling and other services. All other district schools will reopen Monday.

In an email distributed Saturday and posted on the District website, Deputy Superintendent Mike Kuhlman said “We have decided to slowly open access to the campus and to provide optional supportive activities for students this coming week.

“Students choosing to come back to campus will be surrounded by law enforcement officers, mental health professionals, community members and friends offering love and encouragement. Family members are welcome to participate. Principal Vince Ferry will be reaching out to Saugus families with additional details soon.”

Counseling and an increased police presence will also be available at the District’s remaining 15 schools as normally scheduled classes resume.

“It’s with a heavy heart that we approach this task,” Kuhlman said. “We cannot lose sight of the fact that there are families in our community whose lives have been shattered by the events of this past week. Let us commit to caring for them — and for one another — as we take the first few steps toward healing and the resolution of positive daily routines for our children and loved ones.”

Thursday’s shooting took the lives of two innocent victims and the gunman.

Gracie Anne Muehlberger succumbed to her injuries at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital at about 9:30 a.m. Thursday, almost two hours after the shooting. She had just celebrated her birthday Oct. 10. An authorized GoFundMe account established on behalf of the Muehlberger family has raised nearly $100,000.

“Our vivacious, funny, loyal, light of our lives, Cinderella, the daughter we always dreamed to have, fiercely strong and lover of all things fashionable — was our best friend,” Muehlberger’s parents wrote in a statement on the GoFundMe page. “She is going to be missed more than words will ever be able to express.

“We deeply appreciate the outpouring of love and support from family, friends, colleagues, our church and the whole Santa Clarita and national communities. We are grieving and navigating this pain moment by moment. … We will love you always Sweetpea!”

Dominic Blackwell, who turned 14 in September, was the second student murdered in the mass shooting. A GoFundMe for his family, has raised nearly $80,000.

A friend and former youth football teammate of Blackwell posted a team photo on Twitter and wrote, “Today a lil guy with a big heart lost his life in the Saugus shooting. He was always smiling making people laugh always positive. He was the sweetest kid ever and such a good kid. We need more people like you.”

One of two girls, ages 14 and 15, who had remained hospitalized following Thursday’s shooting, was released Saturday. Her family issued a statement about plans for the girl to continue her recovery at home, but did not include her name.

“We are deeply appreciative of the love and support we have received and thank our community for their caring as we grieve with our friends and family,” the statement said.

Doctors said the 14-year-old was shot in a shoulder and abdomen and was in stable condition and “doing well.” The 15-year-old girl had a single bullet wound that entered below her belly button and lodged in her left hip. Doctors performed surgery and were able to remove the bullet, officials said.

The just-turned-16-year-old shooter, Nathaniel Tennosuke Berhow, a junior at the high school, died at 3:32 p.m. Friday, according to the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department. Sheriff’s officials said his mother was with him when he died.

The shooting occurred shortly before 7:40 a.m. Thursday on the campus at 21900 Centurian Way in Santa Clarita when Berhow walked into the campus quad and shot five classmates, two of them fatally, then turned the gun on himself.

Authorities have said the shootings appeared planned, but the victims were random, and they remained stymied as to the motive.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva, and other investigators, said Friday there appeared to be no discernable link between the shooter and the victims, other than they were students at Saugus High School.

Berhow didn’t appear to have “any interaction with anyone” prior to the shooting. He was standing by himself, Villanueva said.

As of Friday, investigators had identified six firearms that were registered to the suspect’s late father, and all of those weapons have been accounted for — but the gun used by Berhow was not one of them, he said.

Villanueva said there were several firearms recovered from the house that “were not the ones registered to the father. Some of these firearms were not registered at all.

“We’re going to have to go through and finish the investigation to account for all of the firearms and match them up with a source and the relationship with the weapon that we recovered at the scene.”

Paul Delacourt, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, said there was no early indication the suspect “was acting on behalf of any group or ideology.”

Officials also said there is no history of the teen being bullied, and Sheriff’s Capt. Kent Wegener said Friday that investigators have not found a manifesto, diary, suicide note or any other writings indicating a motive.

Villanueva noted that three off-duty law enforcement officers — one with the sheriff’s department and officers from Inglewood and Los Angeles — were the first people on scene because they have relatives who attend the school.

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