Crime: Ten Minutes in Hell

In the worst mass murder in U.S. history, a gunman turns a Texas cafe into a killing field, leaving 23 dead

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At first it seemed like a freak accident. As the usual lunchtime crowd jammed Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, last Wednesday, a blue Ford Ranger pickup tore across the parking lot and barreled straight through the restaurant's plate-glass window. A few startled customers ran to help the driver. To their horror, a muscular young man in a green shirt sprang from behind the wheel with a semiautomatic pistol and began firing. "This is what Bell County did to me . . . This is payback day!" he shouted as he made his way through the crowd, pumping bullets in every direction.

One of the gunman's first victims was an elderly man who was struck by the truck and shot in the head as he attempted to get up. The gunman then fired on a grandmother, and killed 71-year-old Al Gratia, who ignored his daughter's pleas and rose to confront the killer. As screams pierced the air, the gunman moved toward the crowded serving line and continued firing. Pausing only long enough to pack fresh clips into his two semiautomatic pistols -- a Glock 17 and a Ruger P-89 -- he worked his way methodically around the rectangular, beige-colored hall. Cool and deliberate, he felled most of his victims point- blank in the head or chest, sometimes reaching under tables where many diners had huddled and flattened themselves on the gray carpet.

Mere chance seemed to determine who lived and who died. At one instant, the killer spared a mother and child, barking at her to get the youngster "out of here." An elderly woman put her arm around her husband, who had been wounded. As the killer approached her, she looked up, then bowed her head, and he shot her. The gunman faced down another patron, Sam Wink, but when a woman nearby tried to race off, he was distracted and fired at her, allowing Wink to flee. "It just seemed like slow motion, and he shot forever," Wink recalled. One woman survived by hiding in a freezer; she was later treated for hypothermia. Food preparer Mark Mathews, 19, escaped by hiding inside an industrial dishwasher. He was so frightened that he did not come out until the following day.

The killer continued for a full 10 minutes, until four police officers arrived on the scene, returned his fire and wounded him four times. The gunman then stumbled into a rear alcove, where he pumped a bullet into his own head. By the time he slumped to the floor, the death toll stood at 23. It was the worst mass murder in U.S. history, surpassing the 1984 massacre at a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif., that left 21 dead.

The killer was quickly identified as George Hennard, 35, an unemployed seaman with a reputation as an oddball. An intemperate recluse who apparently hated women, Hennard was thrown out of the merchant marine in 1989 for possessing a small amount of marijuana. He lived alone in his mother's stately brick house in nearby Belton, where he delighted in screaming obscenities at passing females and harassing neighbors with threatening letters. But Hennard's strange life-style could not begin to explain the enormity of his act. Said police chief Francis Giacomozzi: "There was nothing we recovered to show he was capable or intended to do anything like he did. The whos, whats, whens and whys -- we may never be able to figure them out."

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