When 33-year-old Christina Hennigan discovered Thomas James Parker, a serial rapist, hiding in her garage, her first thought was that someone was playing a practical joke on her. It seemed unreal. Even after he put a knife to her throat, she remained in a state of disbelief.
“I didn’t think something like that could ever happen to me,” she tells me over the phone from her new home in Orlando, Florida. Her voice remains steady as she recounts the events of that day. At times she even laughs. It’s as if she’s explaining a horrible situation that happened to someone else, an acquaintance, or an actress in a movie.
July 1, 2009, was an average day for Christina; a Wednesday, her day off from work. She spent the morning running errands. Before heading home, she stopped at the Vons on Mission Gorge Boulevard. She bought laundry detergent to tackle the heap of dirty clothes that had accumulated that week. The police believe this is where Parker spotted Christina and followed her back to her Mission Valley condo in the gated Escala condominium complex.
“I left my garage door open because it was a hot day. I went inside to put the groceries away and came back out to start my laundry.”
That’s when she saw him. From the corner of an eye, she caught a glimpse of Parker lurking in her garage. He wore black gloves.
It wasn’t until Parker told Christina not to say a word or he’d slit her throat, and to get down on the ground, that she realized this wasn’t going to be a home robbery. He hit the button to shut the garage door. That’s when things became real to Christina.
Peter Ruiz was new to Santana High School. He’d been a security guard at the school for only four weeks when he became a victim in the biggest school shooting in San Diego’s history.
It was a Monday afternoon, March 5, 2001. Twenty-two-year-old Peter was in no mood to be at work. He wished his weekend could have lasted a bit longer. He punched in and exchanged small talk with his boss before patrolling the halls. He was making his rounds when he heard what sounded like firecrackers.
Peter recalls: “The kids had just gotten out from their morning break when things went south. Even when I saw kids running and screaming, and heard pop-pop-pop coming from the boys’ bathroom, it didn’t register with me, how bad it was. I just thought someone was being silly in the bathroom.”
Peter entered the bathroom. The first thing he saw was a student lying on the floor. Blood was coming out of the student’s head.
There was another “kid with a gunshot wound. I think he was hit in the leg. Honestly, I can’t remember, it’s a blur, [but he] screamed at me to get out. I thought the kid with the head wound had done it. I thought he’d shot the other kid, and then shot himself. I thought it was a suicide.”
On his way out of the bathroom, Peter radioed his coworkers about the shooting. He had no idea the real shooter was still inside.
Then he heard more shots being fired. “I was directing kids in the hallway, [getting them] out of the way, when I was shot. According to some kids that saw it happen, bullets flew past my head. Apparently, he missed my skull by mere inches.”
Peter was shot three times: once in the right shoulder, once on his right side, and once in the small of his back.
“My body went into shock. I fell to the ground. There was nowhere for me to go to get cover. I was out in the open. It was a terrible feeling.”
The shooter, Charles Andrew Williams, known as Andy, came out of the bathroom.
“From that moment forward, everything went in slow motion. It was very surreal.”
“While I was
I was barefoot.
My feet hurt.
I looked down at
them and thought,
I will never
run a marathon
When Thomas Parker shut the garage door, Christina Hennigan’s first thought was that she was going to die, but she would die fighting.
Parker shoved her to the ground. She struggled and started to scream. Thanks to the acoustics in the garage, her voice carried. Christina smacked her head against Parker’s.
“He got scared,” she says. “At that point, he decided I wasn’t worth it. We both ran to open the garage door. ”
They reached it at the same time and fumbled to open it.
When the door popped up, Parker ran out. And Christina made a choice that many people wouldn’t — she followed him.
“I wanted him to be caught. I wasn’t going to let him get away with it. I didn’t want this to ever happen to anyone else.”
Christina is a long-distance runner. She’d completed the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon a few weeks prior to the attack. She knew she could keep up with Parker.
After Parker turned a corner in the apartment complex, he began to walk.
“I think he thought he was going to just blend in with the scenery,” Christina says with a laugh. “I didn’t know what he looked like, but I was sure it was him. He was the only guy out there.”
There was a woman walking her dog. Christina pointed frantically at Parker and shouted that he had attacked her. She told the woman to call 911. The woman stared at Christina and made no attempt to help.
“I think she was scared. I must have looked crazy. My hair was a mess. I was cut underneath the eye during the struggle, and there was blood dripping down my face. It was all over my shirt.” When the woman offered no assistance, Christina felt helpless. “At that point, I decided I was going to have to do this alone.”
Parker started to run again. When Christina caught up with him, he turned around and punched her in the face.
“It startled me. I had no idea how to defend myself. I decided to chase him from a safer distance.”
They reached Friars Road, and Parker sprinted across oncoming traffic. Christina says watching him weave in and out was like a real-life version of the video game Frogger.
“I’m surprised he wasn’t hit by a car. I was so focused on crossing Friars, I didn’t even notice that my neighbor had been driving behind me in his car, or that an off-duty Border Patrol agent was chasing Parker, too.”
When Parker made it across Friars, the agent tackled him and pinned him to the ground. The police were called.
Christina’s next-door neighbor had heard her screams and jumped in his car. He picked Christina up and drove her across the street.
“I sat on the curb across from Thomas Parker and stared at him. He looked at me and then looked away. His face was blank. He knew it was over. I wanted to memorize his face in case there was a trial.”
Two days later, on July 3, after evidence had linked Parker to seven different crimes — rapes and home invasions — police officers found him in his cell, hanging from a bedsheet.
Parker, known to friends and family as “Jim,” owned a popular coffee shop in Little Italy called It’s a Grind. He was a husband and father to two small children — news reports described Parker as a family man. His neighbors in the quiet San Diego suburb of Tierrasanta were shocked.
“At no point was I ever truly angry
at Andy,” says Peter Ruiz, who was
shot by Santana High shooter
Charles Andrew Williams (pictured).
After being shot by Andy Williams, Peter made a decision. “I am going home. There is no way I am leaving in a body bag. One way or another, I am watching TV tonight.”
He saw his own blood pooled on the floor.
“I couldn’t believe it. I thought, Did I really get shot? Am I shot!? Can I walk? Can I move? Am I paralyzed?”
A minute later, Andy came out of the bathroom. He was 10–15 feet from Peter.
“I wasn’t sure if he was coming out to walk around the campus to shoot more people or if he was coming out to breathe. To get his attention, I started screaming at him. I wanted to keep his focus on me, instead of having him walk off. Once I did that, he turned and looked down at me. He smiled and went back into the bathroom. I heard more shots fired.”
Moments later, police officers came running down the hallway. Peter’s coworkers used a metal lunch cart to get him out of harm’s way.
“They put me in the nurse’s office. That’s when reality started to set in. The nurse asked who to call. I told them to call my mom. Someone had told my mom already. When I was taken to Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest, she was there. Lots of family and friends showed up. Two other people that got shot were taken there, as well. They told me, ‘Thank you.’”
Peter wondered if any of it was real — it seemed to him like a dream.
The day after Thomas Parker attacked Christina Hennigan, she went to work. She treated it like any other day. But once she got home, her phone rang off the hook. Reporters called, one after the other, to get a statement. Media camped out in front of her home.
“It was a circus,” she recalls.
She stopped answering the phone. Meanwhile, her husband Matthew called several times to let her know he was on his way home. She never picked up.
When he arrived, she was in their bedroom talking to her mom on the phone.
Coffee-shop-owner-turned-rapist Thomas Parker hung himself
in a jail cell.
“I heard footsteps on the stairs and freaked out. I told my mom that someone was in the house. She tried to calm me down. When my husband walked into the room, I screamed bloody murder.”
That’s when Christina realized that the attack was a bigger deal than she had initially believed. She realized that her life was going to be different from now on.
Christina and Matthew have worked out a system. He always announces his arrival, shouting so that Christina knows he is home. He doesn’t want her to worry that her life is in danger.
“Now,” she says, “I never get out of my car unless I shut the garage door first.”
For three years, Christina and Matthew remained in the condo where she was attacked.
“I would get flashbacks in the garage while doing laundry,” she says. “It was eerie. It’s funny, the things I remember and the thoughts that went through my head that day. I can still picture [different] moments. While I was chasing Parker, I was barefoot. My feet hurt. I looked down at them and thought, I will never run a marathon barefoot. It’s weird, the average things that run through your mind during a traumatic event.”
Christina remembers the adrenaline. “Someone handed me a phone to call my husband. I was pounding on it, trying to dial. I had so much adrenaline, my whole body was shaking. I could’ve broken that phone.”
Christina is now hyper-aware of her surroundings. “I pay closer attention. This sounds morbid, but I am always looking for a weapon, a soap dish, a pencil that I can shove up someone’s nose. Anything, really.”
Christina has often wished that Parker had never entered her life. “But I feel like it was meant to be. I don’t know if anyone else would’ve stopped him. I was his seventh victim. I think that maybe it happened to me for a reason. Who knows how long he would have been doing this to women? With me, he changed his MO. Before me, he’d been targeting petite Asian women. He was escalating, trying something new. Who knows how bad it would’ve gotten.”
Christina never met any of Parker’s other victims. She did, however, speak to a few of them through law enforcement.
“We exchanged messages through the police officers. Many of [the victims] were upset when [Parker] hung himself. They wanted answers. But you’re never going to get answers from a person like that.” When she says this, Christina’s voice is full of rage.
“Most of his victims were Asian. In some of their cultures, rape is acceptable cause for divorce. Some of them never told their husbands. They suffer through it alone. I can’t imagine how hard that must be for them. It’s very sad.”
Christina says she sometimes thinks about Parker’s family.
“I feel so terrible for his wife and kids. I hope they were able to find some peace. I can’t imagine what it would be like to realize that you were living with a complete stranger.”
“I still have a bullet in me,” Peter Ruiz says. “The doctors say it will pass eventually. I’m not looking forward to that day.” He laughs. “Two of my scars are small, the size of [pencil] eraser heads. They aren’t very intimidating.”
Two days after the shooting in which Charles Andrew Williams killed two and injured 13 others, Santana High School held an emergency assembly. Someone had posted on the internet that they intended to go back and finish what Andy started.
“People were freaking out. I was still recovering when I got wind of the assembly. I felt I needed to be there. Everyone thought I was crazy for going. I went anyway.”
Staff led Peter through the back door of the gymnasium. When he walked in, the students and parents erupted in cheers.
“It was amazing. I felt like I really lifted their spirits. I got up and gave a speech. I told the kids that everything was going to be okay. No one was going to hurt them. I would be there on their first day back at school. And I was. By no means was it a normal day. I mean, the San Diego Chargers were there! We made the best of it.”
It took Peter a while to realize he needed time off. He took some leave, then went back to work. He finished off the school year. He took a summer job to put the experience behind him.
“I went back and worked at Santana the following year. I was seeing a psychiatrist. In hindsight, it wasn’t the smartest thing to do. I carried a lot of negative energy with me. It wasn’t until after the first anniversary that it hit me like a ton of bricks. I could have died. Why didn’t I die? It was bigger than what I thought it was. I had raw emotions that I had not dealt with. I told the school I couldn’t work there anymore. I was not being fair to the students. It wasn’t their fault that I was so angry with them. Now I have the same job at a different school.”
The first time Peter saw Andy after the shooting was at the trial.
“I had never seen him prior to the shooting. I am sure we crossed paths, but unfortunately, he was just another face in the crowd. At no point was I ever truly angry at [Andy]. I can’t say I understand. I don’t think I will ever know why it all went down. People will never tell you the truth. Even if I wrote him a letter asking him why, I might get an answer, but it probably won’t be true. I don’t think there is an answer out there that will make me feel like it’s all good, where I would say, ‘Okay, we are even now.’ Honestly, my anger was more toward the handling of the aftermath than at Andy.”
A few months after the shooting, Peter went to the doughnut shop across the street from Santana High School. Posted on their wall were commendations from the police station, fire station, and local government. “They were recognized by everyone short of the president of the United States. It really bothered me. All they did was deliver some doughnuts to the school!”
Last year, Peter attended the ten-year anniversary of the Santana shooting.
“The kids that put on the ten-year anniversary ceremony were six, seven, and eight when it went on. Bless their hearts. They tried. They gave speeches, but they have no true conception of what that day meant. It was handled very poorly. I wasn’t expecting a ticker-tape parade, but I wanted it to mean something to those that were there that day.”
While at the anniversary, Peter learned that the memorial was an annual occurrence at Santana High School. He was floored.
“I work within the district. If they’d wanted to contact me, they could have found me. Not once in those ten years did they invite me to come out on the anniversary to give a lecture or speech. They are not honoring those that went on to do positive things. For me, it felt like a slap in the face.”
When Peter looks back on that day, he views it as a terrible event that he played a part in.
“I can’t say I believe it was meant to be. For me to come to terms with it, I [had to realize] it is part of who I am. It will always be connected to me. I have to accept it and move on. Getting angry about it isn’t going to change anything. I think about the day throughout the year, but I try not to focus on it. On the anniversary, I used to take the day off of work and reflect on it. I don’t do that anymore. I just have to keep going. I can’t say that being a part of that day magically transformed me into someone else. I am who I am.”
At the time of the shooting, Peter was in college studying criminal justice. He now has a degree. He could pursue a job in law enforcement, but he’d rather not.
“What I went through would be a defining moment in a cop’s career. I don’t want anything to overshadow that day. I don’t want to top it.”
Peter has a six-year-old son who has no idea that his dad was involved in a shooting.
“There will be a time when I will have to sit him down and tell him what happened, that because of that day he might not have been on this earth. If I told him now, he wouldn’t understand. There is no way to protect your kids nowadays. There is so much out there, especially with the internet. This behavior is not new. Our parents were bullied. But now it’s more intense. With social media, what used to be on a piece of paper is on the internet for thousands of people to see. It’s different. I am thankful my son is bigger than all the other kids in his class. He has that going for him.”
For a long time, Peter had nightmares. Daydreams would become flashbacks. He would see himself back in that bathroom, with Andy hiding in one of the stalls.
“If I close my eyes, I can picture it like it was yesterday. I can see that young man on the floor with blood coming out of his head.” Peter’s voice shakes. “I try not to do that very often. Those were things I had to talk through and get help with. Over time, the nightmares and flashbacks went away, but that day was one of those days I will never forget. As much as I would like to block it out, it will always be with me.”
On the Day of the Dead, Peter’s mother, Lenore, makes an altar for Bryan Succor and Randy Gordon, the two young men killed by Andy Williams. She lights candles to remember them. She thanks God that her son was spared.
Peter tries to put that day behind him. Still, he’s held on to a memento a student made him shortly after the shooting.
“It’s kind of hokey. It’s a small trophy that says ‘Medal of honor.’ I keep it on my mantel at home.”