Will felt like he was being followed. He kept looking over his shoulder, thinking someone was in the bushes or hiding behind a eucalyptus tree. A full, near-Halloween moon illuminated the Balboa Park canyon. Shadows crept over the trail. The post-midnight breeze was not cold, but it did carry autumn’s telltale edge of spectral knowledge — that air of inevitability, yawning smugly from the Other Side.
Will quickened his pace.
Maybe his coworker was right when she’d said it was a bad idea to walk through the park alone after they’d smoked cigarettes and chatted on the Robinson Street Bridge, the late-night traffic of State Route 163 rushing beneath them.
Maybe it was an omen, Will thought, an instinctual kind of thing. Or maybe the drinks he’d had after clocking out of work at a Bankers Hill cantina were playing tricks with his mind.
Will got out his phone and called his cousin. Sure, he’d walked the secluded path from his part-time job at Barrio Star to the Hillcrest home he shared with his father several times, but tonight was different. The conversation would calm his nerves.
Preoccupied with the phone call, Will Barton — a 20-year-old Point Loma High School graduate who spent his free time skateboarding, painting, hanging out at the beach, cycling, chasing girls, and taking art classes at City College — didn’t notice a thing when, at 2:34 in the morning on October 29, 2012, a stranger jumped out of a car at the crossroads of Richmond and Upas and shot him point-blank in the throat, shoulder, and back of the head.
Will thought he was dead. Looking back on it, he vaguely remembers lying down on the sidewalk. It was like that part in The Big Lebowski when the Dude goes to Jackie Treehorn’s place and they’re throwing the chick into the air, and she’s topless on this giant blanket, except every time he hits the blanket, he falls through to the Other Side and lands on another blanket — up, down, here, gone — until finally he bounces all the way up and he’s coming out of a coma in the intensive-care unit, surrounded by family and friends, oblivious to the fact that he’s overcome 99-to-1 odds of death.
“I was super-frustrated because I wanted to hang out and talk with everybody, but I could only mouth words,” Will says four and a half months later, as he recovers in a wheelchair at his grandparents’ house in Rancho San Diego.
He is tended to by his father, Will Barton, Sr, and mother, Marie Lonsdale (née Najera), both self-employed artists who’ve been fighting with hospitals and Marie’s insurance company to get proper treatment for their son.
As of my visit on March 7, Will’s been out of rehab for almost a week. He’s regained use of his voice, limited use of some limbs, and is demonstrating remarkable cognitive improvements after spending time at Scripps Mercy and Vibra hospitals (both in Hillcrest); Scripps Encinitas; and with brain-injury specialists Learning Services, in Escondido.
Shortly after he came to, Will learned of the killing spree carried out by Philip Martin Hernandez, a 40-year-old former Cal Fire firefighter, and his 18-year-old wife, Cindy Altamirano Garcia.
The couple, whose manipulative relationship reportedly began at a National City park when Garcia was 16, had been watching him as he walked home through the park that October night.
The official version of the story has it that Hernandez mistook Will for the police officer who had arrested him in Blythe last May, after Garcia — a sex-trafficking victim who was held captive in Guadalajara prior to meeting Hernandez — reported his possessive behavior and told authorities she wanted to get away.
“I think it’s interesting that he thought I was a cop, because I’m very uncharacteristic of a cop,” Will says.
“Yeah, you look like a skater kid,” says Will Senior, an affable buddy-dad who, in his free time, surfs and paints stencil-style portraits of jazz legends.
Will notes that he’d been wearing a double-XL shirt, baggy pants, and sneakers — hardly typical garb for off-duty law enforcement.
More likely is the account that homicide detectives related to Will Senior, in which the couple had been arguing in their car when Will happened down the street.
“So, maybe she said, to distract him, ‘Oh, hey, there’s that cop,’” Will Senior says. “There have been thoughts about that. That’s what she told the investigators. And who knows if what she’s saying is the truth or not? She’s trying to get out of a life sentence for being an accessory to the attempted murder of a police officer, the attempted murder of Will, arson, and grand theft auto.”
The rampage started when Hernandez set out to kill an officer who’d arrested him on a sex-abuse warrant ten days prior to his attack on Will. Hernandez was facing four felony counts of having sex with a minor, after Garcia reported him to police. Prior to the crime spree, he cashed out his $40,000 retirement fund, took Garcia to Lake Tahoe to get married, and, according to Garcia, strapped her into a bulletproof vest, saying, “We’re going to war.”
Hernandez allegedly shot or pistol-whipped and then robbed an off-duty San Diego police officer at an Escondido ATM only hours before the shooting in Hillcrest. The officer sustained a non-life-threatening head wound.
The couple then reportedly carjacked a man at the College Grove Shopping Center, robbed multiple pedestrians, burned three getaway vehicles, and bought a white Craigslisted cargo van in Spring Valley.
Police raided Hernandez’s mother’s Escondido apartment on October 30, and officers countywide were provided with descriptions of the couple and the van.
Around 9:30 p.m. on October 31, the van was sighted outside downtown police headquarters but sped off before the couple was apprehended.
An hour and a half later, an officer spotted the van in Barrio Logan, where it began driving erratically before pulling over on Harbor Drive near Cesar Chavez Parkway.
Hernandez leapt from the van wearing a protective police vest, and fired what appeared to be a high-powered rifle on three officers. They returned fire, killing Hernandez.