When was the last time you said, "I love you?"
What if you had to say it for the final time?
The cold, calm air spread out across the dark cloudless sky. In the sleepy town of Thousand Oaks, the nights are typically calm. But on this particular night, it was too calm. The kind of calm that makes one uneasy. The kind of calm that makes you realize just how fragile the world is, as if it could shatter like glass at any second.
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In the late evening of Nov. 7, 2018, Ventura County Sheriff Sgt. Ron Helus was on the phone with his wife when the call came over the police radio. A gunman had opened fire at the Borderline Bar and Grill, the largest country dance hall in Ventura County. Sgt. Helus told his wife he had to go.
His last words were, "I love you."
Minutes later, Helus arrived at a hellish scene. A 28-year-old gunman had opened fire on over 200 people, killing 12 of them. The gunman was still inside, so Sgt. Helus and members of the California Highway Patrol engaged him in gunfire before he retreated into a back office where he ultimately turned the gun on himself. Helus was shot multiple times, and would later die in a nearby hospital from his wounds.
The fear came for many families that November night. They weren't expecting it. The evening sky, dark as onyx, had dropped early and hard, as is customary in the Conejo Valley in the fall. Hours had passed since the shooting, and the once ordinary evening had been replaced by grief and regret. The numbness came without warning.
Life isn't fair sometimes. Certainly not for the 12 men and women that walked into Borderline that night only to have their lives senselessly cut short by an evil that was unleashed upon them. Certainly not for the survivors and the families that are left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of their shattered lives.
One week earlier, on the Wednesday before the shooting, the Los Angeles Dodgers were packing up their lockers inside the team's clubhouse at Chavez Ravine. It was a somber mood as players placed their belongings in boxes and taped them shut. Another season had ended in a World Series defeat, with their opponent again celebrating a championship on the field at Dodger Stadium. Amid this hopeless flotsam, the players thought about their loyal fans: they would have to wait another year to watch the Dodgers try and end the 30-year World Series drought.
One of those fans was 21-year-old Blake Dingman. He grew up playing baseball in Thousand Oaks. Blake's positive attitude and smile were infectious. He loved to go off-roading with his Ford pickup truck, and he gave everyone a hug everywhere he went, even if he was meeting you for the very first time.
The Dingman family are avid Dodgers fans. Blake and his brother Aidan helped build an outdoor living room at their home, where they would hang out in the summer watching Dodger games. A week before the shooting, as the Dodgers were squaring off with the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, Blake asked his parents if he could host a "World Series Party," in lieu of a traditional Halloween party. Instead of costumes, Blake asked his friends to arrive donning their Dodger gear. Blake chose his favorite player, Cody Bellinger.
"When Cody Bellinger came up to bat, it was like Blake was up to bat," said Blake's mother Lorrie. "Blake played first base and center field. He would run, dive, and catch anything just like Cody."
Blake worked as an electrician for a few years, but he had multiple interests. In addition to sports and off-roading, Blake loved tattoos, working on cars, and country music. A skillful artist, Blake had obtained a couple tattoos over the years, and one of his dreams was to have his mom get one with him.
"Blake, I'm not getting a tattoo," Lorrie would tell him emphatically. "I'm never getting a tattoo."
Blake arrived at Borderline that night with his friend Jake Dunham. The pair would regularly go off-roading together in the desert and host group bonfires. They were there to drink, dance, and have a good time. Instead, their lives were inexplicably cut short. His mother, who still cries every day, never got to say goodbye.
"I didn't get to say goodbye," she said fighting back tears. "It's hard. People lose someone to sickness, and you get to say goodbye. I didn't get to say goodbye to Blake, it's a horrible thing."
Another ardent Dodgers fan was Daniel Manrique. A 33-year-old Marine Corp veteran who served with the second combat engineer battalion division as a radio operator. After his tour of duty ended, Manrique devoted his life to working with other veterans.
Just over a week before the shooting, Manrique was with friends enjoying another one of his passions: watching Dodger baseball. A devoted fan of the sport, Manrique attended games regularly, and had set a goal to visit every stadium in Major League Baseball.
Manrique was in attendance for what he would later describe as one of the greatest events he'd ever seen: Game 3 of the World Series. The unforgettable, 18-inning marathon between the Dodgers and Red Sox that ended in dramatic fashion when Max Muncy hit a walk-off home run to punctuate the longest game ever played in Fall Classic history. It was the first and only game the Dodgers would win in the series, and the last game Manrique would ever attend.
"We were hardcore rooting for the Dodgers," said his friend Genevieve, who went with Daniel to the game. "We celebrated when they won. We were over the moon. It was a very special moment."
Manrique went to Borderline that night to meet with members of the non-profit group Team Red, White, and Blue, an organization that enriches the lives of veterans through community events involving physical and social activity. He also went because he loved country music, something he had in common with his favorite Dodger, Chris Taylor.
Before he left for the bar that night, Daniel spoke to his parents Elsa and Mario, Mexican immigrants who worked diligently to build a life for their son in America. They told him they were proud of him. His last words to them were "Te amo," which means "I love you" in Spanish.
Cody Coffman wasn't a military veteran, but he had aspirations of one day becoming one. The 22-year-old was planning to join the Navy because he wanted to help serve and protect his country.
Coffman grew up playing baseball where he learned to love the "hot corner," otherwise known as third base. Born and raised in Camarillo, Cody was taught the sport by his father, Jason. The Coffman family would frequently make the 50-mile trek to Dodger Stadium where they attended at least a dozen games a year. Cody's favorite player was none other than third baseman and Long Beach native, Justin Turner. Whereas his little brother Dominic, was more of a Bellinger fan.
"He loved Justin [Turner]," Cody's father said. "What he loved about Justin the most was his big red beard. It was a staple of what Cody loved. He loved the hot corner, and loved Justin because of his big beard."
Cody left his parent's house that night to celebrate his girlfriend's 21st birthday at Borderline. Hours later, he would save her life, in addition to three other young women whom he shielded from the spray of bullets, leading them out of the bar and to safety. Cody could have stayed with them, but instead he went back inside to help others. He never made it out again.
As he walked to the front door that night dressed to the nines, his father stopped him and reminded him not to drink and drive. He explained that if he needed a designated driver to call him, and that he would come pick them up. As Cody reached for the front door, Jason said, "I love you, son." Cody turned back around to his father and replied, "I love you too, Dad." Those were the last words Jason Coffman ever heard from his son.
Justin Meek left a lasting impact on everyone he met. The 23-year-old native of Coronado grew up a baseball fan. He would often take a ferry to nearby Petco Park and watch the Dodgers play the Padres. He competed in water polo at Coronado High School, where he was not only the captain of the team, but the school's mascot as well.
After graduation, he was recruited by Cal Lutheran University to play water polo. During his recruitment visit he was invited to Borderline along with other students for some country line dancing. That sealed the deal. The next day he would commit to CLU.
In addition to water polo, choir, and playing guitar, Meek studied criminal justice at CLU and worked as a bouncer at a nearby bar. Following college, he wanted to join the Coast Guard in order to help fulfill his ultimate goal of becoming a U.S. Marshall. Everyone who knew him called him a "natural born leader," someone who made others better simply with his presence alone.
Standing at six-foot-three and 270 pounds, Meek was often the largest person in the room, but it was his heart that was the biggest part about him. Justin was with his sister, Victoria Rose, and a group of friends that night, celebrating his buddy's birthday at Borderline. Everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves when Victoria's favorite song came on. She immediately darted to the dance floor.
Seconds later, the shots rang out and Victoria Rose and her best friend Kelsey Lewis—who was the DJ that night—urgently ran in the other direction of the onslaught, where they jumped through a broken window and into the bar's parking lot.
As hundreds of others fled like shadows at the break of dawn, Victoria searched for her brother. Unable to spot him, she called him as soon as she reached safety. When he didn't answer, she knew he didn't make it out alive.
"I just knew," she said sniffling, tears running down her face. "Justin was mentally prepared for something like this. I knew his priority was to help people."
Justin's mother, Laura Lynn, was back in Coronado the night of the shooting, preparing for her husband's retirement party after 40 years of service in the Navy. She spoke to her son for the final time earlier that night, her last words, an eternal reminder of how fragile life can be.
"The last thing I said to Justin was 'I love you,'" she said. "There's solace in that, because he always said 'I love you' back."
Just over a month after the shooting, Victoria Rose surprised her mom for Christmas with a jewelry box. When Laura Lynn opened it, Justin's voice, set to music, immediately filled her ears. It was his final words to his Mom played on a loop, "I love you."
Friday marked the one-year anniversary of the morning after the Borderline shooting. It was a silent and somber morning in which most of Southern California, and the nation itself, awoke to the tragic news that had befallen one of the safest cities in the country.
Located about 40 miles north of Los Angeles, and named after the trees that envelope the area, Thousand Oaks sits nestled between mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It's a suburban oasis, with a strong emphasis on family and community. Earlier that year, the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports ranked it the third safest city in America.
Many athletes and celebrities call Thousand Oaks home. The Los Angeles Rams built their training facility there. Anthony Davis, the newest superstar to join the Los Angeles Lakers, purchased a home there, and even many past and present Dodger players reside there.
The players heard the news like the rest of the country did on that fateful Thursday morning. As Dodgers' pitcher Ross Stripling awoke from his offseason ranch outside Houston, he heard the news on the television in the other room. There had been a mass shooting in Southern California. He immediately raced to the TV, where the news stung him like a frozen lash. Two thoughts rapidly raced across his mind: were any of his friends and teammates related to the victims, and what could he do to help.
Two months later, as the back-to-back National League pennant winners reunited at Dodger Stadium for their 16th annual community tour, over 30 players, coaches, and team broadcasters, hosted a luncheon at CLU. There, they visited with the survivors, the families of the victims, and the brave first responders. The players took pictures, signed autographs, provided comfort, and helped honor the memory of those that tragically lost their lives. Afterwards, the survivors, holding fast to some sense of normalcy, joined the players in a country line dance.
"I could feel how fresh it still was on everyone's mind," said Stripling who taught his teammates the dance. "But I could also tell we were able to provide a momentary bright spot for them—even if just for a few hours—after what had been a tough and difficult few months. We were all just happy to be able to put some smiles on their faces and help deliver a brief escape from the mourning."
What was undeniable in the room that day was the spirits of the 12 courageous people that lost their lives that dreadful night at Borderline. Veiled within the souls of their loved ones, there were 12 angels among us. United by tragedy, and brought together by sports, their spirits lived on, passed down from son and daughter to mother and father, as clear and definite as the glance of a child.
Blake Dingman was there, as his family wrapped themselves in an embrace with Cody Bellinger, his favorite player.
Daniel Manrique was there, as his friends and family sat down with Chris Taylor to talk country music, and share their memories of that unforgettable Game 3 of the Fall Classic.
Cody Coffman was there, as his younger brothers freaked out when they met their favorite Dodgers, and when his father shook hands with his idol Justin Turner.
Justin Meek was there, as his mother and sister stood arm-in-arm with Stripling, at the front and center of the dance floor, teaching the survivors and first responders how to do the electric slide.
It was because of their spirits, that in that moment, a town desecrated by tragedy, began to heal and rebuild. In fact, the moment could best be summed up by the words embroidered on the back of the gainsboro gray Dodger hats worn by everyone in attendance: "Thousand Oaks Strong." A reminder that the story of the Borderline shooting, even a year later, is not one illustrated by misery and sorrow, but by courage and love.
The grief will remain, the families will never get over this, and the hole left within will never be filled, but through the pain and tears can come valuable life lessons and reminders.
A few weeks after the shooting, Lorrie Dingman, was brushing her teeth, staring blankly at her reflection in the mirror. That's when she noticed the note on the counter, it had been written by Blake before the shooting. It read simply, "Love you!"
Suddenly, the mother who swore to her son she would never get a tattoo, found a way to honor his memory forever. The following day, she had her son's handwritten note tattooed on her arm. She finally got to say goodbye.