Santa Monica College Celebrates Graduation, Grieves Victims

The memorial at Tuesday's Santa Monica College commencement remembers five victims in Friday's shooting rampage

The commencement ceremony Tuesday at Santa Monica College included a memorial for five people killed last week when a gunman opened fire on and around the campus.

Full Coverage: Rampage in Santa Monica | Images: Mourners' Handwritten Notes

The ceremony at Corsair Field in Santa Monica began with a moment of silence to remember the victims. The ceremony comes four days after a man police identified as John Samir Zawahri, 23, went on a deadly rampage that began with a shooting and fire at a house near the campus.

"You want to be happy, but at the same time you have that in your mind in the back of your head," said student Camilla Widmark.

Rehearsals for the ceremony began Tuesday morning. Students arrived at the campus to receive directions for the commencement. 

"We're all probably hesitant to even be here today, but we can't let someone's poor decision ruin our moment," student Amber Tidmore said.

Graduating student Michelle Olivarez, still haunted by the shooting, initially didn't want to attend Tuesday's graduation ceremony.

"You still see the images as you walk through the campus," Olivarez said.

She also recalled the piercing sound as the shots rang out.

"I heard a big bang," Olivarez said. "Everybody at the book store ran to close the doors. I thought it was a bomb."

Minutes later, Olivarez saw the shooter's body lying on a sidewalk on campus.

"It was pretty traumatic," Olivarez said.

Olivarez later changed her mind about attending the ceremony, crediting grief counselors on campus for helping her to begin the healing process.

On Monday, many students returned to the campus for the first time since Friday's shootings. Students and faculty at the two-year college attended a vigil Monday night for the victims.

"Tonight we mourn," said school president Chiu L. Tsang. "The tragedies that took place could not be more painful and more real for us."

Flowers were placed outside the school's library, which will remain closed until officers complete their investigation. Others left cards with handwritten messages and candles outside the library and other locations on campus.


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One person wrote, "It is now the time to realize that we are all the same on the inside. Love one another." Another card included the message, "I wish those who have lost peace and harmony."

The gunman's brother and father were the first victims in Friday's shootings. Their bodies were found inside the burned out home at about noon.

They were identified as Zawahri's father, Samir, 55, and brother, Christopher, 24. The elder Zawahri suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Christopher Zawahri suffered one gunshot wound to the chest, the coroner's office said.

The violence continued with a nearby carjacking, and the gunman -- carrying about 1,300 rounds of ammunition -- firing randomly at people and vehicles on city streets and the campus of Santa Monica College. Zawahri sprayed an estimated 70 rounds in the school library before he was shot and killed by officers, according to authorities.

Carlos and Marcela Franco -- a father and daughter, who planned to attend Santa Monica College -- were also killed in the rampage. They were in an SUV leaving the school after picking up Marcela Franco's books for summer classes when the gunman shot at their SUV.

Carlos Franco, a groundskeeper at the school, was shot in the face and neck. His 26-year-old daughter was hospitalized with grave wounds and was taken off life support over the weekend, the family said.

Margarita Gomez, a Santa Monica resident, was identified Monday as the fifth victim. She was not a student, but was often seen on campus and well-known to students, said Albert Vasquez, chief of the Santa Monica College Police Department.

The gunman's mother returned from a trip abroad and was interviewed by police Sunday. She issued a statement Monday that was read by a neighbor.

"As may be assumed, I am in mourning for my family and for those who are also affected by this horrific tragedy over the past few days," wrote Randa Abdou. "I cannot express my great sadness for the families who are also suffering at this terrible time. I do ask the media to please give me time to grieve and to come to grips with the overwhelming sorrow that has befalling all of us. Thank you."

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