Poor and so rural the bus only runs into town a few times a week, a rambling community southwest of Red Bluff faces a long road to recovery after a disgruntled gunman killed six and wounded at least nine people, many of them children, this week.
“The poverty rate is very high and that area has needed help before this tragedy,” said Amanda Sharp, director of Tehama County Social Services and Community Action. “This is only exacerbating the suffering people are going to experience.”
Nearly 20 percent of people in Tehama County – 12,000 of 63,000 residents – have incomes that fall below the federal poverty level, according to the latest American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau. The median household income is about $41,000, compared to $64,500 statewide.
For Rancho Tehama Reserve, where the shooter went on his morning rampage, those numbers are worse. With about 2,100 residents spread across 11.7 square miles, its poverty rate spikes to more than 43 percent, according to census figures. The median household income is just over $27,000.
That poverty is exacerbated by its distance from the nearest towns of Corning and Red Bluff, the closest places for stores, medical care and social services, Sharp said. Without transportation, many residents are cut off from the outside world.
Sharp said those factors mean the shootings have ramifications beyond the families directly affected. She points to the high number of kids at Rancho Tehama Elementary – more than 90 percent – who qualify for free meals. The school where the gunman, Kevin Neal, shot two children is still closed and won’t reopen until after the Thanksgiving break, nearly a week of unexpected time off.
“None of those kids are getting breakfast or lunch right now,” she said. Social services agencies and community groups are making food boxes to be distributed at the fire department next week “so people can feed their kids.”
While county organizations and community groups reach out to the area, those who were directly affected are turning to the internet. Families and friends of victims have started fundraising campaigns online to pay for medical costs and other expenses.
Sheila Woods is one of those. On Thursday, she stopped by the Rancho Tehama Community Church to ask the pastor if he had any way to help her with gas. She said her son, 20-year-old James Woods II, was sitting at a stop sign Tuesday with his father when the gunman shot him in the face. Her husband was grazed by a bullet, also in the face.
“All they was doing was going to check the mail,” she said. “He’s going to be OK. They took the breathing tube out of his mouth — the big tube — they put a trach through his nose. They’re going to start feeding him through his nose. ... He’s going to have a lot of surgeries to go through because his face is pretty bad.”
She said her family doesn’t have a lot of money, and James II has two young children. She’s unemployed, so they’ve started an online fundraiser to ask for help. So far, it has raised $825.
Alejandro Hernandez is another victim — the youngest — who remains in the hospital. Hernandez, 6, was shot in the chest and leg at the elementary school and was airlifted to UC Davis Medical Center.
His aunt, Benni Gonzales, said Thursday he still needs a surgery to remove the bullet in his chest and “he’s in the same situation ... not getting better.”
The family’s fundraising campaign has raised more than $23,000.
Sacramento resident Sissy Feitelberg has started an online effort to help pay expenses for her grandson, Gage. Gage was locked down at Rancho Tehama Elementary School and wasn’t harmed, but Neal shot and killed the boy’s paternal grandmother and his father, Diana Lee Steele and Danny Lee Elliot, who lived next door to the gunman. His mother died when he was about two, according to the fundraising page, so Gage is now an orphan.
“He has had a tragic life for being only 7 years old,” Feitelberg wrote. “My heart is broken beyond belief. My task now, is to raise my grandson.”
That effort has surpassed its $10,000 goal and is now at nearly $20,000.
Other efforts are not faring as well. Sarah Monroy started a page for Francisco Cardenas, the husband of her cousin, who was shot in the leg and up through the groin, striking an artery. By Thursday evening, it had raised only $530 of a $5,000 goal.
Cardenas had been on his way to the post office that morning and pulled to the side of the road when he heard police sirens, according to the campaign page. The shooter pulled alongside him and shot into the car. Cardenas fled on foot despite the injury and managed to escape. He was later airlifted to Mercy Medical Center in Redding, where he underwent surgery. The last update said he was breathing on his own but is still hospitalized.
As Neal drove through the area, he also overtook the Phommathep family, who also have a campaign page. Tiffany Phommathep was driving her three boys, Johnny, 10, Jake, 7, and Nikos, 2, when Neal fired into her truck.
Tiffany Phommathep’s sister-in-law Karen said on Facebook that “Mama Bear mode turned right on when everything happened,” and Tiffany attempted to shield Johnny, who was riding in the front passenger seat, according to an account on the family’s GoFundMe page. The boy was still hit twice in his calf. Jake, in the back passenger seat, was struck in the foot. Nikos was cut from flying glass.
Tiffany was hit five times, one shot hitting her intestines and another in her shoulder. She also remains hospitalized and the fundraiser has brought in $6,255 of a $70,000 goal as of Thursday evening.
“‘(T)o have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy law, and this is my solemn vow.’ Feeding wife through a straw made these words powerful,” Johnny Phommathep posted on his Facebook page Wednesday.
Phommathep’s Facebook profile says he studied at American River College and was a military policeman in the Air Force.
Troy McFadyen was also severely wounded when Neal forced his car off the road, then pulled over and chased him and his wife down as they tried to run. Neal killed McFadyen’s wife Michelle and shot him in both legs.
“The gunman then walked up to Troy with gun raised in attempt to take one final shot. Troy pleaded that he would certainly bleed to death and that shooting him again would not be necessary. The shooter at that point left Troy to bleed to death and proceeded towards the local elementary school,” the campaign page said.
Sharp said the North Valley Community Foundation, a nonprofit group in Chico, has also started collecting donations for all residents in the area via its Facebook page. Counselors have already been sent to the school to help teachers and staff, and social service groups were at the Corning community center Thursday afternoon, where dozens of kids and their parents gathered to sign up for help. On Saturday, the community will hold a candlelight vigil.
But Sharp said many people haven’t really started to process the destruction to lives and the community.
“It’s a little bit hard I think. We’re surrounded by mountains and golden grass and blue skies and clean air,” she said. “It is kind of surreal to have such a terrible tragedy happening in such a beautiful place.”