At one-year anniversary of VTA shooting, families see little accountability

Before a wrecking crew destroyed the building where a gunman killed her husband, Annette Romo left her home in Tracy searching for some closure. But when she stepped into the VTA rail yard and entered Building B, she didn’t find comfort in the vacant space illuminated by construction lights where Timothy Romo was murdered.

Instead, she was plagued by unanswered questions.

“How could they have let it happen?” Annette Romo said recounting her thoughts. “We need peace of mind, somehow, someway.”

As the nation reels from a new slew of horrific mass shootings, including Tuesday’s massacre in Uvalde, Texas, of 19 schoolchildren and two teachers, the Bay Area on Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of its deadliest instance of gun violence: the day when a VTA maintenance worker killed nine of his coworkers and then turned the weapon on himself.

Over the past year, widows like Romo have been calling for some accountability from the institutions that employed and were meant to protect their husbands, fathers, and friends, but they say they have found little. A year later, there are no answers from management or the main union as to why the gunman was allowed to return to work after he berated a colleague so viciously that a VTA worker worried he could “go postal.” Or how he was able to obtain dozens of high-capacity magazines that are illegal in California.

Months after the attack, an investigation by the VTA into what may have led to the shooting has yielded no public results. The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s department, which is conducting a parallel investigation is not offering any new information. The FBI, which aided in the probe, also declined to comment.

At the moment, the only form of public reckoning may come through litigation. Families filed hundreds of millions in initial damage claims in November and are filing wrongful death lawsuits this week against the VTA, the sheriff’s department, and Allied Universal, a private security company contracted to protect VTA facilities.

“From VTA to the Sheriff to the security company, too many people failed to do their jobs, and my family has been left to pick up the pieces,” Vicki Lane, widow of Lars Kepler Lane said in a statement.

On June 15 the parties will enter a pre-trial settlement conference with the VTA – a negotiation process that could take over a year.

Meanwhile, an effort to revamp the transit agency’s workplace culture is mired in delays after the VTA’s largest union torpedoed an initial contract.

“It’s discouraging and sad,” said Terra Fritch, who lay beside her husband, Alex, as he died of gunshot wounds hours after the shooting in the hospital.

SAN JOSE - JUNE 3: Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority workers hug near two busses with decals paying tribute to victims of las week's shooting in San Jose, Calif., on Thursday, June, 3, 2021. (Randy Vazquez/ Bay Area News Group)
SAN JOSE – JUNE 3: Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority workers hug near two busses with decals paying tribute to victims of las week’s shooting in San Jose, Calif., on Thursday, June, 3, 2021. (Randy Vazquez/ Bay Area News Group) 

On Thursday, the VTA will mark the moments the shooting began with a vigil at 6:30 a.m. around the exact time of day the shooting started. But Fritch won’t be in attendance. She is going to Los Angeles with her two sons trying to get some distance from the place her husband died. “I need to move forward,” she said.

Other widows said the VTA paid little attention to their concerns when planning the May 26 vigil, which they said focuses on the violent minutes before their deaths and not the full lives they lived.

A year later, the sheriff’s department is still investigating the shooting, long after concluding that Samuel Cassidy acted alone. In the VTA’s separate investigation into what may have triggered the attack, “witness availability” is holding up an outside law firm, Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, from submitting their findings, said Stacey Hendler Ross, a VTA spokesperson.

Meanwhile, Kirk Bertolet, a veteran VTA employee who witnessed the shooting aftermath, said he has not been contacted by an investigator even though he is readily available to speak. “Nobody has followed up,” said Bertolet, an outspoken critic of the agency following the massacre. “Nobody has come to me and said, ‘Hey what went wrong?’”

While investigations continue, some things have changed, including the recent destruction of Building B – the structure once sandwiched between Highway 101 and rusty railroad tracks where the shooting spree started.

In the immediate aftermath, the VTA clamped down on badge access to facilities – a policy that remains today – and restructured entry procedures at the Guadalupe rail yard. The sheriff’s office, which is located blocks from the scene of the shooting, said it has also beefed up its presence at the yard.

But other parts of VTA’s workplace culture remain far from resolved, including how the agency would handle a future employee with abusive behaviors like those exhibited by Cassidy.

Both labor leaders and management say an outside consultant is needed to bring major changes to a workplace culture with a history of vitriol between workers and management. That arduous process was supposed to start with the VTA board awarding a $1.9 million “culture change” contract in April to Deloitte. But John Courtney head of the VTA’s largest union opposed the contract, which was supported by management and three other unions.

“All of our training right now is just to talk about identifying what [workplace conflicts] you might see … and then identifying that,” said VTA General Manager Carolyn Gonot. “And that’s been the focus of ours this year.”

When asked how the union and management would handle a disgruntled future employee Courtney, the union chief, who once defended Cassidy in disputes, would not provide any examples of how the union would address a future employee with a history of workplace outbursts. Cassidy’s behavior at work was investigated at least five times over the course of two decades, but his frustrations — spanning VTA policies, COVID-19 safety, medical leave, and more — escalated in the years prior to the shooting, according to documents, including multiple outbursts over VTA’s radio dispatch.

“These are all things that we’re still working on,” said Courtney. “You have a culture that has been cultivated over years and years. This is not going to change overnight.”

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