History

Fiesta Sniper: Remembering the 1979 Battle of Flowers Parade

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39 years ago, on April 26, 1979, a mass shooting took place at the Battle of Flowers Parade in San Antonio. Leading up to the incident, the man who would soon be called the Fiesta sniper was only known as Ira Attebury. To local bank tellers, he was known as “Garlic Boy,” owing to his pungent odor. To area mental health workers, however, he was a 64-year-old paranoid World War II veteran, addicted to PCP, who had the odd stay in a mental hospital. On April 25, Attebury walked into Bexar Savings at McCreless Mall requesting to add a relative’s name to the two accounts he owned, totaling $20,000. From there, he drove his motor home, loaded with guns and ammunition, to the corner of Broadway and East Grayson Street, parking in front of Burggraf Tire Co., and sitting there throughout the night, awaiting the parade crowds.

Witnesses of the mass shooting, such as Amelia Castillo, a mother of 13, recall the day as hot and cloudless. She was attending the parade with her daughter-in-law, two nieces, and three daughters, including her 8-year-old, Cecilia. She was among the thousands of people who had gathered for the parade, which would begin at 1 p.m. She chose a parade-watching spot in front of Attebury’s motorhome. Her location was the envy of another witness – 9-year-old Timmy Lapping, who begged his mom to move there due to his spot in the hot sun. However, she had told him no. Patrolman Tommy Cavazos was joking with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas in a bus parked on East Grayson Street. He was their escort to the Alamo. Lieutenant Gary Nagy was in the middle of the intersection of East Grayson Street and Broadway, talking with officers and a woman who had organized the parade. It was Nagy’s job to escort the woman via patrol car to the Alamo.

Fiesta Sniper: Remembering the 1979 Battle of Flowers Parade

Photo: Facebook/San Antonio Police Department Historical Society

At one point, an explosion of a butane heater in a hot dog stand caused a stir, but it was seen as only the accident that it was, and no one was hurt. However, then something else started popping. Officer Nagy thought firecrackers were being thrown at him. He explained that at first, he felt no pain, except for the feeling of something careening into his legs. The next thing he knew, he took one to the chest and, trying to take a step, fell forward onto Broadway, seeing four other officers pierced with shotgun pellets down on the ground. For approximately half-an-hour after his first shots, Attebury made terror the rule of the day. He planned and implemented the Battle of Flowers Parade atrocity well before mass shootings became “a thing” in the United States. Two people lost their lives, and no less than 50 others suffered injuries, a dozen kids among them. Still, authorities stated that the Fiesta sniper incident could have been much worse. Those witness to the bloodbath of the moment will never forget it. Timmy Lapping’s mother fell on top of her son. She was shot in the neck, and Timmy recalls the blood flowing into his hair. She told him to stay down and said, “Don’t lift your head.”

With a high-powered rifle, Attebury also shot Amelia Castillo in the back. At four months pregnant, her niece Jane pulled Castillo’s daughter Cecilia to the ground in front of his motorhome. Cecilia recalled seeing small granules of cotton candy in Jane’s sunglasses and then seeing her own hand covered in blood. Confused, she crawled toward a group of men huddled in the fog of tear gas being shot toward the Winnebago by police on the roof of the tire shop. “Please, ” she pleaded, “please, let me in.” She remembers a man stepping aside with blood on his hands. She panicked and kept moving, crawling through the cloud of tear gas behind the Winnebago, onto a grassy area, where she explained that her esophagus closed.

Patrolman Cavazos was running toward the gunshots. Attebury was firing yet another rifle. Amelia Castillo and Ida Dollard (age 26) lay dead in front of the motorhome. Lieutenant Nagy was crawling across the pavement. Behind him, his wife had been shot in the chest, his daughter in the leg, and his son in the foot. A patrol officer dragged him to cover behind a nearby Jeep. Another carried Nagy’s kids to safety. His wife, who was a nurse, ran amongst the officers, pellets in her own chest, spraying antiseptic on their wounds. In the meantime, Officer James Middleton reversed a patrol car through the intersection while shooting at the motorhome. He was able to safely brake, pull a wounded officer in the car, and get them to safety, all while Timmy still lay beneath his mom, hearing shots popping all around them. He remembered a fireman crawling toward them saying, “Stay on the ground.” The man then said “Let’s go,” and with his arm over Timmy and his mom, he led them to safety.

Fiesta Sniper: Remembering the 1979 Battle of Flowers Parade

Photo: Facebook/Curious Twins Paranormal & Ghost Tours

When the shooting had stopped, from his vantage point behind a van door, Patrolman Cavazos could see through the doorway of the Winnebago that the gunman was wrestling with his rifle, which had jammed. It was a moment of grace amid the chaos. Attebury looked at Cavazos, who felt as if his eyes were saying “You’re next.” SWAT officers arrived on-scene, entering the motorhome which was now filled with tear gas. The first to enter witnessed “…dozen of loaded handguns lying on a bed…at least 20 rifles lined up against a wall and stacks of grocery bags filled with ammunition.” However, he saw no gunman. A curtain had been drawn across the middle of the room, and their orders were to fire if the curtain moved. After a slight breeze rustled the curtain, two officers took aim and shredded the curtain. Attebury was lying dead on the floor.

Afterward, a medical examiner identified that Attebury had shot himself. However, to this day, one of the SWAT officers believes Patrolman Cavazos fired the fatal shot, even though the officer can’t be sure that’s the case. In the aftermath, Timmy Lapping saw officials carry the gunman’s body out of the motorhome. His mom, who had a bullet barely miss her artery, was going to be all right, but Timmy’s experience would leave him scarred for life. Large crowds, parades in particular, would always be a fear for him as a result of that day’s chaos and uncertainty.