SAN BERNARDINO, California — They had gathered in Building 3, in a conference room that was essentially the central nervous system of the nonprofit Inland Regional Center. There the unarmed San Bernardino civil servants were holding their annual Gym Meeting, cheering each other on for promotions and awards.
The 14 fallen range from selfless social workers who provided therapy and services to the needy and the autistic, to those who poured that necessary second cup of joe each day, to a mentor who taught colleague-turned-killer Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, how to grade and inspect restaurants for the county.
As the first reports of the shooting trickled out Wednesday, Jennifer Thalasinos was standing helpless before her second-graders and “very carefully” trying to hold back tears. She was sneaking in frantic calls to find out if her husband of 14 years, Nicholas, was one of the innocents executed at the Inland Regional Center.
“I was on the phone. I was trying to call him,” Thalasinos, 41, said outside her Colton, California, home, where only her adopted cats Violet and Princess greeted her Thursday morning. Her aunt and mom stood in the front door while the traumatized widow, a devout Messianic Jew proudly wearing a Star of David around her neck and a “Yahweh” bracelet on her right wrist, stood strong before a barrage of cameras.
Thalasinos recalled the crushing moment when she learned the news no spouse ever wants to receive.
The young pupils were staring at their teacher as she tried to figure out what was happening at the Inland Regional Center.
She knew it was the day of the annual Gym Meeting, a mixer where her husband and his Environmental Health Services team would convene to hand out awards and salute the promoted.
Nicholas Thalasinos, 52, was a devoted sanitary inspector in San Bernardino County, and he was also a devout Messianic Jew.
He was vocal about his religious beliefs and even wore the tzitzis, the tassels worn by Jewish faithful on all four corners of clothing to cover oneself as a holy act.
On this day, his wife was holding out hope that maybe her husband wasn’t in that room where bullets sprayed and blood spilled.
“I was calling anybody I could think of, and I was hanging out the door while I was doing it,” she said.
But she knew.
“Once I found out, yes, it was that building, I called the principal and I said I needed to leave.”
Her loss hit her like a silent shout. “I just had a feeling,” she said. “Everybody kept saying, ‘Oh, don’t say that,’ but I just knew.”
Wednesday was also Jennifer Thalasinos’s “snack day”—her turn to bring snacks to school.
Her husband had dropped her off at school in the morning as he always did, and then he offered to deliver the Panera treats. “He told me, ‘I will bring them in for you,’” Thalasinos said.
When he made good on his promise, they shared what would be one last embrace. “I got an extra hug and kiss, and I’m just holding onto that,” she said.
The man who pulled the trigger, the man who along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 27, murdered 14 of his co-workers and wounded 17 more, was Nicholas Thalasinos’s protégé.
“Syed did the same thing as my husband,” Jennifer Thalasinos said. “They had been colleagues…he might have trained him a couple times.”
For Daniel Kaufman, 42, Wednesday started out just as it was supposed to, with his boyfriend, Ryan Reyes, dropping him off at work. (Kaufman refused to get a driver’s license so they would share their morning commute.)
When he arrived at Building 3 at the Inland Regional Center around 10:30 a.m., he got down to work helping to train disabled clients.
“He was his usual cheerful, chattering self,” Reyes told the Los Angeles Times.
After almost 24 hours of waiting, Reyes was still uncertain whether Kaufman had managed to escape unscathed. “I’m trying to cling to hope,” he said. Then Reyes got confirmation that his better half was gone for good.
Two years ago, Damian Meins, 58, had tried to retire from Riverside County’s Environmental Health Department after 28 years on the job. But he came back to work and was described by Juan Perez, the director of the county’s Transportation and Land Management Agency, as “a caring, jovial man with a warm smile and a hearty laugh.”
An online fundraiser has already topped six figures for Lake Arrowhead-based victim Mike Raymond Wetzel.
His stay-at-home wife, Renee, described her beloved husband, a supervising environmental health specialist and a father of six, as “the most amazing person” and “my best friend.”
“I didn’t know a better person,” she wrote in a statement about the man who in his spare time coached a girls’ “princess-themed” soccer team. “He was super tall, and the littlest of girls thought he was a giant,” family friend Arlene Arenas, 40, whose daughter played on the same team, told the Los Angeles Times.
“He loved his work and his family so very much. Without him, this family will never be the same,” his wife said.
All day Wednesday, the family was calling on a higher power to bring dad home. “Please pray. My husband was in a meeting and a shooter came in. There are multiple people dead/shot. I can’t get a hold of him.”
“So many prayers needed,” Wetzel’s wife wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday afternoon. “My husband was in the meeting where the shooting happened. I have not been able to get in touch with him. Please please pray that he is ok.”
A fund has also been started for Robert Adams, 40, an environmental health specialist and devoted husband to Summer and loving father to “precious” toddler daughter Savannah.
Isaac Gebreslassie, 60, worked as an environmental health specialist for San Bernardino County and lived with his family in Fontana, California.
He apparently was no pushover when it came to restaurant inspection. According to the San Bernardino Sun, Gebreslassie once gave a B grade to a McDonald’s, citing the fast-food joint for its lackadaisical food line, where one cook neglected to wash his hands before “donning gloves,” and “hazardous foods” like french fries being ditched on a freezer floor.
Family members who were reached at their home were inconsolable.
Sierra Clayborn’s Facebook page reveals a woman who reveled in her life and her job.
“I love my blooming career in public and environmental health...I love my life,” the 27-year-old posted.
A friend, Timothy J. Lee, commented below her profile picture—overlaid with a French flag to pay homage to the fallen overseas—wrote that she would always remain a stunner. “Even as you go, your picture is out of love for victims elsewhere. You are so beautiful Sierra. Miss you.”
Bennetta Betbadal, 46, of Rialto, California, set off from Iran to New York City to “escape Islamic extremists and persecution of Christians that followed the Iranian Revolution” back in the 1980s, her family said in a statement.
She eventually forged west and later married her police officer-husband, whom she met at Riverside Community College almost a decade ago, according to The San Bernardino Sun.
Together they raised a family, including two boys and a daughter.
Betbadal graduated with a chemistry degree from Cal Poly Pomona and began serving as an inspector with the San Bernardino Health Department almost nine years ago.
According to the family’s statement, Betbadal “loved her job, her community and her country.”
For Nicholas Thalasinos and Syed Rizwan Farook, divergent religious views didn’t seem to interfere with their mutual respect at work, Thalasinos’s widow said. “My husband never had anything to say bad about him…I mean, they got along, and as far as I am concerned they got along super,” she said. “That’s why it shocks me that he would turn around and do this.”
Still, a friend of Nicholas Thalasinos, Kuuleme Stephens, told the Associated Press that his Messianic fervor was a constant source of division between the two inspectors. She recalled a heated argument between Talasinos and Farook.
Thalasinos, she said, told her that Farook “doesn’t agree that Islam is not a peaceful religion.”
The future mass gunman attempted to make the argument that Americans misunderstand Islam.
Jennifer and Nicholas Thalasinos had met online—he had two children from a former relationship who live in New Jersey—and it wasn’t until last year that he “became born again,” she said. She described him as “chivalrous” and “a good man.”
At the first sign of a threat, he would have put his life last to spare others, she added. “I’m sure he went out fighting and I feel he was martyred,” she said.
“I feel he’s in a better place.”