It was surprisingly slow for lunchtime on Saturday at the Santa Fe Southwest Grill in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Only six of the restaurant’s 28 tables were occupied.
Cory Gardner, 50, the restaurant’s co-owner, washed his hands during the lull.
Just then, he heard a “pop” sound and right away knew it was a gunshot.
“I knew it was a bullet,” Gardner told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday. “I’ve been around weapons all my life. But I was trying to rationalize why a gun would be fired in the restaurant.”
Between eight and 10 seconds passed, then four more shots sounded in rapid succession.
Gardner had no idea where the shooter was or how many shooters there could be.
“I went to the door right after the first, single shot and I heard my son shouting, ‘Where’s my dad?’” Gardner said.
Gardner’s son Joshua Gardner, 28, is the restaurant’s kitchen manager. He also has served as a U.S. Marine, said Gardner.
Roberto Hernandez, the front-of-house manager, met Gardner in the corridor and told him a man was shooting in the front of the restaurant.
The customers and most of the staffers already had fled the restaurant at the insistence of the two managers, Gardner said, so he and Hernandez ran through the corridor.
“Where’s my son?” asked Gardner.
“I think he went back in after you,” answered Hernandez. “We couldn’t find you.”
But just as the pair reached the “prep room” at the very back of the building, Gardner found his son calling 911 dispatch on a cellphone and evacuating workers through the back door to the outside.
“I said, ‘Everybody get as far away as you can,’ and we were just running,” said Gardner.
Sirens wailed outside.
Workers jumped into a vehicle with one of the employees, even cramming some into the back compartment. As they drove away, the driver hit a bump coming onto the dirt from the asphalt, said Gardner.
One of “the kids” — a worker in his 20s – fell out of the vehicle and split his head, sustaining a concussion.
Gardner calls all his young staffers “the kids.”
They took the injured man to the emergency room and left two other workers there to stay with him.
“I remember asking the kids, ‘Is anybody shot? Is anybody shot?’” Gardner said.
They insisted they weren’t. Gardner told them to check each other anyway, "because sometimes you don’t even know,’” he said.
That concussion was the only reported injury in the whole disaster. Nobody took a bullet. Nobody died.
“Honestly, I’ve just been trying to make sure everyone knows how appreciative we are of law enforcement, and we just give God all the thanks for looking out,” said Gardner.
He said police arrived at the restaurant within two minutes after the shooting started.
The restaurant’s fixtures are nothing compared to the people inside it, he said, overjoyed that there were so few people in the restaurant and that they all made it out alive.
The shooter seemed “troubled” and delusional, and he was glad police could apprehend him without killing him, Gardner added.
When the workers got back to the restaurant parking lot from the emergency room, Rock Springs law enforcement personnel had arrested James Chadwick Vickers, 44, who now faces a federal felony for possessing a firearm as a felon.
His record shows a 2011 felony conviction for repeat drunk driving, court documents say.
The Sweetwater County Attorney’s Office originally charged Vickers on Monday with five counts of reckless endangering and with drug use – all misdemeanors – but then handed the case over to the federal U.S. Attorney of Wyoming instead.
Federal law often allows for harsher penalties than state law.
The charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm is punishable by up to 15 in years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
Vickers’s urine tested positive for methamphetamine use, according to an evidentiary affidavit in his case.
Little Did He Know …
Gardner asked his son, Fernandez and the others what had happened while he was washing his hands.
“Apparently, a gentleman had walked in, he appeared homeless,” Gardner related from what the others told him.
One of the waitresses noticed that the man had guns and seemed stressed and fidgety.
Both managers, Roberto Hernandez and Thomas Gardner, approached him.
But Thomas Gardner lingered behind Hernandez because Thomas, who got out of the Marine Corps a few years ago, is intimidating and didn’t want “to overwhelm the guy,” said his father with a chuckle.
Hernandez asked the man if there was anything he could do for him.
The man asked Hernandez not to talk to him and to leave him alone, Gardner related.
Hernandez turned to his right and told the hostess to leave the restaurant immediately and take another employee with her. They fled through the banquet area.
Then the man, sweating and shaking, drew the revolver from his back and held it by his side as his hand twitched and shook, Gardner said.
Hernandez asked again if there was anything he could do for the man.
The man told him to “just go away,” related Gardner. And that’s when he started shooting.
By that time, Thomas Gardner was evacuating staffers out of the back of the restaurant while Hernandez directed customers out of the front, clearing it in roughly 40 seconds.
That was when Gardner came out and found Hernandez and his son, and the crew fled.
Here’s Rock Springs
Vickers’ police interview paints an unusual picture.
He told Rock Springs Police Department officers shortly after his arrest that he works for an oil field company in Colorado but had business in Rock Springs, according to the federal affidavit. He said he was headed for a rig in Pinedale.
During the interview, Vickers’ jaw ground back and forth, the affidavit says. He allegedly said he felt poorly because he was coming down from his meth high.
He’d heard that his girlfriend was dating another man, and he was coming to town to find her, Vickers added, according to the affidavit. He couldn’t recall exactly how he made it into Rock Springs.
A … Hitchhiker?
The affidavit alludes to a mystery visitor in the back of Vickers’ Ford Explorer.
“Vickers began talking about how a man tried to kill him and that Vickers had shot him in the back of the car,” says the affidavit.
The document says he elaborated, saying that on the way to Rock Springs, he stopped to pick up “a random male” who had meth on him.
Later on he knew someone was in the vehicle with him and believed the person was a threat, says the affidavit. He opened the back door of the vehicle and noticed the toolbox lid open and “skin near the toolbox.”
So he fired a few shots into the back seat, the affidavit alleges.
Police discovered damage to the back seat of the vehicle consistent with a gunshot. They also found a substance that looked like blood on the front seat interior door panels and handles, says the affidavit.
A cut on Vickers’ own hand couldn’t have explained that much blood, the document claims.
He drove to Rock Springs and parked in the parking lot across from the Taco Time next to the Santa Fe Southwest Grill, leaving all the doors to his vehicle open and walking away, “because he did not want anything to do with this unidentified male,” says the affidavit.
Vickers went into the restaurant. He sat down, got chips and salsa, and ordered food but did not eat it.
Vickers told police he believed he saw a male, whom he could not describe, walk through the front door with a pistol, Vickers told police. Then he watched another male, whom he also could not describe, walk through the side door with a pistol.
Vickers said he took cover and shot at the other men with guns he said he saw. He fired with the .38 revolver in his left hand and his 9 mm pistol in his right, “firing at yet another male walking in the back of the restaurant,” says the affidavit.
When police arrived at the front door and heard an officer yell, “Police!” he dropped both of the guns, Vickers said.
Rock Springs Police Department officers got a search warrant for Vickers’ Explorer and searched it after his arrest. They allegedly found several grams of anabolic steroids and about 2.1 grams of suspected marijuana.
They Came Back For Me
Gardner said he’s replaced a bullet-stricken glass fixture in the restaurant already. He’ll putty-seal a few more bullet holes soon.
But not all of them.
“I’ll also leave a few of them as reminders to the kids,” he said. “To make them more vigilant to just to know that, yeah, it can happen here. And it can happen any time.”
Gardner said the restaurant staffers are updating their readiness procedures in case of active shooters, though he said he doubts that “lightning would strike twice.”
He described his co-owner Shane Patterson as being like a brother to him, and the whole restaurant as being like a family.
“I know a lot of people say it, but we are,” he said. “The boys were coming back in the building for me. Roberto was coming back in for me, Thomas was coming back in for me.”
Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com.