At 11.30 pm on Christmas Eve 2008, a man dressed as Santa Claus knocked at the door of a two-storey home in the 1100 block of East Knollcrest Drive in Covina, California which lies about twenty-five miles to the east of Los Angeles. The door was answered by an eight year-old girl who immediately cried "Santa Claus! Santa Claus!" only to find that this Santa immediately drew a semi-automatic handgun and opened fire, shooting her in the face. Santa then proceeded to shoot everyone else he came across at the house, where a family Christmas party was in progress, following which he sprayed an accelerant all around the house using a homemade device especially constructed for the purpose, set fire to it and made his escape.
The fire rapidly engulfed the property and it subsequently took eighty fire-fighters almost two hours to bring it under control. The authorities subsequently recovered a total of nine bodies from the charred remains of the house. The eight year-old girl however survived, despite being shot with a bullet that passed through her lower lip and jaw, as indeed did another sixteen year-old girl who was shot in the back, together with a twenty year-old woman who escaped by jumping out of a second-story window and broke her ankle. Another dozen or so people at the party survived by hiding under furniture, jumping out of windows, or escaping over the roof.
This homicidal Santa turned out to be one Bruce Jeffrey Pardo of Montrose, Los Angeles, once employed as an engineer at the electronics systems division of ITT Defense and Electronic Services in Van Nuys, California. Although there was some disagreement as to whether he was a software or an electrical engineer, it was reported that he earned some $122,000 a year. Or at least had done, until he lost his job in July 2008. As it turned out, losing his job was not the only source of Bruce Pardo's troubles, as his marriage was similarly on the rocks, and on the 18th December he concluded a divorce settlement with his wife Sylvia Ortega. He got the house and cars, but she got the "valuable" diamond wedding ring, $10,000, most of the furniture and Saki the family dog. According to Henry Baeza, the proprietor of the Montrose Bakery and Cafe where Pardo regularly sat at Table 4 and ate a raspberry and cream cheese Danish two or three days a week, he was unhappy with this division of the spoils and complained that "his ex-wife was taking him to the cleaners".
His reason for targeting the house at Covina was therefore simply that it was the home of his former wife's parents, Joseph and Alicia Ortega. Knowing that they were hosting a festive party on Christmas Eve, he therefore expected his former wife to be present, together with most of the Ortega family, so maximising the potential for retribution, whilst it was also suggested that his own mother was also a target. Mrs Pardo had sided with his ex-wife in their divorce, and had therefore also been invited to the Ortega party, but had failed to attend, having felt ill and made the fortunate decision to stay at home.
It later emerged that Bruce Pardo had been planning the attack for some six months, and had been busily acquiring several guns together with the kind of high-powered ammunition not sold within the state of California. He had also custom-ordered an extra-large Santa Claus suit from a local costume maker named Jeri Deiotte in order to conceal this weaponry, as well as constructing his own homemade device by modifying a compressor with an additional tank containing high octane racing fuel as a means of setting a fire. He had his escape all planned, with $17,000 in cash, and a getaway car parked outside the home of one Scott Nord, who had served as his ex-wife's divorce attorney. (A fact that led to suggestions that Mr Nord was also a target.) Initial reports claimed that it was Pardo's intention to flee to Canada, although as it turned out he had merely booked a flight on Air Canada, and his true destination was Illinois.
Despite his careful planning, it all went wrong for Bruce Pardo as, in common with many amateur arsonists, he quite misjudged the potential danger of fire. In particular it seems that whilst he was spraying gasoline around the house something, very probably a lit candle, caused the fire to ignite earlier than he had intended. As a consequence Pardo was also caught in the fire, and suffered severe burns to his arms whilst his red Santa costume was partially melted on to his body. He was therefore obliged to abandon his original plan and drove to his brother's house in the Sylmar area of Los Angeles. His brother wasn't home, so he broke into the house, and then shot himself in the head. His body was discovered at about 3.00 am on Christmas Day, with his $17,000 getaway stash strapped to his legs and stuffed into a girdle around his waist.
Nine bodies were recovered from the rubble of the house; one died from smoke inhalation and another from "inhalation of products of combustion and thermal burns" whilst the other seven died from gunshot wounds. Formal identification of all nine was hampered by the fact that the bodies were so badly burned that the authorities were forced to work with dental records to establish identities. Nevertheless given that there were nine members of the Ortega family who were present at the party and were now unaccounted for, it was reasonable to conclude that the nine people were Pardo's former wife, Sylvia Ortega; her parents, Joseph and Alicia Ortega; her two brothers, James Ortega, and Charles Ortega, together with their respective wives Terry and Sherry; her sister Alicia Ortiz; and her nephew Michael Ortiz who, at seventeen, was the youngest of those slain that day.
As Scott Nord put it, "The entire family was wiped out. There's basically like sixteen orphans."
- 'Santa' Bruce Jeffrey Pardo shoots nine dead and torches in-laws' home, The Times, December 27, 2008
- Nathan McIntire and Bethania Palma Markus, Covina killing spree stuns friends, neighbors, 12/26/2008
- Associated Press, Covina police name victims in Christmas Eve massacre, December 27, 2008
- Alicia Lozano and Tami Abdollah, Covina's 'Santa Claus' gunman, LA Times, December 28, 2008
- Hector Becerra and Tami Abdollah, More grim details of Christmas Eve shooting rampage in Covina emerge, LA Times, December 31, 2008
- Coroner: 2 Christmas Eve Massacre Victims Died in Fire, Not Shooting, KTLA News, January 2, 2009
- Gillian Flaccus, Santa gunman led 2 lives to plot killings, January 1, 2009