Sat, Jul. 02, 2005

Workplace shooting one year ago

Slain ConAgra workers remembered and missed

It’s a simple memorial: A flower bed on a knoll in the vast lawn of a hulking industrial plant in the Argentine district of Kansas City, Kan.


And a plaque: “In memory of Are Dell Edwards, Lonnie Ellingburg, Jose Ibarra, Travis Nelson, Salvador Ortega. July 2, 2004,” it says.


The subdued monument is intended to help the healing process at the ConAgra Foods Inc. processing plant, 4612 Speaker Road, where a year ago today an employee killed five co-workers and himself.


“We’re trying to look forward, not back,” said Julie DeYoung, a spokeswoman for the company.


Employees dedicated the memorial with a ceremony between Friday’s first and second shifts, taking a moment away from the industrial bustle of the factory to reflect. Some added to the memorial, leaving behind candles and vases of roses.


The slayings were the worst workplace shooting in the Kansas City area’s history.


‘Acted with purpose’

Shortly after 5 p.m. last July 2, Elijah Brown, 21, of Kansas City, Kan., pulled two guns from his locker and hunted down co-workers who reportedly had teased him.


As he entered a company break room, he ordered some of his co-workers to leave the building. He then shot seven men, killing five — including three who were related. Brown then put the barrel of his pistol against his head and pulled the trigger. He deliberately chose his victims, police said, wanting to kill his tormentors. “This is what you get for messing with me,” witnesses said Brown told one fallen co-worker. “You’re good to go,” Brown told another, who was allowed to scramble away.


Employees had described the scene in the 50-by-80-foot break room at the ConAgra plant as pure chaos.

Police Chief Ron Miller said a day after the shooting that Brown’s selection of victims was not random, adding: “This person acted with purpose.”


Before shooting himself, Brown had fatally shot Lonnie Ellingburg, Travis Nelson, Are Dell Edwards, Leonardo Rodriquez and Jose Ibarra.


Also wounded were Victor Coggs of Grandview and Juan Ramirez of Kansas City, Kan. Edwards was the uncle of Ellingburg, who in turn was an uncle to Nelson.


A familiar pain

One of Ellingburg’s daughters said the families planned to keep a low profile this weekend, leaving the area to avoid catching the anniversary stories on the news.


“It is still a bad memory,” said Deya Barnett of Kansas City, Kan. “We still have fresh wounds. One year has passed and we are still left with unresolved issues.” She said her mother, Sandra Ellingburg, was having an especially hard time. Barnett said July used to be a happy month, with both of them celebrating their birthdays at the end of the month. “He was the love of her life,” Barnett said. “He was killed just by going to work, doing what he was supposed to do. It is just senseless to her.”


Her father’s death has been a financial strain on her family as she is now the sole provider for her mother and her children. “He was taken away, senselessly, for no reason,” Barnett said. “There really hasn’t been any closure.” Barnett said her family had forgiven Brown and doesn’t feel any animosity toward him or his family. But they will never forget what he did, she said.


They are, however, still frustrated that Brown felt the only way to deal with his anger was to kill others, Barnett said. “It didn’t have to be. It just didn’t have to be,” Barnett said of her father’s death. “His life didn’t have to end like that.” Calls to other family members were not returned. Ibarra and Rodriguez had families in Mexico.


Security changes

The plant, which makes sandwich meats, reopened four days after the shootings.

It has upgraded security in the year since the shooting, said DeYoung, the company spokeswoman. In addition to workplace violence-awareness training practiced at all ConAgra facilities, the plant now has random bag checks, additional controls on entrances to the site and other “physical security enhancements,” DeYoung said. She did not elaborate on what those enhancements were, because doing so could compromise their effectiveness, she said.


Since the incident, the plant employees have forged new bonds, said current and former officials.

“As far as the culture there, I think it (the shooting) brought the plant closer together,” said Chad Stewart, a manager who left the company in January. “People are working more together, I think.” DeYoung noted that in recent months the plant had set new productivity records, indicating more cohesiveness and efficiency among employees.


But Barnett, Ellingburg’s daughter, said she had heard from a relative who still works at the plant that security is not as strict as it should be. She said all companies, not just ConAgra, need to better monitor their workers and intervene in cases where necessary, before arguments turn violent.


“People need to feel safe, whether they are coming and going,” she said. “If there is a problem, companies should not wait until the last minute to take care of it. If they do, it will be making the news with only negative publicity.”