Santa Fe Southwest Grill Staff Shows Resilience and Courage

Santa Fe Southwest Grill Staff Shows Resilience and Courage

ROCK SPRINGS — What started off as a slower than usual Saturday at Santa Fe Southwest Grill ended up as a scary emergency situation involving shots fired inside the restaurant.

However, thanks to the resilience of the staff and the outpouring of community support, Santa Fe has been able to get right back to business. In fact, Santa Fe catered an event the same night following the active shooter incident.

Cory Gardner, part owner of Santa Fe, told SweetwaterNOW that he was washing his hands at the back of the restaurant when a man entered the establishment and fired a gun several times.

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“I heard a shot go off and it was just like ‘pop’ and I knew it was a gun immediately,” Cory said. “I was trying to rationalize why I was hearing a gunshot.”

As he was trying to figure out in his mind why there was a a gun being fired inside his restaurant, several more shots were fired.

“We’ve got an active shooter,” Cory realized. “That’s honestly the first thing I thought, and in my mind, just because we live in such a crazy world, I’ve always kind of thought this could happen. We’re right off I-80.”

The restaurant was started in 1991 by Gordon and Micki Patterson, and their son Shane Patterson took over with Cory in 2011. Cory said that Gordon always told them that they have to be careful, as a lot of “riff-raff can come off I-80”, he said.

“We’ve always just kind of expected something like that to happen and in the back of our minds tried to be prepared for it,” Cory said.

However, it’s difficult to prepare for emergency situations when customers and staff are involved. Lucky for Santa Fe, they had two managers who are both training to be partners at Santa Fe stepped up to ensure everyone could get out of the restaurant unharmed. Thomas Gardner, who is Cory’s son, and has served as a U.S. Marine, and Roberto Hernandez, both jumped into action immediately.

Cory was in the back of the restaurant when the first shot was fired, and he had no idea where the rest of his staff was.

“When the first single shot went off, I heard my son yell, ‘where’s my dad?’,” Cory recalled. It wasn’t until everyone was out of the restaurant when Cory learned of what had happened from Thomas and Roberto.

Evacuating Staff and Guests

Cory was told by Thomas and Roberto that a man had come into the restaurant and one of the waitresses had noticed he had two guns in his belt behind his back. Investigators later learned the man, James Chadwick Vickers, had a .38 revolver and a 9mm handgun. While Cory said they often have people come in who carry firearms, and that they support that Second Amendment right, this man was “visibly agitated”. The waitresses found Roberto and Thomas, as the man was making them uncomfortable.

Thomas was standing in the banquet doorway while Roberto asked the man if he needed help or needed something to eat.

“The man said, ‘don’t talk to me, leave me alone’,” Cory said. Roberto immediately turned to the hostess and a server that was nearby and told them that they needed to leave.

“While he was doing this, the gentleman pulled the revolver out and he had it by his thigh, and he was twitching his hand with the revolver by his side, just shaking agitatedly,” Cory said.

Thomas saw this and went through the banquet room and told the staff that were working in there that they needed to leave the restaurant immediately and go next door to Taco Time, tell the managers to lock the doors, and hide under the tables until the police came. Thomas also told a group of customers inside the restaurant that they needed to evacuate, before going and telling the cooks to clear out. Roberto once again asked the man if he needed anything, and the man told him again to leave him alone.

Cory said that Roberto then evacuated the remaining customers in the restaurant, which was only about five to six tables. He said only God knows why the restaurant had a less busy crowd than a usual Saturday.

“It was very fortuitous,” Cory said.

When Cory came from the back of the restaurant, he found Roberto running down the hallway looking for him. Roberto told Cory that the man with the gun was up front, and they left through the banquet area and exited the restaurant before circling around the back of the building. It was then that Cory asked, “where’s my son?” Roberto believed Thomas had run back into the building looking for Cory.

Luckily, they ran into Thomas who was on the phone with 911 and was rushing staff out of the prep door.

“At this point I did not know how many shooters there were, I did not know the type of weapons they had,” Cory said. “I didn’t know if they were pursuing anyone through the restaurant. I expected someone to come through that backdoor at any second so we were just trying to get as far away from there as we could.”

Cory said the only injury sustained in the incident was by one of the staff members as they were fleeing the restaurant. One of the waiters started his car and had everyone jump in, and due to the speed he was driving, he hit a bump hard and the back end of his SUV opened. Another waiter rolled out onto the ground and hit his head on the asphalt, splitting it open and gaining a concussion.

“I yelled at him to get up and he couldn’t get up,” Cory said.

One of the other Santa Fe staff members was an EMT in the past, so he used his shirt to apply pressure to the head wound. They took the young man to the hospital just as police officers started pouring into the parking lot.

“There were about seven or eight of us in the SUV, it was pure chaos but Thomas and Roberto were both calm considering the situation,” Cory said.

It was that calmness that helped everyone escape the restaurant unharmed. Nobody sustained gunshot wounds.

Cory said that a few years ago there was a murder-suicide in the community, and he was the one who discovered the body.

“The first time that happened I couldn’t even think, I couldn’t even remember the number for 911,” Cory said. “This time it was like I was in familiar territory and my brain was thinking a lot more clearly, even though I was panicked as well.”

When Cory, Thomas, and Roberto returned to the restaurant, the arrest had been made.

Photo courtesy of Cory Gardner

Knowing What Matters Most

Cory said that all weekend, he and Shane were receiving constant messages expressing support and prayers from community members.

“The community’s awesome. We’ve served this community for 33 years, and we just feel like this community takes care of us,” he said.

They figure they lost about $6,000 in sales due to this incident, however, Cory said it’s not a big deal.

“That’s just money. We’re just happy that all our kids are safe and all our customers are safe. In the end, that’s what we treasure the most. Everything else can be replaced,” he said.

Damages to the building included some bullet holes in the wall and some glass that was broken, which Cory said he already had replaced. However he said he left a few of the bullet holes, as a reminder to stay vigilant. While he said the community may have a perception that this incident was handled flawlessly, he isn’t sure how the situation would have gone had anyone other than Roberto and Thomas been up front that day.

“God intervened on everyone’s behalf, and in addition to that the boys acted with great maturity. How Roberto and Thomas handled that was fantastic,” he said.

Cory said the restaurant has updated their security measures to ensure that “should lightning strike twice” they are prepared no matter who is working in the restaurant on any given day.

Like Family

While Cory and his staff were shaken, they still managed to cater an event the night the incident took place.

“We had a catering that we were supposed to do on Saturday for 215 people. This young lady and her groom had been planning this for about two and a half years,” he said.

Cory didn’t want to break it to the bride on her big day that they might not be able to cater the event as planned. So he called the groom who decided with his mother-in-law that they would wait until after the ceremony to tell her.

At around 3:15 p.m. Saturday, the staff was still not being allowed to enter the restaurant, so Cory made another call to the groom offering to buy pizza for the event so the guests would have something to eat. While the groom said that’s not Cory’s responsibility, Cory said it’s not a matter of responsibility.

“We care about you guys, we want to take care of you,” Cory told the groom. He ordered $700 of pizza, and just moments after, he heard from one of the police officers that they had been approved to go into the restaurant and prepare the food as long as they stayed inside the kitchen as to not interfere with the investigation. He cancelled the pizzas and they got to work.

“At the time it was difficult but it was nice to have something else to concentrate on,” Cory said. “The reason we do this is because we do have such an awesome community.”

Cory said that the emergency personnel were all amazing and treated him like family, and after all, they kind of are family. Over the past 33 years, Cory said the restaurant has probably employed over 1,000 people in this community, and he can think of at least 13 officers who worked there as kids.

“A lot of these guys, this is their family too,” he said.

The Rock Springs Police Department has recommended both Thomas and Roberto to receive Commendation of Bravery honors, and Mayor Max Mickelson has suggested the entire Santa Fe staff that was there that day be honored at the City Council meeting.