Cook's Corner wrestled with when to reopen after a mass shooting. 'We feel it's time'

Trabuco Canyon, CA - September 01: Members of the Combat Veterans Association motorcycle club hug after arriving on their motorcycles to return to the scene and offer comfort to fellow bikers and friends after last week's mass shooting at Cook's Corner in Trabuco Canyon Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. "A I got off my bike, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit and had to raise my arms in prayer" Lopez said. "I was praying to lift their spirit and give them peace in Heaven and to bring this building peace, love and happiness", Lopez said. Cook's Corner, the Trabuco Canyon bar where a gunman killed three people and injured six others before being fatally shot by Orange County sheriff's deputies, reopens, with the manager saying she wants to ``bring the family back together.'' In a video posted Thursday on Facebook, Cook's Corner general manager Rhonda Palmeri said she's been asked by many people when the venue will reopen following the Aug. 23 shooting.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Members of the Combat Veterans Assn. motorcycle club hug Friday after arriving on their motorcycles at Cook's Corner in Trabuco Canyon to offer comfort to fellow bikers and friends after last week's mass shooting. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Less than two weeks have passed since a retired Ventura police officer opened fire in Cook’s Corner.

Since nine people were shot, three of them fatally, at the popular Orange County bar.

Since staff found themselves facing the same difficult questions that so many other businesses have after a mass shooting: nightclubs such as Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Pulse in Orlando, Fla.; Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks; Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo, N.Y.; Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park. And the list goes on.

Is the site where they spent so many hours before a gunman stormed in sacred or cursed? Will people ever forget the horror that happened here? Should they? And, perhaps most difficult of all, should the business reopen or should the doors close forever?

"A lot of people are asking, when are we opening," Rhonda Palmeri, general manager of Cook's Corner, said in a Facebook video this week. "We feel it's time to bring the family back together."

And so they did, on a sunny Friday morning, as a handful of news crews waited to capture the moment.

Two men hug as a third looks on in a parking lot filled with motorcycles
Rick Anderson, center, of Fullerton, hugs Jim "Pappy" Lace, right, of Fullerton, as friend Jimmy O'Dwyer, left, of Orange, looks on after arriving on their motorcycles at Cook's Corner in Trabuco Canyon on Friday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

About 11 a.m., a row of motorcycles roared into the parking lot of the Trabuco Canyon bar, which has been popular among bikers for decades. Nothing ceremonial marked the reopening, but a parking lot memorial stood as a reminder of the recent tragedy.

Pictures of the victims' faces were wreathed with white roses: Tonya Clark, Glen Sprowl Jr., John Leehey. Chalked on the asphalt were messages of remembrance, "Forever in our hearts" and "Ride to Heaven." On a rustic wagon, a message scrawled in chalk offered a plea, “please recover Cook’s.”

Dozens of people showed up around noon for lunch. A cook called out orders over the loudspeaker. Patrons, decked out in leather vests, boots, jeans and baseball caps drank Modelo and Coors Light on the patio.

Among those in attendance was Ann Marie Jensen. It was the 60-year-old's first time inside the bar since she ran for her life on Aug. 23. As she walked inside, she said, she felt a sense of emptiness.

"It’s so overwhelming to understand what happened to all of us," she said.

Read more: Survivor describes 'war zone' inside Cook's Corner; mass shooting victims identified

One man lifts his arms in prayer as he and friend stand next to their motorcycles.
David Lopez, left, of Jurupa Valley, lifts his arms in prayer after he and his friend, Rudy Navarro of Ontario arrive on their motorcycles at Cook's Corner in Trabuco Canyon on Friday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Families and regulars were enjoying heaping plates of pasta and cold beers when John Snowling entered the bar and began firing. He shot his estranged wife, Marie, in the jaw before turning his gun on a woman she was dining with and then other patrons.

Jensen had just ordered a vodka soda and a plate of spaghetti when she heard the shots. At first, she said, patrons confused it for fireworks.

“But then I smelled gunsmoke," Jensen said. She lost a shoe as she darted toward the outside patio.

Her friend, Leehey, fell to the ground, one of the victims.

Snowling was later shot to death by Orange County sheriff’s deputies.

Read more: What we know about Cook's Corner mass shooter John Snowling

Until this week, it remained unclear when — or if — the bar would reopen.

"We hope that when everybody comes back they understand that we have been through a lot and there’s a lot of things going on internally," Palmeri said in a Facebook video posted Thursday. "We want to be here for the community, and we need the community here for us."

Although Palmeri declined media interviews, she described the event on Facebook as a "soft open." They might be down a staff member or two, she said, "but we’re going to give you all we got." Comments on the video were all supportive.

"We are excited and heartbroken," one person wrote. "Looking forward to holding friends and giving thanks we are able to see each other again."

"The community is very appreciative that you will continue on!!!" another said.

"Thank you for opening tomorrow. We understand. Community is the answer."

Palmeri did not elaborate on what went into the decision to reopen Cook's Corner. But as mass shootings have become painfully commonplace, businesses around the country have wrestled with the same dilemma.

In Monterey Park about 50 miles away, the Star Ballroom Dance Studio remains closed more than six months after a gunman opened fire during a Lunar New Year celebration, killing 11 people.

Studio owner Maria Lang earlier this year told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune that she doesn't think she wants to reopen again.

“It’s still difficult to return to the same spot to work," she told the newspaper.

Henry Lo, the mayor at the time of the shooting, said in an interview Friday that while many people are sad the studio hasn't reopened, "it was understandable."

Deciding whether to reopen, he said, can raise the question of "will it be somehow forcing people to relive a very horrific incident."

“When you have the tragedy and trauma of something significant like a mass shooting, it becomes very difficult," said Lo, who is now a City Council member. "For the owner and the survivors and for the families of victims, you’re talking about possibly having people have to relive an incident."

Monterey Park recently opened a resiliency center, Lo said, intended to be a place where people can seek counseling and services and also get dance lessons such as the ones they'd previously received at the studio.

“The community has lost something significant, but we want to see how we can mend what has been lost," Lo said.

In Thousand Oaks, the Borderline Bar and Grill never reopened after a mass shooting that left 12 people dead in 2018. Instead, the owners opened BL Dancehall & Saloon — with the BL standing for Borderline — in Agoura Hills in January 2020, according to the Ventura County Star.

Farther west of Cook's Corner stands Salon Meritage, the site of the worst mass killing in Orange County. In 2011, Scott Dekraai stormed into the Seal Beach salon and began firing, killing eight people, including his estranged wife.

Just over a year later, the salon reopened, although it had been gutted and its layout drastically altered.

“It’s a rebirth, not just for the wonderful people who work here but the community,” Fernando Dutra, the contractor on the reconstruction project, told The Times in 2012. “It represents strength, love for one another. It represents a feeling of … accomplishment for the community. They won’t let something like this be what this community is remembered for.”

The same tough decision plays out across the country. In Colorado Springs, Club Q — the LGBTQ bar where five people were killed and dozens more injured in 2022 — could reopen this fall. The Pulse nightclub in Florida, where 49 people were killed on Latin night in 2016, hasn't operated since.

For Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner, reopening Cook's Corner felt necessary.

"They have to. We can't let this beat us," Wagner said as he stood outside the bar Friday.

Wagner said management wanted to start slowly "and collectively find a way to move past this tragedy without ever forgetting the victims."

A man writes a message in chalk on a parking lot.
Miguel, who did not offer his last name, writes a message in chalk Friday at a growing memorial to victims of an Aug. 23 shooting at Cook's Corner in Trabuco Canyon. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

On Friday morning, Dan and Vanessa Earhart pulled up on their new Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The couple, from Rancho Santa Margarita, didn’t want to take their bike anywhere else before coming to Cook's Corner.

They learned about the reopening from social media and felt it was a bittersweet moment.

“We’re just going to drink beer,” Earhart said. “That’s how we’re going to get through it all."

Outside, Jensen shared a hug with the bar's owner and another survivor there that night. She also embraced a man who shared his story of surviving the mass shooting at the 2017 Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas.

Jensen, who lives in Mission Viejo, hasn't ridden her motorcycle since the shooting. Although shaken to be at the bar Friday, she also found comfort.

"It’s helping me to be back here talking about what happened,” Jensen said. “Somehow, as a nation, we just need to come together and love one another.”

Times staff researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.