Russell had seen them on the news before. The mass shooting in Las Vegas, which left 58 dead at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in 2017, had hit close to home. He knew someone who survived that one.
But those thoughts weren’t in his mind as he drove to the Borderline the night of Nov. 7. It was a Wednesday and he needed to be back at his finance job at Amgen the next morning. He had already decided he would limit himself to a beer and be home by 11 p.m. The Borderline had been a regular hangout with his buddies—all Thousand Oaks residents—for years. A collection of laid-back, young country music fans. Maybe he’d meet some cool people there, too.
He had driven his Honda Civic that night and met Tyler Williamson, 23, at the Borderline. Between his friends, they hung out on the side of the bowl-like dance area and watched people line dance in sync with ease. Russell knew his limitations: two-stepping was about as good as it got for him.
But instead, he now found himself crouched by the bar, inhaling smoke. He wondered if it was fireworks or maybe smoke grenades. He had been separated from Williamson, his friend. The shots were steady, but not in continuous bursts. He counted rounds in his head. He thought maybe seven or eight. The smoke was getting thicker. Almost unbearable. He figured he had to make a break for it.
Someone else must have thought the same thing. Russell saw a guy pick up a barstool and throw it toward a window on the freeway-side of the Borderline, smashing it. Russell hustled to another window and started kicking it out.
Pop. Pop. He thought the shooting was slowing down.
Russell and his friend helped some people clamber out the broken windows. He rolled out and caught his hand on the ledge before swinging down onto the incline of shrubs and dirt surrounding the Borderline. A group of them made their way around the building. Russell and his friend bolted for his car and waited for a few minutes. A fireman came by and yelled for them to get out of there. They ran to a nearby gas station across Moorpark Road.
Williamson wasn’t far behind them. The two friends had managed to text each other and agreed to meet at the Big 5 sporting goods store off Moorpark Road—just across Highway 101. “I follow Pat on location services and I could tell he got out OK,” Williamson said.
Russell said nobody at the gas station knew if the shooter was still at large or not. His friend was bleeding, and he took off his shirt to help him bandage it. “There were a lot of guys shirtless that night,” he said.
He called his older sister, Bridget Russell and told her what had happened. There had been a shooting at the Borderline.
“I’m OK,” he told her. “I love you.”
Then he said someone yelled “Get down!” He hung up.
In his apartment, where she had been staying, Bridget Russell fell to the floor. She felt nauseous.
Russell and the group began running, fearful the gunman was on the move. Breathing heavy, he came across a woman. She asked him if he’d seen her son.
“Who is he?” he asked.
“Blake Dingman,” she said.
Lorrie Dingman had gone to bed early after her son Blake had gone out with Jake Dunham and a few friends, to the Borderline. She texted him around 11 p.m. and asked him when he thought he might come home, and then she went to bed.
She was awakened shortly after—getting a phone call from one of the boys who had been with Dunham and her son. There had been a shooting. Now they were separated. He didn’t know more than that.
They lived just a few miles away and so Dingman and her husband woke their youngest son, Aidan, and bolted toward the Borderline. They were stopped at the end of the Moorpark offramp, which was jammed with firetrucks and police cars. Vehicle doors were open. Radios were squawking and blaring over each other. She said a fireman told her they still didn’t know how many shooters there were.
But Dingman’s only thought was: “Where is my son?” She saw Russell on the sidewalk. She walked up to him and grabbed him.
“Do you know Blake Dingman? Did you see him?”
Russell asked what he looked like. She pulled up a picture on her phone and showed him.
He hadn’t seen him, Russell told her. She had no idea if they’d gotten out. She had called her son’s phone. She had texted him. No response.
Russell told her he thought he was probably OK and that he’d gotten out. That maybe Blake had just dropped his phone. They hugged.