A year later, family of San Bernardino shooting victim is speaking out against fear and hate

Karen Fagan's ex-husband and the father of her daughters, Hal Bowman, was killed in the shooting in San Bernardino on December 2, 2015. Since then she has become a vocal advocate of religious tolerance.
Karen Fagan's ex-husband and the father of her daughters, Hal Bowman, was killed in the shooting in San Bernardino on December 2, 2015. Since then she has become a vocal advocate of religious tolerance.
Emily Guerin/KPCC

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Friday is the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting in San Bernardino that left 14 dead and 22 seriously injured. Among those killed was Harry "Hal" Bowman, a statistical analyst with the San Bernardino County Public Health Department. He left behind two daughters and their mother, his ex-wife Karen Fagan. Like the family of other victims, Bowman's family have found themselves the focus of national attention, which was difficult for Fagan.

"I have always been kind of a private person," she said.

Fagan works in the communications department at Pomona College, and is far more comfortable asking questions than answering them.

"It’s terrifying to be interviewed, it really is," she said, laughing, during a recent interview.

So when the unwanted, unexpected media spotlight zeroed in on her family a year ago, they had a choice: hide or use the attention to advance a cause they believe in. They chose the latter.

December 2, 2015

Fagan was at her office in Claremont, planning a college symposium on criminal justice, when she got a text message. It was from the college emergency alert system, and it said there had been a shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. Her ex-husband and the father of her children, Hal Bowman, worked near the center.

"I immediately texted him and said, 'Are you in lock down, are you ok? Send me a note and let me know if you’re alright.' And then I didn’t hear anything," Fagan recalled.

Though she been divorced from Bowman for five years, she talked to him almost every day about raising their two daughters, Kate, 15, and Liz, 12. 

On the day of the shooting, she emailed him. She called. She called again. She started Googling, and read that the shooting had happened at a holiday party for the San Bernardino County Public Health Department -- Hal's office. 

"I said, 'oh, well he works in Public Health, I wonder if...no, it can’t be."

She kept telling herself he was still on lockdown and didn't have access to his phone. She assured herself he would text as soon as he could.

That's how it went all afternoon: she scoured the Internet for news, swinging between feelings of dread and denial as the hours passed without word from Hal. When she got home that evening, she sent her second husband, Ian, down to the San Bernardino county offices to get more information. He stayed all night waiting for word that Hal was hopefully in the hospital.

The call from the coroner came early the next morning.

"They actually called my husband because he was the one who had been there," Fagan said, her voice tight. "And he just walked into the room, and his eyes were red. And so he didn’t even have to say anything."

Her 12-year old daughter was in the room, and her older sister was still asleep. The night before, Fagan had told the girls about the shooting and she wasn't sure what had happened to their dad. 

"Immediately upon hearing the news, the younger one ran up to the older one’s room and told her," she said. "They just, we were just devastated. We all just cried for a really, really long time."

The aftermath

At first, the Fagans didn't speak publicly about their grief, although they were bombarded with media requests.

"All of a sudden we're now in the national media spotlight, and that is surreal," she said. 

They issued a few statements following the shooting, and mostly kept to themselves. A month later, President Obama invited Fagan and her daughters to the White House. They were in the East Room when he unveiled new executive action on gun control.

During the visit, Fagan and the girls met other families who had lost loved ones in mass shootings. She remembers meeting parents whose children were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012. She remembers them telling her, "You are now part of a club. It’s a club no one wants to be in, but we’re all in it together. And you have an opportunity now to take a stand for something."

That resonated with something Fagan and her daughters had already been feeling. They had strong feelings about gun control, and had even issued a family statement in support of Obama's efforts to ban assault weapons. But after talking about it with her daughters, they decided that wasn't the stand they wanted to take.

"We wanted to be very vocal about anti-hate," she said, "and not demonizing an entire religion because of the actions of a few people."

Fagan had vivid memories of the anti-Muslim backlash after September 11th, and she and her daughters worried it would happen again after the San Bernardino shooting. So they began speaking out about the dangers of Islamophobia, and the need for love and tolerance.

When local mosques began receiving threats this November, Fagan and her children went to the Islamic Center of Claremont with colored chalk and drew on the sidewalk. They wrote things like "Love," "You're welcome here," and drew stick figures holding hands.

Soon a small crowd had gathered outside: Muslims, Jews and Fagan and her girls, who are Lutheran.

"People from the community came out to talk with us and even drew things with us," she said. "It was incredible."

Fagan still doesn't like being the one in front of the camera or the microphone, and she was reluctant to let reporters come with her to the Islamic Center when they drew on the sidewalk. She said the action wasn't about her and her family:  it was about their message.

Still, Fagan has come to realize that publicity can help spread that message. She said her new  family motto is "Be brave." 

"You look at history and when important things happen, somebody has to put themselves out there," she said.

Fagan says losing her daughters’ father was horrific, especially for the girls. In some ways, though, she feels like they were meant to go through this tragedy so that they could be in this place, at this particular moment in time, with their message of love and tolerance

"We can’t control what life brings us," she said, "but what we can control is how we respond to it."