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New controversy arises around death toll of Las Vegas shooting

Updated October 30, 2020 - 7:59 am

The first meeting held by the 1 October Memorial Committee offered a glimpse into an unexpected controversy that has surfaced around the 2017 massacre’s official death toll.

Wednesday’s meeting, which was livestreamed by Clark County, concluded with public comment from one survivor of the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting and relatives of two of the initial 58 victims asking for the committee’s support to keep the death toll unchanged.

Their remarks came weeks after Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo announced that he had increased the count to 60 to include two women who died in the last year from the injuries they suffered in the Oct. 1, 2017, attack on the Las Vegas Strip. The statistic is controlled by the Metropolitan Police Department, the lead investigating agency.

Stephen Benning, a UNLV psychology professor, said there might be resistance to the new death toll because “changing the number of those who are considered to have been killed at the site or who died in the immediate aftermath may feel like a violation of a representation of the entirety of the event.”

“Right now, 58 represents an island of certainty, a specific bedrock number on which people can rely to understand the tragedy,” Benning wrote in an email to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Unlike the time it took to settle on the official count of 413 injured, it has remained a number at the heart of understanding the final cost of the shooting. It has remained constant, even when people died from suicide after the trauma of the shooting. Changing it to 60 may feel like an entire understanding that’s built up over the last 3 years must change as well.”

Lombardo’s decision — in which he acknowledged his department’s “failure to recognize those individuals” — was announced days after the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a story examining the ripple effects of his original decision to exclude the two women from the count.

Kimberly Gervais of Mira Loma, California, died on Nov. 15, 2019. It was the first known delayed death of a Route 91 survivor directly tied to the shooting. The 60th victim, Samanta Arjune of Las Vegas, died a half year later, on May 26, at a local hospital.

As is the case with the initial victims, both women’s deaths were ruled homicides by medical examiners.

According to Metro’s final report on the massacre, released in August 2018, 413 of the more than 800 injured that night suffered gunshot or shrapnel wounds.

‘An identifiable symbol’

At Wednesday’s meeting, Debbie Davis was the first to address the death toll. Her daughter, Neysa Tonks, was among the initial 58 victims.

“As far as the official statistics are concerned, the number of deceased may change in the future due to the injuries that were suffered that night. My heart goes out to them and their families as I’m certain their suffering is terrible,” Davis said, her voice shaking. “Having said that, the 58 stands alone as an identifiable symbol of the tragedy itself. It does represent those that were killed on that night, but it also represents those that were injured, the first responders and all those who helped so selflessly.”

The last of the initial 58 victims was pronounced dead at a local hospital on Oct. 3, 2017, according to redacted autopsy reports.

Davis, who attended Wednesday’s meeting with her husband, suggested that, in place of an increased death toll, the two women instead be honored “with a plaque or something” at the Las Vegas Healing Garden, which was built in the Arts District in the days after the shooting. The garden features 58 trees for each of the initial victims. Las Vegas city officials have decided that two more trees will not be planted for Gervais and Arjune.

Later, Albert Rivera, who lost his 21-year-old daughter, Jordyn, in the shooting, told the committee: “I agree with Debbie.”

Rivera said the decision on the death toll, in his eyes, meant “we’re going to forget the 58.”

“I ask you guys to help us keep the 58 intact,” Rivera told the committee, “for everything it represents.”

Survivor Sue Ann Cornwell, who is active in the Route 91 community, used her three minutes of public comment to explain “what the number 58 represents to myself and thousands of others.”

“The number 58 stands for our 58 angels that never went home,” Cornwell said, “the 58 families whose lives were changed forever on Oct. 1, 2017, the 58 that never said goodbye, the 58 that never hugged again, the 58 that never celebrated another birthday, the 58 that never had ‘survivor’ behind their name.”

‘My mom mattered’

Amber Manka, Gervais’ older daughter, has said she recognizes her privilege: She got two more years with her mother after the shooting.

But, in an August interview with the newspaper, Manka also detailed how their lives changed, too, and the suffering her mom — and her family — endured in that time. How they spent thousands of dollars to make Gervais’ home wheelchair accessible. How her mom was never truly the same after the shooting. How Gervais, who could no longer complete daily tasks on her own, like brushing her teeth or eating, spent the majority of her final two years in and out of hospitals and treatment centers.

And then, when her mother died, Manka said, she and her family were thrown into a situation she wouldn’t wish on anyone — a situation in which, she has said, the circumstances of her mother’s death have left her feeling isolated from an entire community.

“My mom mattered,” Manka, who couldn’t be reached Thursday for comment, said earlier this month when the death toll was increased. “She was a part of that night, and it changed all of our lives.”

Similarly, Arjune, who was shot in the leg in the attack, “suffered and suffered with pain and pain and pain,” her father, Rudolph, said during her funeral service.

The morning after the shooting, doctors at University Medical Center performed exploratory surgery and found that the bullet in Arjune’s leg, entwined in nerves, could not be removed. But the bullet eventually resurfaced on its own, causing extreme pain for Arjune that was expected to last the rest of her life.

Tennille Pereira, director of the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center and a board member of the 1 October Memorial Committee, previously told the Review-Journal that “anyone who was declared to have died from their injuries by the coroner is entitled to the benefits of a bereaved family. It’s a factual matter.”

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter.

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