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Sheriff admits ‘failure to recognize’ Route 91 victims, increases death toll

Updated October 1, 2020 - 4:42 pm

As the sun climbed above the Las Vegas Valley on the third anniversary of the deadliest mass shooting in modern America, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo announced the massacre’s official death toll would increase to 60.

His announcement — made at the conclusion of the annual 1 October Sunrise Remembrance ceremony on Thursday — comes days after a Las Vegas Review-Journal story that examined the rippling effects of the Metropolitan Police Department’s decision to exclude two women who have died in the last year from the injuries they suffered on Oct. 1, 2017.

During Thursday’s ceremony, Lombardo acknowledged his department’s “failure to recognize those individuals.”

“I think it’s important that we recognize those individuals today, and to bring the number of 58 to 60,” he told the crowd. “And that will be the number moving forward as of today.”

The shooting, which unfolded on the Las Vegas Strip during the third and final night of the Route 91 Harvest music festival, initially killed 58 people and injured hundreds more.

Kimberly Gervais of Mira Loma, California, died on Nov. 15. It was the first known delayed death of a Route 91 survivor directly tied to the shooting.

“Now I don’t have this weird feeling of being in limbo, wondering where my family fits in all of this,” Amber Manka, Gervais’ older daughter, told the Review-Journal on Thursday.

The 60th victim, Samanta Arjune of Las Vegas, died a half year later, on May 26, at a local hospital. Her family could not be reached for comment.

The number 58

Neither Lombardo nor the department had provided a public explanation for its decision, prior to Thursday’s announcement, to keep the death toll at 58.

In a brief interview Thursday after the ceremony, Lombardo said he had been waiting for the coroner rulings to address the death toll.

“It isn’t like we’re trying to avoid the names,” he said, later adding that “at this point, I think I’m comfortable in acknowledging that the other two individuals lost their lives as a result of 1 October.”

Yet in late August, after the coroner’s division of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department had ruled Gervais’ death a homicide, a spokesman for Metro told the Review-Journal, “The number is not going to change.” Mike Sutcliffe, a supervising deputy coroner investigator for the Sheriff’s Department, confirmed that San Bernardino County officials had notified Metro of its ruling on the same day it was made.

Metro also affirmed its decision last month when news surfaced of Arjune’s death.

“We will not be adjusting the number for the 1 October shooting fatalities or commenting on the death,” Metro wrote in an email to the Review-Journal.

Two grieving families

For many, in the shooting’s aftermath, the number 58 came to symbolize a community’s strength and resilience in the face of tragedy.

“I’ll honor the ones that die after; I don’t have a problem with that,” Debbie Davis, the mother of Neysa Tonks, one of the initial 58 victims, said Thursday after the ceremony. But, she added, “I can’t change the number; it’s not for me.”

The number, she said, has taken on its own symbolic meaning for survivors and family members of the victims. In their daughter’s honor, Davis and her husband had created a scholarship for the children of those killed in the shooting. And the number 58 is incorporated in the name: The Children of the 58 Scholarship Fund.

But at the center of this controversy are two grieving families navigating a unique set of challenges — one that underscores issues of standardized reporting in mass shootings across police departments.

Manka, Gervais’ older daughter, has said she felt isolated by the circumstances of her mother’s death and was thrown into a situation she wouldn’t wish on anyone.

“Of course I want her to be remembered,” Manka said in an August interview in Corona, California, where she lives with her husband and two children. “But I’m very cautious of not wanting to harm the other 58 families in some way if they feel a certain way about it.”

But, Manka said Thursday, “My mom mattered. She was a part of that night, and it changed all of our lives.”

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Katelyn Newberg contributed to this report.

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