When a gunman shot up a Thousand Oaks bar packed with college students late Wednesday night, 23-year-old Justin Meek was among those killed. He died trying to save others, a family member said.
Meek, a 2014 graduate of Coronado High School, was at the bar with his younger sister, both working as promoters, when the shooting started, according to his mother, Laura Meek.
“According to numerous witness accounts, Justin died a HERO saving many lives with no regard for his own life,” she wrote on Facebook.
Meek was among 12 people killed by a former Marine who shot up the Borderline Bar and Grill as it was hosting “college night,” for patrons 18 and over.
The shooter was identified as 28-year-old Ian David Long, a former machine gunner who had deployed to Afghanistan.
In the Facebook post, Laura Meek said her daughter escaped without physical harm.
In Coronado, people who learned Meek had been at the bar gathered Thursday morning for a prayer circle — but midway through, they learned he had died.
Several hundred more people gathered for a candlelight vigil Thursday night around the gazebo at Spreckels Park in Coronado. Meek’s friend, Patricia Fernandez, started the vigil with a slow, pensive version of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t help falling in love,” and ended it with an anguished version of Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluja.”
Fernandez — who sang with guitarist Tony Palkovic — told the gathered group that Laura Meek had requested a song by one of her son’s three favorite singers: Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley or Toby Keith.
After the vigil, Fernandez said she was not surprised to hear that Meek had sacrificed his own life to help others.
“That’s who he was,” Fernandez said.
Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey told those gathered at the park that Meek “loved everyone he came in contact with so deeply.”
“In what little spare time he had, he was a lifeguard here in Coronado, looking out for others,” Bailey told the mourners. “(It was) a theme that would last until the final minutes of his life.”
Meek's Instagram account said he was a promoter at Borderline and included photos promoting Stagecoach Takeover Night and College Country Night.
One of the most recent photos — posted just five days ago — was of Meek and his father, who is wearing a Navy dress uniform, standing in front of an American flag. The caption says: "Congrats on your LAST Change of Command, Dad! Now it's (time) for the retirement!"
According to his profile on WayUp.com, an employment website, Meek said he had worked as a water polo coach and lifeguard, and earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Under “fun fact,” he wrote: “I have been to all 50 states.”
He also worked as a performer with Goode Time Productions, a Southern California entertainment company, and as a caregiver at Channel Islands Social Services, where he provided support and in-home care to families who have children with developmental disabilities.
“Justin was an exceptionally kind and gifted young man who always went out of his way to help others,” said Sharon M. Francis, chief executive officer of the social services organization, in a statement. “Our families all felt that he was an extension of theirs...”
But it was water polo that brought Meek and longtime friend Asante Sefa-Boakye together. The pair met shortly after Sefa-Boakye graduated Coronado High School and before the start of Meek’s freshman year during off-season water polo training. They would later reunite at California Lutheran University, where they became teammates.
Sefa-Boakye described his friend as positive and sweet — a “teddy bear” who loved country music.
Although Meek spent many hours in the pool, his true calling was performing, his friend said. Meek brought to life his high school’s mascot, “Mr. Tiki,” before graduating.
Meek had a larger-than-life personality that he loved to share with others, his friend said. Once, during a Fourth of July celebration at McP’s Irish Pub, a bar in Coronado, Meek suddenly got out of his seat to sing with a band that was playing a Ray Charles song.
“Ask anyone on the (Coronado) island who knows this kid and they’ll say nothing short of how great a guy he is,” Sefa-Boakye said. “There’s a lot of heartbreak here over the loss of such a warm spirit.”
He added, “There’s frustration, too, because he fell victim to the same tragedy that this country has been going through over and over again with no apparent attempt to fix the problem.”
The friend said when news of the shooting broke, he immediately went to Meek’s and his sister’s Facebook pages. He saw a post from the sister with a phone number where she could be reached. He was hopeful they weren’t involved.
“There was this confidence, or maybe it was ignorance, that, no, this couldn't happen in our close-knit community… ,” Sefa-Boakye said. “I told myself it would be fine.”
When he woke up early the next morning and couldn’t get ahold of either of the Meek siblings, he called the number on the sister’s Facebook page. He spoke with Meek’s mother who told him his friend had been shot.
Sefa-Boakye said Meek’s family waited hours in a teen center in Thousand Oaks for news.
Coronado High School Principal Shane Schmeichel said the school community was “devastated to have lost one of our own to a senseless act of violence. We are here to support the Meek family and our community.”
After high school, Meek attended California Lutheran University, where he was a member of the university choir.
Tony Duran, a producer at Goode Time Productions, where Meek worked as caroler, said on Facebook that Meek’s “rich bass voice was exceptional and resonated (in) your very soul with every note he sang.”
Meek graduated in May. His mother also graduated that day, according to the Ventura County Star. Laura Meek, a veteran, carried the United States flag into the ceremony while her son sang the national anthem in a quartet.
University president Chris Kimball sent an email to students and staff members informing them of Meek's death.
“The Cal Lutheran community is filled with sorrow over the violent events that took place last night a few miles from campus in Thousand Oaks. Sadly, we have learned from the family that a recent graduate, Justin Meek, 23, is one of the precious lives cut short in this tragedy,” Kimball said. “Meek heroically saved lives in the incident.”
Those looking for a way to help were encouraged to donate blood or consider making a donation to a fund set up by the Ventura County Community Foundation to assist the victims.
A vigil was to be held on the campus Thursday.
“Cal Lutheran wraps its arms around the Meek family and other families, and around every member of this community of caring,” Kimball said.
Speaking before the Coronado vigil Thursday night, Sefa-Boakye said, “That's what's going to help us move forward, is the amount of community members that are going to come together to talk about his life.”
Staff reporter Alex Riggins contributed to this story.
8:30 p.m.: This story was updated with details from the candlelight vigil at Spreckels Park.
2:20 p.m.: This story was updated with information posted on social media by Justin Meek’s mother.
1:35 p.m.: This story was updated with additional information, including from Justin Meek’s social media page.
1:05 p.m.: This story was updated with information from Justin Meek’s WayUp profile. It was originally posted at 12:25 p.m.