THOUSAND OAKS, CALIFORNIA - One was a veteran police officer who didn't hesitate to run toward danger. Another was an art student who worked with children at her church. Others were a Navy veteran, an a cappella singer who worked as a caregiver, and a security guard with a “big personality” who was known for making sure everyone got home safely.
They were among a dozen people killed in a shooting at a country music bar in Southern California. Authorities believe the gunman, Ian David Long, ultimately killed himself.
The victims' stories began to emerge Thursday. It was going to be a “very difficult day for many people,” said Andrew Fox, mayor of Thousand Oaks, California, where the attack happened Wednesday night.
Ron Helus: ‘Cop's cop’
Ventura County sheriff's Sgt. Ron Helus was talking to his wife when calls started coming in about a shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill.
“Hey, I got to go handle a call. I love you. I'll talk to you later,” he told her, according to Sheriff Geoff Dean.
It was the last time she would talk to her husband.
Helus rushed toward the shooting and immediately exchanged fire with the shooter inside the bar, Dean said. Helus was hit multiple times and died at a hospital.
Sgt. Eric Buschow, who said Helus was a friend, described him as a “cop's cop.”
“The fact that he was the first in the door doesn't surprise me at all,” he said. “He's just one of those guys that wouldn't hesitate in a situation.”
Helus took up fly fishing a few years ago and loved pursuing the hobby in the Sierra Nevada mountains with his grown son, Buschow said.
“He was just a great guy, a gentle soul,” Buschow said. “Patient. Calm no matter what. When you call 911, he's one of the guys you want showing up.”
Helus was on the SWAT team for much of his career and worked in narcotics and investigations, he said.
“If you were a victim of a crime, you want him investigating the case,” Buschow said. “He would go to the ends of the Earth to find a suspect.”
Thousands of people lined streets and many others pulled over to honor the fallen officer during a somber 40-kilometer (25-mile) procession that took Helus' body from a hospital to a coroner's office.
Dean choked back tears talking about Helus and called him a hero.
“He went in there to save people and paid the ultimate price,” he said.
Cody Coffman: ‘The big brother that my kids need’
Cody Coffman, who had just turned 22, was talking with Army recruiters and preparing to fulfill his dream of serving his country, said his father, Jason Coffman, who wept as he told a group of reporters that his first-born son was among the victims.
Cody adored his siblings — three brothers between ages 6 and 9 — and he couldn't wait for the birth of a sister, due on Nov. 29, said Jason Coffman of Camarillo.
“Cody was the big brother that my kids need,” he said. “He was so excited to have his first sister and now she'll never know ...”
He trailed off, sobbing, then said, “Oh, Cody, I love you, son.”
He said his son was passionate about baseball, serving as an umpire for a little league, and they went fishing together.
“That poor boy would come with me whether he liked it or not,” he said. “That's the kind of stuff I am truly going to miss.”
Jason Coffman said he last spoke to his son Wednesday night before Cody headed to the bar where the gunman opened fire.
“The first thing I said was, `Please don't drink and drive,”' he said. “The last thing I said was, `Son, I love you.”'
Justin Meek: ‘Full of light and happiness’
Newly graduated from California Lutheran University, Justin Meek cared for children with special needs, performed as a singer and worked at the Borderline bar.
It was there he “heroically saved lives” before being killed, Cal Lutheran President Chris Kimball said in a statement. He didn't provide details.
The campus chapel overflowed Thursday with people attending a service of mourning. Meek, 23, majored in criminal justice and graduated in May, school spokeswoman Karin Grennan said.
Since last summer, Meek had worked for Channel Island Social Services as a respite caregiver, supporting families with children with special needs, mostly developmental disabilities, chief executive Sharon Francis said.
“Parents just adored him. He was able to bond with their kids,” she said. “He was just an all-around guy.”
Danielle Gallo, who also works at the family-run organization, said he was dedicated to the kids he worked with.
“You could tell he really had a heart for what he did,” she said, sobbing.
Meek also toured professionally as an a cappella singer, said family friend Patrick Ellis, who called Meek a talented musician, singer and athlete and a “fantastic human being.”
“He was a hero every day of his life,” Ellis said. “It was just always positive energy. ... Anything he could do for you, he was just there.”
Meek played water polo for Cal Lutheran and had planned to go to San Diego this coming weekend for the retirement party of his dad, a Navy SEAL. Meek also worked at the bar with his sister and fellow Cal Lutheran student, Victoria Rose Meek, who survived, Ellis said.
“Both very polite, iconic American kids, highly educated, wholesome,” Ellis said of the siblings.
As a student, Meek lent his full, velvety voice to the Cal Lutheran choir, where “every time he sang, you could just feel it in your soul,” recalled choir member Rachel Counihan, 20.
“He cared so much about his craft and just cared so much about other people,” she said. “He was just full of light and happiness.”
Scott Roberts, 20, a junior at the school and friend of Victoria Rose Meek's, had warm memories of her brother.
“He was just the nicest dude,” Roberts said. “I'm just praying he's in a better place.”
Alaina Housley: ‘An incredible young woman’
Alaina Housley was just 18, a promising student at Pepperdine University with plans to study law, her family said.
Adam Housley, a former Fox News correspondent, and Tamera Mowry-Housley, an actress known for the 1990s TV series “Sister Sister,” said their niece was killed at the bar where she had gone line dancing with friends.
“Alaina was an incredible young woman with so much life ahead of her, and we are devastated that her life was cut short in this manner,” the couple said in a statement.
Alaina was bright, popular and well-loved, a student who had a 4.5 grade-point average since junior high school and earned college scholarships, said her grandfather, Art Housley.
She played soccer and tennis all through high school, studied piano and violin, and sang, he said.
“She's a really good kid,” he said, fighting tears, before her relatives learned their fears of her death were true. “Everybody loves her.”
Noel Sparks: ‘All-around good girl’
Noel Sparks, a 21-year-old college student, loved going to the Borderline Bar & Grill, so friends and family were not surprised when she posted a photo of herself dancing there Wednesday night.
Her aunt Patricia Sparks of Morristown, Tennessee, said police informed Sparks' father Thursday that she had died in the shooting.
“We're in shock,” Patricia Sparks told The Associated Press.
She described her niece as an “all-around good girl. She was the kind of girl that if you had friends, you'd want them to marry her.”
Sparks was a regular at Borderline, where she spent Halloween and celebrated her 21st birthday in August. She often went there with friends and her mom.
When friend Jackie Jones heard about the shooting, she jumped into her car and headed to the bar shortly after midnight. She was determined to find Sparks.
“She would do that for me,” Jones said.
The two met through church two years ago and became fast friends. Sparks was artistic and a leader in church activities. She was majoring in art at nearby Moorpark College.
Sparks worked part time at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village. She helped with children's programs, the Rev. Shawn Thornton said.
“She loved kids. We had a lot of parents show up today to say, `She made my child feel important and that they mattered,” Thornton said.
Sean Adler: ‘A very, very big personality’
Sean Adler, 48, was a security guard at Borderline who would stay late to ensure people could get home safely, said Debbie Allen, a longtime friend.
The married father of two boys died doing what he was passionate about — protecting people, Allen said.
“He was a very, very big personality and had a very, very gorgeous smile,” she said, adding that he had once considered becoming a police officer. “I don't think in all the years I've known him, and it's almost 30, I ever heard him say `no' to someone.”
His other passion, she said, was coffee. Adler recently opened his own coffee shop, Rivalry Roasters, in Simi Valley, said Phil Englander, another longtime friend.
“He was just the most passionate person about coffee you would ever want to meet,” Englander said.
Adler joked about being a “coffee dealer” and spoke energetically, using his hands, while people listened.
“He always had that energetic personality,” he said. “He's just such a warm and friendly and passionate person about everything in his life.”
Englander said he stopped by the coffee shop Wednesday to visit Adler.
“We talked about family, and we reminisced about an old friend of ours we haven't seen in years,” he said. “I woke up this morning to tragedy.”
A vigil is being held for Adler Thursday night at the coffee shop. Another one will be held Friday to include family traveling from out of town.
Telemachus Orfanos: Navy veteran nicknamed ‘Tel’
Telemachus Orfanos, 27, was a U.S. Navy veteran with a thick beard, an easy smile and a gladiator helmet tattoo. His friends called him “Tel.”
“Here are my words: I want gun control,” his mother, Susan Schmidt-Orfanos said, her voice shaking with grief and rage after learning her son was killed. “I don't want prayers. I don't want thoughts.”
She said wants Congress to “pass gun control so no one else has a child that doesn't come home.”
Photos on Orfanos' Facebook page show the Eagle Scout with friends at ballgames or at work. Some photos are embellished with patriotic graphics and another marks the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.