1980 Northeast El Paso shooting stands as one of Texas’ first mass murders

Texas Mass Violence

EL PASO, Texas (KXAN) — Drunk and stewing in anger, Barry Chvarak, 21, stood up from the bar of the Starburst Lounge, turned to his twin brother and said he was “going to shoot up the place.” It was 1:45 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1980, last call. The bartender had just flipped on the house lights of the country and western dive bar tucked in the Northeast outskirts of El Paso. Chvarak walked to the parking lot toward his truck, but he wasn’t leaving.

He retrieved a semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle, loaded it outside and walked back into the lounge. Chvarak would later struggle to explain his motive in that moment. The threat seemed so outlandish, his own twin didn’t consider it serious. The next minute would seal Chvarak’s fate: five innocent people murdered and three others wounded. It would be, until 2019, the worst mass shooting in the city’s history.

After that tragic night in the Starburst, mass shootings in Texas would steadily increase and reach deadly new heights in 2018 and 2019. In September, Gov. Greg Abbott outlined executive orders and legislative plans that state leaders hope could decrease the violence. Now, a KXAN investigation digs into two tragic mass attacks in 1980 and the following 40 years of mass violence.

Fateful night out

Shirlene Masterson can still remember hearing sirens in the night as she struggled to fall asleep Feb. 3, 1980. Her youngest daughter woke her in the morning, saying three men were at the front door.

“There was a detective and a police and a pastor,” Masterson said.

The men asked if she was the mother of 20-year-old Randy Wayne Steele. There had been a shooting at a nearby bar, the Starburst Lounge, they informed her.

“Your son is dead,” Masterson recalls being told. “When he died, part of me died with him.”

Shirlene Masterson holds a portrait of her 20-year-old son, Randy Steele, fatally shot at an El Paso nightclub in 1980. (KXAN Photo)

In the years that followed, Masterson would learn more about the awful events inside the bar and how her son died. Unknown to investigators at the time, the tragedy would display the hallmarks of many shootings to come: an obscure lone shooter, a mysterious cause, a random crowd and heroes sacrificing themselves to save strangers.

Masterson would often find herself driving back by the Starburst and stopping her car. Something drew her back to the last place her son was alive. That habit stopped after the Starburst was leveled. The corner lot became a car wash; then the car wash was abandoned. Now the blighted lot collects trash. Like the demolished lounge, the memory of the Starburst attack has vanished for many in the city.

But Phil Sell still remembers it. He was only 19 years. That night he was out drinking and playing pool with a couple of friends.

Sell recounted the fateful night to KXAN alongside his wife in their home in northeast El Paso. He’s lived his whole life in that working-class area, just miles from the former Starburst Lounge location. At the time of the shooting he had just started working for U-Haul, and he still works there 40 years later.

The Starburst was the local hangout, with its linoleum floors, drop ceiling, coin-operated pool tables and cramped dance floor. There was nothing out of the ordinary the night of the shooting.

Sell had his back to the door when it started.

There were “a couple of pops, and I turned around,” he said. “Somebody punched me is what I thought at first.”

Sell reached for his chin, found his hands covered in blood and stumbled toward the bathroom.

“There were people screaming. It was chaos,” Sell said. “At that point, any rational thought was gone. I just needed to see what happened to my face.”

A bullet hit Sell’s cheek, exited near his chin and pierced the shoulder of a nearby woman. She lived. When Sell emerged from the bathroom, the shooting had stopped.

(Left) Phil Sell around 1980, the year a gunman entered the Starburst Lounge and shot him; (Right) Sell today with his wife, Marjey, at their El Paso home (Sell Family/KXAN Photo)

“There were three women that were basically, you know, on top of each other,” he said. “I remember the first woman laying there with a bullet hole dead center, as I remember, in her forehead.”

Every witness in the bar would ultimately give their description of the shooting to police. Each of those statements, all collected in a 263-page police report obtained by KXAN, offers its own macabre perspective of the attack.

Gary Onopa, 19, said he looked up from the pool table when he heard a firecracker noise. He could see Chvarak unloading his rifle from near the front door and saw three women near the bar fall in heap.

Patrick Kilbane said he was sitting two seats from a woman who was shot in the forehead.

“He made one sweep with the rifle and then started back again, firing continuously,” Alan Fritz, 19, told investigators.

Chvarak pulled the trigger of the .22 caliber Marlin model 60 semi-automatic at least 14 times. One of Sell’s friends, Roger Miller, charged and disarmed Chvarak. He smacked Chvarak twice across the face and head with a pool cue, breaking the stick in half. Chvarak dropped the rifle and another man stashed it in the bar’s office. If those men hadn’t stepped up, Chvarak may have kept shooting. He had more bullets in his pocket.

Chvarak never tried to run. After his gun was taken, he simply sat at the bar until police arrested him. As officers whisked him away to the station, he muttered to an officer.

“Why I did that, I don’t know,” Chvarak said. “I guess I’m going to prison.”

(Left) Barry Chvarak, 21, in 1980 under arrest for the shootings at El Paso’s Starburst Lounge; (Right) Chvarak, 61, serving five life sentences at the Bill Clements Unit, up for parole review in August 2020. (Crime Scene Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

Chvarak was charged with five counts of murder. He pleaded guilty and received five concurrent life sentences. He remains in a state prison outside Amarillo.

KXAN wrote to Chvarak and requested an interview, but he did not respond.

Marjey Sell, Phil’s wife, was instrumental in organizing opposition to Chvarak’s first parole chance in 2000 and subsequent parole opportunities.

For those involved, the trauma of the night would linger. Sell said his couldn’t sleep through nightmares of the dead women in the bar.

Beginning in 2000 when Barry Chvarak was first eligible for parole, survivors and family members of the Starburst Lounge shooting victims began signing petitions to support denying the convicted murderer’s release from prison, repeating the process every few years. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

“That image, you know, for a long time, I would wake up with that image in my head,” Sell said.

But the nightmares would fade with time. Sell began dating his future wife, Marjey, shortly after the shooting. They now have two children and remain in northeast El Paso.

40 years later, Phil Sell never expected he would be helping his son, a local firefighter named Dylan, grapple with his own mass shooting experience. Mass violence struck El Paso again in August 3, 2019. A gunman opened fire in a Walmart, killing 22 and injuring 24 more. Dylan Sell was called to the scene. He helped with the wounded and reentered the Walmart to retrieve gear that was left inside in the chaos, Marjey said.

“The dead were… they were still in there, and he saw everything,” she said. “The one person that really understands is his dad, you know, one of the few people that’s been through it. I think he’s been helpful a lot, because Dylan can open up to him and talk to him about the trauma and the carnage and the horror that he saw.”

The Walmart suspect, Patrick Wood Crusius, 21, was not tackled or attacked inside the supermarket. He fled the scene and later surrendered to authorities outside the store. Crusius was indicted for capital murder, and prosecutors said they are seeking the death penalty.

Sell said he “wholeheartedly believes” that if someone in the vicinity of either shooting had proper training it would have saved lives. Sell said he is in favor of people being armed, but even simple first aid techniques, like how to stop a bleed, should be available to everyone.

“Until the minute, the second it’s happening, you have no idea how you’re going to react. The only thing you can do is prepare,” Sell said.

READ MORE ABOUT KXAN’S INVESTIGATIVE LOOK INTO THE HISTORY OF MASS VIOLENCE IN THE STATE OF TEXAS.

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