As he sat in a restaurant booth, enjoying the sort of food you can only seem to find in a small Texas city, Abbey Abbondandolo was struck by how kind the waitress was to him.
At first glance, maybe it was small-town hospitality, perhaps just her nature.
But Abbondandolo sat at that booth and he realized so many people he’d come across in the city of 15,000 about 50 miles east of the border with Mexico were that way.
Four times this summer, Abbondandolo, St. Luke’s senior director of security and a former homicide detective, has visited the community, the name few knew in the spring, but now know too well — Uvalde.
Abbondandolo was part of a three-panel team that gathered information for a report released July 17 by the Texas House of Representatives investigative committee on the May 24 mass shooting at Robb Elementary that resulted in 19 children and two teachers killed.
“I thought I had seen everything a police officer could, but there is nothing quite like this experience,” Abbondandolo said. “It was eye-opening and really, it was life changing.
“To be in Uvalde, see the effect it had on them up close, nothing compares to what they’ve gone through. That waitress, one of her little cousins was killed. But her and everyone there, they were so kind. I was amazed, just thinking, ‘how can they have so much resiliency?’”
A police officer for 32 years in Houston, 21 as a homicide detective, Abbondandolo was recommended to join the investigative group by a former prosecutor who he had known in his previous career.
“I was honored to take part … I think the report produced something I am very proud of and I think can be helpful to a lot of people in the future,” Abbondandolo said.
He hopes that his experience can be helpful right here in Idaho and at St. Luke’s, in particular.
As part of the investigation, Abbondandolo and the team spoke with teachers, parents, law enforcement and even the shooter’s family to not only gather information on what happened that day, but what led up to it and solutions to handle future incidents.His most recent visit in early August, after the report was published, was primarily centered on family reunification — helping families identify victims, updating them on injuries or reconnecting unharmed loved ones amid a chaotic scene.
“It’s easy for me to see relationships with schools and hospitals — you have two vulnerable populations in one area,” Abbondandolo said. “It certainly gave me the option to see through the lens of how St. Luke’s would prepare and respond.
“I think we’ll make a lot of changes, particularly communication with law enforcement. And you can take something from the families about how to handle a major incident better. A little pre-planning goes a long way.”
Abbondandolo, who also appears on the TV channel Oxygen’s “Cold Justice,” has already met with law enforcement in Idaho about his findings and is hoping to continue to meet with other leaders.
After seeing what he has seen and speaking with the people directly affected by the tragedy, there’s nothing more he wants than to do what he can to prevent another awful day like May 24.
In Uvalde, memorials are everywhere, a constant reminder of what happened, but also perhaps a beacon of inspiration to never forget, to never let it happen again.
“One day, I saw this car pull up right near the fence that’s around the school now, and this mother and her two little girls got out,” Abbondandolo said. “They stood there and looked at the school, then just hugged and cried in that scorching parking lot. With my experience, not much rattles me. I have no idea if they went there or they were just paying respects, but that really choked me up.”
Still amazed by the openness of those he interviewed and those he interacted with in Uvalde, Abbondandolo hopes the report and his own experience can be useful in the future.“The goal was to find areas that need to be supported and what changes need to be made,” he said. “I think that can apply in Texas, but also some good things to help keep people safe at St. Luke’s and the community overall.”
Dave Southorn works in the Communications and Marketing department at St. Luke's.