Jonathan Bernstein & Mark Gray, Rolling Stone
Wes Perry was in his Las Vegas hotel room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino when a gunman, a few rooms away, smashed his own room’s window and opened fire. Fans were gathered across the Las Vegas Strip at a country-music festival. It was Oct. 1, 2017, the final night of the Route 91 Harvest festival, and headliner Jason Aldean had just started singing his hit “When She Says Baby.” The rampage went on for 10 minutes, killing 58 people and injuring more than 850. It is considered the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
“I was near the end of the hallway, and he was at the very end of the hallway,” Perry tells Rolling Stone. “I looked out the window and I could see very clearly down at the festival site — which is actually why I loved that room — and it was all dark. I had the same view as the shooter.”
When the gunfire erupted at 10:05 p.m. Pacific time, Perry was startled out of the humming silence of his hotel room, where he’d gone to rest and charge his phone after spending Sunday at the festival. To this day, the Nashville resident still needs a white-noise machine to fall asleep.
“You have to stop and realize how much it’s changed you,” says Perry, who is the director of country sponsorships at Live Nation, the promoters behind Route 91. “You may not realize day to day, in the moment, what it’s done to you, but then you look back and say, ‘Wow, my life changed because of that.’ ”
Yet five years since the massacre at Route 91, little else has, when it comes to mass shootings in the U.S. The suspect, a 64-year-old white man who took his own life by the time authorities entered his room, was identified, yet no motive was ever determined. A ban on bump stocks, the device the shooter used to transform his weapons from semi-automatic to automatic, was enacted via executive order by President Trump in 2018, but seemingly did little to curb future mass shootings using assault rifles. And the survivors, traumatized and struggling to heal — an estimated 22,000 people attended the festival’s third day — find it hard to agree upon anything. Even the official death toll is a point of fierce debate.
According to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, 60 people died as a result of the shooting — a number that includes two women who were shot on Oct. 1, 2017, but died years after the incident. To many survivors, though, the tally of the dead is a non-negotiable 58, a number they’ve had tattooed on their bodies and wear proudly on T-shirts. It’s a number that’s come to symbolize strength, solidarity, and identity. In an email to the Clark County planning committee overseeing a memorial to be built for the victims, Dawn Wright, a survivor of the shooting, pleaded that the tally remain at 58. “I have heard the #58 is changing to 60,” she wrote. “Those 58 did not have final goodbyes, a last kiss, holidays, or birthdays. Please keep the #58 as it represents so much more than the lives lost. It’s a reminder to all survivors when we see that #58, our angels are with us.”
“58 is the number of people we lost that night, and that fact will never change,” wrote survivor Elizabeth West in another email. “We lost 58 + 2 ‘because’ of that night.”
The concept of a Route 91 memorial has been equally divisive. One — the Las Vegas Community Healing Garden — has already been built by local businesses and includes 58 trees, a centerpiece “tree of life” donated by the magician duo Siegfried & Roy, and a remembrance wall. It exists about six miles north of the shooting site, off a portion of the Strip known for tattoo parlors and the pawn shop featured on the reality show Pawn Stars.
The official memorial, to be constructed on the northeast corner of the actual festival grounds by the Clark County government, is still in the planning stages. Its working name — the “1 October Memorial” — has been a sore subject among survivors who largely refer to the massacre as “Route 91.” (According to the committee’s website, an official name will be chosen later.) “Calling it the 1 October Memorial does not relate the tragedy, devastation, and the people who were affected,” wrote Marianne Crane, a California resident, in an email to the committee. “1 October is how law enforcement refers to that tragedy, not us.”
In 2019, a portion of the original Route 91 festival site — essentially a 15-acre parking lot used for concerts called “Las Vegas Village” — was converted back into a parking lot for the nearby Allegiant Stadium, against the wishes of some survivors. A basketball practice facility is also being planned on the site. “The concert grounds are sacred grounds,” Wright objected in her email to the memorial planning committee. “I pled [sic] with you to not allow a parking structure be placed where 58 people lost their lives.”
While memories of the incessant gunfire from the shooter’s arsenal of weapons is what haunts many Route 91 survivors — more than 20 guns were recovered in his hotel room — it’s the silence that continues to affect Wes Perry.
Perry was finishing up his work on-site at Route 91 on Sunday afternoon, in the waning hours of the three-day festival, when his co-worker asked him a favor: She had a client dinner back at Mandalay Bay, and would he mind walking her to the hotel? Perry figured he’d take the opportunity to check email and rest his tired body in his room’s air conditioning before returning to watch Aldean close out the weekend.
When he first heard a loud noise that sounded like firecrackers, Perry thought it was either jackhammer construction on the floor or “drunken idiots” who had taken a prank too far. But before long he realized what was happening.
“I’m not a gun person, but I realized that this was gunfire. It was something about the rhythm of it,” Perry says. “It was definitely automatic because it was brrr-brrr-brrr for 20 or 30 seconds. I thought, if this is an automatic weapon, that’s bad.”
Perry closed his laptop, threw all his belongings behind the bed, and turned off the lights to make it appear as if the room was vacant should the shooter enter. Then, he crawled into the bathtub and texted his mother and co-workers.
“I remember lying there and the gunfire was so loud that it was vibrating the bathtub,” he says.
After what seemed like an eternity, there was enough of a lull in the shooting for Perry to emerge from his hiding place and open the door. Perry was greeted by a SWAT team screaming for him to drop his wallet and phone, raise his hands, and run toward them, where he was frisked and identified as a non-threat.
We looked up and everybody was gone” . . .. You’re the only ones alive out here. You have to go.’An off-duty police officer ran over and said
“You see the officer at the end of the hall? You run to him. As fast as you can,” they told him. “Stay low. And no matter what you hear, don’t stop and don’t look back!”
Perry did as he was told, sprinting to the elevator and leaving the hotel and all his belongings behind. The next 24 hours were a haze of strangers, anonymous hotel rooms, and harried attempts to get back to Nashville without his ID or cellphone.
When he finally made it home, the FBI paid Perry a visit, asking questions about the night of the shooting. Perry, he was told, was quite possibly the last person to walk down the hallway of Mandalay Bay’s 32nd floor before the gunman began firing.
But other survivors Rolling Stone spoke with, like Mary Jo von Tillow, say that communication with law enforcement in the days that followed the massacre was less than they expected.
“I never heard anything from the FBI on what happened. Nobody ever came to me to ask, ‘What did you see? What do you think?’ ” Von Tillow says. “Probably the most caring and nurturing place was the coroner’s office.”
According to Von Tillow, her husband, Kurt, was among the first people shot. “He was killed instantly and early,” she says. “Even before Jason Aldean stopped singing.”
She says someone from the FBI assisted her in obtaining a death certificate for her husband and helped her daughter board a flight without an ID, which was lost during the carnage, but otherwise, she and her family felt on their own.
“I talked to someone shortly after, but honestly, no, I never heard from police again,” fellow survivor Stephanie Pagan-Fraser says. “They couldn’t tell us anything about what happened.”
Pagan-Fraser had never met Von Tillow prior to the night of the shooting, but their stories are terrifyingly similar. Flanked by their husbands, they both watched Aldean perform from the west side of the open-air venue. They both became widows.
When the shooting began, Pagan-Fraser was with her husband, Brian, at the festival. Just like Perry back in his hotel room, she too thought it was fireworks at first; her friend guessed a speaker had blown out. But she soon realized a nightmare was unfolding around her.
“I turned around and I saw Brian laying on his back, and I could see blood coming out of his mouth,” Pagan-Fraser says. “I remember at one point screaming at him to wake up, and I can see our friend pumping his chest. I pretty much blacked out after that.”
At that point, several people grabbed Fraser’s body, put him in a wheelbarrow commandeered nearby, and ran to seek help. For three and a half days after her husband was carted off, Pagan-Fraser didn’t know if he was alive or dead, or even where he was. She called every hospital in the city she could think of but came up empty. “I often thought, ‘I wonder if he’s in a hospital bed but no one can ID him,’ ” she says. “It was torture, pure torture.” Finally, Brian’s body was found at the coroner; he was identified by his tattoos.
“It seemed like there was gunfire all around us,” says Von Tillow, who, with her wounded sister-in-law and niece, played dead until it was safe. “We looked up and everybody was gone, and it was devastation. . . . An off-duty police officer ran over and said, ‘You’re the only ones alive out here. You have to go.’ ”
Five years on, Von Tillow, now retired and out of the home she shared with Kurt, refuses to think of herself as a “survivor.” “I view myself as someone who lost my husband in a really tragic event,” she says. “I think anybody that was there lost their innocence and the idea of feeling safe in the world.”
Pagan-Fraser, who moved from La Palma to Corona, California, with her children, couldn’t be around loud noises after that day. Fireworks all but broke her. “The first time I heard fireworks after that I thought I was going to pass out,” she says. “I was so fucking scared.”
Brittany Bassett-Quintero, a survivor who has tattooed her arm with imagery — from a Jason Aldean lyric to a clock reading 10:05 — related to the night, says she’s grown detached since Route 91. Her marriage crumbled, and she drifted apart from the friend with whom she attended the festival. “I’ve become a little bit more of a hermit,” she says. “I literally just started to crumble, and I started to drink a lot, and it was a very, very dark time for me. It’s just kind of been one icky thing after another, but I’m still trucking. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m never going to be the Brittany that I was prior to that night.”
ON MAY 21 this past spring, Pagan-Fraser stood on the field at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California, watching her 14-year-old son Brayden throw out the first pitch before a game against the Oakland Athletics. Pagan-Fraser wore a custom-made Los Angeles Angels shirt bearing the image of her husband, Brian.
For Pagan-Fraser, Von Tillow, Bassett-Quintero, and the hundreds of survivors and their families who attend, this Angels home game has become a tradition. The meetup, an afternoon of healing and friendship, is orchestrated by 58 Strong, a nonprofit group created to assist minor children who lost a parent in the shooting. It’s believed that 87 children were robbed of a mother or father at Route 91, a festival that, based on ticket sales and billing addresses, was attended primarily by country fans from Southern California like the Frasers.
Meetups among survivors, particularly at the Angels game, have a vibe similar to a family reunion, which isn’t by accident. During a pregame gathering under the “Big A” in the parking lot of Angel Stadium, well more than 100 people from Southern California, Nevada, Tennessee, and even Canada sipped whiskey and wine from custom-labeled Route 91 bottles and danced to “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” and other country songs played by a DJ. There was no official dress code, but Route 91 shirts and clothing commemorating victims were omnipresent: “58 Angels Keeping Us Country Strong,” one woman’s shirt read. Tattoos referring to Route 91 or Oct. 1 — never “1 October” — were a common sight, too.
Once inside the stadium, “Routers,” as they call themselves, mingled and bought one another rounds of drinks. The game, and a postgame concert by country singer Josh Turner, was an afterthought; in the 58 Strong stands, it was the tightknit friendships, developed tragically five years ago, that commanded attention.
Organizations like 58 Strong, started in the months after the shooting by survivors Melissa Williams and Michael Hrustyk, have helped attendees stay informed and connected to other Route 91 survivors, filling an information void the authorities seemingly could not. “It was real to me, meeting people like Melissa and other people who are really trying to heal themselves,” Von Tillow says. “That helped me.”
But while in-person communities have given survivors the opportunity to bond and heal with one another, online groups formed in the wake of the tragedy have splintered. Despite their shared trauma, survivors sometimes find themselves at loggerheads over political issues including gun reform. Some say the Facebook groups meant to unite survivors have instead become cultural echo chambers.
“I used to be in touch with a lot of survivors, was part of the various Facebook groups. As time progressed, I realized I have barely anything in common with those people,” says Dan Savage, who refers to himself as an “unwilling participant” in the 2017 shooting.
Savage admits he’s frequently triggered by things that remind him of that night. During a recent outing with his family at a fair in Ventura, California, Savage and his wife were confronted by a convergence of unfortunate stimuli: The fair was using the same metal barriers that responders at Route 91 turned into makeshift stretchers to carry the wounded and dead; the food vendors were strikingly similar; and then, Aldean’s “When She Says Baby” began blaring from a nearby boombox.
“And then that fucking song comes on. I don’t like Jason Aldean’s music to begin with, but that song is a tier-one PTSD trigger for both of us. We looked at each other like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ ” Savage says. Instead of being present with his family, Savage was fully in his head. “I was supposed to be there with my in-laws, my daughter, having a great family time, and now I’m on high alert looking for every exit.”
Sandra Jauregui, a Nevada state assemblywoman whose district is located in the Vegas metro area, was also at the Route 91 Harvest festival. Jauregui attended with her then-husband, but in the weeks following the shooting, each strengthened their opposing views on gun reform: Jauregui threw herself into lobbying for gun-safety laws in her state, while he wanted to buy more guns. They divorced this year. For some, like her husband, Route 91 “further cemented people’s belief in the right to bear arms and carry them everywhere,” Jauregui says.
Jauregui has sponsored two state bills addressing gun safety. But pushback from Republicans has been unrelenting. She’s amazed that despite an epidemic of mass shootings in the U.S. like Columbine and Sandy Hook, opposition to meaningful gun reform continues.
“We’re going on a quarter of a century [since Columbine] and we haven’t been able to get mass shootings and gun violence under control. If Sandy Hook and Parkland and Route 91 couldn’t do it, what’s it going to take?” she says. “But the reality is I’m going to continue my fight on gun violence.”
Since Route 91, Nevada has passed several gun-violence bills (one is a red-flag law that, among other things, seizes guns from high-risk individuals; another, banning “ghost guns,” is currently being challenged in the state’s Supreme Court), but by and large, the massacre has not produced any sort of sustained collective action or advocacy on gun violence like after Parkland and Newtown. There are a few possible reasons, including the fact that the vast majority of fans were visiting from out of town for the weekend, making any geographic or community-based coalition nearly impossible to organize. Another key difference: Route 91 was the rare American mass shooting that directly involved and impacted a variety of multimillion-dollar industries (e.g., Las Vegas tourism, country music) eager for their enterprises to avoid becoming defined by an event of such unimaginable violence.
Tennille Pereira, director of the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center, a resource organization for survivors, first responders, and community members affected by the shooting, says in the aftermath of Route 91 it can be difficult to balance the needs of Las Vegas the tourist attraction with the needs of Las Vegas the city.
“The survivor dynamic of any incident is going to be so different based on where it happens . . . that dynamic has really been influenced by where this happened, who it happened to, and the scene: This was a concert on the Strip,” Pereira says. “It’s about balancing healing your community as well as supporting everyone that was here as a visitor.”
In the five years since the massacre, settlements have been reached in a pair of high-profile lawsuits. In 2020, MGM Resorts — which owns Mandalay Bay and the Route 91 site — announced an $800 million settlement with victims of the shooting. Most everyone accepted their small piece of the payout, but one man, Roger Allen Kenis, turned down the money. In a quixotic lawsuit against MGM in which he’s representing himself, Kenis alleges a pattern of previous security failures at MGM as well as a series of conflicts of interest and corruption between the state’s judicial system and the corporate resort chain. After going all the way to Nevada’s Supreme Court, the case has been referred to the state’s appellate court and is awaiting ruling.
In another settlement, this one involving local authorities, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department was ordered to pay the Las Vegas Review-Journal a quarter-million dollars after being sued by the newspaper over its lack of transparency during the investigation. When Rolling Stone reached out to the police department for an update on the case, officials referred us to a 187-page report released 10 months after the shooting that failed to determine a motive. (The head of the department was Sheriff Joe Lombardo, currently running as the Trump-endorsed Republican in the state’s upcoming gubernatorial race. Lombardo may repeal several gun-violence-prevention measures Jauregui backs if elected.)
The 2018 report found that the gunman conducted internet searches for crowded beaches, various open-air venues, and Boston’s Fenway Park, prior to the Route 91 shooting. It also noted that in August 2017 he booked a room overlooking Chicago’s Grant Park during Lollapalooza. About two weeks before his attack on Route 91, he scoped out another Las Vegas festival, Life Is Beautiful, checking into three different condominiums at the Ogden, a downtown Vegas building overlooking the festival site. His stay at the Ogden actually overlapped with his reservation at Mandalay Bay, where he had adjoining suites.
The report read, “Whether he used the Life Is Beautiful music festival as a rehearsal or not, we will never know. What we do know is the actions and behaviors displayed by [the gunman] at the Ogden were consistent with those displayed at Mandalay Bay.”
While checked into the two Las Vegas properties, the shooter also spent time at his home in Mesquite, Nevada, located more than an hour east of Las Vegas, and traveled once to Phoenix — to buy ammunition, police later found out. After the massacre, investigators recovered 1,057 shell casings in the adjoining Mandalay Bay hotel rooms.
The report closed, leaving unanswered questions that continue to haunt survivors, many still desperate to heal.
Shortly after Route 91, concert security was visibly beefed up. The 2017 Austin City Limits music festival got underway in Texas just five days after the Vegas shooting.
“The police presence was huge. There was cops walking around with assault rifles, and they wanted their presence to be known,” says JR Leake, who owns Stagewise Productions, a Vegas-based production company that has worked at many of the biggest festivals in the country, including ACL in 2017. (Route 91 was not among Stagewise’s client list.)
With Vegas fresh on everyone’s minds, organizers made a point to inform fans that pyrotechnics would be used, but Leake remembers people “scrambling, trying to dive underneath benches and in tears” when Chance the Rapper’s pyro was detonated.
Leake says festivals — particularly those occurring outdoors like Lollapalooza — now also use hidden snipers. “We have scissor lifts that we [use to] put up snipers; they go inside the scissor lift, and it looks like a piece of signage. You would never know that there’s snipers in there and that’s going on to this day,” he says. “A lot of other cities have tried to model that since Route 91.”
Leake also gives an active-shooter speech to his staff before the start of every festival. “We just go through what threats we might encounter on a festival site,” he says. “The stage managers and production managers that I know who run festivals also do this.”
But any advancements made in concert security since Route 91 seem to have been dulled by two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, when some of the security workforce — those with the knowledge of how and experience to react to a threat — retired or moved on to other careers, following the shutdown of live music. Last November’s crowd rush at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival in Houston, which killed 10, was blamed in part on lax security.
Leake admits that since the pandemic, some imminent safety fears have gone by the wayside. “People were so happy just to get out of the house that it just seems like safety was kind of forgotten about,” he says.
For Wes Perry, returning to music festivals for work wasn’t nearly as hard for him as it was for others. It was the long hallways that raised old memories: The first time he checked into a hotel for work travel after Oct. 1, he requested a room on the first floor.
But Perry knows he’s lucky. None of his co-workers died in the massacre, and he says today they share a “solemn bond.” He also met his now-wife upon returning to Nashville a week after the shooting, but he has a hard time separating those two life-changing moments. “It’s sad, in a way, but me meeting my wife will forever be tied to that event,” he says. “I hate that that’s the case, but it is.”
Bassett-Quintero, the woman whose shoulder is tattooed with a lyric from Aldean’s “When She Says Baby,” says it’s the lack of answers that have prohibited her from finding closure. Nearly everything since Oct. 1 remains unresolved.
“That’s the most frustrating part for me. I’m a criminal-justice major, and so I wanted to know the details. I just felt that we as survivors from Route 91 didn’t get that. I read every report and combed through it. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I just wanted to know the facts,” she says. “How do you fully move forward not knowing any part of the why?”