By Colleen Cason
Patrons of the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks received messages on their social media feeds inviting them to “see Justin at the door.”
Those who mentioned Justin Meek’s name scored a discount, and the 23-year-old Cal Lutheran alumnus pocketed some cash for his work promoting the dance hall frequented by students on Wednesday College Country Nights.
“He would say, ‘It’s easy to promote what I love,’” said his sister, Victoria Rose Meek, a junior at Cal Lutheran and also a Borderline promoter. “People wanted in on that family and that experience.”
During his four years at the university, Justin flung open doors between strangers, turning people with different interests into unlikely friends. At Cal Lutheran, if you didn’t know Justin, you knew someone who did.
After his graduation in May 2018 with a degree in criminology and criminal justice, he stood at another threshold. Before him was the future he envisioned. Formed by his boyhood in a military family and his college experiences, the Eagle Scout was to lead a life of service. He planned to join the Coast Guard with the goal of becoming a U.S. marshal.
On the evening of Nov. 7, Justin and Victoria Rose were among the roughly 250 people at the Borderline, four miles down the road from Cal Lutheran’s main campus. Along with promoting the dance hall, Justin worked security on some nights, but not this one.
At 6-foot-3, 265 pounds, his size could be intimidating. That was fine with his mother, Laura Lynn Meek ’18, particularly when Justin and Victoria Rose visited prisons as part of their criminal justice studies.
Though built like a mountain man, he was light on his feet. Meek founded the university’s Line Dancing Club. Laura Lynn had his dancing boots resoled three times.
That night, he seemed to want to stay close to the front door, Victoria Rose said, as if he had an intuition.
At 11:18 p.m., a gunman entered the Borderline armed with a .45-caliber handgun. He shot to death the first person he encountered and moved toward the crowd as he fired repeatedly.
Victoria Rose was on the dance floor when she heard shots. As she ran for the emergency exit, she stumbled and was trampled under fleeing patrons before she reached safety.
Eyewitnesses saw Justin raise his arms to shield those in the line of fire. People standing near him made it out safely, survivors told the Los Angeles Times.
In one of the 20 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, Justin died from a wound to his upper torso. Eleven other victims, including Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus, lost their lives, and 25 more reportedly were injured. An estimated 30 Cal Lutheran students survived the massacre.
Police told Justin’s family he died a hero.
Justin’s death was announced to the Cal Lutheran community during a chapel service the next morning.
Lana (Howard ’06) Clark, MPPA ’13, Cal Lutheran’s director of stewardship, wrote an open letter then to Justin, whom she had known since his freshman year: “You said if a (shooting) ever happened on our campus you would do everything you could to stop the shooter.”
Law enforcement officials believe valiant acts like Justin’s derailed the gunman’s plans and prompted him to kill himself long before his ammunition ran out.
CLU poster child
Justin Allen Meek was born Aug. 31, 1995. His dad, Roger, was a career Naval officer; Laura Lynn served 14 years in the Air Force.
When Justin was 3, his sister Victoria Rose was born. The siblings grew so close they joked they were fraternal twins.
“Justin was a Renaissance kid. He sang in the school choir and played a beefy sport, but the most unique thing about him was that he absolutely revered his baby sister,” said Craig Rond, CLU men’s water polo coach.
Justin blazed a trail for her at CLU. “My close friends, I made through my brother,” she said. He had roles in her recruitment to the water polo team and the choir.
As a child he was a reluctant reader, said Laura Lynn, who homeschooled her kids. He enjoyed doing magic tricks and was given a book on the subject. When he mastered the feats, she knew he had read it. He would in time teach himself to play the guitar.
“Justin was an A-plus-plus-plus student at anything he was interested in,” his mother said.
Their studies together culminated when Laura Lynn and Justin received their Cal Lutheran diplomas on the same day, with Mom bearing the flag and son singing the national anthem with the Kingsmen Quartet.
Change of plans
It’s said that if you want to see people’s true character, watch what happens when their plans falter.
Justin’s first contact with Cal Lutheran came during his senior year at Coronado High School. Coach Rond was scouting him for the water polo team and liked what he saw. Justin already had proven his prowess in the water by completing the rigorous training to become a beach lifeguard.
After his visit, he knew Cal Lutheran was the right fit, Laura Lynn said.
His freshman year, though, the team boasted its biggest roster in history, and Justin got little playing time. Rond dubbed him one of “the futures.”
That future was cut short when Justin injured his knee. He tried hard, maybe too hard, said his teammate Michael Potter ’15, but he couldn’t come back for his sophomore year.
He showed no animosity, said Rond, who spoke with Justin a day or two before he died. Justin was swimming laps to get himself in shape for the Coast Guard.
Omnivore of life’s offerings
With water polo behind him, Justin dove into an array of campus activities. He sang bass in the university choir, Kingsmen Quartet and Areté Vocal Ensemble. He served as trainer and manager for the Knights hockey team and worked at the Office of Veterans Resources. He belonged to the Italian and Republican clubs.
“He told me ‘the busier I am, the better I feel,’” said Jenn Zimmerman ’12, MS ’17, who supervised his work with veterans.
Justin was first to raise his hand to volunteer, said Wyant Morton, conductor of the CLU choir ensembles. During the choir’s 2018 tour of Spain, the bus carrying their equipment couldn’t navigate a narrow street to the church where they were to perform.
“There was Justin, carrying a big electric piano through the cobblestone streets,” Morton recalled.
He handled the heavy lifting in the ensembles as a soloist and a leader. His enthusiasm was inspiring, said Maddy Barnes, a senior in the choir.
“His voice was deep. He’d swing down into his low register. You could tell he loved to sing down there,” she said.
As a member of the Regals Quartet, the soprano performed the national anthem before the Rams’ Nov. 19 Monday night matchup in the Los Angeles Coliseum, in tribute to first responders and those killed at the Borderline (see Page 35).
When Laura Lynn Meek names the things she misses most since Justin passed, toward the top of the list is hearing her children spontaneously break into a snippet of song.
When planning the music for Justin’s Nov. 17 memorial service, she insisted the choir perform its medley of “I Love You/Wonderful World.” Justin had been the soloist on the piece.
“So many people are grieving and angry about (his murder). I want them to know Justin loved each and everyone here, and it is a beautiful world because he was here.”
Morton played a video of Justin singing the solo, and the live choir in Samuelson Chapel joined in, some fighting tears.
“It was really cathartic … to be able to get to sing with him one last time,” Jordan Erickson, a junior, told National Public Radio.
Shortly before he died, Justin scored a professional singing gig with the Goode Time Carolers, an a cappella Victorian ensemble that plays major venues during the holiday season. Three hundred singers auditioned and only 10 won a spot.
Mixing and mingling
Justin’s talent for entertaining extended beyond the concert stage and into the kitchen.
“In the dorms, he’d cook to get to know people,” Victoria Rose said.
He produced the Meek’s Menu YouTube channel, specializing in Italian dishes such as fettucine Alfredo and lemon chicken cacciatore as well as comfort fare like Justin’s California Cowboy Chili. To up the entertainment factor, he would strum his guitar and twirl spatulas like six-shooters.
He took advantage of his reputation as a chef to beef up the membership roster of the campus Italian Club. When word got out Justin was cooking for a club event, 200 people showed up and the food ran out.
On Veterans Day 2017, he prepared 50 pounds of tri-tip with all the fixings to honor campus vets.
He never pigeonholed people and welcomed an eclectic mix to these meals, his sister said. “Athletes, musicians, veterans, water polo players would converge because of Justin. They intermingled because of him. Otherwise, a football player might never be friends with a musician, but they had Justin in
One of the friends who attended his memorial service was a convicted offender who had completed his sentence. Justin and Victoria Rose knew him as a fellow student when all three took a Cal Lutheran criminal justice course inside Todd Road Jail. Taught in 2018 by Schannae Lucas, this was the first course ever offered in Ventura County through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program.
“Justin’s passion was private security and protecting people. He understood the best way to do that was to incorporate the perspectives of those inside the system,” said Lucas, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice.
“Beautiful” is the way Lucas describes Justin’s openness to learning and growing.
Toward the end of college days, he underwent a spurt of physical growth as well, his mother said. His chest broadened; his shoulders expanded.
“That’s the only way he’d hold those big angel wings,” Laura Lynn said. “That’s how I visualize him, arms extended herding people to safety.”
Colleen Cason is an award-winning journalist and longtime columnist for the Ventura County Star. A Thousand Oaks resident, she has served as adviser to The Echo student newspaper and currently edits Central Coast Farm & Ranch magazine.