June 09, 2014 12:00 PM

When any of Katie Cooper’s sorority sisters felt sad or sick, all it took was a call to “Mama Coops,” as the 22-year-old senior was affectionately known, and help was on the way. “She would cook for you, drive you wherever you needed to go, bake for you,” friend Elizabeth Znamenacek says of Cooper, a fellow Tri Delta at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During this year’s finals week, Katie’s homemade macadamia nut and peanut butter cookies lifted spirits. Says Znamenacek: “She blessed so many people with those hands of hers.”

Such memories are all friends and family have to hold on to since 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, the deeply troubled son of a Hollywood director, went on a killing spree that claimed the lives of Cooper and five other UCSB students on May 23 in the beachside college community of Isla Vista, Calif. Acting on twisted notions of revenge (see box), Rodger stabbed and killed Cheng Yuan “James” Hong, Weihan “David” Wang and George Chen in his apartment; he then took off in his BMW, shooting Cooper, Veronika Weiss and Christopher Michaels-Martinez before turning his gun on himself. As police sift through evidence, loved ones and a nation stunned by this latest example of senseless violence are left with agonizing questions, including how three legally purchased handguns and more than 400 rounds of ammunition ended up in the hands of a man ready to explode. “I can’t tell you how angry I am,” a distraught Richard Martinez, father of Christopher, told CNN. “My son died because nobody responded to what happened at Sandy Hook. Why wasn’t something done?”

In the absence of answers, the grieving are comforting one another. More than 1,000 mourners gathered in Isla Vista’s Anisq’Oyo’ Park on May 24, sharing stories of rich lives lived before that tragic day. Sophomore Jeff Dolphin remembered how Michaels-Martinez, an English major and aspiring lawyer, cheered him up after midterms last year with chips, hummus and a marathon viewing of a favorite TV show, Good Vibes. “I’ve never been so happy,” Dolphin, 19, tearfully recalled. Wang’s grieving parents told NBC their basketball-loving only child was expected home for the summer soon. “He was always the joy of the family,” said his mom, Jinshuang Liu. Armin Samii, Hong’s onetime teaching assistant, recalled his precocity: He aced a UC Berkeley course as a high schooler. “I can only imagine what he would have achieved,” Samii said. As for Chen, he was “a shy guy,” pal Ashlee Chai told People, “but full of smiles.”

The reality of losing six classmates in one day is something the victims’ fellow students are still struggling to grasp. “We are numb,” says Znamenacek, who remembers her sorority sister Weiss, a freshman water polo player, “encouraging me to study day and night.” The tragedy “doesn’t seem real,” she continues. “I expect to see them in class or biking around campus. And I just expect Katie to come walking through the door – with some cookies in her hands.”

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