Paul O’Donnell would walk Huckleberry, his pet beagle, each day through his quiet Ontario neighborhood. Neighbors knew him as an animal lover who also took in stray cats.
They had no knowledge of his secret passion for guns — mostly antique firearms. O’Donnell had amassed a valuable military rifle and pistol collections, possessing nearly 1,200 guns dating back as far as the Revolutionary War, Civil War and World Wars I and II. These were secured in a steel-and-concrete bunker in his backyard, next to a French, anti-tank gun the size of a small car.
On Sept. 13, O’Donnell died of a heart attack at age 78. A few days later, the Ontario Police Department collected all the guns for safekeeping. O’Donnell’s will ordered the guns be sold at auction and the proceeds be donated to the West End Shelter for Animals in Ontario.
The estate account amounts to $613,772, which reflects the money from the purchase of the guns by a Southern California auction house, minus probate costs and attorneys fees, said his sister, Karen O’Donnell, executor of the will and resident of Laguna Niguel. Soon, she will personally hand a check for that amount to the director of the no-kill, nonprofit animal shelter on Mission Boulevard, she said last week.
It is by far the largest donation ever received by the shelter in its 68-year history.
“I cried. I cried, That is a lot of money,” shelter manager and operations director Shannon Cox-Gonzales said April 12 after learning about the donation. “For someone to be so selfless and leave all the money to the animals is wonderful.”
Plans are to use the money to re-start construction stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic on a new wing with a capacity to shelter 30 additional cats and 15 more dogs, said Cox-Gonzales. “The money will help with new buildings and help us upgrade and refresh our operation.”
The shelter struggled during the past two years because it was prevented from holding vaccination clinics, which provides 65% of its income. Today, pets can be adopted by going to www.westendshelter.com, viewing the animals online, then making an appointment, Cox-Gonzales said. The shelter does not put down animals.
Paul O’Donnell’s three cats were taken into the shelter. Because they were advanced in age, Cox-Gonzales’ staff is acting as foster owners and keeping the animals in their homes, she said. Huckleberry went to a neighbor.
Animal, gun lover
It may have been Thomas Jefferson who said: “Those who hammer their guns into plowshares will plow for those who do not.”
On the surface, that is what Paul O’Donnell did posthumously for stray dogs and cats.
But his sister says she and other family members have a hard time reconciling her brother’s two loves: animals and guns. The family always had a beagle and a variety of cats, something her brother kept up until his last day. Also, he was a licensed gun dealer and had collected guns since he was 13.
“It doesn’t make any sense when you put (his love for animals) together with the guns,” she said. “I don’t know what it was that made those two pieces of his personality predominate.”
Her brother would take a gun to the desert in the 1960s and 1970s and shoot bottles and cans, she remembered. “He became a recluse,” she said.
When the family lived in Azusa, his parents sent him to a military academy at age 12, she said.
He served in the military during the Vietnam War, but never saw fighting. He was stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington state in an administrative position. One of his guns that sold for $4,000 at a recent auction was a North Vietnamese officer’s gun, according to his sister.
O’Donnell graduated at age 20 from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, and taught history, mostly in junior high and high school, his sister said. He applied for a job at the CIA but told his family he didn’t get it. Later he spent time in Southeast Asia, Russia and China, she said. Her brother spoke fluent Russian and Mandarin.
Why did O’Donnell collect so many guns?
His sister did not know. In fact, she said he only bought the guns and never sold them or showed them to anyone. He’d display some on racks in his house, meticulously marked with the gun type, country of origin, and date, she said. As far as she knew, they never were shown in a museum.
Some 1,176 guns were bought by the auction house, whose identity Karen O’Donnell couldn’t reveal due to restrictions in the purchase agreement. The purchase helped her secure the cash more quickly than if she had to wait for every gun to be sold at auction, a process that may take several years, she said.
The 55-page list spanned centuries of guns from across the world and included a Spanish Trocaola-Aranzabel revolver from 1914, an 1861 musket from the Civil War, a British Cornish breech-loading musket valued at $1,500, a musket from Pennsylvania dated 1797, a 1777 model French flintlock musket with bayonet, as well as numerous types of guns from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Argentina, Brazil and Japan.
Every gun was legally purchased and owned.
“There was no crime of him possessing the firearms. They were lawfully obtained,” said Ontario police Sgt. Melissa Ramirez.
“What I found interesting is here is a man who amassed all these guns worth all this money, and the object was to give them to the animal shelter,” she said.
But her brother did leave behind something that could someday reveal more about a mysterious man with divergent interests.
“He was writing his memoirs when he died. I have eight three-ring binders, all handwritten. One of these days I am going to read them. And find the answer,” she said.
© 2022 MediaNews Group, Inc Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC