AURORA | In the five years since the July 20, 2012 Aurora theater shooting, victims, their families, rescuers, prosecutors, leaders and the community have struggled alone and together to absorb the tragedy.
Solace, many say in Aurora, is sometimes fleeting, sometimes elusive.
These thoughts and summations of just a few Aurora residents and officials touch on what many think and feel as the anniversary of the horrific shooting passes again.
Memorial vigil Wednesday night
The 7/20 Memorial Foundation is holding a candlelight vigil starting late Wednesday night and going into early Thursday morning at the city municipal building.
The foundation is asking the community to start gathering at the 7/20 Reflection Memorial at the Aurora Water-Wise Garden around 11:30 p.m. Wednesday with the vigil set to start at 12:15 a.m. Thursday morning. A moment of silence is set to take place at 12:38 .a.m. followed by the end of a processional of Aurora Police Department and first responders.
The garden is located on the corner of Alameda Parkway and Chambers Road on the east side of the municipal building.
Mayor Steve Hogan says the shooting enveloped Aurora and never defined it
A big city, Aurora is a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s the place where James Holmes opened fire in a crowded theater one night five years ago.
Unexpectedly, it’s been the survivors and the rest of the city that have defined what that tragedy was. Mayor Steve Hogan marvels that the grisly theater shooting has not defined Aurora.
In recalling those heart-wrenching hours and days after the shooting, Hogan mused about how, after five years, the community is still so profoundly affected by the catastrophe.
Healing takes time, Hogan said. A very long time.
Just after the shootings, there was an outpouring of sympathy. Aurora was one of the unlucky few that instantly became synonymous with unthinkable murder.
Soon after, when Hogan met or spoke with others across the country, he first got one of two reactions.
“Oh, Aurora,” was that taken aback tone he got from strangers, who would shift away, as if theater shootings might be contagious.
More common was the “How are you guys doing?” reaction he would get from others. It was if Aurora had developed a terminal form of theater shooting, was fighting hard, but not expected to survive.
“But in the last year, I think that’s changed,” Hogan said. It’s not the first thing that others outside of the city talk about with him any more.
“It’s more likely to be something about Amazon (which recently opened a massive distribution center in Aurora) or the Gaylord (a massive convention project on the city’s east side).”
It’s possible that a few things account for the change, Hogan said. Time is one, but more likely is that there have been equally stunning shootings since Aurora’s fateful night on July 20, 2012. Not long after there was the Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Then shootings in Minneapolis, Brookfield, Sandy Hook, Santa Monica, Washington DC, Ft. Hood, Isla Vista, Charleston, Chattanooga, Roseburg, Colorado Springs, San Bernadino and Orlando.
It means that there’s a growing list of cities like Aurora, and the public is becoming sensitized to the increasingly frequent disasters.
There are, however, relatively good things that came from so much terror and pain. The whole world prepares for and handles disasters like this differently because of how Aurora scrutinized what led up to the shooting and how rescuers responded.
It doesn’t diminish the agony victims and the community have suffered, Hogan said, but it does provide some solace in knowing that other disasters might be averted or lives saved when the worst thing that can happen does.
He marvels about how that fateful time seems both so long ago, and so fresh still in his memory. He said that’s in part because there are still so many people suffering and in need of help.
“We still have people to take care of at the resiliency center,” Hogan said, referring to a center opened in northwest Aurora, operated by Aurora Mental Health. The project provides a wide range of services and opportunities to victims and the entire community.
If there’s a common thread among the victims, and many in the city, it’s that they, and we, seek safety.
They want the resiliency center to be safe. In planning for a victim memorial, “It needs to be safe,” Hogan said he hears from victims. “It needs to be safe.”
If there’s a lesson unlearned, a point of frustration for Hogan, it’s that the country has been faced with the fact, repeatedly, that we don’t recognize mental illness for what it is, and we don’t treat it the way we should. He said mental illness isn’t the cause of all human catastrophes, but it’s a factor in so much misery. Homelessness, addictions, crime, abuse, job loss, and in the worst scenarios, mass murder.
Despite the hard work in the field by so many, as a society, “we really don’t do anything about it.”
And it’s not just here in Aurora, or even the United States.
People commit shocking acts of lethal violence against others almost every day around the globe, Hogan said. People don’t hear of the endless violence unless it reaches stunning proportions or creates an outlandish scene.
“But it happens,” Hogan said. “It’s just how human beings are.”
— Dave Perry
Zack Golditch keeps moving toward the goal
One of the most memorable figures in the theater shooting was Zack Golditch, a star two-way lineman on the Gateway football team who was about to enter his senior season.
At the time, the 6-foot-5, 260-pounder had verbally committed to Colorado State, but that future turned uncertain when one of the theater shooter’s bullets passed through his neck.
Golditch was one of the lucky ones who made it out of the theater and was whisked away to the Aurora Medical Center South, where he was treated and released a few hours later to the total relief of his mother, Christine. One of the Olys’ team leaders, Golditch even intended to go to football practice a few hours later before his mom stopped him.
Golditch has done nothing but thrive since then.
He helped Gateway to the Class 5A state playoffs and won his second career 5A state championship in the discus just before he graduated. He officially signed with Colorado State and has been a stalwart on the Rams’ offensive line ever since.
For the second year in a row, Golditch — now a 6-5, 295-pound redshirt senior — is on the watch list for the Wuerffel Trophy, given annually to the college football player who best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement.
Honored many times for his courage throughout his college career, Golditch is set to lead Colorado State into its new stadium this season and work toward a possible professional football career.
— Courtney Oakes
Zanis’ cross to bear
Greg Zanis was already known in the metro area for his work memorializing the victims of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 by placing white, wooden crosses in their honor. And five years ago, when the Aurora, Ill. carpenter heard about the Aurora theater shooting, one of his first thoughts after the shock of the tragedy was how he could honor the 12 victims.
And he wasn’t alone in thinking he might be able to pay tribute. Residents of Aurora reached out to Zanis and asked if he could help honor the victims of gun violence as he had at Columbine and across the country.
Zanis still remembers vividly the scene he came upon when he arrived shortly after the shooting to place his crosses. It is something that he will always carry with him.
“When I got there it was like going to a bomb zone. Everyone was walking around no one talking to anybody. They were all still in a great sense of shock,” Zanis said. “Just a few minutes into (putting up the crosses), out of nowhere the mayor came out to pray with me. It was the most heartfelt moment to me.”
When Zanis looks back at Aurora five years removed, he said what still sits with him is the loss of safety we as a country felt after that night.
“We don’t know what’s safe anymore,” Zanis said. “We can’t even go to the movies anymore without worrying.”
Since Zanis made the trip to Aurora to place 12 white crosses, he said has unfortunately been called across the country to build and place memorials to the victims of gun violence, including last year in Orlando after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. He currently is working on a project to honor everyone who died at the hands of gun violence in Chicago in 2016.
“For a lot of families, (the crosses) are the only thing they have to remember their loved ones,” Zanis said. “We’re trying to let them know we still remember. Even though I’m a 1,000 miles away, we all remember the victims in Aurora.”
“The memorials are everywhere. It ties us all together. It makes all of us in this together in this country. Aurora, Colorado, Aurora,Illinois, we’re all just one big family,” Zanis said.
— Ramsey Scott
DA George Brauchler ponders his own link to the tragedy
When a gunman opened fire on an Aurora movie theater five years ago, George Brauchler wasn’t much of a household name outside of local politics.
The GOP’s nominee to be the district attorney in the 18th Judicial District at the time, Brauchler said that during those first days, he struggled to “see the curvature of the earth” when it came to the massive case.
Now, the twice-elected DA who is seeking his party’s nomination for governor, Brauchler said it’s again challenging to realize five years and a lengthy trial are behind him.
And that, for him at least, life has largely gone on, something he knows can’t happen for the people hurt that night.
“Life doesn’t go on the same way for them,” he said. “They are still in some ways stuck in that theater from five years ago.”
Brauchler admits he will always be linked to the case he tried. When his name is mentioned in the governor’s race, it’s almost always followed with something like “who prosecuted the Aurora theater shooter.”
“There are other things I would rather be known for,” he said.
While other communities have become synonymous with the mass shootings that struck them — Columbine or Sandy Hook — Brauchler said he doesn’t think that has happened in Aurora.
“I don’t get that sense at all,” he said. “Aurora has proven to be an incredibly supportive community. The city keeps progressing, the city keeps moving on.”
While this weeks marks five years since the shooting, it also marks two years since the trial. Brauchler sought the death penalty against the shooter but the jury couldn’t come to a unanimous verdict on execution so he was instead sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The defense said at sentencing that they didn’t plan to appeal the verdict so the court case is basically done for good.
Brauchler said one lingering issue is where the shooter is being held in prison. The state moved him to an undisclosed prison in another state and despite pleas from victims state officials earlier this year refused to say where he was.
“That continues to be an issue that plagues them even two years later, and it bothers me a lot,” Brauchler said.
Brauchler’s continued political pursuits mean he has to grapple with the political fallout from the shooting. That often puts the conservative Republican on the opposite on the gun control debate from many of the survivors and relatives who lost loved ones that night. Several of those victims — people Brauchler got to know well over the course of the grueling trial — have pushed hard for tougher laws that they say could help stop similar shootings.
Brauchler said he doesn’t see a policy prescription that could have helped.
“I’d love to be able to say ‘this is where the system failed and we can prevent it,’” he said. “But I think it’s reality to acknowledge that evil exists.”
— Brandon Johansson
Tom Sullivan remembers a slain son
For any of the parents who lost their children in the Aurora theater shooting, July 20 is among the toughest days on the calendar.
For Alex Sullivan’s family, that’s doubly true. July 20 is the day Alex was slain along with 11 others in that theater five years ago, but it’s also his birthday. He turned 27 that day.
Tom Sullivan, Alex’s father, said that push and pull between wanting to celebrate the joy the day once held — it is also Tom’s mother’s birthday — and remembering that is the day Alex was murdered is probably always going to be tough.
He said he tries not to schedule anything that day, and sort of takes whatever may come.
“If you get through the day and it becomes tomorrow, then that’s OK too,” he said.
The five years since July 20, 2012, have been grueling and Sullivan said he knows better than to hope for some illusive “normal” feeling down the road.
“That day just changed everything and there is no normal anymore,” he said.
Like many of the victims, Sullivan has thrown himself into the debate over gun control since the shootings, pushing for laws that would make the sort of arsenal the killer had that night tougher to get. Sullivan even ran for State Senate last fall but lost to the incumbent Republican.
On the gun safety front, Sullivan said there has been progress. The state’s ban on high-capacity magazines likely helped ensure that the shooter who opened fire at Arapahoe High School had only a shotgun, not an assault rifle with a high-capacity magazine that the theater shooter used.
“That law saved lives,” he said.
— Brandon Johansson
John Barry points to what’s changed
Former Aurora Public Schools Superintendent John Barry was awoken by a staff member less than an hour after the shootings that took the lives of 12 members of the Aurora community.
Barry, a retired U.S. Air Force two-star general who was at the Pentagon during 9/11, later told an investigative team analyzing APS’s response to the tragedy that it reminded him of phone calls during combat operations.
In the immediate aftermath, Barry and APS opened up Gateway High School near the theater as a operations center for emergency response teams. Barry also readied counselors and other support staff to help take care of the immediate needs of the victims and families.
When he arrived to take the reigns of APS in 2006, Barry had worked to put in place a response team for traumatic events in the APS community. Yet even with a prepared and trained staff in place, Barry said there is no way to prepare for something of the magnitude of the Aurora theater shooting.
“I say our community in Aurora dealt with this as well as any I’ve seen and of course I’ve seen other tragedies. I was at the Pentagon on 9/11 and been involved in military combat situations,” Barry said. “You see that unity and camaraderie and assistance that goes on when something bad happens.”
After the initial aftermath of the shooting, Barry worked with outside groups to help analyze the response and how APS could improve how it operated to make sure it was offering the right support where it is needed the most. Barry said it was a lesson he learned when working with NASA on the investigation into the space shuttle Columbia explosion in 2003.
“The goal of any response plan is not only to take care of the immediate needs of a community in tragedy, but also in the long term care of people as well. Tragedy affects everyone differently and while the pain and trauma might be evident in some people immediately after an incident, others might take days, weeks or months to deal with their emotions,” Barry said.
“You need to reach out to get help from people,” Barry said. “When we had (the outside groups) come in, they were very helpful in helping us to set a plan in place that allowed us to have a basic outline of a plan for the next week, the month, the next half a year and the year.”
Barry said out of that investigation and analysis has come a new system that is set to respond in the best way possible if another tragedy strikes the community.
Looking back five years removed from that tragic night, Barry said out of that horror a community came together to not only mourn but also to heal and help forge a new identity.
“It had tremendous impact on us, but it also can be cited as an example as how a community can come together in a tragedy,” Barry said. “It still has an impact today on community members and you always have to be sensitive to that. One thing I have learned over the years is you can’t let tragedy define you and that’s true for a city, a state, a nation. What you need to do is learn from it and discuss it and study it.”
— Ramsey Scott
Aurora Strong Resilience Center
It’s been five years since the Aurora theater shooting, and four years since the opening of the Aurora Strong Resilience Center, which is a free service and counseling center managed by the Aurora Mental Health Center. Launched in the basement of the defunct Hoffman Library and PC Center at 1298 Peoria St., the center was Aurora’s response to the overwhelming grief that had covered the city like a wet blanket. It was an effort to give survivors, their families and other community members a safe place to feel comfortable and recover from the traumatic event five years ago. The center includes various classes, meeting spaces, and a counseling center.
The early years saw survivors of the Aurora tragedy meet up with those who endured the Columbine High School and Arapahoe High School attacks.
Over the years, members from the initial group trickled off as they found ways to cope. While time gradually passed and members came and went, one thing that hasn’t changed was the need for the resilience center, center creators say.
“There are individuals from the initial group that still come in,” said Heather Dolan, who serves as the Aurora Mental Health director of business development. “It’s continued to be the right place for them. And it’s become a right place for many members in the community.”
Dolan said while the center started as a hub for survivors of the shooting, and their families, it has a found a need and a place within the community.
“We’ve become a resource for the community,” Dolan said. “Now, we have a lot of different people who’ve walked through our doors with different things bringing them in.”
Those who’ve found their way to the Aurora Strong Resilience Center engage in various coping skills classes, such as yoga, hiking, cooking, drumming circles, and the list goes on.
“We’ve got a little bit of everything,” Dolan said. “We’re really proud of the reality of our mission, and serving the community and helping individuals evolve.”
What started as a response to a horrific crime, has transformed into a place where people can find comfort and growth. True to its name, the Aurora Strong Resilience Center has remained resilient through the years, and continues to do so.
— Bobby Reyes
Heather Dearman looks to the future memorial
While the fifth anniversary of the Aurora theater shooting is an obvious time to look back and remember that horrific evening, it’s also a chance to look forward.
Heather Dearman, vice chairwoman of the 7/20 Memorial Committee and one of he people who has spearheaded the effort to build a memorial for the victims, said looking down the road five or even 10 years, she sees a brighter future for the community.
Even on a grim anniversary like this one, knowing that the memorial many victims and community members have clamored for — and that a huge swath of the community has chipped in to create — is a soon-to-be-reality is comforting, she said.
“That is an amazing thing to celebrate,” she said.
The shooting struck Dearman particularly hard. Her cousin, Veronica Moser, was wounded in the attack and her injuries left her paralyzed. Moser was pregnant at the time and lost the baby due to her injuries.
Moser’s daughter, Veronica Moser-Sullivan, was killed that night, too, and the six-year-old girl was the youngest victim in the attack.
Dearman said it’s hard to grasp that five years have passed since that horrific night.
“It all blends together,” she said. “Everything seems like yesterday so it doesn’t seem like five years.”
But, she said, after a slow start, the memorial near the Aurora Municipal Center is finally taking shape. Organizers have chosen an artist to construct the memorial and will announce their choice at an event there — which will include a 5k run with breweries and food — next month.
The healing process is different for everyone, Dearman said, something she has seen from her own family as everyone processes the horror of that night in their own way.
Having the memorial in place will help, she said, in large part because people will know the community as a whole chipped in to make it happen.
“It’s a culmination of everyone supporting each other and coming together,” she said.
— Brandon Johansson
This story has been corrected. A previous version had misidentified the space ship involved in the 2003 explosion.