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Final witness in Colo. theater massacre recounts losing daughter, unborn child

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — In the end, mass killer James Eagan Holmes kept silent and the people he once referred to as “collateral damage” had the final word.

Their pain is anything but collateral, and it continues to this day — three years after the failed graduate student opened fire at a midnight show in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, a suburb south of Denver. His barrage of bullets killed 12 people — fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends.

The prosecutors’ questions were always the same. Where were you when you heard the news? What was the person like? How has your life changed?

Ashley Moser had just told her daughter Veronica, 6, to expect a baby brother or sister. Holmes’ bullets took Veronica from Moser, as well as her unborn child and her ability to walk. She goes to counseling for a depression that seems bottomless.

She feels lost, she said, testifying from the motorized wheelchair she had rolled in front of the witness stand.

“I don’t know who I am anymore,” Moser said through tears. “I was a mom when I was 18, and that’s all I knew how to be. And now I’m not a mom.”

She was the final, devastating witness called by prosecutors in the third phase of Holmes’ death penalty trial. She had testified earlier in the trial about her own injuries and the horrors she witnessed in the theater. This time, she was back to talk about losing Veronica.

Prosecutor George Brauchler asked one of the stock questions: What do you miss most about Veronica?

“Everything,” Moser replied, tears flowing. “Her smile. Her laugh. The way she was just my little Silly Billy. She just always tried to make people happy. She was my life.”

Holmes seemed to listen, but had nothing to say during the final sentencing phase of his trial. He declined to testify and also turned down the opportunity to address the jury with a prepared statement. It would have been his last chance to express remorse or plead for mercy.

He faces the death penalty on 24 counts — two for each person he killed. Jurors last week heard his tragic story, as told by his parents and his lawyers. He was a bright, promising boy who enjoyed a happy childhood before descending into mental illness.

The defense maintains that Holmes was in the throes of a psychotic episode when he opened fire in Theater 9 at the Century 16 multiplex. They say he acted under a delusional belief that killing others would add value to his own life. Under his bizarre “human capital” theory, people injured or left grieving added no value to his own life. He considered them “collateral damage,” he told a court-appointed psychiatrist after the shootings.

The focus has shifted from Holmes to those grieving for the dead. They were there to tell the jury about the impact the crime had on their lives. In the last of more than 60 days of testimony, it was finally the victims’ turn.

Jurors viewed photos and videos of family gatherings, vacations, graduations, and spirited young people just being goofy. They heard about plans for jobs, classes and weddings that never came to pass.

Sadness hangs over a courtroom made humid by muffled sobs and raw emotion. Jurors, spectators and even jaded journalists passed around boxes of tissues to sop up tears. Holmes’ defense attorneys counted seven crying jurors on Wednesday. Judge Carlos Samour Jr. said he was watching, too, but saw only two.

The case could go to the jury late Thursday. Already, jurors have found four aggravating factors, making the death penalty an option. The jury found that he killed multiple victims, put others at risk of death, killed with cruel depravity and ambushed his victims in the theater.

Holmes’ mental illness, lack of a prior criminal record, and the fact he is still loved and supported by his family, friends and former teachers cannot outweigh the extreme nature of his horrific crime, jurors decided on Monday, bringing Phase 2 to an end. And so, the rest of the week belonged to those who miss the people Holmes killed.

There was a point to this parade of pain. The jurors’ last task is to look into their hearts and decide whether Holmes should live or die. They are finished weighing complex legal concepts. Now it’s a question of individual morality; each juror will be asked to vote his or her own conscience.

The nine women and three men must be unanimous if their decision is death. A single holdout will result in a life sentence. So far, there has been no sign of division within this jury. They have returned a series of unanimous verdicts in a relatively short period of time. Those verdicts have not gone well for Holmes.

The jurors have been instructed repeatedly that they shouldn’t be swayed by their emotions. But the testimony of the 13 victim impact witnesses was highly emotional — and devastating to hear.

Moser and the others spoke of holes in their lives that can never be filled.

Losing a mother, and a son

Rebecca Wingo, 32, always had the music turned up, said her husband, Robert. She had a big personality; she was fearless, fun, and the center of everything in their family. She was the comic relief, the lending library, the soup kitchen.

Now he’s both mother and father to their two daughters, who are 12 and 8. It hasn’t been an easy transition and everyone is more than a little disoriented, he said.

Tom Sullivan lost his best friend when his 27-year-old son was killed. Alex was “every father’s dream” and they did guy things together, he said. They went to Superbowl parties and guys’ nights in Las Vegas; now Tom joins the guys alone. They leave an empty place at the table with a glass of Jameson’s Irish whiskey for Alex. He has returned to Theater 9, the scene of the crime, and sometimes sits in Row 12, where Alex died. He leaves a seat empty for him.

Sullivan said he suffered for many years from “the Peter Pan syndrome,” a refusal to grow up. When Alex arrived, he said he didn’t have to.

“The morning he was murdered, I was forced to grow up.” Since then, he added sadly, ” I’ve just gotten older.”

‘A gentle, sweet, loving kid’

Amanda Medek can’t bring herself to go to movies since her sister, Micayla, died in Theater 9. “I can’t walk into a theater, absolutely not,” she said.

She says she has been an “emotional wreck” for the past three years, and feels deep sorrow that her little sister, “a gentle, sweet, loving kid” never really got to grow up. She was 23 when she died, just starting to live the college life.

“She never fell in love,” Amanda Medek said, fighting tears. “She never got to have a family. She had big plans and she never got to do that.”

Her parents are struggling, too.

“You never expect to lose your kid before you go. They definitely have bonded together. You either separate or bond together. Both are on anti-depressants. They have a lot of anger and grief to work through.”

‘One of the two best things I ever did’

A.J. Boik, described by his mother as “a ball of happiness,” was 18 when he died. He had just graduated from high school — the same high school where his mother, Theresa Hoover, rushed to hear word when she couldn’t reach him.

His real name was Alexander, but he was called A.J., after race car driver A.J. Foyt. He was a skateboarder who loved playing the viola. But ceramics was his true calling. He had been accepted into art school, and was hoping to be an art teacher some day. He was scheduled to attend orientation the morning after he was shot to death.

He’d fallen in love and was looking forward to starting life with his girlfriend, Lasamoa Cross, who was a year ahead of him in school. He had been a bit scattered before he met her, but she got him on track, his mother said. His mother made him promise to hold off on the babies until he finished school.

She recently sold the townhouse where she’d raised A.J. and his brother. It wasn’t home anymore.

“I am now a single mother of one child,” she said. “I’ve lost half of what I was put on this Earth to do, to raise children. He was one of the two best things I ever did, and my life is half what it was.”

No more family photos

John Larimer was the baby of the family, said his mother, Kathleen. She began her testimony, saying, “I have five …” Tears welled in her eyes as she paused and started over. “I had five wonderful children.”

He loved the movies and his first job was at a movie theater. He had a smile that “could light up a room, and it wasn’t just because of the thousand dollars of orthodontia,” she said. He joined the Navy, and had a real sense of right and wrong. He talked about a career in politics.

“I miss being able to talk to him about the big things going on in the world.”

Since his death, the family has stopped celebrating Christmas and other holidays. It’s just too sad to think about who’s missing. And, they used to take family photos a couple of times a year. But no more.

“I don’t think we’ll ever do a family picture again because every time you look at a picture, who’s missing jumps out at you,” she said. “It’s like a hole. It’s an emptiness.”

Punching the walls

Chantel Blunk was in Reno, Nevada, tending to her ailing mother when she got a text from her 26-year-old husband, Jonny. They’d been together since high school, but were living apart at the moment. They were talking about how nice it would be to live in the same city again.

He said he was going to the movies with a friend in Colorado. She didn’t think twice about it — until his boss called the next morning to say he hadn’t come into work. Turn on your TV, the boss said.

She started calling hospitals, inquiring about her “hubby,” whom she’d known since high school. They had two children together, a girl and a boy. He called them “his little peanut” and “his little tank.” He wanted to be their superhero.

Somebody told her they were compiling a list of names. If somebody came to her door, it meant bad news.

She was on the porch when two cars pulled up. “They asked for me. Wait, what?” she recalled thinking.

“Everything started fogging out and they started telling me he was one of the deceased. I was just confused, it felt like a dream. I was distracted because they looked so normal.”

She went into her bedroom and angrily began punching holes in her closet.

“I just couldn’t stop. I was not ready for tears. It was all denial.”

‘I need my baby girl’

Sandy Phillips was ready to start enjoying her daughter, Jessica Ghawi. The terrible teens were behind them. They were friends again. In fact, Jessie, 24, was telling friends her mom was her best friend. She had big dreams of a career in sports broadcasting. Her favorite sport was ice hockey.

She wore heels to one of her first interviews, and called her mother in tears because she fell on the ice several times during the interview. “My career is over before it started,” she fretted.

But the video was a hit. It showed her pluck. Instead of giving up, she kept getting back up and asking more questions. She was getting calls. She had an interview set up for the morning after she was shot to death at the movies.

“We’re at the movies,” Jessica told her mother in a text from the theater. “Go back to sleep. I can’t wait to see you next week. I need my Mama.”

Phillips texted back, “I need my baby girl.”

About 25 minutes later, the phone rang again. It was Jessie’s firefighter friend, Brent, calling from the theater.

“I remember looking down at it and thinking it was odd Brent was calling me. I wondered why isn’t it Jessie? I could hear the screaming in the background. I asked, ‘Are you ok?’ And he said, ‘I think I’ve been shot twice.'”

Where’s Jessie?

“He said, ‘I tried.'”

“I said, ‘Brent, tell me she’s OK.'”

“And he said again, ‘I tried.'”

“I said, ‘Oh Brent please tell me she’s not dead.'”

The family no longer celebrates Thanksgiving. It’s too close to Jessica’s birthday. Other simple pleasures also have been lost.

“I can’t go to movies; I can’t even go to indoor venues that have theater seats,” Phillips said. “When we first came into the courtroom, I had to steel myself against the fear. I can’t stand the smell of popcorn. It makes me gag.”

She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. “My brain is mush. I can’t retain things like I used to. I’m not organized as I used to be,” she said.

“I cry every day. I probably always will.”

‘I just miss him being my dad’

“I just feel like my family’s broken,” sobbed Cierra Cowden, who is 19 and a student at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She was sitting next to her 51-year-old father, Gordon, when he was shot to death in the theater.

She remembers him as a funny prankster who sang silly songs, loved his dog and played on a basketball team called “The Rejects.” He’d wake her up every morning with a silly version of “Reveille.”

“I used to dread that song,” she said. “But I’d like to hear it now.”

She recalled her father’s final moments — and what life is like without him. She struggled to maintain her composure, and she wasn’t always successful.

“I’m a mess up here,” she acknowledged.

He teased her that they were going to see the Disney movie “Brave,” and she was happy to see it really was the premiere of the new Batman movie. They shared a smile in the dark when a theater full of superhero fans cheered at a trailer for a Superman movie.

She saw him get up when the shooting started. He was moving forward, and looked back to make sure she was following when the bullets found him. She touched him on the shoulder and immediately knew he was dead. Somebody grabbed her and took her out of the theater. Her father didn’t follow them out. At home, she broke the news to her mother, who began to cry so hard she couldn’t breathe.

The family came to Colorado from Texas, and his funeral was held in Austin. “For me,” she said, gasping and sobbing, “the hardest thing was putting my hand on his coffin.”

“I just miss him being my dad,” she added. “He was so present in our lives. Growing up, the idea of one of my parents dying never occurred to me because they were so present. I just miss him being in my life.”

Losing ‘Mr. Wonderful ‘

Matthew McQuinn was 27 and his life was coming together, said his mother, Jerri Jackson. Growing up, he was full of life and laughter. “He was always smiling and his eyes just had mischief in them.”

She laughed when she saw a photo of her son, with his sunglasses pushed up on the top of his head. She said he often joked that it was his “man tiara.”

He and Samantha, “the love of his life,” were planning to come home to Ohio, get married “and start having babies.” They’d given Colorado a try, but he couldn’t find a good full-time job.

“They loved each other dearly,” Jackson said. But they teased each other mercilessly, so people who didn’t know them thought they despised each other. It wasn’t so. When she worked nights, he brought her dinner.

“He always wanted to be the center of attention,” his mother said. “He wanted to be the one who was proposed to. He wanted to be the one with the big diamond ring. He told his aunt he was going to dance down the aisle at his wedding.”

He called his mother hours before the shooting, and told her about his plan to go to the movies. “I said, ‘Be careful’ and he said, “Oh, Mom, nothing’s going to happen. I love you, Mom.”

He died protecting Samantha from Holmes’ barrage of bullets. The next thing Jackson knew, she was identifying his body at the coroner’s office in Colorado. She had to provide a visual identification because Ohio doesn’t keep fingerprints on file.

“I went in and he was there and it was my son,” Jackson recalled. “I asked if he suffered and they said he was shot in the neck and that it was probably within seconds. I told him that I loved him, that I was proud of him because he saved Samantha’s life and that we would take care of Samantha.”

Matt and his grandfather had an inside joke from their days of working together at a camp. His grandfather called himself “Mr. Wonderful” and Matt, of course, was “Mr. Wonderful Jr.” They made nametags and the grandfather liked to wear his when he volunteered at church.

He took off his nametag when Matt died and never wore it again.

People asked him about it, and he’d say: “We buried Mr. Wonderful in July.”

Grief so powerful it hurts

Caren Teves had her first-born son, Alex, to herself for the first six years. When another son, Tommy, came along, he wanted to be his big brother. So much so, that he asked to dress up as Alex on Halloween.

Alex was 24 and had just received a master’s degree in psychology in Denver. He wanted to continue his studies and eventually work as a counselor.

He spoke with his mother, or they exchanged texts, every day. A few days before his death, he confided that his girlfriend, Amanda, was “the one.” He said he was going to marry her.

But first, he was taking her to the new Batman movie. “He loved superhero movies and he wanted to go, but he was having trouble getting tickets,” his mother said.

She was awakened that night by a phone call. It was Amanda, calling from the movie theater. She was sobbing.

“I couldn’t wake Alex up,” she said. “I tried and I tried, but I couldn’t take him with me.” She’d been pulled from the theater by a stranger. Alex was left behind with the dead.

“Do you have any blood on you?” Teves asked her future daughter-in-law. “Yeah, lots,” Amanda replied.

“I remember panicking real bad,” she said. She started calling hospitals. Nobody would tell her anything about Alex.

She feared the worst, but didn’t get official word until 15 hours later. “It was just hours and hours and hours,” she told the jury. “Torture hours.”

Losing Alex was “just godawful,” she said, “every parent’s worse nightmare.”

She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at about the time her son died. Her grief is so overwhelming that it feels like pain.

“It’s pure agony,” she said. “I did not realize that grief turns into physical pain. It hurts your entire being.” Her biggest fear, she added, was that the disease would steal her ability to remember his voice, his laugh. So she replays them in her head every morning when she wakes up.

Alex had three funerals. In Phoenix, where he went to high school and college, mourners wore his standard uniform — jeans and a white t-shirt — in tribute. “It just looked like a sea of angels to me,” she said.

She’s glad she and her husband had the chance to take Alex and Amanda to Hawaii in December 2011. It turned out to be “the honeymoon they never got.”

After he died, Amanda legally changed her last name to Teves. “She wanted our blessing and we gave it to her with full hearts,” his mother said. “It was meant to be. It’s what Alex wanted.”

A mother’s intuition

Laughing through tears, Lisa Childress described her oldest, Jesse, as “adventuresome, kind, stealthy.” They talked a lot, but he kept some things private, saying, “No, Mom, you’re not going to learn that about me.”

He tried to hide the fact he wasn’t going to graduate with his high school class, running away from home with his backpack, a sleeping bag and $100. He didn’t get far. He came home and enlisted in the Army. He earned a high level security clearance and worked for three months as a contractor in the Persian Gulf. He called it “the sandbox.” He made a bundle of money, but the work wasn’t for him.

He got a job in Colorado, bought a house, got a dog. He was going back to school. He had grown up in California, but he was a huge Broncos fan.

“He was just this bright light,” his mother said. “If you were having a bad day at work or feeling down, he’d interject that dry humor. He’d inject a little zip and you were, ‘I’m back. I’m good.'”

Another son, Colin, was an Air Force reservist in Colorado and he called July 20 to say Jesse hadn’t show up at work. He loved superheros and there were fears he’d been in the theater where there was a mass shooting.

“What shooting?” his mother wondered, turning on her television set. “My mother’s intuition told me he was there.” Her fears were confirmed a few hours later, when Colin called again and said, “Mom, he was one of the 10 in the theater.” When officers from Andrews Air Force base knocked on her door in Palmdale, California, she greet them with, “Hi, guys, I already know.”

Her husband doesn’t talk about it. But he expresses his grief by wearing Jesse’s clothes.

The littlest victim, Veronica Moser-Sullivan, was the only person to have two people speak for her. Her mother described her grief, and her grandfather, Robert Sullivan, showed photos and videos of his first grandchild. He said his son, Ian, was an only child, which meant he lost “our only child’s only child.”

His son and Veronica’s mother were divorced, so that meant he got to see his grandchild on weekends.

“There was a sweet innocence about this child,” he said. “There was a sensitivity to her.”

But she could be playful and her grandfather loved “picking her up like a sack of potatoes and jiggling her around like the monkey man.”

“She was only six years old, but you could see the seeds of great potential,” he said. “She was a sweetheart.”

The last thing the jury saw were snippets of home videos taken by a doting grandfather. A delighted little girl is opening her Christmas presents.

 

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