Police: Gunman planned to kill hundreds in Santa Monica shooting spree
by Dana Bartholomew
SANTA MONICA -The gunman who launched a shooting spree that left four people dead and injured five others had planned his attack, toting enough ammunition to possibly kill hundreds of people, Santa Monica police said Saturday.
Police declined to identify the former Santa Monica College student, other than to say he left four victims dead and another gravely wounded during a one-mile rampage that ended with the shooter being gunned down by police in the campus library.
Though police would not name the suspect until his family could be notified, he was widely believed to be 23-year-old John Zawahri, a native of Lebanon, who would have turned 24 on Saturday. Police declined to discuss a motive.
Two media outlets reported Saturday that law enforcement officials told them that Zawahri, 23, of Santa Monica was the shooter. It is believed that Zawahri also killed his father and brother, set their house on fire and then began his shooting spree, ending up at San Monica College where he killed a woman outside the library before being shot and killed by police. The Coroner's Office has released only the name of one victim, a college grounds keeper.
"I presume that any time someone puts on a vest of some sort, comes out with a bag full of loaded magazines, has an extra receiver, a handgun, and has a semi-automatic rifle, carjacks folks, goes to a college, kills more people and has to be neutralized at the hands of police -- I would say that that's premeditated," said Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks, before a dozen news cameras.
"We want to express our condolences to the families of those who were killed by this cowardly murderer," said Seabrooks, who declined to discuss his mental history.
Police said he also had a connection to an address in Palms, an area of
Los Angeles, which may be the address of his mother, Randa Abdou.
L.A. Late reported that before Samir Zawahri bought the house 10 years ago, his wife had sought a temporary restraining order against her husband. The domestic violence petition was filed in May 1998, and was still pending.
Two media outlets reported that law enforcement officials said the parents' divorce left John Zawahri angry.
It was at 11:52 a.m. Friday that police received a call about shots fired outside a small bungalow at 2036 Yorkshire Ave., where police say they had a run-in with the suspect in 2006 when he was a juvenile. They declined to discuss the case, because he'd been a juvenile.
A young man in black, bearing a semi-automatic rifle, was reported standing before the home, whose living room was engulfed in flames. Police said Saturday he had a "familial connection" to the house.
Firefighters would later find two men lying dead in a back room of the home but would not identify the victims. The house was owned by Zawahri's father, Samir Zawahri, 55, while his older brother, 25-year-old Chris Zawahri, had once lived there.
When neighbor Tom O'Rourke heard shots, he stepped out of his apartment near Kansas and Yorkshire avenues. He then saw John Zawahri, whom he'd known since he was a kid, waving an assault rifle.
When a woman later identified as Debra Fine stopped her car and yelled at the gunman, he peppered her car with rounds, injuring the 50-year-old woman.
He then carjacked another woman in a Mazda hatchback, forcing her to head west on Pico Boulevard, Seabrooks said, before ordering her to stop at Cloverfield Boulevard.
He then climbed out to fire into a city Big Blue Bus, exploding windows from front to back. He injured two passengers, who were later treated for minor wounds at local hospitals and released. During the fusillade, one bullet tore through a nearby Jiffy Lube.
It was there that Assistant Manager Chris Perez told his mechanics and customers to hit the floor. He counted 22 gunshots.
"This is like the Gaza Strip around here," Perez said. "I didn't expect this in Santa Monica. Maybe Hollywood. Maybe Lynwood. Maybe Tel Aviv. But not in Santa Monica."
The gunman then proceeded toward Santa Monica College, where he fired at a red Ford Explorer at Pearl and 20th streets, on a campus parking lot.
Carlos Navarro Franco, 68, a longtime groundskeeper at Santa Monica College, was killed. His 26-year-old daughter Marcela, a student at Cal State Dominguez Hills, was gravely wounded. She remained in critical condition Saturday at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where she was not expected to live, Santa Monica College President Chui L. Tsang said.
"Carlos was truly a family man," Tsang said in a statement. "He was a dedicated husband and father and an integral part of the Santa Monica College family "¦ for two decades. He will be sorely missed."
The killer then advanced onto the Santa Monica campus, shooting as he went, before encountering a woman in her 50s in front of the campus library, said Seabrook, who declined to identify the victim.
"He executed her. She later died at a local hospital," Seabrook said.
Said Felix Garcia, who was driving through hauling vegetables from his garden when he saw panicked students, then saw a victim: "I saw someone with blood pouring out of their body. It felt like a war zone."
Police said that the gunman had armed himself for what could have been a long engagement -- a .223-caliber AR-15-style assault rifle, with spare barrel; 20 magazines loaded with 1,300 rounds of ammunition, boxes of extra bullets, and a .44-caliber revolver.
The gunman who had donned an unarmored vest then dropped a large black duffel containing knee pads and extra magazines on a campus walkway, police said. He then strode into the campus library, where he tried to kill several students cowering in a "safe room."
"They stacked items found in the safe room against the door, hunkered down and avoided shots that fired through the drywall at them," Seabrooks said. "It's miraculous that those individuals were not physically injured."
Two Santa Monica police officers and a Santa Monica College officer then exchanged gunfire with the suspect, who fired 70 rounds inside the campus library. He was killed at 12:05 p.m. by multiple gunshot wounds.
The mile-long killing spree lasted 13 minutes.
School officials said students were expected to retrieve their cars and belongings today. Scheduled finals, which were taking place Friday, were to resume Monday.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies were analyzing the registration of the shooter's weapons. Anyone who was injured in the spree was asked to call Santa Monica police detectives at 310-458-8449.
"This was not a school shooting scenario, as this incident began off campus," Santa Monica College Police Chief Albert Vasquez said. "It was unfortunate that the suspect chose Santa Monica College to continue the crime spree."
Active-shooter drills on the rise at K-12 schools in the wake of Sandy Hook massacre
by Rob Kuznia Staff Writer
One morning in early April, on the grounds of Richard Gahr High School in Cerritos, the crack of at least 100 gunshots pierced the calm. A few explosions shook the ground.
A few weeks later, at a K-12 charter school in rural Oregon, two masked gunmen burst into a gathering of teachers during a staff-development day. They took aim at the unsuspecting faculty members and opened fire. Bam! Bam! Bam! The shots went off like firecrackers.
In both situations, the bullets were blanks, and the gunmen were law enforcement officers or volunteers conducting a drill.
Had they occurred on the prior side of Dec. 14, 2012, these events might have seemed excessive. It's easy to imagine how the drill in Cerritos might have raised some eyebrows -- the media spectacle involved, the use of not only simulated rounds and flash grenades, but also hundreds of people, including clergy members, local business leaders, community safety volunteers and even students drenched in fake blood. And it's difficult to imagine that the Oregon drill -- a complete surprise attack that left teachers terrified -- would have happened at all.
But the landscape has shifted since those five awful minutes at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, when a heavily armed gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, rampaged through the halls, killing 20 students and six adults at point-blank range before turning a gun on himself.
Adding to the sense of heightened alert was Friday's deadly school shooting at Santa Monica College, the latest scene of an all-too-familiar tableau: police running to and fro with guns, dazed students being interviewed, emergency vehicles racing around with lights flashing.
The news cycle after these bloody outbursts tends to go from hot to cold on short order, but their imprint on the way communities approach school safety has been steadily rippling outward -- especially since the Sandy Hook tragedy six months ago.
That horrific piece of American history has cast a spotlight on a certain type of school-safety exercise that, until now, most K-12 schools didn't really have the stomach to adopt: the active-shooter drill.
"It's a hard thing because teachers are teachers -- they want to teach," said Kit Bobko, mayor of Hermosa Beach, where the Police Department may soon begin active-shooter drills in the schools. "They don't want to have to think about, 'Oh my gosh, if a guy with a shotgun comes into my room, what am I going to do?' ... But we need to have some sort of plan in place."
Though colleges had been more apt to conduct elaborate versions of the shooter drills before Sandy Hook, the unthinkable carnage in Connecticut has spurred many K-12 schools in the Los Angeles Basin and beyond to follow suit.
Sandy Hook has given rise to other safety measures too -- such as doubling down on counselor hours, installing more cameras on campus or prohibiting parents and the general public from walking onto the premises. But the active-shooter drill could prove to be the tragedy's most visible legacy.
Active-shooter drills -- or intruder-on-campus exercises, as some officials prefer to call them -- are similar to the lockdown drills that many schools have long practiced, wherein students and teachers hunker down in the classroom with the doors locked and blinds drawn.
The active-shooter drill is a variation on the theme, but with the creepy factor kicked up a notch.
To be sure, most K-12 schools don't favor the showy version of the drill showcased this spring at Gahr High. But they often do incorporate the impersonation of a bad guy. Usually, this is a member of law enforcement who roams around campus, jiggling door handles and peering into windows.
Essentially, this new focus marks a shift in mind-set, from keeping intruders off campus to dealing with an undesirable who is on campus.
Largely because state law doesn't require such exercises -- as is, schools are required only to conduct earthquake and fire drills -- the methods of preparing for the nightmare scenario vary by district.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, administrators this summer will, for the first time, be required to attend training on how to handle an active-shooter situation. Heretofore, the training has been geared toward lockdowns, said Steve Zipperman, chief of the LAUSD police department.
"If an active shooter is on campus, perhaps a lockdown isn't the best option," he said, adding that the appropriate response "may involve quick relocations to different locations, either on or off campus."
LAUSD also has beefed up security. In the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, the district allocated $4.2 million to hire 1,000-plus safety aides to guard elementary schools.
In Long Beach Unified, where all 90 schools are required to conduct a lockdown drill every fall, the tragedy prompted the district to compel each school to have another go at it. This time, though, law enforcement officials and administrators wandered the campuses, clipboards in hand, turning the door latches and checking the windows.
In Torrance Unified, schools this spring introduced new elements to the lockdown drills they'd long been practicing. For one, schools there now use the term "intruder on campus." Also, the drills have introduced the novel concept of taking flight when necessary.
At the K-8 Hermosa Beach school district, officers may soon storm elementary school campuses toting guns loaded with paint-ball munitions, revealing who has been "shot." The student body wouldn't be involved in the paint-ball drills, which could begin this summer, but teachers might be, as well as selected students -- perhaps members of a Boy Scout troop, Bobko said.
In addition, the city and school district could begin conducting age-appropriate, active-shooter drills for the entire student body in 2014.
At Cal State Northridge University, the campus police has been practicing active-shooter drills for nearly a decade, said Anne Glavin, the college's chief of police.
The campus actually hosted a drill just a week after Sandy Hook, but it had been planned for months. The participating students were deaf -- Cal State Northridge has a robust program for this population -- which gave officers a sense of how to handle the potential curve ball of directing students who can't communicate verbally.
Glavin also teaches a workplace violence program on campus that, among other things, instructs staff and faculty on how to spot potentially violent students.
"When we're talking about red flags, one sign alone might not be a problem, but when you start getting two, three and four, that's a concern," she said.
Warning signs could include a person who has a fascination with weapons, or a student whose papers often involve murder and mayhem, she said.
Some officials believe public schools in California are way behind the curve when it comes to preparing for campus violence.
Manhattan Beach police Officer Stephanie Martin points out that while schools are required by law to conduct fire drills, the number of school-fire fatalities over the past 50 years is zero. (The last deadly school fire happened on Dec. 1, 1958, when a massive blaze claimed the lives of 92 students and three nuns at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago.)
"In California, schools aren't mandated to do lockdown drills and that's a travesty," she said. "Fires aren't killing our kids; violence is killing our kids."
Indeed, Sandy Hook wasn't the only school shooting in 2012. There were at least three others in the United States, as well as 13 other mass shootings. In all last year, 88 people died in the 16 shootings.
State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Redondo Beach, has long been sounding the alarm on school-safety plans, noting that as late as 2009, roughly a third of all middle schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District didn't even have one.
For years, he's been trying to pass a bill to crack down on the inaction. Since 2007, he has introduced it four times, never successfully, Lieu's aides say. The reasons? Too expensive. Too onerous.
In a sign that times have truly changed, Lieu introduced the bill for a fifth time after the Sandy Hook shooting, and it appears to be sailing through. Senate Bill 49 was unanimously approved in the Senate on May 29, and now must go before the Assembly.
The bill puts the California Department of Education in charge of ensuring that all schools have a safety plan. It also requires the plans themselves to include procedures related to active-shooter and terrorist events.
Some procedures for dealing with an armed lunatic on campus might sound obvious, but are easy to forget in the heat of a crisis, Lieu said.
"Say you have an active-shooter situation and you're trying to keep your classroom quiet," Lieu said. "With all the adrenaline pumping, you might not think to turn off the volume on your cellphone. Maybe you think to lock the door, but not to barricade it shut with your desk."
School safety experts also recommend that, should an intruder barge in, office personnel get on the school intercom and use direct -- even blunt -- language about what is happening.
"Use simple language -- no coded language," said Susan Chaides, who, as the project director over the safe-schools division of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, trains school administrators on school safety. "Say: 'There is an intruder -- an armed intruder.' It doesn't matter if they (the intruder) can hear."
(During the Sandy Hook massacre, a quick-thinking employee in the office flipped on the loudspeakers, capturing the horror but likely saving many lives.)
Also blurry is the line that separates adequate preparation on the part of school districts and hysteria.
The month after the Sandy Hook shooting, a school board in Montpelier, Ohio, approved a plan to arm the custodial staff with handguns. In April, a school district in Minnesota purchased bullet-proof whiteboards that could be used as a shield to protect teachers.
Chris Bentley, the former president of the Hesperia Unified school board, the High Desert's largest school district with 21,000 students, is skeptical of heavily armed school police forces and the now-popular, active-shooter drills.
Bentley cited the U.S. Secret Service's 2002 Safe Schools Initiative report prepared in response to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. (www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/preventingattacksreport.pdf)
"There's 10 key findings that they have," he said. Among them: " 'Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.' "
Bentley, a father of four school-age children and a former Marine, would rather have school faculty and staff trained on how to deal with these emergencies.
"When push comes to shove, I want somebody to have a cool head in the classroom, as we hear all the hero stories coming out of Sandy Hook and wherever," he said. "Yes, the cavalry's going to get there, but it's going to take time."
Fontana Unified made national headlines in January when the district bought 14 military-style rifles to arm the district's police force. Bentley believes that was likely an expensive waste of their time.
"If you're going to buy high-powered rifles, you need to be trained on them, on a pretty regular basis," said Bentley, a former Marine. "It's not just like your sidearm."
One disconcerting aspect of not only Sandy Hook but also the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton Colo., is that both schools were actually pretty secure.
Columbine employed an armed guard, who exchanged gunfire with the killers. At Sandy Hook, Lanza was greeted by a locked glass door. He took aim with a rifle and shot through it.
"They had cameras everywhere, and buzzer systems," said Mary Sue, superintendent of the ABC Unified School District in Cerritos. "Their staffs were pretty well prepared in lockdown systems."
Sue noted that the very same day law enforcement officials were performing the dramatic practice raid at Gahr High, she was at a school leadership conference featuring the two district superintendents who were in charge during the Sandy Hook and Columbine tragedies. Interestingly, those leaders stressed a different kind of preparedness: making sure mental-health services are available for children who need it.
In keeping with this advice, the ABC district has -- in addition to installing more security features on its campuses, such as cameras, better lighting and emergency call buttons -- boosted its mental health programs. The district recently partnered with the USC School of Social Work to assign to every school social work interns who get to know the students on a personal level.
In Hermosa, the district increased its counselor hours after Sandy Hook, and expanded a program -- called MindUP -- that teaches students how to better manage their emotions.
"It's teaching kids about how your brain works -- how decision-making works," said Patricia Escalante, the district's superintendent. "You can choose to be an optimist. And you can control your feelings."
In Redondo Beach, educators are trying to keep an eye out for kids who might feel marginalized.
Frank DeSena, assistant superintendent of student services in the Redondo Beach Unified School District, said, sometimes, the simple act of a principal saying hello to a wayward student by name can make a big difference.
"Let's look at the type of person who has been a shooter," he said. "The common thread (among school shooters) is most of the time they were the outlier type of young people. They weren't connected to their school or their community."
Making them feel more connected, he added, can start with a simple hello.
Six months since Sandy Hook: Newtown residents find their voice
NEWTOWN, Connecticut (CNN) — The door to the shuttered mental hospital swings open onto a scene of decay: Chunks of fallen plaster and mold-infested insulation rest on the floor of a once magnificent room.
Chandeliers have given way to crumbling ceilings. Walls are stained from rain running down the sides after two decades of neglect.
Standing amid the ruins, it's hard not to think about Adam Lanza, our mental health system — and whether it failed him and the people of Newtown.
The hilltop campus of Fairfield Hills, a former Connecticut state mental institution that closed in 1995 after more than 60 years, overlooks the community.
To the left, about a half mile down Church Hill Road, stands the National Sports Shooting Foundation, a lobbying arm for the gun industry. To the right and around a few bends sits Sandy Hook Elementary School, the site of the horrific massacre of 26 people, including 20 children.
It seems like the crossroads of tragic irony — a closed mental hospital, headquarters of a powerful gun group and the Sandy Hook school, all within about three miles and at the center of national debate.
It's also home to Pat Llodra's office.
Llodra is the Republican first selectman of Newtown, the equivalent of a town mayor; her office is in the former hospital's refurbished dining hall.
The sprawling campus, which once housed as many as 5,000 patients, is a network of massive brick buildings. Some, like Llodra's office, have been remodeled and are used for a new purpose. Others are crumbling relics, a reminder of how the mentally ill were once housed in America.
The irony isn't lost on Llodra, who was in her office at 9:35 a.m. on December 14 when she was notified through emergency dispatch of “a significant event at Sandy Hook school.”
Today, a teddy bear sits on a shelf in her office, next to a “Town of Newtown” commemorative plate and a Sandy Hook school baseball cap, adorned with a green ribbon to honor those who died.
Before Sandy Hook, Llodra had once liked target shooting. The level of concentration it took to hit a target was exhilarating and rewarding.
Now she's put gun control in her sights. She feels compelled to speak out on behalf of her town and the victims of the massacre.
And Llodra won't relent.
“The way in which these children were lost was so horrific and so violent and so incomprehensible that even today — every day, it will strike me at some point that, ‘Wow, this really happened.'”
The 70-year-old grandmother has taken on lawmakers in Hartford and Washington about the need to curb assault weapons, and she's seen mixed results. The Connecticut General Assembly banned more than 100 types of military-style weapons and magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of bullets.
Congress, on the other hand, refused to act. Senators in April defeated a bipartisan measure that would have expanded background checks to gun shows and online sales.
Representatives from the nearby shooting foundation approached Llodra shortly after the massacre about what it believed might be common ground on gun control, but the meeting didn't last long.
“I'm OK that they have their own agenda,” Llodra says. “I have mine, but I don't want to try to be persuaded that there's common ground, because there is not.”
Looking out for children has always been foremost in Llodra's life. As a young mother, she joined the PTA to be more active in her kids' schooling. She eventually became a teacher and then a principal, a powerful maternal figure dedicated to her students. Among her highest honors was being named a fellow for The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, a prestigious award to help further shape educators into national leaders.
Upon retirement, the long-time Newtown resident figured she'd give public service a whirl. She served two terms on the town's legislative council before running for the town's highest position.
“And here I am.”
One of seven children reared on a farm in Massachusetts, Llodra grew up around guns.
But she has strayed from many in her party with her desire for expanded background checks and a ban on military-style weapons. As a lifelong educator, she always felt high-powered guns were too easily available, but “this event just galvanized that thinking for me.”
“If the horror of this event — seeing 20 innocent 6-year-olds be shot down by a crazed killer — if that isn't enough to change a legislator's heart and mind and do what is right and needed, then I don't know what could change that person.”
Treatment for the mentally ill is also part of her focus. Working in a closed mental hospital reinforces that. Society's failure to recognize how deeply disturbed Adam Lanza was, she says, is one more key component in preventing a mass shooting like this from happening again.
“It's just my nature to try to understand why things are the way they are,” she says. “I've been woefully unsuccessful in making any meaning out of this at all. And part of that is I don't know what happened with Adam Lanza — why he turned into a person who was so hateful and had so much self-hatred.
“We don't know what it is, but we better figure it out. That's an obligation we have.”
Even with all the investigations, all the hearings on Capitol Hill and all the debate across the nation, one question looms over Newtown like a suppressive fog: Why?
Coming out of the cocoon
I returned to Newtown to speak with those affected by what happened. I had covered the tragedy in the week after the shooting and wondered how the town of 28,000 was coping in its aftermath. I especially wanted to talk with gun owners about what it's like to bear arms in a place where gun violence left such a scar.
Walking the streets of Newtown, listening to residents and their stories, it became clear that what happened here is much larger than guns.
It's a lesson of loss and recovery, and how the actions of one man still affect the lives of so many. I spoke with more than two dozen Newtowners who shared their thoughts, even their darkest moments, and met five residents who collectively embody the community's soul.
A father wears a silver-plated belt buckle with a boy sitting beneath a mourning horse: “Jesse 2006-2012.” A teenager rubs a bracelet with all the victims' names to find comfort. A doctor fights for medical research to study gun violence across America. A rabbi contemplates why society has become so barbaric. And Llodra tries to keep the town together.
The tragedy has changed them all and altered their beliefs on guns, on society, on mental illness. Their sadness is profound, yet so is their resiliency.
One symbol has emerged in town: the butterfly in honor of Dylan Hockley, a 6-year-old killed inside the school. Dylan had autism and, when he got happy, he flapped his arms like a butterfly.
Just like a butterfly's metamorphosis, Newtowners are determined to transform the tragedy here into a form of action. Doing nothing would mean those 26 victims — those “20 little angels,” as they say, and their six adult protectors — died in vain.
“Our collective strength and resilience will serve as an example to the rest of the world,” the high school principal told students upon their return to school. It has become a mantra repeated by residents and posted on signs around town.
More than 60 organizations have formed here since the tragedy, from grass-roots activist groups to charities helping victims' families.
The resilience of Newtowners keeps getting tested — by gun manufacturers, by the National Rifle Association, by lawmakers who balk at tightening gun laws. It's then that residents rely on their strength to keep pressing forward.
Llodra says she wants Newtown to be “remembered for being honorable in the struggle that we had since December 14 — that we were courageous, that we worked together, that we helped each other, that we recognized that we're all in this together.”
A sign on a window across from her office reads simply, “We are Sandy Hook. We choose love.”
‘Best friends and best buddies'
Jesse Lewis burst into this world around 6:30 p.m. on June 30, 2006, weighing in at a hefty 11 pounds and stretching 23¼ inches.
“Happiest day of my life and the best day of my life,” says Neil Heslin.
The boy came to Heslin late in life. He was 44 and thought the days of ever becoming a father had passed him years before. Dad didn't cut the cord, but he was there for the delivery.
He held Jesse right away and thought how his life was blessed.
The bonds between father and son only grew. The two fished, hiked and rode horses together. By then, Heslin and Jesse's mother, Scarlett Lewis, had split. He lived with his mother at Wild Rose Farm, where Jesse was first put in a saddle at the age of 2.
Every moment Heslin spent with his son was precious. Jesse played soccer in a local league, but he mostly loved shooting hoops and throwing the football with his father.
“I don't really like playing on a team,” Jesse would say. “I just like playing with you, Dad.”
Other times, in those moments of father-son revelry, the two would hold each other and Jesse would confide: “We're best friends and best buddies!”
Every Father's Day, the two would attend a car show in a neighboring town. They'd gawk at Model Ts and Studebakers and grab an ice cream cone from a restored Good Humor truck. “Happy Daddy's Day,” Jesse would say.
Father and son were working to restore a 1948 Ford tractor. Jesse's plan was to have it ready for the Newtown Labor Day parade and throw candy from the back.
At the tender age of 6, Jesse had become interested in politics during the November election. He couldn't pronounce the president's name: “Rock Bomber” is what he would say. The two planned a trip to the nation's capital for spring so Jesse could learn more about the nation's history.
On December 13, Jesse's mind was far from that trip to Washington. He was thinking of the gingerbread houses he was to make with his class the next day. Father and son stopped at the Big Y grocery store before they headed home.
In the newsstand section, Jesse flipped through a gun magazine. That wasn't unusual. His father was a former marksman and taught Jesse how to shoot a BB gun, always standing over him and showing him proper shooting techniques.
Searching the pages, Jesse stopped on one bearing images of three guns: a Glock handgun, a Sig Sauer handgun and a .223-caliber Bushmaster. The next day, Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook armed with all three.
Jesse asked his father about the guns. Heslin told him that Americans use the weapons for protection and carry the handguns in holsters. He told Jesse about the military-style rifle on the page, too.
“They use them in the Army to kill with,” Jesse said.
“Yeah, pretty much, Jess,” Heslin responded.
Dad didn't think much about it at the time, but after the shooting he returned to the magazine rack and flipped to the page to “make sure what I remembered was true.” Heslin later told that story to lawmakers in Washington as he campaigned for gun control.
Heslin points to the side of his head and then his forehead, indicating the two bullets that struck Jesse. “His fatal shot was to his forehead and it exited the back of his head,” he says. “Clearly he was standing face to face with Adam Lanza and clearly looked him in the face.”
Ten of Jesse's classmates survived; Jesse's last word, his father was told, was “Run!”
“I can't say it brings me comfort,” Heslin says.
The dad's monotone slows to almost a grunt: “I hope Jesse's words did help save those children.”
“I accept what happened. I don't like it. I can't change it. Of course, I wish it never happened. I wish I wasn't part of it,” he says.
“I think more so than anything I'm just disgusted. I'm disgusted that I lost my little boy, disgusted that something like this happened, disgusted it could happen; disappointed that we as a society let something like this happen.
“I ask myself: ‘Why?'”
Killer's house still standing
What pushed Adam Lanza, 20, to the extreme may never be known, but clues lie somewhere behind the plywood that covers the front door of the spacious yellow colonial at 36 Yogananda Street.
It's difficult to get a good glimpse of the home from the road because it sits so high on a hill on two acres of land. The home was last appraised at $523,620 in 2012. Dozens of similarly nice homes worth well over half a million dollars dot the neighborhood.
With scenic views of the rolling hills of southern Connecticut, it's not where you would expect to find a boy who would become one of the nation's most notorious killers.
It was in that home where authorities found more than 1,600 rounds of ammunition, at least 10 knives, three samurai swords and a slew of other weaponry.
His mother, Nancy Lanza, was found shot through her forehead by a .22-caliber rifle left in her second-floor bedroom. Nearby was a blue-and-white duffel bag containing 50 rounds of rifle ammo, ear protection, eye protection, binoculars, paper targets and a certificate from the National Rifle Association bearing Adam Lanza's name.
A gun safe and smashed computer equipment were discovered in the basement where Adam lived. Books found inside the home included two related to autism — “Look Me In The Eye” and “Born On a Blue Day” — as well as one related to guns, “NRA Guide to the Basics of Pistol Shooting.”
Newtowners hope the house will be torn down.
‘We have to do something'
“Books heal hearts.” That simple message greets visitors to the C.H. Booth Library along Main Street. Dozens of books, displayed atop pressed white tablecloths, line tables in the long entry. Among the titles: “I Cry Alone,” “As We Grieve” and “Tear Soup.”
Sarah Clements, a 17-year-old junior at Newtown High, volunteers at the library. In the weeks after the massacre, she took a phone call at the circulation desk.
“Are you the Newtown library?” the man said.
“Yes. Can I help you?”
“Did the shooting actually happen at Sandy Hook elementary?” the caller asked.
Shaking, Sarah hung up. Her mother is a second-grade teacher at the school and was in the building that day, as was her younger brother. The teen had known most of the slain children. She attended third and fourth grades at Sandy Hook and had volunteered almost every day after classes to help her mother at the school.
Since December 14, she has suffered panic attacks. Ordinary tasks have become labored. It's hard to concentrate during tests. Even walking into a classroom brings anxiety.
And now somebody had the audacity to call and question if it was real?
Sarah returned to the desk after a 20-minute break, still trembling. A woman approached and offered comfort. “For every one person that says that to you,” the woman said, “there are hundreds of thousands of us that are standing behind you when you fall.”
The caller might've caught Sarah off-guard, but he picked the wrong person. Standing up is what she does best.
“We didn't want this to happen,” she says. “But because of it, we have to do something.”
The teen has become an outspoken advocate as chairwoman of the junior chapter of the Newtown Action Alliance, one of the groups that emerged from the tragedy that is pushing to reduce gun violence through legislation and cultural change. Sarah urges teens to call lawmakers to get their voices heard, to “help move anger and sadness into good things.”
“Students should be at the core of this debate,” she says. “We're the next generation. We're going to be living in the world that our legislators are creating for us. So I think we need to tell them directly that this is what we want to see: ‘I want my town to be safer. I want my country to be safer.'”
She helped send a group of Newtown youth to a New England conference sponsored by PeaceJam, a foundation working to shape young leaders with the help of Nobel Peace Prize winners. She is helping plan other events, including a summer symposium for teens from all over the nation to discuss reducing gun violence.
Gun rights groups might have celebrated the defeat of universal background checks this spring, she says, but they had better be prepared for a long battle: “We aren't going anywhere, and just like the violence does not deter us, neither will these small ‘defeats' in Washington.”
Sarah's arms are lined with bracelets honoring the 26 victims at Sandy Hook. Most are green and white, the school's colors. One was sent from a Virginia Tech student; another was from a group in Tucson, Arizona, that aims to spread messages of kindness. That's where former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was gravely wounded in a shooting spree that killed six.
She used to wear fancier bracelets but has traded them in for this new fashion statement. “The fact I've given up that part of me in honor of what happened is really meaningful to me.
“It actually provides something for me to hold onto.”
In those moments when the pain is unbearable, she rubs one bracelet with the names of all 26 victims. “It's raised so I can, like, feel it,” she says. “I like rubbing it.”
“The coping is going to take a long time, and I think people are starting to realize that,” she says. “I like being at school because being in classes takes our minds off of things.”
The high school provided counselors in the days and weeks afterward. Therapy dogs were brought in, too. Students loved snuggling with them. They also found comfort in each other. “If you saw a person crying, you just walked up to them and hugged them.”
Principal John Ficalora sent students, teachers and parents e-mails imploring them to not accept the tragedy as “the new normal,” saying, “We will get through this and we will move forward.” He ended the notes by telling people to close their eyes and think of a brighter future, a place that's safer.
“I felt like he was talking to me, saying, ‘You have to do what you have to do to heal yourself, but also heal others.'”
Sarah has kept the e-mails and reads them repeatedly to help her in her grief.
“For high schoolers, I don't know how to explain it. It shattered our innocence and at the same time I think it opened our eyes to reality, even though on the opposite side, like, ‘How can that be reality?'”
Beneath her wavy hair, her eyes appear weary, too many tears shed since December. Yet like so many others, she doesn't let the sadness crush her. She channels that energy to motivate others. In addition to her work with various groups, she has helped organize a program called Healing Through the Arts that links teens with younger children to draw, paint and create art. Even before the massacre, Sarah was an activist. She has served as the co-vice president of the high school's gay-straight alliance and the co-founder of the Creative Cultural Arts Council.
Her message remains basic: People just need to be kinder.
She knows firsthand the power of kindness. In the library where she received that disturbing phone call, Sarah found a surprise this spring amid the stacks. It was an envelope containing a green ribbon car magnet in honor of Sandy Hook student Ana Marquez-Greene.
There was also a message inside: “Have a good day.”
That simple act, she says, was a highlight of the days since the massacre. It inspired her to do “the same with one of my clubs” — to look for ways to leave surprises for strangers, to put smiles on their faces.
“Everything that I do, I feel like I do it in honor of the people that passed away.”
A marathon, not a sprint
Dr. William Begg was in the emergency room of Danbury Hospital on December 14. He was told to expect multiple shooting victims from Sandy Hook, a school he knew well from living in Newtown the last two decades.
But only a few people with minor wounds arrived. Most of the victims had been killed at close range by a Bushmaster, an assault rifle some people would like to see banned.
The doctor had witnessed the extreme lethality of assault weapons since his first shift in an emergency room as a medical student in New York in 1987, when a store owner arrived at Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx with multiple gunshots.
“I still can vividly remember the horrible wounds on that store owner,” Begg says. “That was my first introduction to gun violence.”
Yet he was young and preoccupied with earning a living. In the years that followed, he never spoke up about what he and his colleagues were witnessing in the emergency room: more and more patients coming in with horrific gunshot wounds.
December 14 sparked him to action.
“I cannot sit back any longer and be part of the silent majority,” he says. “I knew from the time I was in the emergency room (on December 14) that I would absolutely try my best efforts to try to afford some type of legislative change.”
Begg helped form the United Physicians of Newtown, a group of more than 100 doctors who live or practice there. The group includes Republicans and Democrats, gun owners and non-gun owners.
They're approaching gun violence from the standpoint of epidemiology, studying the causes and patterns behind diseases. “When we're talking about 30,000 gun deaths a year,” Begg says, “that's a public health issue.”
The group has several objectives: promote funding for research and education about firearms, create a national firearm injury database, promote better health services for the mentally ill, and enact stronger gun legislation — including universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons.
The NRA, Begg says, has successfully lobbied to stop the government from compiling comprehensive gun violence data that he says most emergency room doctors would like to see.
“Our group is not for rescinding the Second Amendment right; we acknowledge the Second Amendment right,” he says. “We want to give our patients some evidence-based medicine to have them make an informed choice on what they think is best for themselves and their families.
“The more data we have the better we can actually find some common ground.”
Begg's group has lobbied the American College of Surgeons and other medical groups to join their call to study gun violence from an epidemiological standpoint. The American College of Surgeons reissued its stance in January in support of gun control.
Begg appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in late February. He displayed graphic photos of gun wounds from emergency rooms — a sliced-open abdomen, a pierced skull, a shattered hand. At one point he showed a video of a bullet test-fired from a handgun into a foam-like block versus one fired from an AR-15 made by Bushmaster.
The bullet from the AR-15, he noted, “goes in and basically explodes inside the body.”
GOP senators left before his question and answer session began. He said he would've loved to debate them as to “why our country allows civilians to own military-style weapons.”
An avid marathon runner, Begg says he is in this fight for the long haul.
“We're not going to be defined by defeat of the assault weapons bill,” he says. “Change will come. There is no doubt. Things don't happen all in one year.”
‘We've become barbarians'
Rabbi Shaul Praver buzzes guests in when they arrive at his synagogue, nestled along a winding New England road with a gorgeous view of a wetland. Before December 14, anyone could freely walk in.
The rabbi helped lead the interfaith service attended by President Obama in the days after the massacre. He has since become a spiritual voice for many Newtowners.
“I don't know if there's any handbook on how to do it,” he says. “I certainly didn't get anything in rabbinical school, saying, ‘This is how you survive spree shootings.'”
His congregation lost Noah Pozner, a rambunctious 6-year-old who was “smart as a whip.”
“We've seen the worst and the best,” Praver says. “The worst was the crime and the best was the reaction to that crime. And that has been really incredible: the love, the dedication and the strength.”
He has rallied clergy around the nation to lobby federal and state lawmakers for improved universal background checks and other gun control measures. He despises the National Rifle Association and its power to block gun control: “Who are these guys?” he says.
Born in Long Island, Praver was headed to India at age 21 to study meditation and the violin. En route, he stopped in Israel and remained there for 10 years, getting trained at orthodox yeshivas.
At 52, he's less conservative and more contemplative. He counsels his congregation by telling them that the heinous act of Adam Lanza doesn't mean God abandoned Newtown.
“Once we have free will, people can act the way that they want to act,” he says. “The world is a jungle and things happen in the jungle. It doesn't mean that there is no God or no providence.”
To him, the massacre is much larger than simply a gun-control issue; it's a sign of a society that has lost its way.
“We have a surplus of information, but we have a deficit of meaning,” he says. “The truth is we are starved of spirituality. By that, I mean basic happiness. …
“We've become gross in a sense. We've become barbarians. We don't have enough of that delicate wisdom literature: How to be honorable in a society.”
The boogeyman with no name
The makeshift memorials no longer line the streets of Newtown. More than 64,000 teddy bears were sent here in the days and weeks after the shooting spree. The stuffed animals, angel figurines and candles were put in storage almost as quickly as the satellite news trucks left. The items haunted kids on school buses as they looked out windows.
Yet the scope of the tragedy remains omnipresent. Barricades still sit at the entrance to the Sandy Hook school. It will soon be torn down and a new school will be built on the property.
Before December 14, the popular bumper sticker was “Nicer in Newtown.” Cars now zip through town with green ribbons on their bumpers in solidarity with those slain.
Young children still climb into their parents' beds, fearing the return of the boogeyman. Students and teachers at the temporary school for Sandy Hook survivors close doors gently. A loud slam could send them back to that awful day.
Newtowners are apt to cry in public at the Big Y, the Newtown General Store or the Edmond Town Hall, where there is a $2 movie theater and gym. The tears come without warning. Strangers offer comfort by wrapping their arms around each other. It's called The Newtown Hug.
Most residents cannot utter the name of the killer. Of the couple dozen people I met, only three referred to Adam Lanza by name. The high schooler, Sarah Clements, provided insight into that.
“Because it's such an unspeakable thing to even describe it, we can't really describe that person,” she said. “So I think putting a name to that person adds, like, a human aspect that we don't understand and we can't figure out — and we won't ever.”
When the high school went into lockdown the morning of December 14, Sarah was in physics class. She and a friend crouched down and took cover. In the emergency room, Begg prepared for an onslaught of injuries.
Llodra and Praver went to the firehouse near Sandy Hook. Praver helped with prayers. Llodra served as the town spokeswoman, addressing the media and offering comfort as families were told their loved ones were dead.
People say Llodra was a calming presence amid parents who collapsed, cried and wailed.
Llodra could relate. Three years before, her 42-year-old daughter died suddenly from a bacterial infection.
“It just so rips your heart out that it's hard to recover from,” she says. “The horrific circumstance that I had is multiplied by the circumstance of this event, because there was violence involved and because of the innocence, the age, involved of those sweet little babies.”
She attended 22 funerals or wakes of those slain. She missed four because of schedule conflicts.
She has since met with President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and other top leaders, along with the victims' families, first responders and countless Newtown residents.
Amid the tragedy, she's had to continue managing the town's $111 million budget during a time of cutbacks, while dealing with the extraordinary. She has kept a close eye out for cracks that could split the town open, like alcoholism, suicide, divorce or depression.
“To be sure, if we see any of that fracturing,” she says, “we can immediately step in and help where people might feel very vulnerable.
“I understand that journey a little bit — that there are times in that grief when you're in such despair that bad choices sometimes are made.”
‘Everything's going to be OK'
Like Llodra and Praver, Neil Heslin went to the firehouse that day, too — but for the most agonizing of reasons. He learned shortly after midnight that his beloved boy, Jesse, had perished. “I don't wish it upon anybody.”
Since then, he has traveled to Washington to speak on “Jesse's behalf without Jesse.” He's met with the president and other top lawmakers about curbing gun violence. Heslin so wishes he and Jesse were taking their trip to the nation's capital together.
“There's nothing good about me speaking and testifying about my little boy.”
He has taken on the gun industry, accusing manufacturers of profiting from the Sandy Hook killings. As he has become more vocal, Heslin has received a few death threats from people he calls “cowardly scumbags.”
With activism comes consequences. Gun rights advocates recently celebrated when the pro-gun group Connecticut Carry released court records on Heslin's past, showing arrests for driving under the influence in 2001 and 2002 and one for possession of narcotics in 2002.
“A felon with a long rap sheet of fraud, substance abuse and reckless behavior is the poster boy for background checks and gun bans,” declared Connecticut Carry. That phrase was picked up and repeated on dozens of pro-gun sites.
In early May, Heslin appeared before a Superior Court judge on charges from July 2011 of writing bad checks for his contracting business and driving with a suspended license. He has pleaded not guilty.
Heslin says his troubled past is behind him. Praver has helped him with his grief and his spirituality since the massacre. What haunts Heslin now is that last morning he spent with his son, and how he'll never see him again.
He and Jesse had eaten breakfast at the Misty Vale Deli. Jesse had ordered a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich, his favorite. He only ate half. “That morning he was kind of quiet. I asked him if he felt OK; he said he felt fine.”
Father and son then drove to Sandy Hook. The two walked together into the school.
Jesse hugged his dad, told him he loved him. “Everything's going to be OK, Dad.”
It was 9:04 a.m.
Heslin missed Adam Lanza by 26 minutes.
“Even if it meant I lost my life,” Heslin said, “I wish I was there.”
Now he's on a mission — for his son who didn't deserve to die.
“I am Jesse's voice.”
Justice Department Announces Plan for Advancing Crime Victims' Rights and Services in the Twenty-first Century
Developed by the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), Vision 21: Transforming Victim Services Final Report, is the first collective examination in 15 years of current U.S. practices, funding and outreach in the crime victims' field.
“Today's announcement marks the latest step forward in the Department's ongoing work to protect and empower those who have been victimized,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “Through Vision 21, we've gained an unprecedented understanding of the current state of victim services from coast to coast. And we've developed groundbreaking strategies for responding to urgent needs, combating violence and abuse, and providing critical support to crime victims.”
Vision 21 documents the need to better understand who is affected by crime, how they are affected, how they seek help, who reports victimization and the reasons why some victims do not. The report calls for continuous, rather than episodic, strategic planning in the victim assistance field and for statutory, policy and programmatic flexibility to address enduring and emerging crime victim issues. It also calls for the development of evidence-based knowledge founded on data collection and analysis of victimization and emerging victimization trends, services, behaviors and enforcement efforts.
“This is a bold and creative plan to meet the needs of crime victims in the 21st century,” said Assistant Attorney General for OJP Karol V. Mason. “The recommendations in this report display the latest and best thinking in the field of victim services and set us on a course to ensuring services for all victims. I am grateful to my Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mary Lou Leary and OVC's Principal Deputy Director Joye Frost for leading Vision 21 and for their commitment to victims across the country.”
Leary and Frost previously joined Patrick Leahy, President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate, on April 24, to announce the framework for this report. For the Vision 21: Transforming Victim Services Final Report, please visit: www.ovc.gov/vision21
The Office of Justice Programs, headed by Assistant Attorney General Karol V. Mason, provides federal leadership in developing the nation's capacity to prevent and control crime, administer justice and assist victims. OJP has six components: the Bureau of Justice Assistance; the Bureau of Justice Statistics; the National Institute of Justice; the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; the Office for Victims of Crime; and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking. For more information about OJP, please visit: www.ojp.gov