01.06.13

‘Horrible Things Are Happening Here’—Aurora’s Communal PTSD

As Aurora began to recover, another mass shooting shakes Colorado’s third-largest city. Carol McKinley reports.

The text messages started dinging on Jacqueline Keavny Lader’s phone not long after she awoke Saturday morning. “Horrible things are happening here.”

There’d been another shooting in Aurora.

This time, a man shot and killed three people—two men and a woman—and barricaded himself in his townhome for hours. After hurling furniture at his door and ignoring requests from police negotiators with a bullhorn to give himself up, the suspect shot at law enforcement. They returned fire. The tally? Four dead, including the shooter, in another incident of gun violence in the same town where just five-and-a-half months earlier, a 24-year-old neuropsychology Ph.D. student did what Keavny Lader calls a “spray and pray” during a screening of the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises. That tally? Twelve dead and 58 wounded.

Keavny Lader’s life was forever changed on July 20. She and her husband, Don, were in the eighth row of the now infamous Theater Nine when just after midnight the gunman in a gas mask entered through an exit door and starting killing people. “I could see his eyes, right below his helmet. I knew what was on his mind,” says the Marine. “And when I heard about this morning’s shooting, well, it just makes your heart drop to the floor.” She still has nightmares and flashbacks echoing that night in the theater.

With Saturday morning’s second bout of gunfire, the shadow that had perhaps begun to lift from the city with the promise of a new year descended again. And within hours, there will be another dark reminder.

Monday, the prosecution will unveil much of the mystery in the case against accused theater shooter James Holmes, as it outlines its argument for premeditated murder. Holmes’s legal team has said several times in open court that their client is mentally ill. The hearing is expected to last a week, and much evidence is expected to be revealed. Aurorans will see the headlines again.

‘They call for help. Some want to commit suicide, and some are scared … It runs the gamut.’

“This is not good for us,” says Aurora City Councilwoman Debi Hunter Holen, “Aurora has a lot of fragile people who have been through a lot. We’re still in the grieving process.” Her husband, Bill Holen, a commissioner in Aurora’s Arapahoe County, agrees Aurora is suffering through something akin to community posttraumatic stress disorder: “Our county fair had the lowest turnout in history. People are afraid to come out.”

Calls to the Denver-area metro crisis line, which includes Aurora, have more than doubled since the Batman movie shooting, from 400 a month to a thousand. Says Holen: “They call for help. Some want to commit suicide, and some are scared … It runs the gamut.”

The city of Aurora’s website invites us to “Play ball. Hike a trail. Take a dip. Walk a green.” A slide show beams Americana pictures of kids ice-fishing, aproned men cooking pasta, and prairie sunsets. The Aurora Police Department’s Facebook page has more than 23,000 “likes,” and, after Saturday morning, someone commented, “Geez, you guys can’t catch a break. Stay strong.” APD Public Information Officer Cassidee Carlson says it’s very likely that many of the same officers who responded to Saturday’s shooting were also first responders at the theater shooting the early morning of July 20. “We don’t like being put in these situations. This guy took three innocent lives and decided to shoot at the police.” Carlson says psychological counseling is available for any cop who needs it.

Despite the bad news that Americans have been hearing coming out of Colorado’s third-largest city, community leaders hope to turn things around. “This is not just happening in Aurora. It is happening everywhere,” says Councilwoman Holen, “This is a societal issue.” It is happening everywhere, but it is being especially felt here.

One of Keavny Lader’s text messages reads “Thank God you’re out of there!” The couple moved from Aurora to San Diego at Thanksgiving. Don, also a Marine, starts law school next week. On their last day in Colorado, a shooting happened across the street and when the police asked her if her neighbor had a gun, she told them yes, because she just figured that he did.

Rhonda Fields is still in Aurora, and she’s afraid that senseless killings are becoming too common. Her son Javad and his fiancée were shot and killed seven years ago on the streets of Aurora, the day before he was scheduled to testify against a drug dealer who had murdered his friend. He had just graduated from college. She’s now a state congresswoman, who happens to represent the district where the theater shootings happened.

Fields is a woman who knows that the start of a new year does not mean that violence will disappear. She just hopes Aurora residents aren’t feeling so numb by now that they will shrug their shoulders and do nothing.

“I don’t want them to feel desensitized,” she says. “Like this is just another day.”