CENTENNIAL, Colorado — After months of wide-ranging testimony and evidence, attention in the trial of James Holmes turned back this week to the loss experienced by 12 families.
In the third phase of Holmes’ sentencing, family members of the victims had the opportunity to describe the massacre’s impact on their lives. Holmes was found guilty of killing 12 people and attempting to murder 70 others inside an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater on July 20, 2012. This week’s testimony was the last the jury will hear before making their final decision on whether he will serve life in prison or face the death penalty.
Over the course of the trial, Judge Carlos Samour has spent hours ruling how photos and witnesses may be presented so that the jury is not unfairly prejudiced by emotion. Still, tears ran heavy in the courtroom as parents, spouses, and others described years of pain and the loved ones they lost.
AJ Boik, 18
In high school, AJ Boik cared more about having fun than his grades — that is, until he met his girlfriend.
His mother, Mary Theresa Hoover, told the court how she had watched her teen son grow focused over the last two years and plan for his future. Boik had discovered a passion for ceramics, and he was accepted into art school with the goal of becoming a teacher.
"He was so excited because he loved it, and he knew he’d be able to teach kids the art of ceramics," Hoover said.
Though he was only 18, and his girlfriend, Lasamoa Cross, was only a year older, his mother said he was thinking about marriage.
"He saw a future. He knew she was his future, and he had told me that too," Hoover said.
Since his death, Hoover said she's sold the house where she raised AJ and his brother.
"I've lost half of what I was put on this earth to do, which is raise my children," she said. "He was one of the best two things I've ever done."
Jonathan Blunk, 26
Jonathan Blunk had a difficult upbringing, his wife, Chantel Blunk, said.
He'd been kicked out of the house as a teen, leaving him attending school, working, and sleeping wherever he could, she said. But he graduated with honors, and was known among his group of friends as outgoing, positive, and energetic.
Jonathan Blunk remained that way after they married, she said, always ready to be there for friends and their two children even when he was exhausted.
"He wanted to be the ultimate husband, the best dad," she said. "He always wanted the kids to look up to him as a superhero."
They were separated, and Chantel Blunk was living in Reno when his boss called her and told her to turn on the news.
Three years later, she said she feels anxious every day when she takes her children to school. She said she tries not to let them see anything unusual as they walk into their classrooms and out of her sight.
"At the same time, I’m afraid of what’s going to happen," she said.
Jesse Childress, 29
In an old photo, Lisa Childress pointed out the mischievous smile and twinkling eyes in her son, Jesse Childress, as he stood at the edge of a cliff.
The Air Force staff sergeant was adventurous, she said.
In another photo, standing with a group of friends, he wore a Denver Broncos shirt.
"Of course," his mother said.
Sports were big in their family, and he'd call to talk about a game no matter where he was stationed.
"If the game wasn’t on in Colorado, and it was on in California, I’d be watching the game [on TV], and he’d try to get it, of course, on his computer," she said. "We’d be texting each other or call after a great play."
Gordon Cowden, 51
Flowers arrive as a portrait is seen at the entrance for at a memorial service for Gordon Cowden Wednesday, July 25, 2012 in Denver. Cowden was one of 12 people killed, and over 50 wounded in a shooting attack early Friday at the packed theater during a showing of the Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises." Police have identified the suspected shooter as James Holmes, 24. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Gordon Cowden cared about spending time with his four children, his daughter Cierra Cowden, said.
She recalled the times her father would take them to a park where they would play games.
"He was always patient with us, even when we weren’t patient with each other," said the now 19-year-old, breaking down in tears frequently as she described her father.
Though her parents were divorced, Cierra Cowden said the children usually spent an equal amount of time with each. With her father, she remembered road trips to visit extended family in Texas, going out for breakfast and to church on Sunday mornings, and going for walks. Her dad was funny and charming: He'd imitate a bugle to wake the kids up, or start singing his "happy helper" song to motivate them to do their chores.
"We’d all groan, but now it makes me laugh," she said.
She was 16 on July 20, 2012, when her dad took her and her sister to see The Dark Knight Rises. Once the shooting began, she said she remembered him get up.
"He started to move forward, then he hesitated and turned to make sure we were coming too," she said.
Then she was shaking him, trying to get him to wake up. When she touched him, she said she knew he was dead.
"It’s selfish to say, but I just miss him being my dad," she said. "He was just so present in our lives. I just miss him being there."
Jessica Ghawi, 24
Jessica Redfield Ghawi always made friends easily.
And her friends knew that once she made up her mind to do something, she'd see it through.
"She was a little whirlwind," said her mother, Sandy Phillips. "Lots of energy. Lots of graciousness. She was kind to others always."
Her mother called her "messy Jessi," and her stepfather, Lonnie Phillips, called her "Bubbette."
"You couldn’t help but be charmed by her," Sandy Phillips said.
When she made up her mind to become a sports broadcaster, they had no doubt she would do it. When she announced she'd get a better education at a school in Denver than in her hometown of San Antonio, they trusted her too.
On July 19, 2012, Phillips was preparing to visit her daughter and help her settle into a new apartment and get ready for the school year. She texted her late, and Ghawi replied that she was at the movie theater with a friend.
"I’ll see you next week. I need my momma," her text read. "I need my baby girl," Phillips replied.
Within half an hour, Phillips received a phone call — this time from her daughter's friend. She could hear the screaming inside the theater. When she asked where Jessi was, her friend simply said, "I tried."
"I started screaming, and my husband ran out of the bedroom," Phillips said. "And this guttural sound was coming out of me. He caught me as I was sliding down to the floor."
Now they don't celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas. Any reminders of movie theaters — popcorn or folding seats — make Phillips feel ill. She said she doesn't retain information like she used to, and she's less organized.
"I cry every day, still," she said. "Probably always will."
John Thomas Larimer, 27
The last time Kathleen Larimer saw her son, John Larimer, was her birthday on July 2, 2012. He met her for breakfast at Rosie's Diner — the spot where he and his friends from the Navy would celebrate. He brought her a mug from Buckley Air Force Base to add to her collection, and she bought another at the diner.
She remembered the Navy petty officer third class as quiet and smart, with a profound sense of right and wrong. John Larimer wrote a letter to the editor in high school to respectfully call for more support for diversity at his school and told his mom not to eat at Chick-fil-A over what he saw as bigotry in the company founder's political activities.
After the shooting, the Larimers didn't immediately know he was dead. From her Northern Illinois home, Kathleen Larimer described calling loved ones to first tell them he was missing. Later, she made the same rounds with even more difficulty to announce his death.
For their family, his death has left a hole, she said. Kathleen Larimer, her husband, and their two sons used to take a family photo around the holidays each year.
"I don’t think we’ll ever do a family picture again," she said. "Every time you look at a family picture, it just jumps out at you who’s missing."
Matt McQuinn, 27
Jerri Jackson pointed to one photo of her son Matt McQuinn and called it "classic Matt."
"He was always smiling," she said. "His eyes just had mischief in them."
He and his girlfriend, Samantha Yowler, had been planning on moving back to Ohio. On July 19, 2012, his mother called to talk about their plans. He said he was heading to a midnight movie, even though he had to work at 4 a.m.
She told him to be careful.
"Oh, Mom, nothing’s going to happen. I love you, Mom," were his last words to her, she said.
McQuinn died jumping on top of his girlfriend to protect her from a spray of bullets.
The loss has left Jackson with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. She's been unable to go back to work, she said, and she still has nightmares.
She told the jury about the milestones, like marriage, he wouldn't be able to experience.
"He always wanted to be the center of attention," she said. "He wanted to be the one who was proposed to. He wanted to be the one who had the big old diamond ring. He told his grandma he was going to dance down the aisle."
Micayla Medek, 23
In 2012, Micayla Medek had recently moved out of her parents home, into an apartment with her best friend.
"She was starting to become a college kid," said her older sister, Amanda Medek.
But even with her outside of the home, the family stayed close and saw each other at least once a week.
July 20 was their grandmother's birthday, and Amanda Medek said she'd talked to her sister several days before about plans for the weekend. On July 20, however, Micayla was fatally shot.
Her sister found out early from a voicemail left by their father. When they were officially notified by authorities, she said she remembers her knees buckling and slamming into a concrete floor.
"I have a hard time remembering what happened after that," she said.
The family still gets together for events like their grandmother's birthday.
"I think that celebrations are dulled and limited," she said. "But we definitely are still a very close family and get together and celebrate each other's lives."
Veronica Moser-Sullivan, 6
Ashley Moser was 18 when she gave birth to a daughter, Veronica, and for six years they didn't spend more than 24 hours apart.
"She was silly and fun and excited and happy," Moser said.
Veronica Moser-Sullivan was the youngest victim of the shooting. The late-night trip to the movies was a treat: a chance to spend time with the older girls who babysat her and to celebrate her mother's big news. A baby brother or sister was on the way.
Three years later, Moser is in a wheelchair after receiving a bullet to her spine. She lost the baby, and Veronica was killed.
"I don’t know who I am anymore," Moser said. "Because I was a mom when I was 18. And that’s all I knew how to be. And now I’m not a mom."
Moser described her depression and anxiety since losing her daughter, a little girl who had just learned to read, loved to draw, and always tried to make the people around her happy.
Veronica's grandfather, Robert Sullivan, described her as an angel, admitting that the description sounds cliché coming from a parent or grandparent.
"I don’t use those references as much," he explained. "In her case, this was an actuality. It was true."
A video played of Veronica on Christmas morning, unwrapping presents with joy.
"There was just a sweet innocence about this child," he said. "She had a sensitivity about her that I could relate to."
Alex Sullivan, 27
Tom Sullivan tried to explain the unique relationship he had with his son, Alex.
"Alex was my son," he said. "He was also my best friend."
As a boy, he came along to ball games and the annual road trip to a memorabilia show in California. When he got older, he brought Alex Sullivan along to Las Vegas for the Super Bowl — a tradition among the elder Sullivan and his friends.
But the tradition has changed in recent years.
"We have an empty seat at our table, and there’s a glass of Jameson sitting in front of it," Tom Sullivan said.
Alex Sullivan headed to the movie theater on July 19, 2012, with a group of co-workers from Red Robin. He'd been working as a bartender and in various other restaurant industry jobs for years.
"He was trying to learn the whole business," his father said.
On this outing, they were celebrating his 27th birthday. Alex was always the life of the party, but he also had a compassionate side, his father said.
"If you were having a bad day, if things weren’t working out for you, he had that sense. And he could come over to you and make you feel better," Tom Sullivan said.
His family spent most of his birthday searching hospitals and appealing to anyone who would listen for information on his whereabouts. Finally, they received official notice of his death. The next day, his father said goodbye to him at the coroner's office.
Watching Alex Sullivan grow up was a chance to relive his own youth, his father said.
"From this point on, all I’m doing is getting older," he said.
Alex Teves, 24
Every morning, Caren Teves said she wakes up and tries to think of the sound of her son's voice and laughter.
"I’m petrified I’m going to forget what his voice sounds like or his laugh sounds like," she said.
Alex Teves was one of three boys, and growing up, their family's house was loud and joyous.
"He made you feel good about yourself," his mother said. "It was a very unique thing that he can do. Whenever you left him, you wanted to be a better person."
In 2012, he had recently earned his master's degree in psychology and spent time working with troubled youth. A big fan of superheroes, he went to the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises with his girlfriend, Amanda Lindgren.
Lindgren has since changed her last name to Teves to honor his memory.
"She wanted our blessing and we gave it to her with our fullest hearts," Caren Teves said. "It was supposed to be. It's something that Alex wanted, and we wanted to make sure that it was fulfilled."
Rebecca Wingo, 32
The first thing Robert Wingo noticed about the woman who would later become Rebecca Wingo was her energy. The two met in a mess hall at the U.S. Defense Language Institute.
"She had a huge smile," he said. "She was fearless and wild, yet cultured and intelligent."
Her personality tended to make her the focus of every situation she was in. She made learning Mandarin look effortless, he said, and she became a loving mother to their two daughters.
The pair divorced after eight years, but remained partners as parents. Since her death, becoming a full-time single dad has been difficult, even with support, Robert Wingo said.
"You have to scrap everything and start over," he said.
Her death has brought grief and stress to every one of their family and friends, he said. But their daughters, now 12 and 8, have felt it the most.
"Particularly for the girls, it's disorienting in every way," he said. "Emotionally. Physically."
Claudia Koerner is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Claudia Koerner at email@example.com.
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