Woman’s life changed forever after movie screening
ON JULY 20, 2012, a mass shooting occurred inside a Century 16 movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises.
Twelve people were killed and 70 others injured. Jessica Redfield Ghawi was one of those fatalities. In 2015, Jessi's mother, Sandy, spoke to news.com.au about the night she found out her daughter had been shot. On the sixth anniversary of the tragedy, Sandy reflects on what has changed since.
My daughter, Jessi, had only lived in Colorado for a year and 15 days - she had just moved into a new apartment and had painted it herself.
On the night Jessi was killed, her childhood friend, Brent, who was like a brother to her, was in town. It was a Thursday night and he was leaving on Friday. He was a big Batman fan and she wanted to take him to the premiere of Dark Knight. She went online to buy tickets but they were sold out.
She kept trying and was eventually able to get tickets for the 12.05am showing in theatre nine.
We had stayed in touch throughout the day, we texted each other all the time. That night, I went to bed but she never mentioned going to the movie. I woke up, and I thought, "I'll text her to see if she's awake". She wrote back immediately that they were at a movie. She said, "We're here now, we're going to see the Dark Knight."
I thought it was an unusual movie for her to pick. First of all, she didn't go to midnight movies and she wasn't that much of a Batman fan.
I replied: "Enjoy the movie and I'll talk with you in the morning."
She said: "Go back to bed mum and get some sleep, I can't wait for you to come visit, I need my mamma."
I wrote back, "I need my baby girl" and hit send. It was 12.06am in Denver.
The phone rang about 20 minutes after that. It was Brent.
I could hear screaming in the background. He said, "There's been a shooting."
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
He told me there had been a random shooting. I asked him if he was OK. He said, "I think I've been shot twice."
As he's saying that and I'm hearing the screaming, I'm registering that he's the one calling, not Jessi. "Where's Jessi?" I asked.
He said, "I tried."
"Tell me she's OK." I said.
He didn't say anything.
"Please Brent, tell me she's not dead."
He couldn't tell me that.
Our lives changed in that moment.
I am a gun owner, a responsible gun owner. I've had a gun since I was 10 years old. My parents were both excellent shots, we used to go hunting. I was brought up in an environment with a healthy respect for guns. We used guns for sport and for target practice, that was it.
We still own the gun, I haven't shot it in six years, or my husband. but we still have it. We have always been gun owners.
It gives us legitimacy to some people, but it means we can talk the talk and we understand what it's like to be a gun owner.
It turned out that Brent had been shot once but the bullet travelled through his body, the shrapnel had hit him and it felt like it was two shots when it was actually one.
He had to go through three surgeries.
He thought Jessi had only been hit twice, once in the leg and once in the head, but it turned out that she'd been shot six times. The bullet he thought hit her leg went through that leg and into the other leg.
She was also hit three times in the abdomen, once in the shoulder that broke her clavicle - and there was the head wound that killed her. It left a 13cm hole in the left side of her head.
Jessi died in a police car on the way to the hospital.
The killer used armoured piercing bullets - these things are military-grade ammo. They went though walls and from people in to other people. It was chaos, it was war.
The police who got there and went in have all testified that they'd never seen anything as bad as what they witnessed there.
The trauma of a traumatic killing, a traumatic death, is something you can never, ever walk away from. You may have moments of the day where the fog is not blinding you, but it's always there, it's always lurking. You never know when it's going to hit, how hard it's going to hit.
You can never truly prepare for it.
My husband and I walk through hell every day now, that's what we do. Whatever is in the afterlife, I hope it'll be better than this.
I thought when we began this journey that by this point in time we would be more at peace at what happened to Jessi and the others in that theatre. I think because we do see the carnage every day and are aware of it every day, it's still just as hard as it was then.
It's time to take care of us, we do what we can when we can. The next couple of days we're going to be just hiding out, taking care of one another, and mourning our Jessi, remembering her the best we can and trying not to sink into that deep, dark place that you can so easily
For a long time I didn't know if Jessi ever got that last text message from me or not, because, of course, her phone was held for evidence.
When we got the phone back I found out she had. That made me feel good. I know my text put a smile on her face. I knew her so well, I knew it made her smile.
It took me three years to read Jessi's autopsy. My husband and I didn't want to see the pictures, but we did want to see the report. It was brutal.
I had had a phone conversation with the coroner early on but in his kindness, he didn't tell me the damage that was done.
We were getting ready to speak on gun control and work with survivors.
I felt we needed to be able to talk honestly about what happened. If we're closing our eyes to this, and saying, "oh, she was shot in the head", we're doing a disservice to our daughter.
So we bucked up, held hands, grabbed a box of tissues and read it.
It was by far the hardest thing I've ever had to look at and by far the hardest thing I've ever had to read.
But you can't wake America up unless they understand what it's like.
When the Newtown families are able to say, "the back of my son's head was missing", when one of them can stand and say, "my little six-year old was shot nine times by these bullets", those are the images that America needs. If you can verbally paint that picture for them to see and imagine, then perhaps we can change hearts and minds.
When it came to his* trial in April, 2015, in which he was convicted of 24 counts of first-degree murder, 140 counts of attempted first-degree murder, and one count of possessing explosives, I was scared to death of going into the courtroom.
We were surprised that he was very pasty, very white, very flabby. He had lost all his tone of being a young man in good shape. He reminded me of Jabba the Hutt, he was just blobby and flabby, far from crazy, he knew what was going on around him, he was laughing and joking with his attorneys. He behaved very differently when the jury wasn't in the room. When the cameras and the jury were in the room he had an audience, the rest of the time he looked and behaved very differently.
But I was no longer afraid, because he couldn't take anything else away from me ever again.
My husband and I are totally different people than we were before, with a totally different purpose and mission. Our plan is to live our lives as fully as we can - as joyfully as we can - to honour Jessi and to educate the public on what our journey has been, the things we thought we knew and the protections we thought, as citizens, we had.
We found out none of that was true the hard way.
We want to educate people that you are one degree of separation from this happening to you at any place, any time, anywhere.
What's happened to our gun laws is crazy. We're just dealing with crazy every day here.
We're seeing more tragedy and right now with this administration, nothing is going to get done. In fact, if any thing, change has been rolled back. It's a scary, scary time.
Aurora was an eye-opener because these were just people at a movie. They were sitting targets. A lot of them didn't have time to even realise what was going on, they all thought it was a prank at first.
We made it very easy for this person, who should never have been able to get a gun, to order ammo online without even having to submit a driver's licence. We are so far from being well regulated. You can't put that horse back in the barn, it's running loose. But what you can do is tighten the laws that do exist, that will keep people from being slaughtered in their schools, movies houses and churches.
If you've got good background checks, that supply will dry up. It will take time, but it will dry up. It will be harder for the bad guys to get their hands on the guns.
It's going to take drastic change. Drastic, purposeful leadership to get it done.
* Out of respect to Sandy Phillips, news.com.au has not published the name of the convicted killer of the 2012 Aurora shootings.
- Jessi's Message was established by her mother for the purpose of empowering other victims and survivors of violence across the country and to advocate in their communities for violence prevention. For more information, visit the website.
- Continue the conversation with Sandy Phillips via Twitter @MamaRedfield
- As told to Matt Young