CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — Each morning for nearly three months, Sandy Phillips would wake at dawn, drive seven minutes to the courthouse, down a cup of coffee and wait an hour to listen to testimony about why her daughter was shot to death in a Colorado movie theater.
It was a painful, yet oddly comforting routine. Now that her daughter’s killer has been convicted and his long trial is coming to a close, she wonders how she will cope without the proceedings that gave structure and meaning to each day.
“The trial was a job that we did,” said Phillips, who sat in the courtroom for nearly nine hours every day during the 11-week trial, wrapped in her daughter Jessica Ghawi’s emerald green scarf, with her husband, Lonnie, by her side. “The hardest part for us is what do we do next? And what does that look like? We don’t know yet. Everyone who has been involved in this, we’re going to have to redefine ourselves emotionally.”
Three years after James Holmes opened fire on a crowded midnight premiere of a Batman movie, relatives and survivors face an unsettled future. A jury last week convicted the gunman of killing 12 people and wounding dozens more on July 20, 2012.
With only Holmes’ sentencing remaining, victims of the chilling attack will soon pass out of the national spotlight. Their families won’t be coming together in the courtroom each day to share a laugh or a hug between sobs. And while the court case brought answers that were helpful to some, the trial’s looming end leaves others feeling empty.
“I mean, look at all the Columbine victims. Does anyone even remember their names and faces anymore?” said Caren Teves, whose 24-year-old son, Alex, had just earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology and died shielding his girlfriend from the gunfire.
Teves and her husband, Tom, will continue their effort to urge news organizations to focus more on the victims and less on gunmen after mass shootings. Last week, Tom jumped in front of a bank of TV cameras holding a T-shirt with all 12 victims’ faces, yelling, “They’re going to be forgotten. Right? They’re going to be forgotten. Everybody in this world is going to move on, except these 12 families.”
They’ve also started a scholarship foundation in Alex’s name. But they understand that as the spotlight fades on the criminal case, so will it fade on their son.
“It’s eventually going to happen,” Caren Teves said. “And it’s all just part of the heartbreak.”
For 11 weeks, the families came in separate cars from separate homes to the courthouse, where they would sit together and cry together and occasionally share a meal together. During court, they passed tissues during wrenching testimony, averted their eyes from gruesome photographs and watched Holmes with disgust. That’s when bonds of friendship formed.
“It’s this realization that it’s really coming to an end. All these people we’ve become close to will be leaving us,” Phillips said last week as court let out and relatives scattered into the parking lot. She said she asked prosecutors about the possibility of holding a group session for families on how to manage their heavy, post-trial emotions.
Phillips and Teves have become particularly close, sharing phone calls and text messages at moments they instinctually know will be difficult. When a coroner described the autopsies of their children, they sat side by side, holding hands.
“There’s an unspoken understanding we have that translates into an unspoken comfort we give each other,” Phillips said. She and Lonnie sold their home in San Antonio and bought an RV, which they parked outside a generous stranger’s home and have been living in since the trial began. The Teves have been living in a hotel. They will soon return to their Phoenix home to be near their surviving sons.
The Phillipses plan to travel the country helping victims understand how they can advocate for themselves after tragedies.
“There may be a mobile home pulling up in front of the Teves’ house one day,” Phillips said.
The answers she gleaned from the courtroom have helped her better understand her daughter’s death in a way she found cathartic. But others didn’t experience that comfort.
Robert Sullivan heard testimony that his 6-year-old granddaughter, Veronica, was at the midnight showing because her mother didn’t realize it was such a violent film. He learned that the girl might have sat on her pregnant mother’s lap if it had not been uncomfortable and instead sat between two teenage friends, one of whom recalled searching for Veronica’s pulse after gunfire sounded and being unable to find it.
Sullivan said he finally understands the sequence of events, but “I pretty much feel the same. … Losing a child, you cannot make an analogy to anything else. It’s its own kind of horror,” he said. “I know for myself, trying to resolve that, I still haven’t been able to.”