UNITED STATES NEWS

Business owners thought they would never reopen after Maine’s deadliest shooting. Then support grew

Jan 22, 2024, 10:21 PM | Updated: Jan 23, 2024, 10:06 am

A "Lewiston Strong" sign, which is archived with other memorial items from the Lewiston shooting si...

A "Lewiston Strong" sign, which is archived with other memorial items from the Lewiston shooting sites, is displayed at the Maine Museum of Innovation, Learning and Labor, Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023, in Lewiston, Maine. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

LEWISTON, Maine (AP) — Immediately after Maine’s deadliest mass shooting, the owners of the bowling alley and the bar in Lewiston where the gunman killed a total of 18 people were certain their doors were closed for good.

Yet as time passed, they came to the same conclusion: They had to reopen.

In interviews with The Associated Press, Just-In-Time Recreation co-owner Samantha Juray and Schemengees Bar & Grille co-owner Kathy Lebel spoke about their businesses, the Oct. 25 shooting, and how their thinking shifted after support began to build from their families, the Lewiston community, and from across the country.

Their journeys offer hope. Not only for the owners, but also their employees and patrons, as a community reeling from the violence looks to regain the sense of camaraderie and fun that always attracted people to the venues.

FROM A LOVE OF POOL TO A CRUSHED HEART

Kathy Lebel loved to play pool. But she couldn’t fit a full table in her house and spent way too much money at local pool halls.

Then one night in bed, her husband, David, mentioned that one of her haunts, Schemengees, was up for sale. Lebel immediately sat up and said they should buy it.

“He looks at me and says, ‘We’re not going to buy that,’” Lebel says. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m going to buy it. I don’t know what it takes, but I want that pool hall.’”

Lebel got her way. After buying it 25 years ago, she relocated the business and expanded it to become Schemengees Bar & Grille.

She also ignored the advice to change the name — a nickname of the previous owner — amused that people struggled to pronounce or spell it correctly.

After her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 12 years ago, Lebel became increasingly responsible for the bar’s day-to-day management. She also had her own health crisis, surviving inflammatory breast cancer.

Lebel came to rely most on Joe Walker, whom she jokingly called her work husband. Together, they opened a second restaurant in Lewiston just as COVID-19 hit but managed to survive the downturn.

“He’s my biggest cheerleader,” Lebel says. “And he don’t give up.”

On Oct. 25, Lebel took a rare night off to celebrate her husband’s birthday. At the bar, Walker was sitting down near the cornhole board when gunman Robert Card walked in.

Lebel’s phone lit up. She read as far as “mass shooting.”

“I just stood up, and I said, ‘Joe’s dead,’” Lebel says. “Because I always knew how Joe was.”

According to witnesses, Walker tried to stop the shooter but was killed.

Hours later, Lebel posted a message on Facebook: “My heart is crushed.”

Lebel told herself: “I’m done. I quit. It’s over.” She didn’t even want to leave her house.

Eventually, though, she read some of the messages that were pouring in. They included questions about her plans from Lewiston’s deaf community, four of whom were killed at the bar while playing a cornhole tournament. She realized how much they wanted to return. Some of her relatives implored her not to let it end like this.

“I finally decided that I have to reopen,” Lebel says.

It will need to be at a new location to help erase the memory of that night, she said. She doesn’t know how long it will take.

But one thing is for sure: She’s keeping the name.

A FRESH LOOK FOR A NEW BEGINNING

Justin and Samantha Juray are further along with their plans to reopen Just-In-Time Recreation, the first place that Card opened fire. They have been ripping up floors, repainting, and putting in new seating.

“We’re just trying to change it a bit so that when people come in, it’s not a complete reminder of prior,” Samantha Juray says. “Or of the event.”

Juray says that at first, Justin was “dead set” against reopening.

“Within a week after, we knew that we had to reopen,” Juray says. “Because the community kept asking us, and we knew that everybody kind of needed it.”

They got support from the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America, which waived its annual fees, provided equipment upgrades and sent employees Christmas gift cards.

“We’re like Americana. A lot of small towns, we’re the place where everybody goes to hang out,” said Frank DeSocio, the association’s executive director.

Other businesses where mass shootings have occurred have taken various approaches afterward. In Aurora, Colorado, a movie theater where 12 people were killed in 2012 later reopened under a new name. The city of Orlando, Florida, last year agreed to buy the Pulse nightclub site to create a memorial to the 49 people killed there in 2016.

The Jurays hope to reopen in March or April. They also plan to keep the name. When they bought the bowling alley nearly three years ago, the owner was days away from shutting it down. Hence Just-In-Time, which also fit with Justin’s name.

“It was a place — or it is a place — where people get to come together, and spend time with friends and family, or create friends and family,” says Samantha Juray. “It’s a safe place.”

Two of their employees died in the shooting. The other 17 are all coming back, she says.

BULLETS WON’T KEEP TOM GIBERTI AWAY

One of those returning employees is 69-year-old Tom Giberti, who has worked at the bowling alley for 20 years and is credited with saving at least four children that night.

Giberti recalls that he had just grabbed a screwdriver and was working near the back of the bowling alley when he heard the shots, which he initially thought were bowling balls thudding into the back of the lanes. He saw the panic on people’s faces and the flashes from a gun muzzle.

“I ran up to the kids and I got behind them,” Giberti says. “And I and got them back through the door, and as I turned to go through the door is when he shot me.”

One bullet remains wedged behind his left knee. A second blew clean through the side of his right leg, somehow missing bones and arteries. Giberti says he also took shrapnel in both legs, as bowling balls and machinery exploded around him.

Despite having surgery, and then treatment for a subsequent infection, Giberti looked spritely as he walked around greeting friends at a concert in Lewiston this month that was organized by local musician Ken Goodman to raise money for the two businesses.

How is Giberti even walking?

“It’s amazing. I can’t tell you why,” he says. “I’ve seen what it did to the machinery. I’ve seen what it did to others. I don’t know. My legs should have been blown right off. Either one of them.”

Giberti says it took him a few visits before he could bring himself to go back to the area where he was shot. Now, he can’t wait for the reopening.

“I’m really excited for it,” Giberti says. “It’s going to be huge for the community.”

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Business owners thought they would never reopen after Maine’s deadliest shooting. Then support grew