The silence served as a surprising contrast.
Cars zoomed by on Sable Boulevard less than 20 feet away. In the Aurora Town Center parking lot across the street, a cramped city of mobile news vans and improvised remote studios had grown up in a matter of days. The eyes of the world had descended on this small strip of land surrounding the Century Aurora 16 theater, and the focus brought along plenty of commotion.
But near the traffic light at Sable and East Centrepoint Drive, a persistent sense of silence and reverence reigned. Early in the day July 22, Illinois resident Greg Zanis had set up 12 wooden crosses, simple white memorials that were almost 3 feet tall and each bore the name of a different victim, a separate life claimed in the chaos that erupted in the theater across the street in the early morning hours of July 20. He had done the same for the victims of Columbine.
Jamie Becker and Janet Wood could hardly bring themselves to point to the parking lot across the street, a space cordoned off by yellow police tape and patrol cars. The pair spoke from the dusty rise on the east side of Sable Boulevard July 22 on a stretch of undeveloped land that has transformed into hallowed ground.
One of the simple crucifixes bore the name of Becker’s and Wood’s friend: Rebecca Wingo. With a visible amount of effort and pain, they pointed to the empty theater parking lot across the street and singled out a Subaru station wagon.
“That’s hers. That’s her car,” Becker said, gesturing vaguely. “It’s awful. This was basically, in my opinion, a terrorist act of evil. It’s so much more personal.”
Wingo, 32, held her most recent post as a customer relations representative at a local mobile medical imaging company. She had also worked at the local Joe’s Crab Shack, and had lined up a post at Schryver Medical.
For Becker and Wood, Wingo’s life was much more than the posts that figured on her résumé. The pair came to visit the makeshift memorial on Sable and Centrepoint Drive mere hours after the 12 crosses had gone up, traveling from their home in Loveland to pay tribute to a woman and a mother, someone who’d played a key role in their lives. The pair visited the site before crowds started streaming to the Aurora Municipal Center a short distance away from the mass vigil Sunday night.
“We were introduced to her a couple of years ago. She was friends with my brother-in-law, Cody Schaffer … She introduced my brother to Cody. She officiated their wedding in Iowa, where it’s legal,” Becker recalled. “That’s when we met her.”
At 6 a.m. on July 20, Becker and Wood received calls at their home in Loveland from concerned relatives in New York. They saw the news reports. They took in the shocking details of the mass shooting at a theater in Aurora, and thought at first that all of their loved ones were safe.
“I called my brothers to make sure that they were OK, and that’s all we knew,” Becker said. “We didn’t find out until 4 p.m. that Rebecca was missing. We didn’t even know that she was here until 4 p.m. that night.”
Six hours later, they found out that she was one of the 12 casualties.
“She was full of life,” Wood said.
Immediately after, Becker added, “She was full of love. She believed in love.”
Visitors passed in silence and left messages scrawled in black magic marker on the 12 makeshift monuments. On the cross bearing Alex Sullivan’s name, someone had written, “You are another angel we will all look up to and pray to.” On the memorial for slain Air Force Sergeant Jesse Childress, someone had scrawled a tribute “to my brother in arms.” Hidden under the stuffed animals and toys that decorated the cross bearing the name of Veronica Moser-Sullivan, a simple memorial read, “rest in peace, baby girl.”
In the hours before the massive vigil that drew thousands to the Aurora Municipal Center, a steady stream of visitors trudged up the hill to pay their respects, passing the French television journalist and growing group of photographers that had set up near the sidewalk. Teenagers wearing Gateway High School bracelets and T-shirts stared disbelievingly at the cross dedicated to Alexander “AJ” Boik, a former football player who’d graduated from the school two months ago. They declined to offer names, but the pair offered spoken tributes to the former Gateway student who’d held dreams of becoming a teacher.
Kevin Vessels, an Aurora resident who had recently completed a documentary about mental illness, said he came to the memorial site as a community member first.
“I just wanted to give praise to those who lost their lives,” said Vessels, who placed a miniature baby carriage on the cross carrying Moser-Sullivan’s name. “We need to address mental health issues in this country or else this is going to keep happening.”
On the wooden cross that bore Wingo’s name, Becker and Wood had written a tribute in black magic marker, a message that echoed a recollection rooted in warmth, affection and light.
“You had the most beautiful smile, the kindest soul and the best spirit,” the message read. “You’ll be missed.”
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-449-9707