AURORA | A decade ago, Heather Dearman and her family released balloons on the Aurora Great Lawn in honor of her 6-year-old cousin Veronica Moser-Sullivan, who was killed in the Aurora theater shooting along with 11 other victims.
On Saturday, Dearman and other survivors and victims from that night returned to the Great Lawn for a memorial ceremony. First responders, victims, politicians and others shared their memories of that day and praised the strength that Aurora has shown in the years that followed.
After the shooting, “Aurora really showed up for one another,” Dearman said. But “it wasn’t the shooting that made us tough and gave us the strength to carry on, it was our resilience that did that.”
The speakers were intentionally selected from people who played an important role in the initial response to the shooting. Pastor Reid Hettich, who was chair of the Aurora Community of Faith 10 years ago, started the event with a prayer. He asked for continued healing for victims and survivors and the determination to avoid these kinds of tragedies going forward.
Dan Oates, the current interim police chief of the Aurora Police Department and chief at the time of the shooting, said that all 126 officers on duty that night responded to the shooting. In the chaos of that night he praised the officers for taking many victims to the hospital in their patrol cars, all of whom he said survived.
Policing is difficult work and there are many things officers see that contribute to a loss of innocence, Oates said. But the shooting was “the worst event of all of our lives.”
Many speakers reflected on the fact that catastrophic mass shootings have only continued in the years since, traumatizing more communities across the nation and bringing back painful memories for people in Aurora.
Oates said that every time another shooting enters the news, he knows that people in Aurora are victimized again and “filled with anguish” for the people who are now going through what the city experienced in 2012.
Kirsten Anderson was a child psychologist at the Aurora Mental Health Center at the time, where she was also in charge of directing disaster response. She declined to focus on how the center responded to the shooting, instead praising the survivors for their courage over the years.
“When I think of 7/20…I think of you,” she said.
Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper was present at the memorial, along with Sen. Michael Bennet, Rep. Jason Crow and Attorney General Phil Weiser, and many local officials.
Hickenlooper was governor at the time and spent the weekend following the shooting visiting victims in the hospital with late Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan. He remembers the two being shown a handheld video of the crime scene by Aurora police.
“Those images still haunt me to this day,” he said.
He praised Colorado for being the first “purple” state to pass gun safety legislation in the aftermath, which he said was a direct response to the shooting. Though no legislation will be able to bring back victims, he said it was important that their memories spurred action.
“They deserved to be able to go out on a summer night to see a movie,” he said.
Multiple speakers praised Hogan’s leadership during the shooting. Hogan was a long-time city council representative and served as Aurora’s mayor from 2011 until his death from cancer in 2018. His widow, Becky Hogan, helped plan the memorial.
“Mayor Hogan always did what was right and not what was expedient,” said former city manager Skip Noe.
After her son A.J. Boik was killed in the Aurora theater shooting, Theresa Hoover said she couldn’t imagine making it through the next 10 minutes, let alone the following 10 years.
For her, the decade has been marked by “missed firsts, missed birthdays, missed graduations” and many other events that A.J. should have been at. But through her faith, it’s also brought growth and a measure of peace, she said.
The loudest cheers came for Joshua Nowlan, who was shot and seriously injured in the theater. In the years after the attack, Nowlan said he struggled with serious physical and psychological wounds.
“For a long time, I felt like I was stuck in Theater Nine and would never get out,” he said.
Once an extrovert, the attack turned him into a recluse who was haunted by survivor’s guilt and depression. Unconditional love from family and friends and the support of a trauma therapist who treated him for PTSD eventually helped him to improve. His attorney arranged for him to have a visit back to Theater Nine while it was under construction.
“I stared into the abyss and said, ‘You did not take my life. You did not destroy me. I am a survivor.’ And that was a huge turning point,” Nowlan said.
After years of pain, he made the decision to have his left leg amputated so that he could move forward with his life. Post-surgery, he got involved in Crossfit and went on to run, climb a mountain and dance at his wedding. He said the shooting forced him to decide whether to be a product of his circumstances or his actions.
“The circumstance was death, the decision was life,” he said. “I chose life.”
Nowlan’s co-worker Seneka Landers, who held a sign with the words “Colorado Strong” and her husband, Joe, were two of the more than 100 people who gathered for the memorial. Those present ranged from Aurora locals to people who were in town for a vacation and wanted to pay their respects.
Amanda Wilcox, who works for Brady United for Gun Violence, was in Aurora for the first time for the memorial. She and her husband live in Golden now, but in 2001 the family lived in Northern California when her 19-year-old daughter Laura was killed in a mass shooting.
The tragedy spurred Wilcox’s involvement in gun safety activism, and the passage of a California law named after her daughter. She came to the memorial to show support for the Aurora community, which she praised for its resilience.
“Each anniversary is tough, but particularly the tenth,” she said.