I still feel that Dave Perry sold me a bill of goods.
Perry, The Sentinel editor, ever kind and annoyingly unflappable, had just hired me to be an “arts and entertainment reporter” for The Sentinel. He and another editor had for some implausible reason saved a resume I’d submitted to be an intern at the outfit.
In the interview, we talked about favorite books, authors, playwrights and politics. Nursing a hangover from the night before, I feigned my way through the sit-down on Peoria Street. I think I even wore a tie.
“We’d love you to write more about music,” I remember Perry saying with that pesky sincerity.
“Amazing,” I remember thinking. “That sounds great.”
Cut to my second week on the job, when I got assigned to cover a beer festival in Denver.
“This is ridiculous,” I thought. “I cannot believe they are paying me for this stuff.”
What was not entirely articulated to me at my second-ever pitch meeting was that the festival wasn’t held solely as a weekend respite teeming with the latest in titillating suds. It was “A Night to Remember,” a gathering held at Four Mile Historic Park to honor the life of Alex Teves, one of the 12 people slain in the 2012 Aurora theater massacre.
The event was organized by Alex’s parents, Tom and Caren, and the owners at his local watering hole, Copper Kettle.
There’s still a slideshow of photos from the 2014 gathering on the website for Tom and Caren’s nonprofit organization, the Alex C Teves ACT Foundation. I can be seen wearing a blue t-shirt with greasy hair — undoubtedly un-shampooed — talking to one of the organizers. Always professional, I’m pretty sure I was wearing Birkenstock sandals.
I had no idea what I was doing there. This was not the “Almost Famous” tour bus bacchanalia I had envisioned when I was ostensibly afforded a job as a “music” writer.
Perry was a liar. Yes, there was music at this festival, but he was goading me to ask, like, serious and meaningful questions to a grieving mother. This was in a wholly different ZIP code than writing about the latest “Bright Eyes” album, an assignment that up until that point, had been perhaps the most meaningful in my abbreviated career.
I remember my eyes getting wet while talking to Caren that day, but repeatedly trying to blink them back to stasis so as not to smudge the quotes I’d scribbled on my first real reporter’s notebook.
Caren appreciated the ensuing story, and we kept in touch as 21st century people do in the following years — via Twitter. A year later, we had a long phone call in which she lamented how we had named her son’s killer despite her pleas not to do so in honor of the “no notoriety” movement.
The tears I was able to eschew at the park now appeared as a torrent. I wept after hanging up with Caren.
On paper, Alex and I weren’t at such different stages of our lives. He was 24 and had just graduated from the University of Denver when he was killed. I was 23 and still a somewhat recent grad from the same institution when I started covering his murderer’s trial at the Arapahoe County District Courthouse in 2015. I desperately didn’t want to disappoint or distance his mother with my coverage.
But I cannot underscore enough just how clueless I was in the greater galaxy of journalistic knowhow. Prior to pinch-hitting coverage for a few days of the seemingly interminable and devastating trial, I’d covered court only once for The Sentinel when reporter Brandon Johansson was out of town. I got summarily scolded for forgetting to write down the judge’s name. It was not my thing.
That summer, Johansson got tied up at precisely the wrong time — twice. After impeccably detailing the shooting, the aftermath, the memorials, the jury selection and the trial for some three years, he was unable to cover the day the verdict was read, and later the sentencing.
That left me, a dolt, to write up the biggest and most horrific story to ever get a dateline from this fair burg. I got word to head to the courthouse while working from an Aurora Panera Bread — the same building that once housed the Chuck E. Cheese where yet another one of the city’s mass shootings unfolded — in an Arcade Fire t-shirt and jeans. I was told “please tell me you have a change of clothes” before heading out. Luckily, I did.
Those afternoons were blurry amalgams of sorrow and ire and relief and pain, emotions that floated through my psyche but were quickly suppressed in an effort to just get some godforsaken copy down. I remember fixating on Sandy Phillips’ emerald shawl, an item I later learned belonged to her late daughter, Jessica Ghawi.
The magnitude of how I grappled with those sentiments was in no way comparable to what the likes of Sandy, Caren and Tom have felt, feel and will continue to feel, but they’re still there, somewhere in my mental mantle. They’ve persisted through the years of ensuing coverage on the memorials, the films, the civil litigation and the politicians that lingered and spun out of the tragedy.
It’s a funny thing, this journalism business. You ask — sometimes beg — people for candor, honesty and access, and yet for decades traditionalists have said to give nothing back. Say thank you, express empathy, but keep it all at an arm’s length and shuffle on to the next post in WordPress.
It’s not healthy or sustainable, and yet it’s the way the industry, if you can call it that anymore, hums. I think it’s changing. I hope it is.
I was but a microbial observer of the fallout from that day in July of 2012, though I know I’ll remember those courtroom wails and scowls and stares for a lifetime. The three-year mark, the five-year mark and now the 10-year anniversary of such loss are merely numbers. The anguish persists, and the stings keep coming with each new barrage of bullets across this bifurcated land.
By virtue of my position on the masthead of Aurora’s local paper, I got swallowed into the unholy sorority of souls and communities convulsed by gun-related cataclysm. That most unenviable list has grown nightmarishly long in the decade since the Century 16 attack, though I know the scrolls of names will only grow.
I haven’t spoken to Caren in years, but I deeply hope she’s able to scratch out some semblance of solace this July, somehow. So send her some well wishes — she once told me “well wishes means so much. Thanks, Quincy,” when I’d clumsily attempted to offer some warmth. To my jaded surprise, it turns out people indeed appreciate that stuff.
Well wishes, Caren.
Quincy Snowdon was a reporter for
Sentinel Colorado for several years, covering education, politics, city hall, police and court beats during his tenure.