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At shooter’s sentencing, families of fallen Capital Gazette staffers and survivors tell of flashbacks, closure and enduring pain

Families and victims speak outside the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County after sentencing of Capital Gazette gunman.

Roughly three years, three months and a couple of days ago, Summerleigh Geimer got a text message from her mother, Wendi Winters, thanking her for a celebratory birthday dinner.

It was late on a Wednesday night and Geimer decided to wait until after work the next day, June 28, 2018, to respond. But she never got the chance.

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“I was only 20 years old, fresh into my career, and felt the naive notion that I would always have more time,” Geimer told a judge through tears Tuesday at a sentencing hearing for the man who killed her mom and four of Winters’ Capital Gazette colleagues — Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith — in a mass shooting at the Annapolis newsroom.

The youngest of four, Geimer recalled in court having to grow up as she performed the awful duty of telling her brother and sisters, all stationed around the globe as members of the Navy, that their mother had been killed. Alone, she crawled into a closet to call them from the reunification center at a department store of the Annapolis mall. The massacre thrust the grief of Geimer, her siblings and a group of other victims’ loved ones into the spotlight.

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“Over the past three years, I’ve had to refer to my mother by her full name, Wendi Winters,” Geimer said. “But to me, then and now, she was my Mommy, or Mom.”

One by one, those who survived the shooting and families of the fallen stepped up to a courtroom podium and tried to find words to describe their loss and how their lives have been altered. Their victim impact statements told of the enduring trauma of that day, the trauma of hiding while a shooter ended co-workers’ lives, and the trauma of being told their loved ones died.

This photo combination shows the victims of the shooting in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette. (Top row, from left) Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman, Rebecca Smith, (bottom row, from left) John McNamara and Wendi Winters.
This photo combination shows the victims of the shooting in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette. (Top row, from left) Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman, Rebecca Smith, (bottom row, from left) John McNamara and Wendi Winters.

Oz San Felice, the mother of survivor Selene San Felice, said the text she received from her daughter, hiding under a desk during the shooting, is ingrained in her and her husband’s minds.

Rachael Pacella, who was injured and hid between filing cabinets during the shooting, said her post-traumatic stress disorder flares up when she sits in certain uncomfortable places.

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Cindi Rittenour, the younger sister of Rebecca Smith, remembered finding out about the shooting and her sister’s death hours after clocking out of her waitressing shift.

The 12-day trial this summer was damaging for them, too. It featured surveillance video of Jarrod Ramos blasting through the glass newsroom doors with a pump-action shotgun, images of where the five victims died and police body camera video of the gunman’s capture. Six survivors testified in vivid detail what happened and what they felt that day. Psychiatrists detailed Ramos’ disturbing thoughts.

“I lay in bed each night with crime scene pictures of her body flashing across the theater in my mind,” Geimer told the judge. “As I fall asleep, I walk myself through her office over and over, feverishly attempting to reclaim the memories of my joyous visits, which are now double exposed in my mind with first responder footage.”

Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Michael Wachs brought to a conclusion the shooter’s three-year legal saga, sentencing him to six terms of life in prison, five without the possibility of parole, plus 345 more years behind bars — all to be served consecutively. It is a solace for families and survivors, and an opportunity to close a yearslong chapter of public grieving while the gunman’s fate remained to be determined.

After briefly speaking about each victim and acknowledging each survivor, Wachs read the sentence. The survivors and families of the fallen seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief as Ramos was led from the courtroom in handcuffs.

“I hope we don’t have to come back here and do any of this ever again,” Montana Geimer, another of Winters’ daughters, said outside the courtroom.

While Geimer said she’ll miss the support of the survivors and other family members who bonded over the trauma, “I feel like we’ve reached the point where we can move on as families and grieve as a family unit.”

As Montana Geimer told Wachs, it’s hard not to think about the pain she and her siblings have endured.

“It’s a cruel punishment that I’ll never get to tell her that I love her,” Geimer said.

For Rittenour, the sentence hadn’t quite set in Tuesday afternoon. After three years of shuttling back and forth to court to sit through tough hearings, she wondered what to do now.

“It’s gonna take a little bit of time, but it’s like I can finally start the healing process to move forward, which is what I’ve wanted all along,” Rittenour said.

She told Wachs she always sought to make her older sister proud and that won’t change. “I don’t want to give up on that because she’s not physically here with me now.”

The sense of relief, justice and closure Janel Cooley felt after the sentencing is marked with an asterisk, she said, because “the wound will always be there.” She survived the shooting by escaping from the newsroom.

“I don’t think there’s ever going to be any closure,” said Paul Gillespie, a Capital photographer who survived the shooting. “I mean, I lost five of my family members and I was almost killed myself. It’s something that haunts me every day.”

The pain persists for the families of the fallen as they celebrate milestones without their closest confidants. Hiaasen’s widow, Maria Hiaasen, remembered how they set up a table with her late husband’s photos for her son’s wedding.

“This October, I’m going to be a grandmother and Rob is not here to see Kathryn come into the world. That is the gift that keeps on giving,” Maria Hiaasen told Wachs. “As much as we keep moving and striving to make meaning of our lives, that is the reality of our lives.”

Outside of court, she put sentencing in perspective.

“You tell yourself you should feel better. But the reality is, it’s tough to be a part of this unfortunate club,” Maria Hiaasen said.

For her youngest child, Hannah Hiaasen, Father’s Day is forever marred. In 2018, Hannah had come home a week before the holiday to spend quality time with dad. Now, it’s just another reminder that he’s not here. Hannah hopes to find some comfort in Rob Hiaasen’s words, written in a journal he wrote for Hannah, like he did for all his children. In court, Hannah quoted from the last page.

“I suppose I wanted this to be a written record of how much I love you, and how we passed a few of these days. We passed them with work, play and love … Hey — give me a call, you know I would love to hear from my tall, strong, creative girl. I love you, Dad,” Rob Hiaasen wrote.

As she sought to clear out some of her late husband’s things, Erica Fischman, Gerald Fischman’s widow, left his home library untouched: The collection of books organized by the Dewey Decimal System serves as a reminder of her intelligent, romantic and punctual husband, she told Wachs. It’s been gut-wrenching to let go.

Last week, she took photos of him off a wall. She stored his clothes and sold his car. At the car dealership, she rushed to the bathroom and wept.

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“Every time I give away one of my husband’s things,” Fischman said, “I feel like I lose him piece by piece.”

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Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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