Wendi Winters lived for 65 years. Her life was filled with her four adult children and Girl Scout cookies. It was a life with room for her Teen of the Week column for the Capital Gazette newspaper and sarcastic quips for her friends. It included the church youth groups she led, and her devotion to the U.S. Naval Academy and the American Red Cross, where she donated 11 gallons of blood since 1999.
But chances are it’s the last seconds of Winters’ life that most people will remember.
“On Thursday June 28 my mom picked up a trash can and a recycling bin,” Phoenix Geimer, 28, told the crowd attending his mother’s memorial service. “She charged at the coward who shot her in the chest as she rushed him, slowing him down and giving the police time to arrive …. She gave her heart, her last breath and her final eight pints of blood in defense of a free press and of her family at The Capital...
“My mom was an American hero.”
Winters was among five Capital Gazette staffers who were fatally shot that day. The others were Rob Hiaasen, 59; Gerald Fischman, 61; John McNamara, 56; and Rebecca Smith, 34.
The Capital Gazette is owned by the Baltimore Sun Media Group.
Jarrod W. Ramos, 38, of Laurel, who had a long-running feud with the newspaper, is being held on five counts of first-degree murder.
Winters’ memorial service was originally scheduled to be held at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, where she was a tireless volunteer. But so many people wanted to bid her farewell that the ceremony was moved to the 725-seat Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.
Even then, Saturday’s service was standing room only. The Rev. John T. Crestwell Jr., who said that Winters was instrumental in getting him hired as the church’s associate minister, said that more than 900 people jammed into the auditorium.
The American Red Cross handed out small tissue packets to the mourners and they were heavily used. Throughout three hours of reminiscences and music (including the gospel anthem “We Shall Overcome” and an excerpt from Dvorak’s 9th Symphony performed by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians), the crinkle of cellophane could be heard as the packets were surreptitiously unwrapped.
Yumi Hogan, the first lady of Maryland, spoke at the ceremony, saying that she met Winters in the summer of 2016. Winters was interviewing her about recent redecorating at Government House for her Home of the Week column, and that the two connected over their shared love of design.
Hogan turned to Winters’ four children — Winters, Phoenix, Montana and Summerleigh Geimer — and said: “You are not alone. It’s hard to believe that you’ll never see her again. But she can see you.”
On a lighter note, Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley told the crowd that he was frequently mystified by Winters’ ability to seemingly cover every single event that occurred inside city limits.
“I actually thought the Capital newspaper had cloned her,” he said. “I could never understand how one person could be in so many places on the same day. I’m sure she’s done a story about every person in this room.”
The crowd laughed, only to pull out tissues again as other speakers reflected on the tragedy.
“I’ve always thought of sparks of light as a flock of inveterate gossips or better yet the journalists of the galaxy,” said Leika Lewis-Cornwell of the Unitarian church, as she lit the memorial candle. “They are tiny sparks tearing across the dark expanse to tell us what’s happening on the other side.”
Winters Geimer spoke of her mother’s longstanding hatred of firearms.
“When I was little, we were not allowed to have toy guns,” she said. “It didn’t matter if it was a squirt gun or a pop gun, it was banned from our house.”
In 1995, she said, the family was living in Montclair, N.J. The local post office was an easy walk, and Wendi Winters visited so often she was on a first-name basis with clerks Ernie Spruill and Scott Walensky. On March 22 of that year, a former employee opened fire, killing four — including Spruill and Walensky — and injuring a fifth worker.
“This event impacted my mom deeply,” Winters Geimer said. “She didn’t visit the new post office regularly and she began to buy stamps in books instead of as needed. She kept a photograph of the post office memorial above her desk at home. The picture is still there.”
Because Winters was the consummate reporter, organizers of her memorial service made sure to take care of details that they knew would have been important to her: The service started on time, at noon on the dot. A media kit distributed to reporters in advance included speaker biographies, the ages of the Geimer children, a timeline for the service and the correct spellings of everyone’s names.
Summerleigh Geimer, 20, described a recent dinner date at which her mom modeled a new sundress with black and white stripes that was topped by a red sweater. When her daughter didn’t immediately grasp the similarities between her attire and a newspaper, Winters spelled it out.
“She said, ‘I’m black and white and read all over,’” Summerleigh Geimer said.
Several Capital Gazette journalists attended the service. Reporter Rachael Pacella, who was injured in the attack, was visibly shaken in the moments before the ceremony began. She stood in a room on the second floor, braced her arms against a fixture, closed her eyes and remained motionless for several seconds. “I just need a second to pull myself together,” she said.
In an interview with the Capital Gazette, Janel Cooley, a sales consultant with the newspaper who had not spoken previously about the attack, described watching from beneath her desk as Winters rose to meet her attacker.
“She may have distracted him enough that he forgot about me, because I definitely stood up and was looking at the door,” Cooley said. “I’m sure he wasn’t expecting … anyone to charge him.”
“I absolutely think that Wendi Winters saved my life,” Pacella said.
None of Winters’ children were surprised that she’d tried to confront the gunman. Not only had she recently completed a course in how to behave in an active shooting situation, it wasn’t the first time she’d refused to be bullied by an armed attacker.
During an interview after the memorial service, Winters Geimer said that when her mother was a college student in Richmond, Va., a would-be robber entered the retail store where the the 6-foot tall young woman held a part-time job.
“The man pulled out a knife,” Winters Geimer said. “She grabbed him from behind, picked him up and shook him and held him until police arrived.”
Geimer said it was in her mother’s nature to stand up for the office mates she considered “her ducklings.”
Sofie Biondi told mourners that Winters had scheduled an interview with her at 1 p.m. on June 28 in the Capital Gazette Office. Biondi, 18, was scheduled to be Winters’ next Teen of the Week. Winters told the excited young woman that she’s been selected because of her commitment to social justice. Both Biondi and Winters had participated in the March For Our Lives in Washington earlier this year that advocated for tighter gun control laws. They also discussed the February massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida that left 17 people dead.
“We bonded over our shared experience,” Biondi said.
“I could have carried on a conversation with her for hours. But, by 2 o’clock she wrapped up my interview. We took a few pictures and a short video outside and she walked me to my car. She said, ‘Goodbye. Take care.’”
At 2:33 p.m., the gunman shot through the glass door of the Capital Gazette newsroom.