Advertisement

Taking back control: A year later, Capital Gazette shooting survivors putting their lives, hearts back together

Taking back control: A year later, Capital Gazette shooting survivors putting their lives, hearts back together
Karen Denny, Capital News Service Annapolis bureau chief (left), hugs Capital Gazette reporter Selene San Felice after returning memorials and condolence letters that had been sent from around the world following last year's shooting. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

The fear is there but abating. The anxiety has calmed but still flares unpredictably. The compassion for others has increased, but so has hesitancy around strangers. The sense of a common bond is stronger than ever, and for some that is what keeps them going.

On June 28, 2018, a man with a grudge and a gun shot his way into the Annapolis offices of the Capital Gazette newspapers and killed five people. One year later, the co-workers who were left behind — especially those who were in the office, for whom images of the shooter and the ensuing carnage are seared forever into their psyches — wrestle with the tragedy. They lost friends, people they worked alongside and hung out with after hours. They survived the sort of mass shooting journalists are too often forced to write about these days.

Advertisement

All are determined to wrest back control of their lives to whatever degree they can, if only as a show of defiance — a refusal to let events, no matter how horrific, transform who they are. But inescapably, things are different.

“It’s definitely changed me,” says Janel Cooley, 43, a sales rep who was one of six people inside the Capital office to survive the shooting. “There’s my life before June 28, and there’s my life after.” Agrees photographer Paul Gillespie, 49, also one of the six, “I’m definitely a different person today because of what happened a year ago.”

In the days and weeks following the shooting, the remaining Capital staff — augmented by reporters and editors from parent company Baltimore Sun Media, as well as journalists from newspapers all over the country — faced several imperatives. They memorialized and laid to rest their murdered co-workers: editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, 61; assistant editor and columnist Rob Hiaasen, 59; sports writer and editor John McNamara, 56; sales assistant Rebecca Smith, 34; and community correspondent and head of special publications Wendi Winters, 65.

They continued to put the paper out every day, both because that was their job and because it gave them something to focus on. “What the hell else were we going to do?” asks veteran reporter E.B. “Pat” Furgurson, 64, who had stopped for lunch on his way into work after doctors’ appointments that afternoon, and thus was not in the Bestgate Road offices on the worst day in the paper’s 250-year-plus history.

And they started the process of healing, of moving past the horrific to something approaching normalcy. Not that they expect the emotional and psychic wounds to ever heal completely — “Oh God, no, that’s not the case,” says another of the six, reporter Phil Davis, 30, putting into words a sentiment they all share. “I doubt that anyone’s going to say that they’ve completely tackled every aspect of the way that it affects them.”

Former Capital Gazette reporter Phil Davis is now a reporter on The Baltimore Sun's emerging news desk.
Former Capital Gazette reporter Phil Davis is now a reporter on The Baltimore Sun's emerging news desk. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

Says editor Rick Hutzell, who was vacationing in Ocean City when the shooting occurred and quickly returned to Annapolis, “By and large, it’s a very young group of people. They’ve demonstrated not only incredible professional skill, but also incredible maturity. They’ve been able to deal with a thing that not many 23, 24, 25-year-olds have to. ...They’ve dealt with it well on some days, and not so well on others.”

Their work and their resilience have not gone unnoticed. The Capital Gazette staff were among those journalists named Time’s Person of the Year in December, honoring “The Guardians and the War on Truth.” The Pulitzer Prize Board this spring awarded a special citation to the staff “for demonstrating unflagging commitment to covering the news and serving their community at a time of unspeakable grief.”

But in fact, talking about that grief has been key for the survivors of the shooting. Of them, four have been diagnosed with various degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder, the same condition affecting many combat veterans, and five are still in therapy. (The sixth survivor, newsroom intern Anthony Messenger, could not be reached for this article.) Having someone to talk to, to put things in perspective and validate their feelings, to prescribe medication if they need it and offer an understanding ear when that will do, has been invaluable.

I want to be the paper where we picked ourselves up and became something greater than we ever could have been.


Share quote & link

“Honestly, I don’t know where I would be without it,” says Cooley, who’s been in trauma therapy for 11 months and is still seeing a therapist in Baltimore County. “She just is able to validate what I’m feeling, piece things together. … It’s definitely a safe space to talk about it, and it validates that there’s no real time frame to get over something like this.”

Says Selene San Felice, 23, another reporter who was in the room when the gunman opened fire, “Since I’ve been on medication, every day’s just a little bit better. But it took me an entire year to be able to sleep in my house by myself and get a full night’s rest.”

There are moments that send anxiety levels spiking. San Felice remembers sleeping at her parents’ house when she had a nightmare, saw the shooter’s face and heard a gunshot — imagined, but she woke up with a start, unsure whether the gun had gone off in her dream or in the house. She locked herself in a bathroom, then called her dad to make sure he was OK.

“I come out of the room, and I’m just crying so hard,” she says. “It's just these things that happen because I’m at my most vulnerable because I’m alone, or I’m going to sleep. That's when it really hits.”

Advertisement

For Davis, who transferred to The Sun in March, an unfamiliar beep-beep over his new workplace’s PA system was among the “skittish moments here and there.” Cooley heard a transformer blow right above her head while she was walking her dog, “and I freaked out. Again. That’s what it sounded like.”

Advertisement

Rachael Pacella, 28, another reporter in the room when the shooting occurred, says an event as mundane as a routine government meeting, the meat-and-potatoes of every news reporter’s job, can morph into something uncomfortable.

“There were some things right after the shooting that I had a lot of trouble with,” she says. “Public meetings for some reason were really hard. I think it was a combination of — people are fighting a little bit, they’re probably not agreeing on something, and there’s a lot of people. … I would spend a lot of my time, when I was supposed to be paying attention to a meeting, instead sort of thinking about how I could get out, or what it would be like if another shooting occurred.”

Even those who weren’t in the room when the shooting took place have had to deal with the stress of being so close to what happened and the weight of those emotions. Reporter Danielle Ohl, 24, came back from a vacation on the Outer Banks and jumped right into covering the shootings’ aftermath — including the pretrial motions and hearings of 39-year-old Jarrod W. Ramos, the Laurel man accused of being the shooter, who has pleaded not criminally responsible.

“It’s harder to write now. It’s harder just to do certain stories,” she says, noting that it doesn’t always matter what the story is about. “I can’t exactly explain why. It’s like sometimes my brain is just resistant. … Sometimes, it’s just kind of, ‘This is how I woke up this morning.’ ”

Capital Gazette reporter Rachael Pacella at the Potter's Guild in Baltimore.
Capital Gazette reporter Rachael Pacella at the Potter's Guild in Baltimore. (Chris Kaltenbach / Baltimore Sun)

How to move on? For some, change is the answer, something new to focus on. Pacella cut her hair and took up pottery; she’s in her fourth 12-week semester of classes. San Felice sports a “big ass” tattoo on her right arm — five flowers and a pen, in honor of her fallen colleagues.

Gillespie, who admits that “my life’s become all about distractions, finding things to keep me from thinking about what I think about when it’s just me and my thoughts,” found an outlet in the skills that have made him an award-winning photojournalist. Setting up a small studio in the basement of his northern Anne Arundel County home, he began taking pictures of his co-workers, as well as the families of those who died in the shooting. The by turns sad and defiant results can be found in “Journalists Matter: Faces of the Capital Gazette,” an online photo gallery Gillespie set up, with hopes of turning it into a book and organizing an exhibit in the Annapolis area.

“I needed something to do that was a productive, creative outlet, instead of just wasting time,” he says. “My PTSD and depression were bad. The project, while I was doing the bulk of the photography and the editing and the toning of the images, that really helped.”

All have been reflecting, at times prodded by the steady stream of news outlets that ask for interviews. “I try to be a more outwardly optimistic person now,” says Pacella, consciously rebelling against the pessimism one might expect. “Now that I’ve survived this bad situation, it does help me have a lot more empathy when other tragedies arise.”

San Felice has become even more determined to make a career as a journalist — ideally as a Capital Gazette journalist. “I want to get as much power as I can to further this paper, to further the legacy of this paper beyond ‘the paper where the shooting was.’ I want to be the paper where we picked ourselves up and became something greater than we ever could have been.”

And this group has one another’s backs, displaying the sort of band-of-brothers mentality that soldiers talk about during, and after, a war.

“It brought every single person together,” says Pacella. Adds Gillespie, “I definitely feel bonded with the people that were there. I felt sad when Phil [Davis] left, and I’ll feel sad when the other reporters move on to their new jobs.”

One last thing they all agree on: This one incident, no matter how terrible, how scarring, will not define them.

“The day after it happened, I didn’t know if my parents were ever going to let me out of their house,” says San Felice, whose mom and dad have always been protective. “But both of them basically said, ‘If you don’t go back to work, he wins. This is what people are fighting against, and you just being there is taking a stand.’ ”

Sums up a defiant Davis, “I’ve tried to stay relatively the same as I’ve always been. It’s kind of an f— you to the shooter — ‘You’re not going to change me just because you did something horrific.’ ”

Advertisement
Advertisement