'Wendi Winters saved my life': Capital Gazette staff say their fallen colleague charged the shooter

Danielle Ohl
Contact Reporterdohl@capgaznews.com

When a man with a shotgun shattered the glass door of the Capital Gazette newspaper office and began to shoot, Wendi Winters stood up.

Weeks before the June 28 attack in Annapolis, Winters had taken active shooter training at her church, where a police officer presented the options: Run if you can run. Hide if you can hide. Fight only if you must.

Winters fought.

Janel Cooley, a survivor of the shooting that killed Winters and four others, spoke about her experience for the first time in an interview with The Capital. She said she watched from under her desk as the 20-year newspaper veteran rose to meet her attacker.

Winters charged forward holding a trash can and recycling bin, said Cooley, a sales consultant. Winters shouted something like, “No! You stop that!” or “You get out of here!” like she was warding off an unwanted dog.

“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.”

Winters’ colleagues agree she saved their lives. Of the 11 employees in the office during the attack, six survived.

But the training shouldn’t get all the credit — not according to those who knew Winters.

Winters once gave fellow reporter Rachael Pacella the shirt off her back when Pacella spilled gasoline on her clothes before an important interview. She checked in on photojournalist Paul W. Gillespie incessantly after his brother died. Intern Anthony Messenger, who started at The Capital weeks before the attack, said Winters always tried to make him feel comfortable.

From the details her family has of the attack, Winters’ son Phoenix Geimer said, “It sounds like her.”

“She’s got four kids — she’s not going to take it from anyone,” he said.

Winters was defending her home away from home, said the Rev. John Crestwell, Winters’ pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis. “That was Wendi.”

When Cooley heard the wall-shaking bang that began the attack, she was the only sales representative in the office. She was about to leave for a meeting in Baltimore, wrapping up a call with a client. Most of the sales staff had already left for their meetings.

She saw an intruder with a gun and dropped to the floor, where she heard Winters confront the shooter and heard the weapon fire. After the attacker passed her, Cooley was able to run from her hiding spot and out of the building.

Gillespie heard Winters yell a defiant “No!” from his hiding place a few steps away. Reporters Phil Davis and Pacella didn’t see Winters charge, but they saw her body in the newsroom walkway, not at her usual seat. Messenger saw the same.

The gunman killed Winters and four others — editor Rob Hiaasen, editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, editor and sports writer John McNamara and sales assistant Rebecca Smith. Jarrod Ramos, a man with a longtime grudge against the paper, has been charged in their deaths.

Anne Arundel County Police Lt. Ryan Frashure declined to comment on Winters’ actions during shooting, citing the ongoing investigation.

Cpl. Jim Shiloh told trainees at the Unitarian Universalist session Winters attended that creating a distraction could buy time for others. Police use the “run, hide, fight” training nationwide, said Frashure, a police spokesman. The Anne Arundel County Police Department began sharing active shooter training on Facebook after the San Bernardino shooting on Dec. 2, 2015.

If a threat is imminent and people are dying, Frashure said, anything — a fire extinguisher, a stapler, a trash can — can be used as a deterrent.

Winters bought time for Pacella, Davis and Messenger, they said, who were at their desks toward the back of the newsroom when the shooting started. Pacella hid under her desk. Messenger grabbed his keys and headed for the back door, which was barricaded, and then hid. Davis looked toward the crashing glass, then hit the floor.

Davis has a snapshot in his mind of everyone where they were when the gunman blasted in, he said. Winters was originally at her desk. Messenger said he remembers seeing Winters there with a puzzled look on her face as the attack began.

As Pacella and Davis hid, they heard the same shots Cooley did. Then there was a pause. They thought it was over.

The pause, Davis said, could have been Winters intervening. It gave Pacella time to get up from under her desk, run for the back door and then hide between filing cabinets.

“I think that Wendi doing what she did served as enough of a distraction that maybe he didn’t see us,” Pacella said. “I absolutely think that Wendi Winters saved my life.”

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