Aurora debates what to do with theater shooting site

AURORA, Colo. — As a shattered community mourns its dead and struggles to move on, a thorny question faces the people of Aurora: What should be done with the site of one of the worst mass shootings in the nation’s history?

For some, the pain is too raw, and they want the Century 16 movie theater razed. Others say that tearing down the building would be a victory for the shooter who opened fire at a packed screening.

There is no easy answer. When mass killings occur in public spaces — Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson — communities must balance honoring the dead with the business of carrying on with life.


A makeshift memorial has taken shape on a dusty lot within sight of the theater, which is still cordoned off with crime scene tape. The growing piles of offerings — flowers, candles, teddy bears, Bibles — reach nearly halfway up 12 white crosses hammered into the dirt.

JoEllen Stotts, who visited the site with her granddaughter, suggested the theater be torn down and a park be built with a memorial wall honoring those who were there that night, living and dead, and those who came to their aid. “This is something that can’t just disappear and go into the shadows,” she said.

Many here say they can’t imagine stepping inside the building again. Taylor Holzman, Stotts’ granddaughter, used to see movies there a couple of times a week. “I can’t even look at it now, let alone go sit in there,” she said.

Others would like the theater to reopen. “I think John would want that,” said Karen Lavin, whose nephew, 27-year-old John Larimer, was among the 12 killed on July 20. “He was a huge movie buff and had amazing recall of lines from everything from ‘Princess Bride’ to ‘Harry Potter.’ … Maybe a small memorial outside the theater with the names of the victims would be nice.”

Some locals, noting the Century 16 is a popular gathering spot and source of needed jobs, envision reopening most of the multiplex but not Theater 9, where 10 people died. As Stephanie Swanson, another visitor to the memorial, put it: “To go there, in my eyes, is kind of like dancing on people’s graves.”

Officials at Cinemark, which owns the Century 16, declined to discuss their plans for the theater.

Battlefields and sites that embody cherished ideals, such as bravery and self-sacrifice, have long been preserved. What has changed, said Kenneth Foote, a University of Colorado-Boulder geography professor, is how society marks the sites of senseless violence. In the past, communities often tried to wipe out all traces of such crimes.

“They’re so shocking and shameful that people wanted to remove evidence they happened,” said Foote, who wrote the book “Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy.”

These days the question often isn’t whether the dead will be memorialized, but how. “This is the last place these people were alive, so that’s very powerful,” Foote said.

As with the site of the World Trade Center, choosing a tribute can be a lengthy and contentious process. When Greg Zanis, an Illinois man behind the Aurora crosses, erected a similar memorial for victims of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in nearby Littleton, he received angry calls for including crosses for the two young killers.

Zanis took down the memorial, but other Coloradans begged him to reconsider. He returned 13 crosses — for the 12 students and one teacher killed — to their original spot and found a new site for the shooters’ crosses. “After all,” he said at the time, “they have families who mourn them too.”

After some debate, the idea of tearing down the school was rejected. “Many people felt that if we destroyed Columbine High School, then the two murderers had won,” said Principal Frank DeAngelis, who walked out of his office that day into a hail of gunfire.

The library where many of the killings occurred was sealed off with drywall and lockers, but DeAngelis knew from personal experience that would not be enough. When he first walked into the building, he got chills and felt nauseated.

A committee, which included victims’ families, decided to convert the library and cafeteria below it into an atrium-like open space with a giant ceiling mural of aspen trees and 13 clouds.

A new library was built, and a formal memorial was created in a nearby park where Zanis erected those first crosses. With each senior class’ parting gift — a stained-glass window, a clock — the look and feel of Columbine continues to evolve. “We wanted to make sure the school did not become a memorial,” DeAngelis said.

Victims’ families were also consulted about the two buildings at Virginia Tech where 32 people were killed in a 2007 shooting.

The university reopened Norris Hall, which includes classrooms, labs and offices. But the second floor, where many died, was converted into a Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention. A residence hall where others died was already scheduled for a major renovation, now underway.

Virginia Tech’s first memorial evolved from a spontaneous expression of grief.

On the evening after the shooting, students hauled 32 pieces of limestone from a construction site near campus, the same “Hokie stone” used in many campus buildings, and placed them in a semicircle on the drill field. University spokesman Mark Owczarski called the area the “geographic and spiritual center of campus.”

The university replaced them with more permanent stones, adding landscaping and walkways. “We didn’t go through a process of committees and what do people think — frankly, it just felt right,” Owczarski said.

Each community, it seems, finds its own way. A monument and a satellite campus of Southwestern College now stand on the site of a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, Calif., where a gunman killed 21 people in 1984. In 2006, the Amish community in Nickel Mines, Pa., tore down the one-room schoolhouse where a milk truck driver killed five girls. Custom encourages the Amish to forgive and not dwell in sadness. The site was left an open field.

In Tucson in January, a small memorial was unveiled outside the Safeway store where a gunman fired into a crowd waiting to meet then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. It is made up of a boulder, with a plaque, encircled by six smaller rocks, one for each person killed.

Patricia Maisch, who grabbed a magazine of bullets from the gunman, said she pauses at the rocks and takes two or three deep breaths every time she shops there. The community has been debating where a larger monument might go.

For Maisch, the “greatest memorial” is the kinship she feels with other survivors. But she also is particularly touched by what she calls “living memorials” — foundations and community groups set up by victims and their families.

Jordan Ghawi, who lost his 24-year-old sister, Jessica, in the Aurora shooting, said his family planned to create a foundation to support aspiring female sports journalists like her.

“Some sort of tangible memorial is not as necessary for me,” he said. “We’re suffering and a lot of Colorado is too. But we can’t expect people to put their lives on hold. This is about moving forward and remembering.”