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Colorado shooting memorial filled with signs of grief, healing

Mourners in Aurora, Colo., find heartfelt, handwritten messages convey more power than anything they try to post on the Internet.

August 02, 2012|By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
  • Poignant signs and posters are everywhere at the makeshift memorial to victims of the Colorado theater shooting.
Poignant signs and posters are everywhere at the makeshift memorial to… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

AURORA, Colo. — The spelling was a bit off, but the sentiment heartfelt: "Stay strong Colorado. Sorry for all you pepoel who got hurt and injured. Love you all."

When Aurora residents gathered in the thousands to remember the 12 people killed and dozens wounded in a movie theater massacre, 8-year-old Olivia Schultz sat on her mom's shoulders, holding aloft the sign she had fashioned in red, blue, green and purple crayon.

It was one of several signs Olivia's family made for an improvised memorial that sprang up across the street from where a gunman opened fire July 20 during a midnight screening of the new Batman movie,"The Dark Knight Rises."

PHOTOS: Signs of sad times

The memorial, which grows daily on a dusty vacant lot inhabited mainly by prairie dogs, includes flowers and candles, flags and teddy bears, rosaries and Bibles. And everywhere, it seems, are signs.

In this age of tweets and status updates, the words are part of an outpouring of emotion that has found expression through surprisingly traditional ways — in pen, pencil, paint and chalk.

For friends Tyler Thomas and Shon Miller Jr., the notes they scribbled onto a banner at the memorial had more power than anything they said on Facebook.

"People put so much stuff on there, it disappears in minutes," said Tyler, 16.

"This stays longer," agreed Shon, 17.

Michael Gallegos Jr., who works at a security firm nearby, said he posted extensively about the shooting on Facebook. But those updates were aimed at people outside Aurora. When he wanted to comfort his neighbors, he reached for a piece of white cardboard and a thick, black marker.

He showed up at the memorial site recently, a Batman badge pinned to his shirt, and hammered two stakes into the ground to prop up his sign: "I pray for LOVE, JOY, PEACE, and HAPPINESS. R.I.P. To The Dark Knight Angel's. God bless our community-America-The World!"

"It's more personal because it's your handwriting," said Gallegos, 29. "It's not some text on a computer."

***

Signs and notes are regular fixtures when memorials take shape after tragedies. After Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was wounded and six people killed in Tucson last year, signs joined the flowers placed outside the Arizona congresswoman's office. "We never know how much time we have," one read. "Tell your family you love them."

At the Aurora memorial, words cover every available surface. They are spreading on banners, poster boards, balloons, the sidewalk, a small rock. They snake around 12 wooden crosses inscribed with the names of those who died.

There are expressions of regret: "This beast took away a piece of all of us. I wish I could have done more."

Of hope and defiance: "LOVE IS LOUDER."

Of gratitude for the first responders: "Real Heros wear badges NOT CAPES."

And over and over: "We will remember."

Kelly Mathewson, a 49-year-old in-home healthcare provider, came here to support her community. But there was one sign she simply could not stand: a real estate ad on the same lot promising "retail coming."

Every time the memorial appeared on TV, "that's what you saw," she said. Mathewson found an old bedsheet, borrowed a can of paint, wrote in big blue letters "R.I.P." and covered up the ad.

She thought she might get into trouble. But when other visitors saw her at work with a hammer and nails, they applauded, she said.

So Mathewson decided to make another banner to cover the back of the sign. She trawled the Internet searching for inspiration.

"It had to be a message for all of us that are coming together," she said. "Basically, he was trying to kill any one of us."

Finally, the words came to her: "Aurora Still Stands."

Mathewson's 3-year-old daughter, Anjolie, helped her paint an American flag on the banner, with sequins for stars.

***

As the days passed, the words seemed to spawn more words. When JoEllen Stotts saw others writing on a banner, she too picked up a pen.

"Your heart just opens and the pen just writes," said Stotts, 60, her eyes moist.

For some of the writers, the shooting opened old wounds. One anguished note written with a green felt-tip pen reads:

"I lost my daughter at 2 1/2. During Columbine she would have been 14 (a freshman) at the movie she would have been 27. I miss her every day. To the families of the victims … my bleeds."

Other writers wonder about what might have been.

One note addressed to 18-year-old shooting victim Alexander J. Boik says: "AJ,I didn't know you but me and our friend Shane were going to watch the Dark Knight Rises with you. And I was going to meet you. It is so sad that I can no longer do that.… I pray you are in God's hands now."

A cheery birthday card was tucked among the flowers at the foot of Alex Sullivan's cross. Sullivan was celebrating his 27th birthday when he was gunned down.

Three of the victims — Jonathan Blunk, John Larimer and Jesse Childress — served in the military. "This is not what our Soldiers die 4," protests a sign written on a piece of lumber in red, white and blue paint.

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