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Aurora debates what to do with theater shooting site

Tear it down? Let it reopen? At other massacre sites – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson – each community has found its own way.

July 30, 2012|By Alexandra Zavis, Ashley Powers and Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • Mourners gather at a memorial across the street from the theater in Aurora, Colo., where a shooting rampage on July 20 left 12 people dead and dozens injured. Some want the theater torn down; others say it should be allowed to reopen.
Mourners gather at a memorial across the street from the theater in Aurora,… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

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.

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