Christmas Day could not pass quickly enough for Sandy Phillips. Her daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was one of 12 people killed five months ago in the spray of bullets at a packed Aurora, Colo., movie theater.
On Dec. 27, she received an email from the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance. It was an invitation from the Aurora theater’s parent company to Phillips and her husband to attend the theater's grand reopening on Jan. 17.
Disbelief turned to fury for the San Antonio woman, who said Cinemark was being insensitive to the families of victims. She wondered whether the invitation -- the first communication she said she had received from the movie company -- was some sort of publicity stunt.
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"For most of us, we have not been able to set foot in a theater and may never be able to," Phillips told the Los Angeles Times. "It’s like they are trying to use us as PR, as if to say, 'See, they have forgiven us; you should too and come to our theater.' "
A group of 15 family members of victims sent a strongly worded letter Wednesday to Cinemark, calling the event “disgusting” and warning that they would encourage others not to attend the event and to boycott the theater chain.
Cinemark had no immediate response to the letter.
The company had earlier announced it would reopen the Aurora theater complex this month and that the public supported a reopening event.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan are expected to attend. In addition to victims and their families, first responders and community leaders have also been invited.
A Dec. 5 letter from Cinemark Chief Executive Tim Warner to Hogan said the theater would offer free movies Jan. 18-20. He said it was "our privilege to restore the Aurora Century Theater and to be a vital part of this remarkable community.”
The theater complex, adjacent to a suburban Denver shopping mall, has been closed since the July 20 rampage that injured at least 70 people.
The Cinemark invitation asked that family members make their reservations for the event by Jan. 8 and added: “We understand this may be a difficult time for you. Counselors will be available at the theater if you would like to speak to someone."
Phillips is also angry with the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance. "It’s almost the very organization that should be protecting us is almost in collusion with them,” she said. She said the group should have contacted families personally to see whether they had any interest in the invitation before sending it.
Nancy Lewis, executive director of the assistance group, said Wednesday that she was under a gag order in the case and could not comment on her organization’s role in the invitation. “I’m not allowed to talk to reporters. I wish I could,” she said, adding that she was aware some families were unhappy.
A handful of lawsuits by victims are pending against Cinemark, alleging the theater did not take proper security precautions the night of the shooting.
Prosecutors say James E. Holmes bought a ticket to the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises,” took his seat, then exited the theater from an unlocked door. They say he armed himself with tear gas canisters and multiple guns in the parking lot before reentering the theater and opening fire.
Phillips said she and her husband had consulted with lawyers but had not decided whether to pursue legal action against the theater.
One of those wounded that night, Joshua Nowlan, said in an earlier interview that he hoped to someday see a movie again at the Aurora theater, and hoped it would help with his emotional healing.
Phillips understands that going back might provide closure for some people. But she cannot bear it.
She also will not attend Holmes' preliminary hearing, scheduled to begin next week, because she fears the testimony will be too graphic. Her husband says he wants to attend court only if there is a sentencing.
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