AURORA, Ill. – This city is not a war zone. It’s a quiet suburb about 40 miles southwest of Chicago. But on Saturday, the dead will be remembered here just as surely as any battleground.
“We’re going to have a hard time today,” said longtime resident Greg Zanis, wiping away tears. “It’s the America I live in today. It’s a battlefield.”
Saturday is when Aurora remembers the workplace shooting that left five dead a year ago, with a special remembrance, speeches and flags at half mast. But for Zanis, it’s a journey of remorse that began back in 1996, the year his father-in-law and a 6-year-old boy were both fatally shot in Aurora.
Since then, Zanis has constructed and delivered nearly 27,000 wooden crosses and other symbols of worship to the sites of mass killings nationwide.
Zanis, a Greek Orthodox man, has borne witness to the grief of thousands of families. A flag bearing the names of each of the hundreds of sites hangs in his office: Columbine. Newtown. San Bernardino. Pittsburgh. Parkland. Las Vegas. Thousand Oaks. Dayton. El Paso. Even Aurora, Colorado.
And last year, Zanis added his hometown to the list. “I didn’t expect the battlefield to be in my own city,” he said.
On Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, an employee opened fire in the Henry Pratt manufacturing plant in Aurora, killing five co-workers and injuring six other people, including one worker and five policemen. After a 90-minute shoot-out, officers killed the gunman.
The gunman, 45, had worked at the plant for 15 years and had been let go moments before the shooting began.
The victims started their shifts that day with no idea that they were about to be added to a seemingly never-ending roster of Americans killed in mass shootings. They included Trevor Wehner, 21, a student at Northern Illinois University and a human resources intern at his first day of work; Clayton Parks, 32, a human resources manager; Russell Beyer, 47, a mold operator and union chairman; Vicente Juarez, 54, a stock room attendant and forklift operator; and Josh Pinkard, 37, the plant manager.
Aurora, Illinois shooting:Fired factory worker goes on rampage at plant, killing five
A year on, Aurora is still healing.
“The pain that these families are feeling, it doesn’t feel like a year. It still feels like they are stuck in that moment in time,” Police Chief Kristen Ziman said at a Tuesday press conference. “We are always going to remember these five beautiful souls that are no longer with us and the families that have to endure life without them.”
Abby Parks, Clayton’s widow, is raising their toddler son, Axel, in Elgin, Illinois. One family has moved to Mississippi. Many families asked for privacy at this time.
Of the five police officers who responded to the scene, two have come back to work. One has retired. Another, who was shot in the knee, is on desk duty. One, who was shot in the hip, is still in recovery.
“It was one of those surreal moments when I wasn’t quite sure what I was hearing over the radio,” Ziman said, recounting that day. “As we were on our way to the scene, what seemed like a moment that would last forever in time was listening, one by one, to my officers getting shot. I don’t quite know how to describe that experience … I’m grateful that they’re still here with us every day, walking the earth.”
Aurora is home to nearly 200,000 residents, making it the second-largest city in Illinois. In the wake of the shooting, the city, which some residents liken to a small town, rallied around the “Aurora Strong” movement, bringing the community closer together and sparking increases in public service participation.
“How do you measure a year? We measure it in strength,” Mayor Richard Irvin said at the press conference. “By the end of the day on Feb. 15, we’d already become Aurora Strong. And that strength has continued to multiply over the year. The Aurora Strong banner brought our community together as never before.”
Homes throughout the city display “Aurora Strong” signs on yards and fences. Bradley Keven Green, a musician from Aurora, wrote a song by the same title. At Luigi’s Pizza and Fun Center, a restaurant and bar down the street from Henry Pratt that served as a command center during and after the shooting, a banner thanking first responders hangs on the wall next to a circular metal plaque bearing the words “Aurora Strong.”
Over the past year, the local Aurora Strong fund has raised more than $500,000 for the affected families, along with more than $500,000 nationally, totaling about $1.1 million, Irvin said.
Private and public schools across Aurora’s school districts, which were locked down during the shooting, are in the process of acquiring new walkie-talkies to improve city-wide communications. Anna Gonzales, director of community affairs at West Aurora School District, said administrators have stepped up safety trainings.
At the beginning of the month, the Aurora Historical Society opened an exhibit commemorating the people killed and wounded in the shooting. The exhibit features news clippings, posters drawn by students and mementos left behind by mourners – stuffed animals, pictures, cards, candles and more. On Friday, a group of about a dozen Pratt employees slowly walked through the gallery, many wearing “Pratt Strong” T-shirts.
“It was something that we felt really had to be done so that the community would have a place to come and mourn,” said John Jaros, executive director of the Aurora Historical Society. “This is a story about loss. These are memorial items, but they represent real people who lived real lives and were taken away. And we need to honor them.”
The exhibit centers on five of Zanis’ white, 3-foot wooden crosses, originally placed outside the Henry Pratt plant.
Zanis was working in his carpentry shop that afternoon when he heard dozens of squad cars race by. “It’s hard to talk about it here coming on the anniversary, but I knew all too well what that meant,” Zanis said. “It really more than broke my heart.”
That day, Zanis decided that he was going to stop building crosses. “I can’t do it anymore,” Zanis said, wiping away tears. “I never realized, for 20 years, what I was doing was I was running away from these. And now I’m not running away. I’m living it. I’m living it every day.”
On Saturday, flags flew at half-staff in the snow-covered city. Aurora police and fire radios were expected to broadcast the names of the five victims and observe a moment of silence at 1:24 p.m., the time when the first emergency call came in from the Henry Pratt manufacturing plant.
Mueller Water Products, Inc., which owns Henry Pratt Company, planned to hold a private Day of Remembrance.
“As we mark the one-year anniversary of this tragedy, we thank the Aurora community and supporters around the world for their continued encouragement, thoughtfulness, and support. We are forever grateful to the Aurora Police Department and first responders for their heroic actions,” spokesperson Yolanda Kokayi said in a statement.
The Henry Pratt Company is one of North America’s largest manufacturers of valves for the potable water, wastewater, power generation and industrial markets.
A flaw in Illinois gun laws
Months after the shooting, a review by the Kane County State’s Attorney revealed new details about how that day unfolded and highlighted cracks in Illinois state gun law.
The gunman had brought the weapon into work with him when he arrived before 7 a.m., the report said. He had received a disciplinary notice the day before for refusing to wear safety glasses and, when he arrived at work, he told a coworker that he would kill everyone in the plant or “blow police up” if he was fired.
The gunman was fired at a disciplinary meeting that afternoon and promptly began shooting.
“The thing that bothers me the most from that day, the thing that still keeps me up at night is that that morning the shooter made a comment … and not one person came forward with that,” Ziman said. “It is my mission to change that culture of speaking out.”
The gunman had one pistol and eight pistol magazines, and he fired 64 rounds during the incident, according to police.
It was a gun he wasn’t supposed to have.
The gunman had six prior arrests by Aurora police and a felony conviction for aggravated assault in Mississippi in 1995, police said. His last known arrest was in 2017 in Oswego, Illinois.
In Jan. 2014, the gunman applied for and was issued an Illinois firearm owner’s identification (FOID) card. In March of that year, he applied for and purchased a .40-caliber handgun from a local gun dealer, police said.
Days later, he applied for a concealed carry permit but was denied when officials conducting a background check discovered his felony conviction. State police also revoked his FOID card. The gunman, however, did not follow Illinois protocol to give up his gun, and officials did not force him to surrender it.
In the wake of the Aurora shooting, state police created a statewide database listing every revoked cardholder, accessible to local law enforcement, prosecutors and other criminal justice stakeholders. More than 600 agencies now have access to the portal, which has been accessed more than 13,000 times, according to Illinois police.
There are 2.2 million FOID cardholders in Illinois with an average of 10,000 revocations a year, Illinois police said. But more than 30,000 people in Illinois who have had their cards revoked have not accounted for their guns, according to the Chicago Tribune.
A bill that state police say would provide additional funds to improve their ability to recover these guns is pending in the Illinois senate.
A year of mass shootings
In 2019, the year of the Aurora shooting, the U.S. witnessed more mass killings than any other year dating back to at least the 1970s, according to a former database compiled by the Associated Press, USA TODAY and Northeastern University.
More than 400 people died in a mass shooting last year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as four or more people shot, not including the shooter. Mass shootings happened in El Paso and Odessa, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Jersey City, New Jersey, among others.
About 40,000 Americans die from firearm-related injuries each year. The number of people killed in a workplace homicide involving a firearm is a small percentage of this total. Since 2011, the number of firearm-related workplace homicides has fluctuated between 350 and 400, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. In 2018, 351 were killed in a workplace homicide involving a firearm.
Mitchell Doucette, an assistant professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, said that while the number of firearm-related workplace homicides has remained somewhat steady over the past decade, motivations behind the crimes have shifted.
“Workplace homicides by firearms were predominantly thought of as crimes related to robberies in the late 1990s and 2000s,” Doucette said. “In the last couple years, what motivates these crimes has moved away from robberies. These are things like arguments between customers and employees or between employees – conflicts that move from domestic violence and become workplace violence.”
Doucette said the change in motivations may be related to “increased firearm exposure” in states that have passed right-to-carry laws in recent years. “We’ve seen increases in workplace homicides involving firearms that are statistically significant for the states that had (right-to-carry) laws compared to those that didn’t,” he said.
Doucette and his colleagues aren’t unique in their findings. In a study published in the American Journal of Public Health last month, researchers reviewing state firearm laws in the U.S. from 2011 to 2017 found that as states strengthened regulations related to firearms, workplace homicide rates decreased.
Follow Grace Hauck on Twitter @grace_hauck.