A shooting in Annapolis: The well-practised response to the violence at the Capital Gazette | The Monthly

The well-practised response to the violence at the Capital Gazette

TIRED of WINNING

American Dispatches by Richard Cooke


American politics and society has rarely, if ever, been as tumultuous as it is today.


July 4, 2018

A shooting in Annapolis

By Richard Cooke
The well-practised response to the violence at the Capital Gazette

The offices of the Capital Gazette at 888 Bestgate Road, Annapolis, Maryland

Joshua McKerrow was driving towards Baltimore when word of the shooting reached him. He had spent the morning taking photos of Navy cadets in Annapolis, and was on the way to celebrate his daughter’s birthday, when his editor, Rick Hutzell, called. Hutzell could not reach anyone in the newsroom of the local newspaper, the Capital Gazette, he said. Just then a stream of emergency vehicles – “nothing but emergency vehicles”, McKerrow said later – screamed past in the opposite direction, and his heart sank. McKerrow called his father and said, “Tell Mom I wasn’t there”, then turned around. When I met him, he was red-eyed and taking photos from behind the police tape, covering the killing of his own colleagues.

It was not the first shooting McKerrow had covered. Four months ago, in March, he had taken photos at Great Mills High School over in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, where a student shot a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old with his father’s 9mm Glock handgun. Images show school buses lined up alongside a police car in the rain. Only the shooter had been killed, shot dead by an armed and uniformed “resource officer” stationed at the school. In Annapolis, locals recalled the shooting, but no one could remember the school’s name. Shootings with only two victims receive curt national coverage now, and the St. Mary’s incident was newsworthy mainly for how short it was. It was over in less than one minute; the resource officer had been trained to engage a shooter without waiting for backup. The shooting at the Capital Gazette lasted just two minutes, and police were on the scene after 60 seconds. By then five people were dead.

The emergency services were both close by and well prepared. Only six days earlier, the same personnel had participated in a dress rehearsal, an active shooter drill at a local high school, where actors played gunshot victims, complete with chest, limb and belly wounds rendered in make-up. The personnel who arrived in the Capital Gazette newsroom at number 888 Bestgate Road performed a manoeuvre taken exactly from the drill: stepping over a prone body to apprehend the perpetrator. The shooter was hiding under a desk, as though mimicking the survivors.

One of those shot and killed in the Capital building, a features writer named Wendi Winters, had participated in another, different active shooter drill, held three weeks earlier at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis. She had been part of its congregation for many years. It is not known if the church drill contributed to a decision to confront the shooter, but her colleagues heard her scream “No!” – one of them described it as “real loud, like a fighting ‘no’”. Winters had once simulated a heart attack and taken an ambulance ride for a story, so she could better understand what things were like at the epicentre of an emergency.

Rob Hiaasen, one of the Capital’s editors, was also celebrating a birthday, his wife’s. He had given her a present that morning, and told her to wait until he was home to open it. She has found herself unable to open it since. Hiaasen was the brother of the novelist Carl Hiaasen. In February, responding to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Carl wrote in his Miami Herald column that “By now, each new horror story arrives with a crushing familiarity, capped by the same pathetic, canned responses from do-nothing political leaders. After every bloodbath, they recycle a well-practiced script.” The script was repurposed for a bloodbath that killed his brother.

Gerald Fischman, the Capital’s leader writer, was a dry eccentric who used a hand-held clicker to count the words in his editorials, and surprised everyone with a mid-life marriage to a Mongolian opera singer he met online. Part of his job involved writing the editorials after shootings. He wrote a piece titled “Without hope, the violence has claimed us all”. He wrote that “Words will not prevent another Orlando or Blacksburg or Newton or San Bernardino.” He wrote that “A cynic would say words are just preparation for moving to the next horrible moment, tools to leverage this one safely into the past … Shots are fired and who hasn’t asked ‘how many?’ We are so practiced that even our sympathy is cynical.” He wrote that “usually these events follow a dismal pattern: an angry, unstable young man – known by family and friends to be difficult and volatile, but not necessarily considered insane or under treatment – has no trouble getting his hands on high-powered weapons.” He wrote this in February, four months before a man exactly like the one he described killed him with a high-powered weapon.

Phil Davis, the paper’s crime reporter, had been speaking to Annapolis Police Sergeant Amy Miguez that morning. Davis was planning a story on the complex mess of jurisdictional boundaries that culminated right outside the Capital Gazette office. That afternoon he texted her: “Help. Shooting at office”. Miguez thought he was joking, and replied “Call County”. Davis survived, tweeting the events immediately once he was safe, but so soon afterwards that many believed he was live-tweeting them. “There is nothing more terrifying than hearing multiple people get shot while you’re under your desk and then hear the gunman reload”, Davis said, and trolls goaded him about not attacking the gunman. Later he added “You wanna know how I feel? I feel like 5 of my co-workers are dead and the sovereignty of several others will forever be compromised because they are now only survivors, not individuals.”

By this time, Google Maps was displaying a small red landmark about the size of a match-head on Bestgate Road, marked “Annapolis Shooting”.

The staff reporter Pat Furgurson was across the road at the mall food court. He had taken the morning off for doctors’ appointments, and decided to take a leisurely lunch before work. He was having a chicken sandwich (“don’t tell my wife that”), when the big editors in Baltimore called, trying to hunt everyone down. At first Furgurson thought the live-shooter report must be for the old Capital office building, in town. No, the new building, the editor said. Don’t go. Furgurson did go, dumping the rest of his lunch, but found the intersection cordoned off already – he could get no closer than the other side of the street. He was supposed to be writing a story about a stormwater development, and even in the aftermath, it was not a story he was prepared to trivialise. “If we don’t fix the water we’re not going to have any more crabs to eat,” he said. How long, after finding out, had he decided that the next day’s Capital Gazette must come out regardless? About 30 seconds, he said. His desk was next in line.

In the mall’s parking lot, Furgurson joined with Joshua McKerrow and another Capital reporter, Chase Cook, to begin work. Chase Cook tweeted “I can tell you this. We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” Furgurson’s pick-up truck became a makeshift office; the afternoon was becoming cruelly hot, and at least it was in the shade. The dozens of media arriving strung themselves out along a grassy rise across from 888 Bestgate. It was hard to make anything out, beyond the trees and the police tape and the drive-thru bank in the line of sight, so the cable shows couldn’t transmit much more than a sense of immediacy. The local congressman, John Sarbanes, arrived, and said that the tragedy would have a ripple effect for days, weeks, months, perhaps years. Annapolis was a state capital but really a small town, he said. Its population was only 38,000 or so, and the Capital devoted pages each week to school soccer scores.

Ten different agencies had arrived, and their cars were so various and spread out it was hard to count them – I lost track at around 20, beacons flashing without sirens, only rare single whoops. Shooters are said to like footage of police beacons, and there were so many coloured lights that in the heat the street almost seemed festive. I had expected the press to be in sympathetic shock after an attack on their own, especially when speculation was brimming about the president and the alt-right as possible provocateurs. Instead, behind the concern, it felt routine. Even the media thought the media was not special: they were late to join a community of the victimised that already extended to country music fans and gay nightclub patrons, churchgoers praying in their pews, students at high schools and middle schools and colleges and elementary schools. Years ago, when Joshua McKerrow’s father was a reporter in Ohio, he had even covered a shooting by a berserk policeman, who had shot up his station’s radio room.

A photojournalist with a grown-out grey crew cut said he’d covered so many shootings he’d lost count. Crew cadged water, pizzas were ordered, there was even some flirting. He had been doing this for 18 years, and but the number of incidents had increased over the last five. “Unless you’re here right when it happens, you won’t get much,” he said. “It’s going to be organised chaos from now on. You might see someone – maybe a relative – sobbing, screaming, making their way through.” A rumour began – from “police sources” – that the shooter had damaged his fingertips to avoid identification, and that the police had resorted to facial recognition. The mall had not closed – relatives had been taken there, far away from the press. Whether they had turned off the muzak no one knew.

A reporter said that it was the 24th shooting this year. A different reporter from another local paper had been put on lockdown, but was here now, part of the milling group lining the road. He didn’t want to be identified, he said, because his publication focused on hyperlocal feelgood news, and he was just trying to answer any reader questions, to “stop any misconceptions before they got out of hand”. You could tell the Annapolitans from their faces, and because you don’t see people smoke like that much anymore. Pat Furgurson, his lip quavering, moved along the edge of the crowd, carried by commiserations and tentative half-interviews. “Whatever happened to peace, love and understanding?” he said. The crew from the Baltimore Sun had arrived to help publish the Capital, which would carry five obituaries and an almost-blank editorial page.

The Mayor of Annapolis, an Australian called Gavin Buckley, arrived. His sunburn jarred with his black tie, but he was somehow able to convey the right measures of anguish and resolve. In a TV interview I overheard him describe the active shooter drill, the one with the make-up, as “interesting”. There must be some comfort, I said afterwards, in knowing that you were so well prepared, that you had done everything possible, that it could have been much worse. He disagreed. There was no comfort. “Five people are dead.” The police officer giving the briefings knew the victims well. “This is why cops don’t live to be 80,” he said later, “because we carry everyone’s sorrow.”

By this time the shooter’s name was circulating. The Capital Gazette did not seem the right target for someone launching an assault against the Fake News Media. It was too humble, it was too local. The shooter was going to be local too. The officer would not say his name, though he knew it. Years before, the shooter had harassed a woman, a woman he had not seen since high school. He messaged her on Facebook, and when she gently suggested he seek counselling, he had stalked her for three years, bombarding her with filth and threats and sometimes pleas for more help. He got her fired. She moved states. She told law enforcement: “he will be your next mass shooter”. She still sleeps with a gun.

The Capital Gazette had written an article about the case, called “Jarrod wants to be your friend”. The shooter sued for defamation, which is difficult in America, and even more difficult if the allegations are true. He had threatened the paper so much that the old Capital building had his picture up, with instructions to call security on sight. Tom Marquardt, a former executive editor at the paper, told his attorneys that “this was a guy that was going to come and shoot us”. He had threatened judges and lawyers. The harassment victim’s attorney, Brennan McCarthy, said that the shooter was the most dangerous person he had ever dealt with. “The moment I heard there was a shooting at the Capital, I told my wife, ‘That’s Jarrod Ramos,’” McCarthy said. “It did not surprise me in the least. The only question was where he would stop by first: my house or their office.”

A police report found the shooter making “mention of blood in the water, journalist hell, hit man, open season”. On social media, the shooter repeatedly referenced the Charlie Hebdo killings, using a hashtag that swapped the Capital for the French magazine: #jesuiscapgaz. In tabled court documents (he represented himself), the shooter swore a “legal oath” to kill a writer at the newspaper. “As of this writing the Capital will not pursue any charges,” Officer Michael Praley concluded in the report. “It was described as putting a stick in a beehive which the Capital Newspaper representatives do not wish to do.”

All this predated the suspect’s legal purchase of a 12-gauge pump action shotgun. A shotgun is an unusual weapon of choice for a shooting, and this, I was told, was because Maryland’s gun laws are so strict. In another state he would have purchased a handgun, or a centre-fire semiautomatic rifle, but in Maryland he was entitled only to a “long gun”. Citizens subject to a protective order, or with a history of violent behaviour against themselves or others, cannot buy a handgun or an assault rifle, but they can buy a long gun, and once they own it they can carry it openly on the street. If the shooter had approached 888 Bestgate Road carrying his shotgun, he had committed a crime only at the moment he pulled its trigger.

The press conference to name the victims was held so close to the road that revving cars made it hard to hear. Afterwards, a Spanish photojournalist took me aside, like he was going to show me something dirty. Did I know, he asked, if the bodies were still inside? His editor wanted a shot of them being taken out – a shot of “the man carrying the bodies” was the way he phrased it, like they would be cradled in someone’s arms. I said I didn’t know. It was hard to imagine they would be, with the weather: even on the brink of nightfall, the warmth made you forget about the possibility of air-conditioning, especially there. At first the photographer’s request seemed obscene, but I wondered if the absence of bodies and blood in Western media coverage was any better. Probably it made no difference.

Gavin Buckley and his press officer, Sue O’Brien, kept working. They weren’t the only ones taking some comfort in the practised composure of professionalism. He was also trying to bear witness. The story could just move on tomorrow, Gavin Buckley said, and nothing would change, but that could not be allowed to happen. “I think something has to be done,” he said. “Because people on social media, the courage they have, the things that they say – we have to call some of that into question. The statistics that I’ve heard – I’ve heard some ridiculous numbers about how many incidents there have been this year alone … like 170 shootings. That is incredible if that is normal and that is acceptable … If progress hasn’t happened, we need to hold our politicians accountable.” He keeps variations of this dignified refrain going through most of the night.

“Look at that beautiful moon,” O’Brien says. She is taking one of her only breaks of the day – posting a remembrance image on Facebook (she has known Wendi Winters for 22 years) – and has only now noticed its brightness, brighter even than the lights shining on anchors’ faces. When I see her the next day, she has not slept.

The next day, almost exactly 24 hours after the shooting, a CNN man says to me that “the story has resolved itself”, though I’m not sure why. The Capital Gazette is out, and it immediately becomes impossible to buy a copy. The staff talk about a second edition, there has not been one in years. The cordon on Bestgate Road is down as well, and already the glass shot out in the office doors has been replaced. People come for a closer look, not as voyeurs, but to confirm the unbelievable. They bring flowers, and someone adds a reporter’s notebook. “My doctor’s office is in this building,” says a veteran, here with his son. He was here just the day before yesterday, picking up a prescription, and keeps repeating “just the day before yesterday”. Some time ago the veteran began casing everyday environments – banks, malls, etc – with a tactical eye, looking for the exits. He had even looked at this very building and thought it looked an awfully soft target. “But then I thought, the people inside are here to help people.” As we talk, a man in overalls wheels a pressure cleaner inside.

There are remembrance services. There are vigils. A crowd of a couple of hundred gather not far from the Capital Gazette office, cradling candles. “We are not supposed to be here,” says a priest. There are at least four reverends, a rabbi and an imam, and Pat Furgurson, who is somehow there with a notebook in his back pocket, and a T-shirt that says “Journalism matters, today more than ever”. “We are not the enemy,” he says, referencing the president’s words. “We are you.” There are five tolls of a bell. A Lutheran Evangelical minister says that in 2016, her church created a prayer service for times of violence and prayers for lament. Afterwards, I ask about this, and find that most of the denominations have done something similar. Alongside baptism and marriage, mass shootings are now a liturgical occasion. The version on the church’s website still references the Las Vegas shooting.

It reads:

With Job of old we cry out:

Everywhere the innocent suffer.

Our desires and efforts achieve us little.

O God, are you good, yet do nothing to help us?

Our answers have holes, and we fall through.

And:

All people are grass,

their constancy is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades,

when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;

surely the people are grass.

And:

God our deliverer, whose approaching birth still shakes the foundations of our world, may we so wait for your coming with eagerness and hope that we embrace without terror the labor pangs of the new age.

And:

Silence follows. The silence in marked by the ringing of a bell.

 

The imam speaks more quietly than anybody else, and says God does not give any man a burden greater than he can bear, but I am not a believer.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US Correspondent and Contributing Editor. He is also The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.

@rgcooke

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