Silence and pain on anniversary of Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting

November 27, 2016 Updated: November 28, 2016 at 9:53 am
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photo - Officers and deputies involved in the Planned Parenthood shooting on November 27, 2015 bow their heads in a moment of silence for Officer Garrett Swasey, one of three people killed in the shooting, after receiving their honors during the 31st Annual Medal of Valor Luncheon at Broadmoor Hall on Friday, November 18, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette
Officers and deputies involved in the Planned Parenthood shooting on November 27, 2015 bow their heads in a moment of silence for Officer Garrett Swasey, one of three people killed in the shooting, after receiving their honors during the 31st Annual Medal of Valor Luncheon at Broadmoor Hall on Friday, November 18, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette 

Temperatures dropped to a hand-numbing 15 degrees as Sgt. Lance Lazoff stared through his rifle scope.

His job was to find a clean shot at the Planned Parenthood gunman. Radio dispatches relayed the stakes: Dozens caught in the line of fire. Fellow officers pinned down, one killed, others wounded.

"You get put in that job so quickly, you don't have the time to get dressed for the weather," he said, describing how fellow officers ran clothing and hot coffee to those posted on the perimeter as bullets flew that frigid day.

The image of officers battling the cold trying to stop the bloodshed is among the few details that could be shared from one of Colorado Springs' worst mass shootings.

Law enforcement agencies from the Colorado Springs region, as well as from Denver, Colorado, secure the parameter during the shooting at a Planned Parenthood on Centennial Blvd., in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Friday, November 27, 2015. Photo by Daniel Owen. 

One year later, a judge's gag order prevents police and sheriff's deputies from providing a more complete account.

Emergency personnel transport an injured Colorado Springs police officer an ambulance Friday, Nov. 27, 2015, at the scene of an active shooter near the Planned Parenthood on Centennial Blvd. in Colorado Springs. (AP Photo/ The Gazette, Daniel Owen)  

Many others involved in the Black Friday attacks - victims, witnesses, survivors - don't wish to speak. The relatives of those slain - Jennifer Markovsky, Ke'Arre Stewart and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs police officer Garrett Swasey - turned down interview requests by The Gazette.

Two-dozen officers have since been awarded the department's Medal of Honor, its highest commendation for bravery. They include Mike Zamonas, the Colorado Springs police officer who lost a finger in the shooting. Dozens more received the Medal of Valor and Distinguished Service Award.

At the Police Foundation of Colorado Springs' annual Medal of Valor observance this month, the pain and weight of what happened were palpable. The officers hugged each other, and their eyes welled.

"It's hard to get me to get these guys up on a stage and get a medal for it, much less talk about it," Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey said.

Officer Armando Newell shakes hands with a fellow officer after they received the Medal of Honor for their involvement in the Planned Parenthood shooting on November 27, 2015 during the 31st Annual Medal of Valor Luncheon at Broadmoor Hall on Friday, November 18, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette  

He attributes that to the bond of stoicism that exists among many officers and their shared aversion to any public acknowledgment of the trauma they face.

Even now, officers make only passing reference to the shootout, while trying to avoid statements that might jeopardize admitted shooter Robert Lewis Dear Jr.'s prosecution.

For Medal of Honor recipient Chris Garcia, the day is vivid - "like it just happened." He recalled a moment preserved on dispatch recordings, when Zamonas broke radio silence to report: "My left hand's been shot."

Said Garcia: "That day will always be there with me. We both graduated from the academy together, so when he got injured and he got on the radio and said that he was hurt . "

Garcia's voice trailed away.

El Paso County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Jason Hess, who was involved in the Planned Parenthood shooting on November 27, 2015, salutes Chief of Police Pete Carey after receiving the Police Award during the 31st Annual Medal of Valor Luncheon at Broadmoor Hall on Friday, November 18, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette  

The trauma was too much for Trey Johnson, a veteran police officer who previously worked in Philadelphia, Aurora and Denver and who received a Medal of Valor. He quit the force shortly after the shooting.

"I just didn't know that if called upon again, I could handle a situation like that," Johnson said. "It's the first time I've ever been shot at."

Medal of Valor recipient Charles Johnson said he leans on faith.

"I've been doing this for nine years, and I feel like it's my calling," Charles Johnson said. "And I haven't been called to leave yet, so I'm here."

Many couched their comments in a tone of understatement.

"I was very happy to be home that night," said Medal of Honor recipient Scott Acey.

The shooting jarred officers still recovering from another mass shooting four weeks earlier, when another gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle killed three people downtown before dying in a shootout with police.

At least two of the officers who responded to that first mass shooting - Scott Hallas and Matthew Anderson - were called to Planned Parenthood.

Sgt. Lance Lazoff, who was involved in the Planned Parenthood shooting on November 27, 2015, walks across the stage after receiving the Medal of Valor during the 31st Annual Medal of Valor Luncheon at Broadmoor Hall on Friday, November 18, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette  

Hallas, a Medal of Valor recipient for both shootings, cast a stonelike gaze when asked about the back-to-back rampages.

"I don't dwell on what happened," Hallas said. "It's a bad day, and tomorrow's a new day. I can't speak for anybody else, but I don't dwell on the past."

He has no plans to leave: "I've been doing this for almost 20 years, and I'm too old to start over."

Anderson was five weeks on the job when the first shooting happened and about two months into his career when Dear is charged with laying siege to Planned Parenthood.

"I always wanted to do this job," said Anderson, also awarded the Medal of Valor for both shootings. "You prepare and train for the worst and hope it never comes, but if it happens, then roll with it.

"I'll do it the rest of my life."

Two trauma centers opened in the weeks following the shooting - one for community members, the other for officers seeking group therapy, individual counseling and acupuncture. The department also used a peer support program and made available its staff psychologist to officers dealing with post-traumatic stress.

Just getting officers to seek help is an enduring challenge, Carey said.

"There's such a stigma attached to saying, 'Hey, that did bother me - that was terrible, and I want to talk to somebody about it,' " Carey said. "And I want to make sure that our cops know that if they're seeing something, that they're having trouble, or they need some help handling, all they got to do is ask."

Commander Thor Eells, who oversees the city's northeast Falcon substation that covers Planned Parenthood, saw firsthand the emotional toll inflicted that day. But that trauma didn't keep officers from returning to their cruisers.

Medal of Honor recipients Officer Armando Newell, Officer Andrew Leeper and Officer Teresa Tomczyk wait for fellow officers involved in the Planned Parenthood shooting on November 27, 2015 to receive their honors during the 31st Annual Medal of Valor Luncheon at Broadmoor Hall on Friday, November 18, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette  

"We had people wanting and willing to come in and work and fill the shifts because they knew that's what needed to be done," Eells said. "We don't have the luxury of going into a pause mode or a reset mode."

A year later, almost no one else is talking.

Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains declined an interview, citing the litigation the organization faces, a lawsuit claiming its security was deficient.

But the silence of victims also speaks to the crush of media attention those families faced this past year, which became even more intrusive as the anniversary approached, Kurt Aichele said. He was the Swaseys' family pastor and remains good friends with the slain officer's widow, Rachel Swasey, and their two children.

"Some people have reached out to me as a 'pastor' or 'elder' at Hope Chapel where Garrett served," Aichele wrote in an email to The Gazette, "but fail to realize that a year ago I lost one of my closest friends. In this case, as we come up on the one-year anniversary - we are all suffering."

Reliving that day "would hurt even more," he said.

"Rachel and the kids deserve to be left alone."

Ozy Licano, who survived a bullet fired through his windshield and past his face, was willing to speak.

But even he struggles to comprehend what happened. He said he hasn't sought therapy and doesn't want to.

"I just don't want to relive it and talk about it over and over," he said. "There's no answers. When he's dead and gone, that'll be my answer."

Survivor Ozy Licano of Manzanola, Colo., stands outside the courtroom during a recess from the competency hearing for Robert Dear, Jr., Tuesday, May 10, 2016, in the El Paso Country Judicial Building in Colorado Springs, Colo. Dear is charged with murder in the Planned Parenthood attack Nov. 27, 2015. (AP Pool, The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Licano, 61 at the time of the attack and a Manzanola resident, was at the clinic waiting for two neighbors. He was burning time in a handicapped parking spot 10 feet from Planned Parenthood, listening to his car's radio and texting on his phone.

That's when a man on the ground caught Licano's eye.

As the man crawled toward the clinic's entrance, the glass entry doors shattered. A bearded figure with a rifle strode up. He stepped over the crawling man and walked inside, unleashing a hail of bullets.

"The sun was shining," Licano recalled. "I saw his face."

The man on the ground was a wounded Ke'Arre Stewart.

Licano went into shock. Moments later, he watched as Dear wheeled around and began walking toward him.

Licano threw his car into reverse and floored it as Dear raised the rifle and squeezed off rounds - sending one bullet flying past his face.

"He was taking a head shot," said Licano, who sped off toward a nearby King Soopers under continuing gunfire.

Shooting surviver Ozy Licano, 61, describes his encounter with the shooter at the Planned Parenthood Clinic Friday, Nov. 27, 2015, in Colorado Springs Colo. Licano, who the gunman shot toward while he was in his car, suffered cuts from the exploding window glass. He was treated and released from Memorial Hospital Friday evening. (AP Pool Photo/ The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

"I had blood squirting in front of my eyes," Licano said. "I thought he'd hit my neck or something, but it was blood from my lip. That's how high the blood pressure was - it was squirting out like a fountain. I thought to myself 'I got to survive.' I just drove."

The encounter, which he said took no longer than eight seconds, changed Licano. He said he now views people around him with suspicion. Sometimes he is consumed by anger.

And he's constantly on the lookout for guns.

He described a later incident in which he said he accosted one person he thought was pulling a gun out of an SUV - demanding to know what he was doing. When the man responded angrily, Licano lashed out.

"You better answer my question, or I'm going to lay you on the ground," Licano recalled saying.

The man's weapon turned out to be a BB gun.

Easy access to guns made the Planned Parenthood attack possible, Licano said.

"I didn't have one that day," he said. "Nobody else in the building that day did. Is everybody supposed to pack from now on? We have to give guns to little kids and pregnant mothers and fathers and teachers? Everybody's got to have a gun now?"

While Licano decried the proliferation of ever-more powerful weaponry, officers say they have no choice but to keep pace.

The department wants to update ballistic vests and improve long-range weaponry.

Chief Carey said there's bound to be a "next time."

"It's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when."

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Gazette reporters Ellie Mulder and Rachel Riley contributed to this report.

Contact Lance Benzel: 636-0366

Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

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