A personal experience surviving a ‘lone wolf’ shooter

By Michael Gallagher

Nine years ago next week, in Grand Junction, as we were on our way to see Jersey Boys in Las Vegas, my wife, my best friend, his wife and a neighbor were shot in an incident like what now is being described by law enforcement and the media as a “lone wolf shooter.”

My wife and my best friend died instantly. His wife and the neighbor have since recovered from their physical wounds. I miraculously survived the gunfire. Five times the gunman fired at me point-blank, but somehow missed me each time, allowing me to get the car started and speed to a local hospital with my best friend’s wife who had been shot in the chest four times. The “lone wolf” shooter subsequently committed suicide when trapped by law enforcement about a half-mile away from the murder scene.

My focus is on the shooter. According to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he had no connection to the people he shot or the community. Ethnically, he was an Alaskan Eskimo, 22 years old, from near Anchorage and had most recently lived for only a few weeks with an aunt in Denver. During that time he had acquired a Colorado driver’s license and legally purchased a 9mm handgun from a gun store in the Denver area.

He had taken his aunt’s car and driven from Denver west on Interstate 70 through Grand Junction, apparently on his way back to California where he previously resided in a basement apartment of a Taiwanese couple and had worked as a security guard. The CBI/FBI investigation also revealed that he was a “misfit” with a history of anti-social behavior and an intelligent introvert. They discovered that his father had committed suicide the previous Christmas. His mother told them that on a subsequent, and hopefully healing, European trip with her and his younger brother, that he stayed in the hotels preferring to play computer-based video games, including his favorite — Grand Theft Auto. 

October 11, the day of the murders and the shooter’s suicide, was also the shooter’s father’s birthday. In the car the aunt reported stolen where the shooter had committed suicide was a laptop that contained violent video games, including Grand Theft Auto, and searches on committing suicide. The “lone wolf” shooter also had only $1.28 in his pockets when he and the car were searched.

In an article in The Denver Post published weeks later, the CBI’s and FBI’s conclusion was that what probably started out as a simple robbery of four people getting into a car in front of their home quickly morphed into a possible auto theft escalating into shooting and murder. I don’t know. He definitely came prepared with extra magazines of ammo in a pouch on his belt. Also he never uttered a word. He just walked up and started shooting people.

In addition to the obvious shock and terror of the moment, as victims our most constant and unanswered question was “why?” As the physically unscathed person, I had an additional issue — why could I not do something to prevent my wife and others from suffering and dying that day? Over the years, I have learned to move the experience from directly in front of my daily consciousness over to one side. It will never go away. At first, I was very angry and so wished I could have killed the shooter. However, as I found out more about him and his history hoping to answer “why?” my feelings began to transform.

As time passed, I began to take a larger view, considering and hopefully understanding more as other “lone wolf” incidents occurred and their details revealed.

First and foremost, I believe that we need to do more to expose and assist social misfits — those who, for whatever reason, have not experienced love and support and may harbor unaddressed pain. Maybe they’re from a broken or dysfunctional family, maybe they have been bullied in school, or a multitude of other issues including mental health issues (the whole nature vs. nurture debate).

Second, we have glorified guns — in the movies, TV, marketing and even social media (e.g. Facebook — is 9mm or .45-caliber better?) — changing them from hunting and defense weapons to cool and aggressive tools and recreational toys with larger calibers and magazines. My generation grew up watching cartoons with the Road Runner and coyote-level of violence which we saw easily as neither real nor permanent. Today, omnipresent violence in TV, movies, and reality shows probably has desensitized us all to violence — even those of us who grew up watching the Road Runner. 

Finally, and perhaps most important for those of us who have been unfortunate enough to suffer as the result of a “lone wolf.” Forgiveness is liberating. Several years ago I forgave the shooter — perhaps out of sympathy or perhaps because of my religious upbringing and beliefs. I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is the redemptive feeling I’ve experienced since I made that decision. I no longer ask God “why?” or seek revenge of some kind or feel enormous anger. I miss my wife and best friend very much and always will. I really wish my wife could have been at our daughter’s wedding and that she could know her son-in-law and granddaughter. And I really wish that my son-in-law and granddaughter could have known her. But none of that was to be and I will never know “why?” Only God knows and I trust in God.

For all of you who have been impacted by the Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Orlando, Aurora, or other incidents, you have my sincerest condolences. You will never be the same, but regardless, life does go on. Few of us escape totally unscathed in life. Or as John Lennon put it — life is what happens while you are planning other things. Just as the darkness in a beautiful painting serves to make the bright colors more stunning, your experience need not be seen as the beginning of the end but rather the beginning of a new intensity and appreciation for life.

Michael Gallagher worked between 1996 and 2010 at Colorado Mesa University serving as president there for seven years. He then retired and moved to Park City, Utah, remarried, and for the past few years has worked ski seasons in guest services at Deer Valley Resort. His late wife, Flo, was a teacher at Grand Junction High School.


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