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The elegy and the promise

A horrific act leaves 12 people dead and four wounded, as well as a community in mourning.


Ed. — This originally ran in print on Friday, June 7. A gallery of photos that ran with the original story appears at the end of this online version.


BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE

COURTHOUSE — A person who works for the city of Virginia Beach sends an email to a supervisor on Friday, May 31.

“It has been a pleasure to serve the city, but due to personal reasons I must relieve my position,” he writes.

This is the reason the public utilities engineer gives while turning in his two-week notice.

An unnamed supervisor responds. 

“I hope you are able to resolve your personal reasons.”

Then the supervisor seeks clarity, asking whether the last day works out to Friday, June 14?

“Yes, that is correct.”

After 4 p.m., the engineer brings horror to his colleagues at Building 2 in the Virginia Beach Municipal Center. He guns down men and women, city workers and a contractor at the government center about a permit.

He shoots one person in a vehicle, then more inside the building, which houses departments such as planning, public works and public utilities. He shoots people on three floors. People he knows.

At least one of his weapons is a .45 caliber handgun with extended magazines, meaning they hold more bullets. He uses a suppressor, a silencer, to muffle the sounds of his rampage. 

Parts of Building 2 are open to the public, and others are secured. But the killer has a pass. He still works there.

People die. People are wounded. Among the injured is a police officer, one of four of Virginia Beach’s Finest who race into the building. 

They are the first to respond. They move toward the sounds. A sustained gun battle between the four officers and the gunman follows. A detective is shot, saved only by his protective vest.

And even after the gunman shoots their colleague, after they enter a room through a closed door to reach the wounded gunman, the police try to save his life. 

This happens in our city, just before the weekend, during the tourist season, the final weeks of school, the last strawberries of spring. It is the worst mass shooting in our country this year, so far.

This happens in Virginia Beach. 

This one is ours.

That evening, the people who lead our city speak to reporters, and, through them, to heartbroken citizens, to a nation accustomed to the ravages of gun violence, to a sympathetic world beyond.

Mayor Bobby Dyer speaks first. 

This is the elegy.

“Let’s start with what is most important,” he says. “This is the most devastating day in the history of Virginia Beach. The people involved are our friends, coworkers, neighbors, colleagues.”

The mayor looks down, but he is not alone. City Councilmember Aaron Rouse places his hand on the mayor’s back. Vice Mayor Jim Wood does the same a moment later.

The mayor looks up. He introduces Police Chief Jim Cervera, who delivers some facts as they are known now. Multiple casualties. Multiple fatalities. Many questions.

By the end of the night, the toll would be 13 dead, including the gunman, and four more wounded.

Rouse speaks last during that initial press conference. This is the promise: 

“This day will not define Virginia Beach. … We will come together. We will show the strength of our city.”

Police head toward Building 2 on Friday, May 19. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]


On Saturday, June 1, the city erects a memorial site for communal grieving and comfort, platforms near Building 11 at the sprawling municipal complex. People come and leave flowers, notes and more. They do so well away from Building 2 and surrounding areas that still are a crime scene.

The names come, too, on this day. City Manager Dave Hansen announces them to reporters. Faces show on a screen during a press conference held at the courthouse.

“We want you to know who they were so in the days and weeks to come you will learn what they meant to all of us, to their families, to their friends and to their coworkers,” the manager says.

Laquita C. Brown. 

Ryan Keith Cox. 

Tara Welch Gallagher. 

Mary Lou Gayle. 

Alexander Mikhail Gusev. 

Joshua O. Hardy. 

Michelle “Missy” Langer. 

Richard H. Nettleton. 

Katherine A. Nixon. 

Christopher Kelly Rapp. 

Herbert “Bert” Snelling.

Robert “Bobby” Williams. 

 “The suspect – this will be the only time we will announce his name – is DeWayne Craddock,” Cervera says a moment later.

Soon after, city workers are among those who gather in Strawbridge outside Regal Cinemas for a vigil hosted by Lifehouse Virginia Beach Church. Gov. Ralph Northam is there. 

People hold hands, pray, sing, cry.

Ed Weeden, who works in city planning, is among the crowd. He was in Building 2 on that Friday. He and others heard a sound, and he said they thought someone had fallen in a stairwell. They found a woman there covered in blood. Someone said to get out of the building.

“It’s really, really hard, man,” he says outside the movie theater.

The killer was someone they knew.

“He shot a contractor picking up a permit,” Weeden says. “He shot a guy with 41 years at the city.”

And what comes next?

“How are you going to feel comfortable going back in that building?” he says.

Rodney Diaz, an assistant registrar, stands with colleagues in the lot. He used to work in public utilities. He, among others, had texted those they knew in the hours after the shooting.

Keith Cox, who has been hailed for his selflessness and heroism for helping others during the tragedy, never texted back.

“He’s a guardian angel now,” Diaz says.

That evening, near Building 11, Ralph Parham II, a small business owner, sets out candles at the memorial.

He props them in the space between sidewalk and grass so they will stand, and he lights them. He leaves other candles, too. Maybe others will light them.

The people at Building 2 were doing their jobs. They need to be remembered. A dozen small candles burn.

Rodney Diaz, an assistant registrar in Virginia Beach, was among the municipal employees to attend a prayer vigil held in Strawbridge on Saturday, June 1. A friend and former colleague, Ryan Keith Cox, was among those killed during the mass shooting on Friday, May 31, at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center. “He’s a guardian angel now,” Diaz said. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]


The next morning, Hansen says the gunman had turned in his notice the day of the mass shooting.

Hansen says this in response to a question from a reporter, and this follows statements in which officials have stressed that the employee was not a former worker and had not been fired as stated in some media accounts.

At the memorial site, 3-year-old Ronan Zellner approaches the platforms between the police station and Princess Anne Road. 

In less than a day, the memorial is overflowing with flowers, notes, candles and more. Or perhaps lighter for all the balloons.  

Ronan holds a toy in one hand and a flower in the other. His mom, Nikki Zellner, trails him, holding flowers. So does his brother, Owen, who is only two. They are from Kempsville.

“These people were all pretty special,” Nikki Zellner says.

Ronan sees melted wax on the sidewalk.

“It looks like somebody spilled their candle.”

Their flowers join the other flowers.

“Mommy, do you think this is too many flowers?” Ronan asks.

“I don’t think it’s enough flowers,” she says. “I think there’s going to be more.”

The flowers keep coming. 

Parham arrives with more candles that evening. He sits down near yesterday’s wax, and he plants a dozen more candles between the sidewalk and the grass.

 “These people were part of our family,” he says, “part of Virginia Beach.”

That night, City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District, recalls her own experience the afternoon of the shooting. She had been there to pick up her package for the following week’s meeting. She saw emergency lights while driving to the center, heard sirens. She though someone might have been in an accident, so she parked around back, just behind City Hall, which is near Building 2.

A worker told her someone had been shot and they were told to leave the building. Someone she assumed was a police officer – there was a berm separating them – told people to get down. 

She drove home to Pungo.

Unimaginable, she calls it now.

“I just want people to know our city employees are such good people and so professional,” she says.

She is proud of how law enforcement and city personnel have responded. She says it will be tough to get back the feeling of security such a traumatic event removes.

“Virginia Beach is a good place,” she says. “It just shows it can happen anywhere at any time.”

The Zellner family — 3-year-old Ronan, mom Nikki and 2-year-old Owen — bring flowers to the memorial on Sunday, June 2. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]


Some city offices reopen on Monday, June 3. Children go back to school, many wearing blue in solidarity with the city workers. At Creeds Elementary School, students form a blue heart for a photograph. At Kellam High School, students gather for a photograph. Counselors are available for the young people.

Sarah Flinn and Grayson Holmes, though clad in blue, miss the picture at Kellam because they are turning in reports about their work mentoring fellow students. 

Flinn is from Creeds, Holmes from Pungo. Both are 17.

“I can’t wrap my head around it,” Holmes says.

“My parents and I have talked about it a little,” Flinn says.

“How and why someone would do this so close to home,” Holmes says.

“You see this on the news all the time,” Flinn says, but it’s elsewhere.

They explain how blue honors those lost and their loved ones.

“We’re still together as a city,” Flinn says.

“We’re going to get through this,” Holmes says. “We’re strong.”

The mayor visits the memorial at Building 11. Dyer wears a blue shirt. He seems almost like the person he was before he announced his city’s darkest hour. That was shock.

“Bobby D,” he says now, introducing himself to a woman.

“Bobby?” she asks.

“Bobby Dyer,” he says. 

Our mayor.

“We’re going to come back from this,” he promises.

He shakes hands, takes pictures with citizens who ask for them near the memorial and a flag at half-staff.

City Councilmember Rosemary Wilson greets and thanks citizens and city workers near the memorial. 

She stands near 12 crosses that were built and delivered by a man from Illinois.

“These are our people,” Wilson says.

She stands near so many flowers, a growing memorial that seems to be expanding along Princess Anne Road.

“It just goes on an on.”

Wilson greets Don Hipple, a police chaplain offering his support at the memorial. In the hours after the tragedy, he was part of the team that helped notify families.

“Like the man said, we’re going to get through this,” the chaplain says.

“Of course we are,” Wilson says. “But we’ve got to grieve with the people.”

So many are here.

A city public works employee wears a blue ribbon on his shirt, just beneath a patch showing his first name.

A woman offers a man a blue ribbon. Did he know someone? Yes.

Another woman, having arrived without flowers, twists a purple one off a bush.

There are flowers, 12 crosses, two pinwheels bearing the names of the dead, more flowers, many messages, so many flowers.

We will never let you be forgotten.

LoveForVB

VBStrong

Pray big

We love our city

Navy Lt. David Weller visits the memorial in uniform.

“I love Virginia Beach,” he says. “Been here six years. I never want to leave.”

He lives in Sherwood Lakes, a subdivision near “downtown” Pungo. 

He started his family here.

“It’s home, you know,” he says.

Soon after, the city releases the correspondence between the gunman and an unnamed supervisor. This is the two weeks notice email exchange. 

I hope you are able to resolve your personal reasons.

Evening falls. A car pulls up near the memorial. Parham is back.

He has taller candles contained inside glass. These should last longer. No more wax on the sidewalk.

Those other candles did their work, though. They either stayed lit or people helped keep them going when the wind blew.

“They burned out so fast,” Parham says. 

Ralph Parham II lights candles on Sunday, June 2, in memory of the 12 people killed in the mass shooting two days earlier. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]


You can provide funds for the families of victims through a city-approved fund established in coordination with the United Way of South Hampton Roads via unitedwayshr.org/vabeach or by texting VABEACH to 41444. All funds go to the victims, according to the city. Because the money goes to individuals, contributions are not tax deductible.


© 2019 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

The Independent News

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