Aurora Theater Shooting, 3 Years Later: When Moviegoers Became Superheroes

WARNING: Graphic details/images follow. Three years ago, on July 20th, moviegoers piled into the Cinemark Century 16 in Aurora, CO for a midnight screening of Warner Bros.’ The Dark Knight Rises. They came because they loved Batman. They loved superheroes. They are the kind of avid moviegoers Hollywood counts on to fuel their opening weekends for tentpole pictures. Nineteen year-old Stefan Moton and his brother saved up for weeks to be able to buy two tickets to see the movie. Aurora is a blue collar town and by no means a wealthy city.

Minutes into the film, a shooter opened fire killing 12 (including my cousin, Micayla), injuring 70 and shattering hundreds of lives. Even though there have been no honors, no medals bestowed by D.C. or any kind of memorial from Hollywood, as we come upon the third year mark of this horrific event, it is important to note the exceptional acts of courage inside that theater from victims and survivors — those who couldn’t wait to see director Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film.

In their own words, compiled from the trial of the shooter now underway in Colorado, are their stories — those who were shot in a movie theater that became a bloody battlefield. In honor of those who sacrificed themselves to save others, who helped others while badly wounded themselves, the first responders, medical teams and all those still battling PTSD, we honor them now — the superheroes of Aurora. Because it’s not okay to forget.

For the first time, in detail, here is how that tragic night unfolded inside the theater:

Navyman John Larimer took his girlfriend and his friend, fellow Navyman Bear Omundson. John and his girlfriend were so excited that they decided to leave the theater and run to Walmart to buy a Batman T-shirt for John and a Batman cape for fun to bring back with them while Bear reserved their seats and waited for two other friends to arrive. Little did John’s friends know at the time, but they were sitting next to a true-life superhero.

Alex Sullivan was celebrating his 27th birthday and brought with him a slew of friends, including Farrah Soudani. He couldn’t wait for the movie to start and even stood up and cheered in anticipation.

Married high school sweethearts Caleb and Katie Medley were there as well. Caleb was an aspiring stand-up comedian, quick-witted and funny. Katie was 9 months pregnant with the couple’s first child and was days away from giving birth.

Joshua Nowlan, a single father of two little boys, was attending with his friend who was a newlywed. The new couple and Josh piled into the seats, also anxious to see the film. His story of heroism (below) is one that I, personally, will never forget.

Ashley Moser went to the movie with her 6-year-old daughter Veronica to celebrate. She had just come from the doctor’s to see the ultrasound of Veronica’s new sibling. When they got into the theater, Ashley told Veronica she was a big girl now and put her in her own seat because it was uncomfortable for her daughter to sit on her pregnant stomach.

Then the lights dimmed, the trailers played and then the movie began. About 15 minutes into the highly anticipated summer film, a man clad head to foot in military gear pushed open the emergency exit door and threw a canister over their heads. Many people thought it was a prank until they smelled the gas and the man began shooting. People ducked, hit the floor, some — like Rebecca Wingo (the mother of two little girls) never made it out of the theater and were shot where they sat.

As a relentless hail of bullets tore through people’s bodies, these young kids were screaming out, “I’ve been hit! I’ve been shot! Help me! I don’t want to die!”

On July 20th, 400+ true heroes were born … some as young as 13 … and they have gone unhonored.

In the dark theater as the movie played and bullets flew, 22 year-old Ashley, the mother to 6-year-old Veronica, stood up to grab her little one’s hand to run out. But Veronica’s hand slipped through hers and away. Ashley then felt something hit her square in the chest. She fell over on top of Veronica. That’s when Veronica’s 13-year-old babysitter Kaylan Bailey went into action. She called 911 screaming that she needed help to try to keep the 6 year old alive. She put her hand on Veronica’s stomach to see if she was still breathing as gunshots rang out all around them. Veronica was shot four times, including in the abdomen. 911 told Kaylan to administer CPR, but she screamed into the phone that she couldn’t. Veronica was pinned under her mother Ashley who had also been shot repeatedly. Ashley could hear but couldn’t move.

Kaylan had to leave the theater not knowing the fate of the little girl she took care of and loved. Meanwhile, Ashley was in and out of consciousness as she waited on the bloody floor for help.

After the shooting stopped, the first responders came in and saw little Veronica in one of the rows. One of them, Sgt. Mike Hawkins, scooped Veronica up in his arms. He ran out of the theater with her, the crowd outside parting and screaming as he passed with her, limp and bloody, in his arms. Breaking down on the stand as he testified, he said that while he was carrying her, Veronica’s bladder gave way and that’s when he knew she was gone. He said in all his career, he had never seen anything like what he saw in the theater that night. All of the first responders said the same thing.

Ashley was rushed to the hospital to undergo surgery. Her unborn child did not survive because of the gunshot wounds. So she lost not one, but two children. And Ashley is now paralyzed from the waist down, wheelchair bound. She still has a bullet lodged in her spinal cord at C-7 and they cannot remove it as it would cause further damage. She can no longer control bodily functions and that is permanent.

She also has ongoing nerve pain up and down her legs. Her upper left lobe of her lung had to also be removed so she must be on oxygen. She has something called ‘quad coughs,’ which means that because she doesn’t have the strength enough to cough or clear her throat, she has to try to bend over and give herself the Heimlich so she can breathe.

Katie Medley, 9 months pregnant, hit the floor and hid behind the stadium seats when she realized they were being sprayed with bullets. She looked up to see her husband and high school sweetheart Caleb still sitting in the chair. She wondered why he didn’t get down on the floor. Then she noticed blood streaming from his head. She knew she had to save their unborn child. Agonizingly, she had to leave the love of her life behind. She kissed him and grabbed his hand and he squeezed it back and she told him “I will take care of our baby if you don’t make it.”

She went outside and sat at the curb alongside other injured victims while a first responder came and dragged Caleb outside. She tried to comfort another victim, a girl, and wrapped her arm around her. When she took her arm off, she noticed that she had pieces of human flesh and blood on her. Meanwhile, first responders had to put Caleb face down to keep him from suffocating on his own blood. There were no ambulances so police officer Justin Grizzle pulled him into the back seat of his police car and sped to the hospital. On the way, he could hear Caleb gurgling on his own blood as he struggled to breathe. Officer Grizzle kept yelling, “Don’t you fucking die on me! Don’t you fucking die on me!” Caleb was taken to the hospital and immediately went into brain surgery. Grizzle had just transported Moser to the hospital, too, listening to her starting and stopping breathing.

Officer Grizzle sped back to the theater to transport more victims in his car. He would save the lives of six victims in all. There simply weren’t enough ambulances; there were so many injured that when he was driving back to get more, he could hear the sound of blood sloshing back and forth on the floor board in the back seat of his car. He still has nightmares about it. Other first responders who tried to carry the injured out of the theater were slipping on blood. One girl was covered in so much blood and sweat that she kept slipping out of their hands as they tried to remove her.

Back at the hospital, Caleb was undergoing brain surgery. Because the bullet tore through his brain through the eye, he is blind in his right eye and has brain damage. Katie gave birth four days later as Caleb was floors above getting his third brain surgery. He never got to experience the birth of his first child. He can no longer talk and is trying to learn to walk again. He is wheelchair bound and the loving Katie is still by his side. It is a daily struggle but she is still very much in love with her best friend and their new baby, Hugo. They face a mountain of medical bills.

Here, in the police officer’s own words, they talk for the first time about what they saw. Caleb Medley, the one-time stand-up comedian, can be seen at the end of the video as he is now:

Farrah Soudani is considered Aurora’s miracle child, as no one knows how she possibly survived. When the shooting started, the 22 year old stood up to try to get out of the theater. Then she was shot and looked down to see blood seeping from her side. As she reached out for help, her intestines came out of her body. She reached down and literally picked them up and shoved them back in. Her friend Mike White, Jr. and his father and another friend tried to help her.

Farrah looked over to see a teenaged boy with blood gushing out of his leg and her kind spirit is such that she wanted so badly to help him, but couldn’t move herself. One of the White’s, shot himself, held her organs in with his one good arm; her other friend tried to keep her conscious by slapping Farrah’s face while also wiping sweat off of her eyelids.

Farrah ended up losing the majority of the back of her left calf (“fileted and hanging on by a thread” as she told the court). Part of her front shin was also blown off. Three of her ribs were shattered. She suffered a one-inch wide hole in her stomach.

Her diaphragm was damaged in several places and they had to re-attach it; her kidney was so damaged that they had to remove it, and part of her spleen was blown off so they had to remove that. She had burns down the left side of her body from mid-bicep down and on inside the right leg. She suffered a gash on the back of left leg and part of her left lung collapsed and there was damage done to the lining of the lung.

She would end up having 7 surgeries and had no medical insurance. And she would learn later that her friend Alex Sullivan was killed.

Lasamoa Cross was there with the love of her life, Alexander J. Boik, an artist and class clown who was only 18. He was shot in the head. The petite girl tried desperately to drag her boyfriend out of the theater but his body was too heavy for her. She was able to get him out of the row and set him up against the wall. She told the unresponsive A.J. that he’d be okay, but she would never see him alive again.

When the shooting started, single father Josh Nowlan and his friend pushed his friend’s new wife as far under the seats as possible and then created a human shield in front of her. Suddenly, Josh felt a burning pain. He would come to realize that part of his forearm and calf were blown off. After the shooting stopped, he was unable to move so his friends ran to get help, but not before pushing his tendon and ligament back into what was left of his calf.

Laying there in horrible burning pain, Josh heard a man also down in the row struggling to breathe. Josh pulled himself up to this stranger with his one good arm and leg and held onto the man’s foot and kept squeezing it, yelling at the man, “Stay with me!,” in an effort to keep him alive. When paramedics came, even though Josh was bleeding out, he told them to take another who he thought was injured worse. He has constant nerve pain and muscle spasms, and can’t walk without the help of a cane. The skin graft to help fix his forearm came from a tattooed area on his back.

The gunman carried with him a compression bandage for himself and took a Vicodin in case he got shot so he would not feel much pain and could survive. He said he knew that people would be ducking behind the seats, so to kill as many as possible, he used bullets known as “full metal jackets” that would go through the seats. This kind of ammunition was specifically used to do as much damage to as many human bodies as possible.

Navyman John Larimer, pulled his girlfriend Julia Vojtsek and his Navy buddy Bear down behind the seats when gunfire erupted. He then quickly grabbed Julia’s head and laid on top of her. Bullets ripped through the seats, over the seats and into people as they heard screams of people getting hit. After the shooting died down a bit but before it finally stopped, Julia couldn’t move. But it wasn’t because she was injured. John’s body was on top of her, unmoving. Julia tried and tried and eventually wriggled out from under her boyfriend.

After they realized what had happened, John’s great friend Bear and his friend Greg tried to wake John up, to no avail. “John’s leg was on top of my arm, I tried to move him, saying, ‘Come on, and he wouldn’t answer … he … wouldn’t get up,” he said as he tried to stifle emotion while testifying in court. “I said, ‘Greg, get his legs, we’re not leaving him here!’ ” Bear and Greg then tried desperately to carry John out of the aisle and down the staircase with Bear grabbing John’s arms and Greg, his feet. They got their friend into the staircase and tried to carry him down and had to step over another body to do so. That’s when someone yelled that the shooter was coming back in.

”So we dove into the front couple rows” and hid behind the seats. “The gunman was on the other side … from us and firing more shots. People were coughing from the gas, thinking that they were going to suffocate … once the shooting died down, we decided to move again.”

“We got up and tried to move John again but the police entered and were telling us to leave.” Bear broke down during this testimony when he realized that they had to leave their selfless hero behind. Bear is no longer in the Navy and is now a student trying to put his life back together. John Larimer saved two people’s lives that night.

Craig Edlund had known his friend Alex Teves for many years. Alex, who helped learning disabled kids, grabbed his girlfriend Amanda and pulled her down when the shooting began. She looked over the seat and he pulled her down again, this time cradling her head in his arms and whispering to her that everything was going to be okay.

That’s when Amanda and Craig heard a loud explosion. A bullet hit Teves in the forehead, killing him instantly when the back of his head was blown off. (In fact, it was so physically destructive that the defense argued vehemently not to show the jury the photo of Alex. The judge agreed).

With shrapnel in him and blood and pieces of Alex all over his face, body and hair, Craig knew Alex was gone. He pulled on Amanda to get her out of the theater, but Amanda refused to let go of Alex’s hand. The woman sitting next to them took Amanda by the hand and pulled her out of the theater. After his death, she changed her last name to Teves.

Best friends Stephanie Davies and Allie Young, 19, went to the theater together that night. Allie was shot in the neck. As blood gushed from her, Davies started applying pressure on her wound to try to save her life. Despite gunfire going on all around her, she refused to leave her friend’s side. Then she helped her to get medical attention.

Petra Hogan tried to get down behind the seats after the shooting started and then blacked out. When she came to, she found herself face down in blood. In this video, she emotionally recounts what happened next:

My 23 year-old cousin, Micayla Medek, cried out, “I’m hit” and those were her last words before she died from a gunshot wound that destroyed her heart and lungs. Her best friends in the theater that night “survived,” if you can call it that. An entire generation of the Medek family – and 11 other families’ lineages – was wiped out that night.

Gordon Cowden, a father of four, was sitting with his two young daughters Brooke, 17, and Cierra, 16 who were so happy to be seeing the new Batman film. Bullets whizzed by them and he was suddenly shot; the bullet zigzagged internally, decimating the inside of his body. Before he died, he yelled out to his girls: “I love you! I love you, both!”

Jonathan BlunkJonathan Blunk pushed his girlfriend down and under the seats when he was repeatedly shot. The former Navyman did three tours of duty in the Middle East but died watching a movie in America. And he suffered in death, bleeding out over a long time.

His girlfriend laid under the seats as a river of blood and soda literally poured over her. She testified that she tried to keep the sticky, thick liquid from her eyes. She later ran out of the theater and hid under a steel, commercial trash bin until help came. She was considered one of those left ‘unharmed’ … physically. Jonathan left behind two children.

Ryan Lumba almost bled to death after being shot in the theater. He tried to stay awake, but passed out. He woke up three to five days later with part of his small intestine removed. A bullet not only ripped through his abdomen but also pierced his left lung and left arm. He was cut open from breastbone to pubic bone to try to stem the internal bleeding. He continues to have digestive system problems; if he eats too fast he gets ill. He is also limited in physical activity. Lucky to be alive, but will have problems for the rest of his life.

Jessica Ghawi was an aspiring sports reporter who was in the theater that night with her best friend Brent Lowak, an emergency medical technician. When the shooting started, Brent and Jessica ducked down behind the seat when suddenly she was hit in the leg. He began applying pressure to the wound and tried to keep her calm when a bullet from an AR-15 ripped through the seat and in front of his face, part of Ghawi’s head was blown off. In his shock, he did the first thing he thought of to do: He prayed over her. Then he got up to run. That’s when he was shot.

Bleeding and injured, he called Jessica’s parents so they would know their daughter had been killed and they wouldn’t be searching for over 19 hours for their children like the rest of us did that horrible day.

He then selflessly went to the makeshift triage in the back of the theater and started helping to save the lives of others, not realizing the extent of his injuries because of the adrenaline pumping through his veins. He allowed the others injured to be taken to the hospital first when he, himself, needed surgery. He is still a med tech, but will never be the same.

Matt McQuinn was sitting in the front with his girlfriend Samantha Yowler. He didn’t have a chance as he was shot the most of anyone in the theater — nine times — his body was so riddled with bullets that he was unrecognizeable once the lights went on. Bleeding from the leg, Samantha shook him, trying to wake him up. She would lie next to his dead body in the dark waiting for help from her injuries because she was unable to move. She has had multiple surgeries.

Yousef Gharbi was only 16 at the time when he was shot. He blacked out and woke up in the hospital eight days later to find out that he had been shot in the head. He still has a bullet lodged there, and a pellet is still lodged in his throat. He has damage to his frontal lobe and now has learning disabilities.

Remember Stefan Moton, the soft-spoken kid who saved for weeks with his brother to buy a ticket to the Batman movie and was working to become a martial artist? He was shot almost immediately. He tried to call for his brother, Lamar, but couldn’t speak. He was instantly paralyzed from the chest down; a bullet is still lodged in his spine. He will now spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic. His family hasn’t even the money to afford a van to transport him in his wheelchair.

These are only a mere handful of those injured in the theater that night. I have not written about the heroics of Anggiat Mora after his wife and 14 year-old son were both shot, and how he got his wife out of the theater. Nor have I written about those physically uninjured but emotionally destroyed. There were 12 killed, 70 physically injured, hundreds emotionally devastated. Most have PTSD.

They continue to get up every morning and face their challenges, unable to work, two family incomes cut down to one, shouldering medical costs that some say they will never be able to get out from under and literally going broke. One victim sold a slug from her body to pay a bill.

A National Compassion Fund has been set up to try to help these heroes pay down their medical bills and to give them a helping hand to get back on their feet. It’s a first-of-its kind victims’ fund where 100% of what is given goes directly to the victims of Theater 9 and those injured in Theater 8 when the bullets pierced the wall. There is zero tax liability to the donors and, most importantly, to the victims who receive help. Please honor them now with the help they truly and desperately need:

And finally, here is aspiring martial artist Stefan Moton’s testifying in court. The audible cries in the background are from his family:

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