Some days, Lonnie and Sandy Phillips drive their Ford F-350 through the mountains or desert, and don’t talk. Pulling their camper behind them, they often need hours of silence to get a reprieve from the work they do. The work they embraced not long after the worst day of their lives.
Their daughter, Jessica Ghawi, an aspiring sports broadcast journalist, was murdered in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, July 20, 2012.
Almost immediately after the killing, the couple knew they needed to do something to fight gun violence. Every year, they put thousands of miles on their truck as they travel from one public mass shooting to another, trying to bring solace to the newest members of the “family” of survivors. They offer their knowledge of and experiences with grieving. It may not make the survivors’ loss any less, but it is the Phillipses hope that their visits and words can make the survivors’ immediate future a little less frightening or confusing.
Jessi, 24, and her mother had texted that night, and Sandy knew her daughter was with a friend at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. Lonnie was asleep in their bedroom.
“I couldn’t sleep that night for some reason, and had gotten up. And Jessi and I had texted, and then the phone rang and it was [Jessi’s friend] Brent,” Sandy recalled of the night she can never forget. She was surprised.
“It was like, ‘What is he doing calling me?’ And I picked up the phone. And then life was over as I knew it,” she said. “I started screaming.”
Lonnie woke to the screams, thinking someone had broken into their home.
“When I heard her screaming, so guttural, so animal-like, I knew something was absolutely wrong,” said Lonnie Phillips. “I went to find whoever was attacking her, and to help her, and found her sliding down the wall screaming, ‘Jessi’s dead. Jessi’s dead.’”
Lonnie carried her to the couch, and tried to understand what she was telling him.
“I started questioning her,” he said, saying he soon realized Jessi must be dead. “Because Brent is a paramedic, and he knows that she didn’t have a chance.”
Still, they clung to a sliver of hope.
They called their son Jordon, and he rushed to their San Antonio, Texas, home. He, too, questioned the veracity of the claim that his baby sister had been shot to death. After hearing the details, he excused himself and went outside. He called Brent. When he came back into the room, he was subdued. He confirmed that Jessi had been murdered in the Colorado movie theater. The next day he flew to Colorado.
While the couple was numb for months, it was soon clear that they needed to take action regarding the grisly results of gun violence.
“She says, ‘You know we’re gonna get involved in this, don’t you?’ And I said yes,” Lonnie said. “Jessi would have been very upset if we hadn’t done everything that we could possibly do to stop this carnage.”
Like many couples who have been together for several years, Sandy and Lonnie often finish each other’s sentences or thoughts.
“Stop the carnage. But also to help other people,” Sandy added. “When this happened to us, there was nobody to help us. We were in San Antonio, and it happened in Denver. So we were kind of, like, ‘What do we do?’ And feeling very alone, like nobody else had been through this.”
Even though many people had, of course, been through similar gun-related tragedies and gruesome deaths, the couple felt isolated.
“It was like, why isn’t somebody reaching out, or how do we find them?” she said. “And so as we started finding out what to expect, most of which was not much fun, we started going, ‘Wow. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had somebody holding our hand through this?’”
Five months after Jessi was killed, tiny children at Sandy Hook Elementary School were gunned down in Connecticut. Sandy and Lonnie Phillips traveled there to offer their help.
“Those parents walked into the community center that we were meeting at, and I saw their faces and the shock, and the disbelief, and the zombie-like — I knew then,” said Sandy. “I knew then this is what we’re meant to do. That was us five months ago. If we can help these people in some way, we’re gonna do whatever it is that we can to help them. And that started it, and it is just continuing on since then.”
They have been to dozens of mass-shooting communities since Sandy Hook, meeting with countless survivors to help them prepare for what might come, and to encourage them to get trauma therapy. Their support group is Survivors Empowered.
Though it is excruciating, when speaking to the media or at public gun-reform events Sandy describes the carnage to her daughter’s body caused by the assault-rifle bullets that riddled it. That is so people can truly understand the trauma that bullets cause.
“Her right leg was ripped apart and rammed into her left leg,” Sandy reported quietly. “Her abdomen received four bullets and additional fragments. Fragments were lodged in her right wrist and other places. Her left clavicle was broken by a bullet. In her head, a bullet left a
5-inch hole. The bullet entered through her left eye, ripping apart her brain.”
In a devastating twist, just seven weeks before she was gunned down, Jessi had just missed being shot in Toronto. She had been at a food court and left to get some fresh air. Three minutes later, a gunman arrived at the same place, killing two people, one of whom stood where Jessi was just minutes before. Jessi blogged afterwards about the importance of living in the moment, and of hugging loved ones. When Jessi called her mother to tell her what had happened, Sandy reassured her.
“You have seen the worst of humanity today,” Sandy told her daughter. “You will never see it again.”
Not two months later, Jessi, 24, was dead.
After visiting the El Paso mass shooting survivors last month, the Phillipses drove north to Colorado, carving out a few hours along the way to find quiet, to be in nature, and recharge.
Before the next one.
Mary Tolan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her first published book Mars Hill Murder, a mystery set in Flagstaff, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in autumn of 2023.