Sandy and Lonnie Phillips have taken to a life on the road after their 24-year-old daughter was shot dead in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, June 20, 2012.
Jessica “Jessi” Ghawi, who dreamed of becoming a sports broadcaster, was with a friend at a midnight showing of the movie “The Dark Knight Rises.” When a gunman threw a smoke bomb into the theater, chaos broke out and the gun shots began.
Ghawi died from multiple gunshot wounds. She was one of 12 people killed; another 58 were injured by gunfire. Fewer than two months earlier, she had barely missed being shot. In a Toronto mall, a gunman shot two people dead where Ghawi had just been. She later told her mother she had been standing exactly where one of the shooting victims died, just minutes earlier.
Lonnie and Sandy Phillips said they have learned this kind of story is not longer unusual.
“We now have subclasses of public mass shootings,” Lonnie Phillips said. “Now we have the second person that survived Las Vegas and was murdered in Borderline cafe.”
Telemachus Orfanos was among the festival goers who survived the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas Oct 1, 2017. The shooting left 58 dead and more than 400 wounded. Approximately a year later, Orfanos was one of the 100 people inside the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, Nov. 7, 2018, when a gunman opened fire. Orfanos was one of 12 people killed; another dozen were injured.
Some of the California residents who survived the Las Vegas shooting regularly gathered at the Borderline to listen to country music, dance and support one another.
Orfanos’ father was quoted in the press at the time, blaming his son’s death on the gun culture.
The Phillipses had more examples of people experiencing multiple shootings, because they have met so many survivors.
“And then we have the young lady, this young lady that was not wounded, but was at the shooting in Las Vegas and was so traumatized by that that she wouldn't go out in big public spaces. And finally went to the Gilroy Garlic Festival and was there to witness that,” Sandy said.
A man shot and killed three people and wounded 17 at the festival in Gilroy, California, July 28, 2019.
“So, you know, this is happening more and more. We know one woman that lost all four of her children to gun violence, but in different years. We know another woman whose two children [were shot and killed], 20 years apart. She was actually pregnant with her son when her daughter was killed. And 20 years later, he was killed in a robbery.”
Lonnie said these kind of odds should help people realize something must be done about gun violence.
“When we think of in that sense, you have to realize since with these coincidences, the odds against that happening to two people, the same thing missing a mass shooting and even killing and another that then has to be able to resonate with people that ‘God, this is happening so often. It can happen twice to two people.’ But they still do not believe that it could ever possibly happen to them. It's just human nature.”
Sandy and Lonnie said they were also complacent about shootings before Jessi was killed.
“Until it happens to them, they are not going to be involved in thinking it. That’s what happens to other people,” he said. “Problem is trying to convince people that this could very easily happen to you. It's just, no one believes it. It's too, it’s like getting hit with a piece of space junk.”
For the Phillipses, the pain and sorrow of Jessi’s murder never goes away. But after the Sandy Hook shooting happened just six months after the Aurora shooting, they traveled to Newtown, Connecticut. They wanted to see if they could be of any help to those parents whose children were also murdered by a gunman.
After that, they knew this was their path. Sandy and Lonnie Phillips decided to commit themselves to helping others who were experiencing the loss of a child or other loved ones after a mass shooting.
One element the Phillipses and other survivors address is language. Sandy said she does not agree with using phrases that somehow lessen the impact of a person’s death, and they stress that when they work with other survivors.
“If you're using [a phrase] like ‘my son, I've lost my son.’ No, you didn't ‘lose’ your son. Your son was brutally taken from you,” Sandy said she counsels survivors. “He was murdered, slaughtered. Whatever word you want to use. But tell it authentically and honestly.”
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.