Connie Michalik met Carla Hochhalter the day after the Columbine High School shootings in April, in the intensive care unit of Swedish Medical Center, where her son Richard Castaldo and Hochhalter's daughter Anne Marie lay grievously wounded from multiple gunshots.
"We spent a great deal of time together," said Michalik. "She was very sweet, very nice. During the whole time at the hospital, four months total, I never heard her say anything mean or bitter about [Columbine shooters] Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold. . . . You kind of go in stages. First you're devastated, then you're angry, and then you move on to deal with it. She never really left the devastation stage. She was just stuck there."
On Friday, a little more than six months after the shootings, Carla Hochhalter walked into an Englewood, Colo., pawnshop, asked to look at a .38 caliber handgun, apparently loaded the weapon with ammunition she had brought to the shop and shot herself. She was declared dead at the same hospital where her daughter was saved by the heroic work of emergency room doctors--another victim, some are saying, of the worst school shooting in U.S. history.
"We have all come to know and love the Hochhalter family," Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas said in a statement. "This pain and suffering is not fair. We do not understand it. All we can do is share it with the Hochhalters and others in our community."
Coping with such tragedies, said Robin Fudge Finegan, a Columbine victims' advocate, "is not a process where you complete one step and move onto the next. You take a couple of steps forward and then step back. . . . You go back and forth."
Hochhalter died at the end of a week that brought painful reminders of the devastating assault at Columbine High School. Six months after the tragedy came the arrest of a 17-year-old Columbine student who authorities said had vowed to "finish the job" for Harris and Klebold, the two young gunmen who killed themselves after a rampage that left 12 students and a faculty member dead and two dozen wounded.
Anne Marie Hochhalter, a shy and private person who has shunned media attention since the April 20 shootings, was among the most seriously injured. Doctors called her survival a miracle, and she was not released from a Denver-area rehabilitation hospital until August, after months of treatment for paralysis of her legs. At that time, she wrote: "I still have many obstacles to overcome, but I know that I can do it and God will give me the strength along the way."
Just this month, she had taken an important step in her recovery, lifting her legs several inches. Her father, Ted Hochhalter, an employee of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, called it "a tremendous, tremendous achievement."
But even as the Hochhalters took steps to move forward--Anne Marie has returned to Columbine part time, and her family moved into a new, wheelchair-accessible home--Carla Hochhalter continued to struggle.
Michalik said she saw Ted Hochhalter recently and he told her his wife was "having a hard time."
"She was just so worried about Anne Marie," said Michalik. "How she was going to get around school, how she was going to be able to go to college, how she would be able to drive. She was just so focused on Anne Marie.
"I really thought she would get there, that if you gave her time, she'd get there."
CAPTION: Carla Hochhalter, above, was unable to recover emotionally after her daughter Anne Marie, left, was shot by two students at Columbine High School. "She never really left the devastation stage," said a friend.
CAPTION: Police investigate an Englewood, Colo., pawnshop where Carla Hochhalter took a .38 caliber handgun, loaded it and then shot herself dead on Friday.