A woman lingered next to him before gingerly tapping his shoulder.
“Thank you for what you do,” she said.
He nodded and moved forward. One foot in front of the other, like he has done each day, through the PTSD and waves of anxiety that have compounded the grief of losing his friends.
On Monday, scores of people gathered in Annapolis to dedicate a memorial to the victims of the shooting at the Capital Gazette. The event brought together local politicians, first responders, journalists, families of those who died and survivors such as Gillespie in remembrance of the tragedy that shook their city and stole five innocent lives. Titled “Guardians of the First Amendment,” the memorial shifted attention toward the importance of the local newspaper to its community and away from the trial of the man who wielded a shotgun and blasted through its newsroom on a summer Thursday three years ago.
“As staff and journalists of the hometown newspaper, these were the five individuals who truly cared about their community,” said Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley. “Without free press, we can’t have a functioning democracy.”
The day continued under the beating sun without one mention of Jarrod Ramos, the 41-year-old man who pleaded guilty to committing the mass shooting but said he should not be held criminally responsible because he had a mental disorder. Opening statements are set to begin for his sanity trial on Tuesday, which means that news over the next 10 business days will focus on whether he had the ability to understand the criminality of his behavior at the time and conform it to the requirements of the law. The jury’s decision could send him to prison or a state hospital.
But on the eve of the trial and the third anniversary of the attack, the focus was not on the shooter but on the lives of the victims and how to find meaning in grief.
The front page of the Capital, which for much of the last week included headlines about the trial, led with portraits of its five deceased employees: Rebecca Smith, Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman and John McNamara. “Their Words Live On” the headline read.
“In their decades at the Capital Gazette, they became staples of the Annapolis community through their writing,” the story said of the reporters.
And it was true. Through their journalism and their passions, their fingerprints were everywhere in town. They were on the local high school, where McNamara paced the sidelines, pen in hand. They were on the Chesapeake Bay, where Hiaasen and his wife used to celebrate their anniversary. They were at the Unitarian Universalist Church, where through a glass window Winters’s son can see the door where his mom used to greet worshipers during the rare moments when she wasn’t reporting. And they were on the neighborhood streets of Annapolis, lined with red mailboxes that read “The Capital.”
“We are all here because we have no choice but to press on,” said Summerleigh Winters Geimer, a 23-year-old who stood before the crowd with the same red-tinted hair as her deceased mother, Wendi Winters.
She recalled the last time she saw her mom, how she had twirled around in a black-and-white dress with a red sweater over it.
“Do you get it?” Winters had asked her daughter, before explaining that she was “black and white and read all over.”
“Now it seems like black and white and read all over is a mean joke for a newspaper covered in blood,” Geimer said.
The dedication of the memorial channeled that pain of loss into cries for action in support of the First Amendment.
The idea for a memorial honoring the slain journalists originated with the members of the local Caucus of the African American Leaders, who over the last three years worked with city officials to fundraise for and design the structure in front of the local elementary school.
Buckley, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), Convener of the Caucus of African American Leaders Carl Snowden and others addressed the crowd, stressing the necessity of local journalism and the importance of preserving The Capital — especially after Alden Global Capital, a New York-based hedge fund famous for downsizing newsrooms, acquired the paper last month.
“Newspapers can be killed. People can be killed. What cannot be killed are the legacies of the five journalists we honor today and the indomitable spirit of those who continue to do this essential work,” said Laura Lippman, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who worked with Hiaasen.
Rick Hutzell, the beloved former editor of the Capital who took a buyout last week, spokethrough tears about the friends he lost that day — about their ideas, about their stories and writing and their laughter.
“If you worked at the Capital or you work at the Capital, please stand up,” he said, after addressing the families of victims.
About a dozen people rose.
“You are the memorial.”