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‘I was waiting to die’: Capital Gazette mass shooting survivors testify in killer’s sanity trial

Balloons and caution tape line the perimeter of the Capital Gazette building after the mass shooting in 2018.
Balloons and caution tape line the perimeter of the Capital Gazette building after the mass shooting in 2018. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

The newsroom of the Capital Gazette was uncharacteristically empty on the afternoon of June 28, 2018.

A few journalists were on summer vacations. Others had taken the day off. There was supposed to be a community meeting, but it didn’t happen. By 2:30 p.m., all but one member of the advertising staff had emptied out of the small Annapolis office for a meeting in Baltimore.

It would take less than five minutes for the calculated, violent maneuvers of a stranger named Jarrod Ramos to separate the 11 remaining Capital Gazette staffers into two groups — the six who lived, and the five who did not.

On Friday, the survivors each took the witness stand in Ramos’s sanity trial, detailing what they remember from that deadly day: the blast as their glass entryway shattered, the shooter’s silence as he moved through their newsroom, the flashlight and laser shining from his shotgun, their friends’ final words.

As they took cover under desks and between filing cabinets, they said they shared the same recurring thought:

“I’m going to die.”

“I was waiting to die.”

“I thought we were going to die.”

The group, four young reporters, a veteran photojournalist and an advertising sales representative, were among the first people called Friday morning by the Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney’s Office to testify before a jury in Ramos’s trial, which began last week and will determine whether he’ll be sentenced to prison or a state hospital for orchestrating the attack.

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Ramos, 41, has already pleaded guilty to committing the murders, but his defense attorneys spent the first seven days of his sanity trial arguing that he should not be held criminally responsible for the mass shooting. They offered the jury testimonies from law enforcement, medical experts and Ramos’s sister that they say show at the time of the attack — because of a mental disorder — Ramos lacked the ability to understand the criminality of his behavior or conform it to the requirements of the law.

Defense experts said Ramos has autism spectrum disorder, delusional disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and they analyzed his years-long fixation with the Capital Gazette and his defamation fight against them. Ramos’s sister, who teared up on the stand, described the man as isolated, socially strange, highly intelligent and an accomplished poker player.

But on Friday morning, as each surviving victim of his premeditated attack took the stand, prosecutors did not even mention Ramos’s name. They called him the gunman, as did the survivors, and the testimony focused on the experiences of those he targeted.

First, they told the jury what they saw, heard and felt. Then they showed how they tried to flee and where they hid on a large model of their former workplace.

The survivors’ recollections all started with the first boom — when Ramos, wearing heavy boots and safety gear and carrying a shotgun, blasted his way through the newsroom’s front door.

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“It sounded like when a transformer blows,” said Janel Cooley, the advertising sales representative. “It shook the whole office.”

She said she stood at her desk to see what was going on, saw the door was missing and felt confused. Then, she said, she saw “a man with a gun.” Cooley dropped to the ground and crawled under her desk.

As she described what happened next, Cooley began to cry.

She heard her friend Rebecca Smith, who worked the closest to the front door, say in a quiet voice, “No, no, no.” The shotgun went off.

“That’s when I realized what was happening,” Cooley told the jury. “There’s someone in here with a gun and he’s killing us.”

From under her desk, she watched as another colleague — Wendi Winters — ran down the newsroom’s long connecting hallway. She heard Winters scold Ramos. The shotgun went off again.

It went quiet, Cooley said she remembers, and she saw the gun’s green laser lights fixed on a co-worker’s filing cabinet.

“Oh my God, they’re going to be on me in two seconds. This is going to hurt,” she recalled thinking.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, but soon after that, Cooley said she decided to run — up the walkway and over Winters, who was moaning face down, then toward the blown-out front door. Smith, bleeding on top of the shattered glass and strewn newspapers, was trying to army-crawl out of the office.

Cooley said she bent down and touched her friend, before looking back inside the newsroom. She saw the man with the gun moving toward her, she said, so she left Smith and kept running.

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“I knew there was nothing I could do for her,” Cooley said.

Back in the newsroom, the survivors said, Ramos was stalking the aisles.

Paul Gillespie, the veteran photojournalist, said he was trying not to breathe under a desk when he heard some noise from his nearby colleagues Gerald Fischman and Rob Hiaasen. The shotgun went off again, and Gillespie said he heard the men “in pain.”

The photographer decided he would fight back if he saw the shooter’s legs round on his cubicle. But then he heard a “lull” in the gunfire, he said, so he decided to flee down the same path Cooley had taken. He, too, passed Winters, but just before he reached the front door, he heard another gunshot and felt a bullet just miss him.

He briefly sheltered in a utility closet before realizing it didn’t lock, he said. He decided to take “another chance” and flee for the bank across the street from the office.

The shot that nearly hit Gillespie, law enforcement testified, was probably fired from the back area of the newsroom, where the rest of the staffers were desperately trying to hide.

When Ramos first started firing, reporters Selene San Felice, Phillip Davis, Rachael Pacella and Anthony Messenger were talking around their cluster of desks. San Felice grabbed her bag and told her colleagues she was “getting out of here.”

She was the first one to run to the newsroom’s rear exit, and the first to discover the door would not open — part of Ramos’s plot, they would later learn, to stop them from fleeing. Before he stormed the entrance, he had jammed the exit.

Messenger, at the time still a teenager finishing the third week of his summer internship, tried the door next. Then Pacella. Then John McNamara.

San Felice and Messenger dove under a nearby desk. Pacella, bleeding badly because she had slipped and hit her face on the jammed door, climbed between two filing cabinets. And McNamara, the oldest of the group, attempted to hide under a desk diagonal to San Felice and Messenger.

This, San Felice and Messenger testified, exposed him to the shooter’s vantage point.

The two young reporters heard McNamara say, “Oh my God.” Then they heard the shotgun go off again and saw their colleague fall before them.

“I thought that was going to be it for me and Selene,” Messenger told the jury.

Nearby, Davis — the paper’s criminal justice reporter — had ducked under a well-concealed desk. As the shotgun sounded feet away, he testified that he opened his phone and texted a police sergeant he had talked to earlier that day for his job. This time, he typed that his newsroom had become a crime scene.

San Felice testified that at one point, her breathing was so uncontrolled, and she feared was dangerously loud, that she buried her face in Messenger’s back to muffle herself.

Once she calmed down, Messenger testified, she told him to give her his phone. First, she called 911, but they were placed on hold because so many others were doing the same thing. She hung up, opening Messenger’s Twitter app and typed out: “Active shooter 888 Bestgate please help us.”

Then she called her father and whispered she was going to text him from her friend’s number. Then she typed that there was an active shooter in her newsroom and that she loved her parents.

“I wanted to make sure I didn’t tell them I was going to be okay,” San Felice told the jury.

Before the sirens sounded outside and law enforcement evacuated them, before they walked past the bodies and blood of their colleagues and friends, San Felice said she prayed.

“I was waiting to die,” she told the jury. “I was praying, and at a certain point, I remembered that I needed to start praying for John and not just for myself.”