The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Theirs was a 25-year romance. Then the love of her life took a bullet to save a stranger.

A 2012 photo of Malcom Winffel, wife Norma and children Kayla and Brandon. (Photo courtesy of Norma Winffel)

Norma Winffel and her husband Mike had their morning ritual.

He’d wake up before dawn for work and kiss her goodbye. They’d exchange I love yous. As he left for his job at the naval base in Potomac, she’d whisper: “Holy Spirit, stay with my husband and take care of my family.”

Then Mike would call her at 7:30 a.m. to see how the kids made off to school and again at 9 a.m. to check that she’d made it to work safely. Then he’d call around 2:30 p.m. on his way home.

But on Friday May 6, she called him before noon to let him know she wouldn’t be able to talk later. An admissions counselor at Montgomery College, she had to oversee an honors student ceremony that afternoon.

She wanted to tell him about the training she’d just had on how to respond to an active shooter on campus, but he kept playfully interrupting her to tell her how beautiful she was.

Then he had to go. He and his colleague Carl Unger were off to the mall, where they often treated themselves to lunch after a long week.

“I’m on my way to lunch. I love you,” he said, cutting her off. She feigned exasperation.

“No I love you, too?” he asked her teasingly.

“I love you,” she said.

That was the last time Norma Winffel would ever speak to her husband.

Shortly after they hung up, Malcom “Mike” Winffel, 45, crossed the Westfield Montgomery Mall parking lot chatting with his coworker about whether they should eat at Chipotle when they heard a woman screaming for help and walking backward from a gun-wielding man. Winffel ran in her direction, then thrust himself between her and the gunman. The gunman didn’t say a word. He just smiled. And then he fired. The shooter, Eulalio Tordil, had killed his wife the day before and later would kill another woman before he was arrested at a Boston Market, according to charging documents.

Man arrested in Md. killing spree allegedly menaced his wife, stepdaughters

Winffel was struck by a bullet in his chest and fell to the asphalt. Unger was hit four times, in his foot, shoulder and buttock. The woman was shot through the upper left chest. Unger rolled between two cars, and saw Winffel lying nearby. He heard someone say, “I think it’s too late.”

‘There was not a sad day in this man’s life’

In early June, Norma sat in the dining room of her Boyds, Md., home and scraped with her thumbnail at a stray piece of scotch tape stuck to the table. Mike’s gold wedding band hung on a chain around her neck. On the table was a framed 8×10 photo of her husband staring up at a pencil drawing Kayla, their 17-year-old daughter, had sketched of him. It was taken at her school’s art show the night before he died. He didn’t know she had been working on a series of portraits of his face.

Norma flipped through videos of Mike saved on her phone. There was one from several weeks before of Mike teaching their son to shave. It was late at night, but Brandon, their 15-year-old son, had bounded into their bedroom suddenly eager to learn and Mike didn’t hesitate. In another, her husband does a cannonball into a pool. When he surfaces, he bellows with laughter.

“Hear him laugh?” Norma said, smiling. Then, quieter, as if reminding herself: “He had the best laugh.”

After he died, Norma played those videos and five saved voicemails from him over and over. She was as in love with him as the day they married, she said. They slept holding hands.

“That is my greatest pain that no matter what kind of day I was having I looked forward to coming home to him because he made it all good. He’d say, ‘It’s okay, we have each other. Who cares? Do they have what we have?’ And that to me is irreplaceable,” she said, her voice catching. “….There was not a sad day in this man’s life, not a sad day.”

Mike was a doer. He was always working on a project, or helping friends with theirs. When he saw a neighbor’s front door was chipped, he’d offer to paint it. When a friend lost his house in the recession and moved into a run-down townhouse, Mike was there to plaster the walls. He was also a jokester, adopting affectionate nicknames for everyone he knew, even the captains at the naval base where he worked as a contractor.

Robert Robles, his best friend for two decades, said one of his favorite stories about Mike was one he heard after he died. Mike’s daughter wasn’t going to go to prom because she couldn’t find anything to wear. Mike took a day off work and went shopping and bought her 13 dresses to try on at home. She liked three, so he told her to keep them. She could wear one to the dance, one to graduation and save one for a later occasion.

She wore that third dress, Robles said, to Mike’s funeral.

“In Mike, you saw a person who every morning woke up with excitement about life. He’d think. ‘“What adventure am I going to have today? How can I take full advantage of this life?”’ Robles said.

If it were a warm, sunny Monday, he’d suggest taking the kayaks out on the lake. Life doesn’t wait for the weekend, he’d say. He whistled getting ready for work. He played soccer on Wednesdays and was a kid about superheroes. The day he died he’d planned to take his son to see the new Captain America movie. Instead, the family went without him on his birthday, June 3, to honor his memory.

“The loss is irreplaceable, the silence in this house is unbearable,” Norma said. “Because he was a loud, he was funny. [He said,] ‘You’ve got life, live it.’ And that is hard to fill.”

A nightly family prayer

Norma was moving into a new apartment in 1989, standing on her tippy toes trying to put away a box on a high shelf, when out of nowhere Mike appeared and effortlessly tapped it in. He smiled. “Looks like you could use help,” he said.

His brother’s girlfriend was Norma’s new roommate and he’d stopped by to drop something off. Soon they found themselves socializing together, always invited to the same parties and outings. He courted her for months, even joining her church’s youth group to be near her. That Christmas, when they were short one of the Three Kings for the nativity scene, he volunteered.

He proposed a year later and a year after that, both in their early 20s, they were married in December 1992. The children followed.

Norma is a devout Catholic. Mike was as well, she said, but while she was more active in the church he displayed his faith in how he lived to help others. Every night, the kids would gather in their parents’ bedroom to say prayers together, each sharing what they were thankful for.

Their son has taken his father’s death especially hard. Norma has asked if he wanted to have friends over, but he told her he’d lost his best friend. The only time he’s laughed is when they watched a rerun of Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show, a family favorite, and he reminisced about his dad dancing when Ellen featured the “Running Man Challenge.”

Her daughter channels her emotions in her writing. After he died, she wrote a poem that begins: “I’ve never heard silence as loud as the silence that lingers in my house. It’s like each tear is a breaking wave and I know that you can see me crying, but inside I’m screaming.”

A GoFundMe page has raised $129,000 for them, but Norma still worries about their futures. She wiped a tear away with her index finger. She said she tries not to cry in front of her children. “I just hope I am strong enough to give them a happy life because that was his department,” she said. “I feel like I’ve known happiness to the fullest extent of the word and I don’t see how I could ever get there again. …It’s more about making sure my kids have what I had, that full and complete love. And happiness. That’s what gets me through it.”

‘Beautiful Wife’
Norma hasn’t spoken to the woman whose life her husband saved. She also hasn’t heard from Carl Unger, the coworker he was with that day, who survived.

Unger, who is still at home recovering from his injuries, worked with Mike for about six years. They ate lunch together every day. He said he’s wanted to call Norma, but he just doesn’t know what to say.

“I think about them every day, say a little prayer,” Unger said. “He was a good family man. He was always joking and smiling. He was a good guy. I’m going to miss him.”

Norma said she understands that Unger and the woman, who police have not named, may feel survivors’ guilt. But she wants them to know, especially the woman, that they feel no animosity toward them. She said her children want to talk to the woman he saved, to tell her that it’s not her fault. That they’re proud their dad was there to protect her.

On the day her father died, Kayla had texted her mother that their school was on lockdown because of an active shooter at the mall.

Then Norma’s phone began to ring. She ignored the unidentified caller four times. When she answered, it was a detective on line asking for Norma. She hung up. Her chest tightened. Her son called. He had just gotten home from school and their driveway was filled with police cars. He asked her if everything was okay.

“Everything is going to be okay, buddy,” she said.

But she knew. She’d been calling Mike frantically, leaving messages begging him to answer.

When she pulled up to her home that afternoon, she pleaded with the detective to tell her that Mike had just been injured. The detective said she couldn’t.

Police found her cell number in his phone directory saved under “Beautiful Wife, ” they told her.

Through the shock, Norma remembered her morning prayer for her husband’s safety. “What happened, Holy Spirit?,” she recalled thinking. “We had a deal.”

Less than an hour after Mike’s death, their pastor from St. Rose of Lima was at their house.

Norma asked him why her husband had to die. Why couldn’t Mike have been a hero who was injured?

“Heroes are for the media,” she recalled him saying.

“Mike,” he said, “was a martyr.”

Her pastor’s words have given her a measure of peace. Now, she said, the world knows what she always had — how special her husband was.

Read more about heroes:

This 77-year-old hero was stabbed trying to save slain British lawmaker

In the midst of the Brussels airport attacks, this worker started saving people

The fearless father who threw himself on a suicide bomber, saving ‘hundreds’ of lives in Beirut

‘I Got You:’ San Bernardino victim shielded female co-worker during shooting, saving her life

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