The Sandy Hook School sits on a rise overlooking a small village. Riverside Drive runs up from the village. Then Dickinson Drive turns right from Riverside and leads up into a leafy clearing where the school stands, or did on Dec. 14, 2012. The day the children died. The day forgotten, except on anniversaries. The day nothing much changed for anyone except the families of the dead.
At the corner of Riverside and Dickinson was a sign that read: “The Sandy Hook School: Visitors Welcome.” In the rain, I stood at that corner nearly a year ago and watched as people from throughout the area visited an ad hoc shrine to the dead.
Frances Wicklow, the photographer with me, took shots of people who left flowers and toys. One young man, underdressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, fell to his knees on the wet asphalt, and began sobbing. He buried his face in his hands. His body shook. I could hear Wicklow’s camera drive clicking away. She was taking a lot of pictures. The man stood, turned from us, and began walking down toward the village. I followed him.
“Excuse me,” I asked. His face was thin and pale. He nodded at me. The gesture was a question.
“I’m sorry to intrude,” I said, in my best sympathetic reporter’s voice. `But is there a reason you were so upset up there?”
“If you knew my name, you’d know,” he said, but didn’t wait for a response. “My name is Lanza. Brian Lanza.”
“Yes. Nancy Lanza was my aunt. Adam is, was, my cousin.”
We spoke for a while as we descended into the village. He told me about Adam. About Nancy. Where his family was at that moment. I could see we were walking into a crowd of journalists, the television crews with cameras on their shoulders, mikes in their hands.
“I don’t want to talk to all those people,” he said. But some had seen him and were turning their faces and their machines to us. I asked for his cell number. He gave it to me. He told me he would meet with Wicklow and me later, at the motel where he was staying. Other family members would be there, too, he said.
I stopped and watched. He was encircled by the cameras and the microphones. He broke into a run. They chased him, score of television reporters and crew members desperate for a story. He ducked into an alley way between stores in the village. I should have felt sick. I didn’t. I couldn’t believe my luck. An exclusive interview with a member of the Lanza family, someone who wouldn’t be saying the same things on hundreds of television stations throughout the world.
It reminded me of a moment 13 years earlier, in Columbine. John O’Boyle, The Star-Ledger photographer and I, were looking for the homes of potential victims. We drove to the home of Isaiah Shoels. He was reported missing, not yet confirmed dead.
His father answered the door and agreed to talk with us. We stood on the porch and then a black sedan pulled up in front of his house. Two men in suits got out of the car. “Oh, Lord,” his father moaned, “they’ve come to tell me my baby is dead.”
He was right. The men were from the medical examiner’s office. We were there. Got the story. Got the pictures. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Before I could do any more damage to the Lanza family and our own credibility, we discovered the Lanza cousin was a fraud. I called his number and an outgoing voice mail message identified him as someone else. Wicklow ran the name through her laptop and found his picture and stories about an ex-con who gets his giggles from turning up at the scene of tragedies and pretending to be a member of the family to gullible and desperate journalists trying to break out of the crowd. He pulled a similar trick in Aurora, CO.
I couldn’t believe my luck. I was not suckered into his trap.
I went to the store where the fraud had fled from the camera crews. It was part barber shop and part consignment shop for children. The owners let me in because I wasn’t carrying a camera or a microphone. I didn’t look like the scores of journalists outside looking for interviews. The owners showed me the clothing that had been brought there by local residents. Good stuff, mostly new or nearly new, some with the tags still on them. Dresses and suits and pants for little kids who had quickly outgrown them.
Felix Benitez, one of the owners, saw me looking at the racks, garments that had been brought in before so much was lost to Sandy Hook. “The clothes you see here came from children of the Hook,” he said. “Most of it, maybe all of it, was brought here by the parents and grandparents of the children who were killed.”
I stood among the Communion dresses. The white suits. The pink frilly things decorated with dogs and cats and frogs and dinosaurs. The cowboy hats and the Super Hero outfits. I closed my eyes and I could imagine children in those same clothes running up their grandparents’ walks and jumping from couches and sitting at dinner. I imagined them in thousands of pictures taken on birthdays and Christmas and summer vacations on the beach. I could almost hear their laughter and their crying… and then my thoughts turned to the horror when children in clothes like these, children who might have worn these very clothes weeks ago, looked into the eyes of the man murdering them.
I opened my eyes. I had to stop. I had to leave Newtown. I didn’t belong there. Not one of us did, not really. The thousands of journalists scouring the village, hunting down sources, looking for interviews, often filing inaccurate reports that were withdrawn hours later–none of us belonged there. Because we knew, or should have known, all of us, that nothing would change. Our descriptions of what happened would be forgotten. Would change nothing. A year later, I was right.
The loud, boisterous, indifference at the pub. The greed of the gun sellers. Now the mindlessness of the media chase. They all told me nothing would change. And, if nothing would change, why were we there? Why were we in Columbine? Why do we pretend that informing the public about the need for change will trump the amusement and self-interest peddled to us in this golden age of leaden avarice?
I went home. To my family. To my two-year-old grandson. To my daughter carrying the two little girls who would be born two months later.
I couldn’t believe my luck.
This is the last in a series of three articles.