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Survivors still coping with last mass shooting

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 9:43 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 3:36 p.m. CDT

(MCT) — A grieving mother struggles to say the word "murder."

A traumatized girlfriend copes with nightmarish flashbacks and survivor's guilt.

In the five months since John Larimer, 27, died during a shooting rampage at a Colorado movie theater, the women in his life persevere, buoyed by the support of family and the compassion of strangers.

Kathleen Larimer, of Crystal Lake, and John Larimer's girlfriend, Julia Vojtsek, formerly of Algonquin, watched with horror at what took place in Connecticut last week. They know intimately the pain that those families will encounter in the days, weeks and months ahead.

The 20-year-old shooter in Connecticut turned the gun on himself after his killing spree, which left 20 young children and seven adults dead. Just days before, a shooter killed two others and himself in what seems to be a random act of violence at a Portland, Ore.,-area mall.

Each violent act propelled ordinary people into a national spotlight they never expected — or necessarily welcomed.

"I never in my life imagined we'd have all the lights and media in our front yard," said Larimer, whose son was the youngest of five siblings. "You just want to be close and hide for a while."

John Larimer and Vojtsek were attending a crowded midnight premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colo., on July 20 when a masked man shot and killed 12 and injured 58. James E. Holmes, a former neuroscience doctoral student at the University of Colorado at Denver, has been charged in the case.

"People ask you about it because it's so public. It's like a constant reminder," said Vojtsek, 23, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. "I have images in my head. It's a horror movie. I felt very messed up. I just didn't know at all what was going on."

She credits Larimer with saving her life by shielding her during the melee.

"The big thing is I feel super, super guilty that I didn't die that day," said Vojtsek, who has kept in touch with Larimer's sisters, brother and former college roommate. "I just feel that I should have died too."

She tries to avoid the news, but lately the prosecutor has called with updates about Holmes' case.

"I am just focusing on my recovery," she said. "I really can't do much functionally. I am just trying to get better in terms of flashbacks and eating properly again."

Last summer, she and Larimer rekindled a relationship that started in Illinois, when they worked together at a local Chili's restaurant, she said. Her father had moved to Colorado, so she looked up Larimer while visiting over the summer.

Larimer, a Navy petty officer third class stationed at Buckley Air Force Base, had excelled in his new role as a cryptologic technician, scanning satellite images for suspicious activity.

He also was a huge fan of superhero movies, once staying up for a midnight showing of a Spider-Man movie the day before prom at Crystal Lake South High School, his mother said.

In the theater, Vojtsek recalls, they were about 25 minutes into the movie when she saw the right exit door open and shut. She didn't think much of it at first.

"I thought it might be a kid dressed up in costume," she said. "Then he threw a tear gas grenade. It took about 30 seconds for the entire theater to be completely fogged. You couldn't breathe. You felt like your eyes and nose were bleeding. Your lungs are burning."

Someone screamed, "Poison!"

"John knew what was going on before everyone else," Vojtsek said. "He grabbed my head and just kind of covered me. About 20 seconds after that, the shooter began shooting. … I thought it sounded like firecrackers. John pushed me to the ground and was lying halfway on top of me."

She said she didn't know it, but Larimer had been shot twice. She heard multiple rounds of shooting, and a friend told her to stay down.

When someone urged her to run, she realized then that Larimer was not responding. As she ran out, she saw the shooter reloading.

In Crystal Lake, family members knew that Larimer was in the theater that night but agonized over the time it took to confirm his death. The hospitals had no record of him. The Navy reported that he was missing, Kathleen Larimer said.

"It was just awful. Awful," said his mother, who today is forced to look away from any reminder of the Batman sequel.

She returned to her job as a school nurse a few weeks after her son's death. She found relief in daily routines and was amazed at the level of support she found everywhere she went — from the optometrist's office to the neighborhood restaurant.

While at a driver's license facility, a state worker uttered, "Are you … ?"

The worker held her hand and spoke softly as the mother cried. No one in line complained, Kathleen Larimer recalls.

"I always figured I'd get my 15 minutes of fame when he ran for president," she mused. Her son, known for his quick wit and humor, scooped everyone on trivia games. "I always felt he would go on somewhere."

John Larimer graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater in 2008 with a dual degree in political science and history before joining the Navy. He was fourth-generation Navy and held a strong sense of duty to his country, friends and family said.

"The outpouring of support was amazing," Kathleen Larimer said, recalling how, when her son's body was returned home, every intersection was cleared for the procession. Police, firefighters and military saluted. Nearby businesses contributed food and services for free.

At the funeral, she was encouraged by those who offered comfort and regaled them with stories about her son. His second-grade teacher recalled how he raised his hand during one lesson and said, "What's the point?" she said with a chuckle.

Shortly after the shooting, the head of the history department at Wisconsin-Whitewater, Anthony Gulig, recognized Larimer as a former student. He was one of eight whom Gulig had led on a school-sponsored trip to Canada.

Gulig was soon approached by two students who had not known Larimer. They said they were touched by his story and wanted to memorialize him in some way. Their interest has led to the development of a John T. Larimer scholarship fund for sophomores, juniors and seniors.

"They were pretty immediately moved to take some action to remember him, to do something," Gulig said.

"I'd give anything not to be talking about this right now," he said. "But if there is anything good that can come of this, this is it."

For information on the John T. Larimer scholarship, go to uww.edu/news/archive/2012-10-larimer.

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