There is a memorial by the water in Annapolis: five granite pillars bounded by a curving brick wall. Most days, people walk past without giving it much more than a glance.
Wednesday will be different. The city will host a morning ceremony at the Guardians of the First Amendment memorial, marking five years since journalists Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith were killed in the Capital Gazette newsroom. As the editor, I was also a target but survived because I was on vacation. It was a failed attempt to silence the free press with a gun.
In the tradition of small-town commemorations everywhere, there will be speeches, tears and the laying of flowers as a symbol of remembrance. There will be recountings of those tragic events in Annapolis, some of which I am grateful for and some of which I am not.
The attack on The Capital and the staff’s dedication to publishing an edition the next day became a symbol of enduring press freedom. The daily newspaper was forever changed in the public perception when the national media descended on Annapolis.
June 28 is Freedom of the Press Day in Maryland, and a memorial marking what happened in Annapolis as well as the sacrifices of journalists everywhere who have given their lives for this freedom is planned in Washington, D.C., by the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation.
Symbols are valuable, I agree. But I have always believed the true worth of every organization is the sum of its people. So, today I’d like to tell you a different part of the story.
All of us tied to the shooting were thrown into our own little orbits — rings of grief and anger exploding outward from 2:33 p.m. on June 28, 2018. It was the violent moment when the glass doors of our newsroom were shattered by the brutal kiss of a Mossberg combat-style shotgun.
Those arcs have taken survivors, families and friends further apart with each passing day, as time and distance do for us all. We touch base from time to time, most often when memories crowd our waking thoughts or trouble our dreams.
Me? Well, I was the editor of a small-town newspaper. Now I have this column for a nonprofit local news site. It’s still good to be a working journalist, and I’m constantly reminded it’s one of the things I have that Rob, Gerald, John and Wendi and their families do not. My wife and I still live in Annapolis, and the city is what I write about most days.
I try to remember by writing thoughtfully as Gerald did, or by caring deeply about the community like Wendi. I try to be compassionate like Rebecca, or witty like John. But perhaps most of all I try to stay in touch with the young journalists who have crossed my path, as Rob did.
Of the six people who left the newsroom alive five years ago, only photojournalist Paul Gillespie and advertising representative Janel Cooley remain in their jobs.
Paul still covers news and sports just as he always has. He had a heart attack last year and complains that his knees hurt more often. But the guy who ran for help, even as shotgun pellets flew past his head, has produced a remarkable collection of portraits of the survivors as a lasting tribute. Janel is headed to Europe for a vacation and is now a top saleswoman at The Baltimore Sun, which owns the newspaper in Annapolis. Both are part of Tribune Publishing Co.
The reporters who covered the attack on Twitter from the newsroom stayed in journalism.
Selene San Felice moved to Florida, where she leads an Axios newsletter. She bought a house and recently told me she’s found love. Her parents moved from Millersville to be close to their daughter. Phil Davis is a special projects editor for the Baltimore Business Journal, and following him on Twitter remains one of the funniest, starchiest parts of my day.
Reporter Rachael Pacella left The Capital last year and is taking a minute to find the next direction in her life. Intern Anthony Messenger is now teaching at a local school. He just got married.
Among the families of those who died, Maria Hiaasen found love again. So did John’s wife, Andrea Chamblee. Both have gotten to travel. Andrea retired from her career as a federal lawyer but remains a fierce advocate of stronger laws to prevent gun violence. I see her sister when I visit the liquor store where she works as a manager.
Maria retired from teaching high school English last year. Her kids have done the things kids do — start new jobs, and one had a kid of his own. Rob’s brother, Carl Hiaasen, retired from writing a column for the Miami Herald and now focuses on his books.
Wendi’s family has spread out the farthest. Her son and two of her daughters are in the Navy, so they go where they’re sent. The youngest, who graduated from Annapolis High School with my son, is living in Milwaukee with her fiancé.
Erica, Gerald’s wife, continues her work as a private music teacher, opera singer and producer.
I’ve lost touch with Rebecca’s family, but I understand they still live in Ohio and Virginia.
One of the most striking images from that tragic day was of three Capital Gazette journalists working on photos and stories about the shooting.
Chase Cook — the reporter who famously said, “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow” — bought a house, married and took a job in state government. That’s where photographer Josh McKerrow is, too, working as a videographer. Pat Furgurson, a longtime feature writer, has retired and lives near Annapolis with his wife and son.
The photographer who took the picture, Thalia Juarez, had just left The Capital for The Sun when the shooting took place. Today, she’s freelancing in New York, and recently had her work published in the New York Times.
Danielle Ohl, the City Hall reporter who agreed to cover the gunman’s court proceedings with Chase until we could hire a reporter for the job, is now an investigative reporter with Spotlight PA. She lives with her longtime boyfriend, a carpenter, and a cat named Wednesday who shows up on Twitter every Wednesday. The former intern who came back as a reporter to cover the trial, Alex Mann, is at The Sun.
Bill Wagner is still at The Capital, covering Navy sports like no one else. Dave Broughton, the sports editor back in 2018, took a job with the state government. Bob Hough, the high school sports editor, left the paper about a year after the shooting; he died during the COVID pandemic.
Jimmy DeButts, a columnist and editor, left journalism about a year after the shooting. He moved just across the street, though, working as an editor for the Naval Academy Alumni Association. Photo editor Jeff Bill is still at Baltimore Sun Media.
Jay Judge, the editor at The Sun who oversaw community newspapers such as The Capital and designed the blank editorial page in the next day’s edition, is still there. Marty Padden, the advertising director, remains at The Sun, as does my friend Trif Alatzas, the editor and publisher.
The editors who designed the front page the day after the shooting and for editions that followed — Erin Hardy, Mark Murphy and Greg Nucifora — are all gone. Erin stayed the longest, but Mark and Greg lost their jobs when design work went to Chicago. It’s their front page that is immortalized in bronze at the memorial.
There were people who came to help us keep going after the shooting, spending a week or a month on loan from other organizations or taking a job in a place changed by violence. They’re too many to name them all.
Brandi Bottalico, a former reporter who took a pay cut to come back and work as an editor, followed in the role of editor but now is back in state government. She bought a house and is getting married in August. Rachel Cieri Mull, The Baltimore Sun features editor who spent weeks in our temporary newsroom, is now the education and health editor at The Baltimore Banner. Ron Fritz, a Sun sports editor who followed Rachel, now works at a gambling industry news website in North Carolina.
The Capital itself, the ultimate target in the attack, is still standing even if slimmed down.
The newsroom closed during the pandemic, and there was a lawsuit against the paper’s parent companies and a settlement. The journalists’ union that formed months after the shooting still hasn’t been able to finalize a contract. Brooks DuBose, who I got to know as a student in the temporary office loaned to us by the University of Maryland, is doing a fine job as the editor. He and his wife are expecting their first baby any day now.
I guess the point in all of this is that life goes on. The man who wanted to kill us because of something fair and accurate written about him in 2011 will spend the rest of his life in prison.
You cannot silence a free press. We survived. We endure.
In addition to joining The Banner, I work to advance the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation. Former California congressman David Dreier, who served on the board of Tribune Publishing when the shooting took place, created it in memory of what happened in Annapolis.
The foundation recently started the process of selecting a design for a location approved on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The plan calls for a dedication on June 28, 2028. With the Newseum’s closure in 2019, the memorial will be an important symbol of the people who make journalism work, and who sometimes give their lives for it.
Wednesday morning, I’ll be at the memorial in Annapolis for the wreath laying.
Then at 2:33 p.m., I’ll be in The Banner newsroom, where a small group of us who knew Rob, Gerald, Wendi, John and Rebecca will pause with others for a moment of silence.
Wherever you are, I hope you’ll join us. Thanks for remembering.