By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
On the day that fifteen people died at Columbine High School, Rebecca Oakes tried to block out the barrage of news reports, the sirens and the shocked expressions on the faces of her colleagues. She closed her office door, shuffled papers on her desk and attempted to concentrate. She couldn't.
That evening, she tuned her television to the endless footage of teenagers scrambling through the school parking lot, SWAT team officers assembling with riot gear, ambulances hauling away wounded students, anguished parents searching for their children. Everything came flooding back. The phone call from her stepdad. The photographs of her mom in the newspapers. The memorial shrine outside the Chuck E Cheese pizzeria in Aurora. Her parents' empty home in Parker.
She ran to the bathroom, closed the door and vomited.
"It hit me hard," she says. "Harder than I expected."
Five years have passed since her mother, Margaret Kohlberg, and three other restaurant employees were shot and killed by a disgruntled former kitchen worker named Nathan Dunlap. Rebecca is stronger now, more confident, but she never knows when she'll be blindsided by a sudden rush of pain. The events of the past two weeks have been particularly difficult.
Rebecca says she has no idea what the survivors of the Columbine shooting are going through, although she has visited that dark place herself. She has no profound advice to give them, no magic answers, no road map to recovery. She only knows what she went through and the fragile peace she has found after countless hours of therapy and soul-searching.
"Nothing I can say will help right now," she says, picking slowly through her lunch at her favorite downtown restaurant. "This is not a time for words. But hopefully, they know they will get through this. They will do it. And they will do it for the people who died."
Rebecca was 23 when her mom was murdered. She'd just completed her last course at California State University at Los Angeles, where she'd studied psychology and criminal justice. She had wanted to be an FBI agent, like Agent Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, but she'd changed her mind after realizing she'd have to carry a gun. Like her mom, Rebecca hated the power that guns gave people and the destruction they could cause. After that, Rebecca considered becoming a criminal profiler, but by the time she graduated, she still had no idea what she wanted to do. She only knew she wanted to return home to Colorado and be with her mom, her stepdad and her beautiful mountains.
She even said as much during her last conversation with her mom. December 13, 1993. Rebecca had just been offered a promotion by the athletic-shoe company where she worked. As usual, her mom was happy, proud and hopeful. "She was absolutely my best friend," Rebecca says. "She had more confidence in me than I did in myself. She was so excited for me."
Rebecca's mom also bubbled with excitement about the upcoming holiday. Christmas was her favorite time. Each year, she decorated her home with big fat wreaths, colored lights and tree ornaments dating back to Rebecca's childhood. This Christmas would be particularly special: Four months earlier, Rebecca's parents had left California, returned to Colorado and found their dream home in the secluded Saddle Brook Farms subdivision of Parker. "She always said it was like Evergreen without the mountains," Rebecca recalls. "It was everything she wanted."
But finances were tight. Rebecca's stepdad had trouble finding a CPA position, so her mom took a manager's job at a nearby Chuck E Cheese. She'd wanted to work in a flower shop but liked the bustle of the restaurant and the children who flocked there. Besides, Rebecca and her older sister were headed home for Christmas. "She was one of those upbeat kind of people who would talk to you at a grocery-store checkout line," she says of her mother. "During the holidays, that was magnified. I missed her. I couldn't wait to see her. That was the longest we had been apart."
Two days later, at 1:23 a.m., Rebecca's stepdad called her apartment in Santa Ana, California. Rebecca's boyfriend at the time rustled her from sleep, ushered her into the kitchen and handed her the receiver. "Rebecca," her stepdad said, "someone has just shot and killed your mom." Rebecca fell to her knees. "That's not funny," she said. "I just talked with her. How do you know? Are you sure? This can't be happening."
Rebecca returned to Denver in a daze the next day. She stepped off the plane and saw the story of her mom's murder on the front page of the newspaper. Then she arrived at her parents' home and found the holiday decorations exactly as her mom had left them. "It's something you can't put into words," she explains. "I expected her to be there. I expected her to open the door and hug me. Then I saw the decorations and realized why I was there. It was surreal. Overwhelming. You just feel so lonely."
The news coverage was unrelenting. Reporters telephoned constantly. They pestered the neighbors. They camped outside the pizza parlor. They hovered in the parking lot, video cameras whirling, as she retrieved her mom's Honda Accord. "What could I possibly say that they