For Aurora theater shooting victim Carli Richards, the worst isn't over yet
Carli Richards watched as a man dressed all in black walked into the crowded movie theater through the emergency exit farthest from where she and her boyfriend, Chris Townson, were sitting. He didn't sneak in like a thief, nor did he burst through the door like a Hollywood gangster. He was almost nonchalant, pausing for a split second near the screen before hurling what looked like a can of soda. Richards was annoyed. She figured his appearance was a stunt to promote The Dark Knight Rises, whose midnight premiere she was watching. This isn't funny, she remembers thinking as the hissing can clattered to the ground in front of her.
"What the hell is that?" Townson asked.
Richards bent down to see, but the smell hit her first. It was an unmistakably acrid scent, one she remembered from her three years in the Navy. "Tear gas," she said quietly, before bolting upright. Whatever was happening, Richards didn't want to be there anymore.
As she stood, she heard a pop like a balloon bursting and felt something warm splatter her arm. She remembers stooping down into the spreading gas to grab her purse and sling it over her shoulder. But her escape from the Aurora Century 16 is a blur.
What she does vividly recall are the small details: the sound of fireworks as she ran and how her legs felt wet, as if she were sweating.
The pain didn't hit her until she and Townson reached their car. But when it did, it hit hard. "We need to leave; we need to go," she remembers saying. "We need to go to a hospital."
Richards had been hit with birdshot, small metal pellets packed into a shotgun shell and usually used for game hunting. Twenty-two of them had blasted into her skin, leaving bloody holes and gashes. Later, a surgeon would carefully dig most of them out. A few pellets still remain inside her, a reminder of the night she went to the movies a Batman fan and left a victim.
But for Richards, the victimization didn't end there.
In the months since the shooting, she's been harassed online by people who have labeled her a liar, an actor, a publicity seeker and a pawn in a government conspiracy to take away America's guns and to frame James Holmes, the former University of Colorado neuroscience student accused of murdering twelve people and injuring seventy others, including Richards, last July 20. Holmes will face the death penalty if he's convicted.
The harassers, some of whom call themselves "Holmies," are part of a growing phenomenon in which people congregate online to scrutinize and criticize victims of mass shootings and other tragedies and defend those who have been accused of perpetrating them.
"Holmes is a patsy. Where is the security footage?" one person asked on a blog post Richards wrote about the theater shooting.
Other notes are more personal and nasty. "Being dog ugly and a sore loser are not very attractive," a woman wrote on Facebook. "Maybe someone needs to tell her this."
Richards doesn't know why the Internet tormentors have targeted her more ruthlessly than some other victims of the Aurora shootings. Maybe it's because the aspiring model and punk-band frontwoman lives her life out loud. Before the shooting, the 23-year-old had a sprawling, even revealing online presence due to her modeling and music interests, and no need for privacy settings. Since the harassment started, she's taken steps to protect herself, including deleting some profiles and disguising others. But she refuses to hide completely.
To disappear "would mean they were somehow justified or I would be accepting what they said or what they did," she explains. "They kind of win."
And Richards isn't going to let that happen.
With her dyed-black hair and don't-fuck-with-me smile, Richards isn't the average model, but she is beautiful. Thin but muscular, she has hazel eyes, a delicate upturned nose and a dimple in her chin. In the five years since her eighteenth birthday, she's covered her skin in a patchwork of ink. The portion that's not inked is milk-white and unblemished, save for the scars.
After the shooting, Richards got a diagram of an adrenaline molecule tattooed on the left side of her chest. It looks like a hexagon that's sprouted branches, and it's there to remind her that adrenaline is one of the things that saved her life that night.
Most of her tattoos serve a similar purpose. "They're kind of like milestones," she says. "They bring back nothing but good memories. Even the tattoos that are for shitty things bring back good memories and remind me of positive things."
There's the skull on her arm in memory of a friend who died of cancer, a scarlet "A" to remind her to be proud to be an atheist, and the Muppet character Animal for her little brother. She has a tattoo of the fire flower from Super Mario Brothers to match the one Townson got of the Mario Brothers mushroom. The phrase "sevas tra" — "art saves" backward — is scrawled on her forearm. The tattoo is in her handwriting because writing is her creative outlet.
She also has tattoos for her parents: a red cross with "MOM" in the middle for her mother the nurse, and a bass clef and the word "DAD" for her father, who she jokes loves his guitars almost as much as his children. "My parents gave me everything they possibly could and then some," Richards says. "They've just been my rock through every crappy thing that goes on."
Richards was born in 1990 in Akron, Ohio, the first of two children. Music was important to her from a young age; when she was twelve, her dad gave her a guitar, but Richards admits she was "too impatient to really learn how to play it." A few years later, he bought her a bass guitar for her birthday, and Richards fell in love. She started her first band in the summer before her freshman year of high school. "I was like, 'I don't care if I'm good at it, I don't care if other people like it, I just want to play music,'" she says.
But while her immediate family was solid and supportive, Richards's childhood wasn't always happy. She was abused by a relative, a secret she initially hid from her parents. As a teenager, she could be depressed. She didn't pay much attention in school until her senior year, and she didn't have a plan for after she graduated in 2008. Thinking she could parlay a stint in the military into money for college, she decided to sign up for four years in the Navy.
Richards trained as an aircraft mechanic. Her job was to repair F-18 fighter jets. "I thought fighter jets were cool because they were like muscle cars," another passion of her dad's that she inherited. She never deployed anywhere dangerous, but did several short stints on aircraft carriers, including two in the Pacific. The Navy, she says, taught her how to be practical and efficient. After watching the guys in her squadron start rumors about her love life and stick her and the other women with the toughest jobs, it also made her a feminist.
Early on in her service, while she was in training school in Florida, a friend convinced her to go to a hotel party. They were the only women there, and her friend was raped by two military men, only one of whom was ever disciplined for it. "That was really triggering," Richards says.
But it wasn't the only traumatic thing that happened to her in the Navy. She was also physically injured in an accident when a jet started up unexpectedly as she was darting across a flight deck. The blast from the jet exhaust knocked her down and blew her under another plane's air intake; she was saved when several people pulled her away before she was sucked up. The impact shredded her knee, but Richards stubbornly completed her duties before swabbing away the blood.
The mental toll from both incidents proved overwhelming, and although she eventually got counseling, she received an administrative separation from the Navy in October 2011.
About the time she got out, she started dating Townson, an aviation electronics technician from her squadron. He was planning to attend college after the Navy, and in December 2011, Richards moved with him to Denver. Townson enrolled in the Colorado Film School and eventually started working as a baker. Richards took classes at the Art Institute of Colorado and got a job at Macy's in the Cherry Creek mall.
One of their favorite distractions was going to the movies.
On July 19, Richards and Townson spent the afternoon at a photo shoot in Boulder, where she posed nude for a series of close-ups in which her bare stomach was photographed to look like a moonlit desert. She met the photographer on a website called Model Mayhem, and although neither of them gets paid, they can both use the photos to populate their portfolios in the hopes of landing paying gigs. She earns a small amount of money through Zivity.com, a subscription website where users pay to view models' photos. Many of the models on Zivity are like Richards — edgy girls with tattoos, lip piercings and pink faux-hawks.
After the shoot, she and Townson returned to Denver to change clothes and wait for the movie; Townson, a Batman fan since he was a boy, had scored tickets online to the 12:05 a.m. showing. Richards wore her favorite jean shorts and a Joker T-shirt that had been her dad's in the '80s under a thin black blazer. Townson put on a Batman T-shirt and a baseball cap. Walking hand in hand in the parking lot, Richards recalls, they were in a giddy mood. Things were going well in Colorado. They were both chasing their dreams, they'd both recently quit smoking, and they were in good shape from taking the dog on long summer walks.
Theater number nine was packed by the time they arrived. Not wanting to crane their necks, they passed up two center seats near the front for a pair of aisle seats farther up. When the lights dimmed, the entire theater let out a celebratory whoop.
Fifteen minutes later, there was chaos. Richards and Townson were among the first people out of the theater. It wasn't until they reached the car that they realized they were covered in blood. At first, Richards thought it must have been someone else's. But as the excruciating pain in her right arm set in, she came to understand that it was her own. Townson wasn't hurt.
They drove out of the parking lot, headed for a traffic cop whom they'd seen earlier standing watch over a construction project on the road leading to the theater. As they were leaving, the first police car came barreling toward the theater, tires screeching and lights blazing.
The traffic cop flagged down an ambulance for them, but instead of heading for a hospital, it continued on to the theater, where victims vastly outnumbered emergency response vehicles. Two badly injured victims were loaded into the ambulance alongside Richards. Short on space, the paramedics moved her to a seat. They'd also cut off half of her T-shirt to assess her wounds, and her bare back, sticky with blood and sweat, adhered to the vinyl seat cover. "Every time it would unstick, it was like pulling a Band-Aid off the wounds," she remembers.
The ambulance ride seemed to take forever. Richards might not have gotten through it if hadn't been for a young paramedic. "My hand started tingling and my arm was in the worst pain ever, and I really needed to rest my hand on something," she says. "They didn't really have much of a sling for me...so I was like, 'I know this is a strange request, but will you hold my hand?'"
At the hospital, doctors cut off the rest of her clothes, examined her, administered pain meds and asked a million questions. And then suddenly, she was alone. Bandaged and shaking from shock, she tried calling her mom in Ohio, but it was the middle of the night, and no one picked up. She had no way to contact Townson, either. Richards had dropped her cell phone on the way out of the theater and couldn't remember the last four digits of his phone number.
As she lay there, questions about the shooter ran through her mind. Who was he? Why did he do it? Did he act alone or was he part of a group? "It was like, What if someone comes in here and shoots us all again?" she says. "I just wanted to go home."
Meanwhile, Townson had been frantically searching for her. After being directed to the wrong hospital at first, he finally found Richards at Denver Health Medical Center.
"It was a big relief," he says. But her wounds "were worse than I expected." As far as he knew, Richards had only been hit in her right arm. But doctors discovered that the birdshot had also sprayed both of her legs, her back and backside, and her chest.
After about eight hours, though, Richards felt strong enough to leave and convinced the doctors to let her check out. But her nightmare was just beginning.
That morning, she got on Facebook to let friends and family know she was okay. "I basically said something along the lines of ... 'Someone threw tear gas at me and Chris and we smelled it and then we ran. I got shot a few times but I'm okay. My phone got shit-stomped on the way out of the theater, so if you need to contact me, you should do it here.'"
But after a little more time, she decided to let all of her feelings out online, writing a longer account on the same blog where she posts her modeling photos.
In addition to describing in detail what happened at the theater and the hospital, Richards confessed her confusion over how to answer questions from friends about what she felt when she saw the shooter and why she reacted the way she did. "In a split second, I was able to see that there was no fighting a dude in what appeared to be full combat gear, so I ran," she wrote. "I hope to not offend anybody by saying this, but I wasn't touched by an angel, I wasn't 'blessed' — I had a good head on my shoulders and I used it."
A friend posted Richards's account on her WordPress blog, along with two photos of Richards's injuries: the first is a close-up of her right elbow, caked in dried blood and punctured by three circular wounds. The second is a photo Richards took of herself in her bathroom mirror. In it, she's standing in profile and holding up the side of her tank top. The right side of her body is pocked with bloody bullet holes, and the skin around each wound is puffy and pink.
The WordPress post went viral, racking up 120,000 hits in a week. Other blogs picked it up, and on July 27, seven days after the shooting, it was the second-most-read post on all of WordPress, the largest blogging system in the world. Soon, someone Photoshopped Richards's quote about not being touched by an angel onto the picture of her in her bathroom mirror and a meme was born. It shot around the Internet and was especially popular with atheist blogs; though Richards identifies as an atheist, she hadn't meant her story to be a manifesto.
"My whole point was, the real angels were the people who took care of me — you know, Chris, the people at the hospital, the cops, the paramedics and stuff," she says. "That was the whole point of that, but that got misconstrued."
The vicious remarks started almost immediately. People left comments on the blog calling Richards "stuck up" for writing that she was saddened that some victims curled up on the floor instead of running out of the theater. They said her account was "self-indulgent" because she credited her survival to having good instincts, common sense and military training. They called her a bitch, a cunt and a whore, and accused her of using her experience to get famous. Several commenters declared that it was God, not her quick reaction, that had saved her.
"I am disgusted and repulsed by this woman," one person wrote. "I am sorry for your injuries and the event you have endured but coming out here in this holier-than-shit way is shameful."
It's true that some of what she wrote is controversial. It's also real. Her blog post reads like a diary entry in which she vacillates from one viewpoint to another; it's clear that she's trying to work out what she's feeling. After the line about how she was saddened that other victims didn't run, she wrote: "I don't want or need to think about all of that though, because all it does it bring on a barrage of emotions where I feel angry with them and then guilty and then sad and then run-on sentences. It's just not a good idea. And no matter how they reacted to it, the event itself was nobody's fault but that of the criminal who did this."
Some commenters defended her. "I cannot believe the ugly judgemental hate being spewed all over this blog by ignorant people," one wrote. "Carli is a victim trying to make sense of the senseless. Period." Another wrote, "If you don't agree with what she wrote, then bite your tongue. She doesn't deserve more mixed emotions. I think she has enough to deal with."
But by then, the Internet knew who she was. It didn't take long for the trolls to find her Facebook page, her Tumblr account, recordings of her singing with her band and her modeling website. And soon, the comments became even more personal. People chastised her for not cleaning the toothpaste off her mirror before taking the picture of her injuries. They said her tattoos were trashy and her music sounded like a dying cat. They left bullying comments on her modeling photos. "She's sucking in her gut," one woman wrote. "I'm not sure where she got the idea that is sexy but it has compelled me to do massive amounts of sit-ups."
Richards was shocked by the avalanche of negative attention. "All of a sudden, I knew a lot of people and a lot of people knew who I was," she says. And judging from their comments on her social-media accounts and elsewhere on the Internet, a lot of those people appeared to be not just verbally attacking victims, but vehemently supporting the alleged killer.
The police have never doubted the identity of the murderer.
Holmes was arrested at the scene just minutes after the shooting, standing next to his car behind the theater. At first they thought he was a SWAT team member because he was dressed in black tactical gear. But when they saw that he wasn't rushing around like the other officers — one witness who testified at a preliminary hearing in January said he was "just standing there" — they realized that he was perhaps their suspect.
The officers ordered Holmes to the ground and began searching him. He was dripping with sweat, but the officers say he didn't seem fazed by what was happening. On Holmes and in his car, police found two handguns, gun cases, vehicular deterrent spikes and a plastic tablecloth holder like the one they found wedged onto the emergency-exit door to prop it open.
Holmes has since been charged with 24 counts of first-degree murder — two for each person who died — and 140 counts of attempted murder for the seventy wounded victims.
But despite the seemingly overwhelming evidence against Holmes — including photos that he took of himself posing menacingly with weapons in the hours before the shooting — and the horrifying nature of the crimes, there are still people who question his guilt and a small group who see him as a hero or as a victim himself, wrongfully accused.
Almost immediately after the shootings, tributes to Holmes began to pop up online. Some of the most tasteless made light of the massacre with memes. Others idolize or romanticize him. The microblogging site Tumblr is a repository of personal adoration for Holmes. Fans calling themselves Holmies post GIFs and original artwork of him, as well as photos of themselves wearing flannel shirts and drinking Slurpees, two of his purported interests. They blog about writing letters to him in jail and fantasize about meeting him in real life.
"I had a dream that I met James Holmes!!!!" says one recent post by a user who describes herself as a twenty-year-old English major at a college in Texas. "I tried to ask him if he knew what Holmies were, and he started to fall asleep ... So I took my hand and ran it through his hair, and took a few strands and put them in the book I had with me."
When news broke that Holmes had offered to plead guilty and spend the rest of his life in prison to avoid the death penalty, some Holmies seemed let down. Others weren't willing to give up hope. "It'll be weird to think it's all over if James pleads guilty," one wrote. "Then I realized it's just the start. He'll move to a prison, sooner or later be able to talk to us, maybe even see us."
It's a familiar phenomenon. As long as there have been mass murderers, there have been people obsessed with them. But the Internet has made it worse, says Kelly McBride, a media-ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute.
"The Internet helps people find people with similar affinities," she says. "It's not like they didn't have those affinities beforehand. They now have this tool to get in touch with each other, which makes them feel safer and might make them feel a little more emboldened to speak out when we'd prefer those thoughts [stay] in their heads."
While the Holmies have garnered the most attention, arguably the most persistent and pervasive pro-Holmes online community comprises conspiracy theorists who believe he was set up. By scrutinizing media coverage of the shooting, a cadre of Internet sleuths has pieced together far-fetched theories that they say prove Holmes didn't act alone, if he was even involved at all. They've latched on to initial confusion about whether there were multiple shooters and blogged ad nauseam about how it's suspicious that Aurora police chief Dan Oates wouldn't immediately answer questions about how the suspect got into the theater. They've posted videos on Facebook and YouTube about how Holmes's relaxed behavior during his arrest smacks of government mind control. Perhaps the most outrageous theory is that the shooting was orchestrated to prevent Holmes's father, a supposed math genius who works for a credit-score company, from testifying before a U.S. Senate panel about a worldwide banking scandal.
It didn't take long for the conspiracy theorists to find Richards. She and Townson did an interview with the Denver Post and she answered a phone call from TMZ; she's not sure how the celebrity news site got her cell-phone number. Her name was out there.
Members of a Facebook group called "James Holmes Is Innocent" began re-posting her modeling photos and leaving her harassing messages online. Their comments suggest that they thought her willingness to blog about the shooting and post photos of her injuries, coupled with the fact that she's an aspiring model, meant she was using her victimization to become famous.
Richards's first reaction was disbelief, followed by anger. Soon after the comments started coming in, she fired off a blog post on her website. She was mad at the media, including Westword, for repeating comments she'd made to TMZ about how the shooter deserved to be put to death. And she was even angrier with the trolls for leaving such heartless comments.
"Apparently, some pathetic excuses for mankind don't realize that I'm a human being just like them," she wrote, adding that she was simply trying to live her life. "What's making it difficult to do this is the number of miserable cretins who have decided to throw nails in front of the tires in an attempt to keep me from achieving what I need to and taking care of myself."
To escape the harassment, Richards erased her Tumblr account and began using a pseudonym on her Facebook page. After someone tried to hack into her e-mail account, she changed all of her social-media passwords and set her privacy settings as high as they would go. She started deleting all of the negative comments and asked friends to monitor her accounts, because reading the vitriol herself was becoming overwhelming.
"I've seen people call her a reptilian and say that she's an alien from another planet who's pretending to be a human," says her friend Tori Birkert, who helped Richards moderate her social-media accounts for a while. "People say she's a paid actor, that she was paid by the government...so they can take our guns away. It was mean, cruel stuff."
Westword spoke with a few people who were active in the pro-Holmes Facebook groups and who messaged Richards online. Their posts were mostly benign; those who'd written the most hateful and harassing comments didn't return our messages.
But those who spoke with us expressed concern that Holmes was being framed, as well as frustration with victims they deemed disingenuous. However, they were cautious about not wanting to offend all of the victims.
"I don't want victims' family members to get angry," says Naomi Palma, an unemployed 26-year-old living in California who is concerned with what she calls "discrepancies" in the case. "I've watched a lot of Lifetime, and some of that has been known to happen — where victims' families get upset and take it out on whoever may have assisted the [suspect]."
In late August, more than a month after the shooting, someone purporting to be Richards filed a bizarre court motion in the case. "James Holmes must be released ASAP," it said. "James is being framed by Philip Anschutz, police chief Dan Oates, and the Illuminati." It went on to say that Oates and then-Arapahoe County district attorney Carol Chambers came to Richards's house and threatened to arrest her for prostitution unless she pretended to be a victim in the case. The motion says it was Oates, not Holmes, who shot her, and that she doesn't want to "have my testimony contribute to James being convicted. I can't live with that."
After checking with Richards that the motion was bogus, the judge threw it out.
The trolls have quieted down recently, though, and Richards is worried that this story will provoke them. But she also feels it's a story that deserves to be told. "It's important to set the record straight," she says. "There's so much misinformation that's been going on about me and the shooting in general. I think that [this story] would be a little justice for myself and other victims that have been harassed. Or anyone being bullied about something they can't help."
Other victims told Westword that they've experienced harassment, too, though not all of them wanted to discuss it, for fear of making it worse.
But Jessica Watts, whose 26-year-old cousin Jonathan Blunk was killed in the theater, says she's been contacted by conspiracy theorists, Holmies and gun-rights zealots on e-mail, on Facebook and by phone. "It is absolutely scary," she says. Some claimed to be friends of one of the twelve people who died so that she would speak with them, Watts says. "They were fishing information out of me and the other real victims to pass on to the Holmies."
The Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting Holmes, has taken notice of the harassment that Richards and other victims have faced. In a court motion filed in February to oppose lifting a gag order in the case, the DA's office wrote that "unforeseen events continue to adversely affect the daily lives of the victims and witnesses."
Those events, prosecutors wrote, include the filing of bogus court motions using victims' names and victims being subjected to "relentless contacts by proponents of purported 'conspiracies'...some of whom have even gone so far as to recruit other members of the public to contact the victims and to publicly post maps with the home addresses and phone numbers of the victims on various social-media sites."
The DA's office asked that if the judge decided to lift the gag order — which he did not — that victims' names be redacted from any publicly released documents in order to protect them.
Recently, at the suggestion of the DA's office, Richards has been taking screen shots of any new harassing comments and turning them over to prosecutors before deleting them. But the DA's office said it couldn't discuss the subject with Westword due to the ongoing gag order.
Nine months after the shooting, Richards is trying to move on with her life.
She struggled initially, especially since her injuries forced her to take time off from work and school, to which she still hasn't returned. Richards now has a new job that she enjoys, delivering burritos for a family-owned restaurant in Arvada, but her financial situation is still precarious, partly due to the months that she was unable to work.
Physically, most of her wounds have healed. Doctors sliced out most of the pellets that blasted the right side of her body using a scalpel and novocaine shots that she says "burned like hell." Almost half a dozen are buried too deep to remove without serious surgery, including two in her right breast and one in her chest. "Sometimes it kind of shifts and it hurts," she says.
But mostly, Richards is left with raised, flesh-colored scars that dot her arms, back and legs. They are constant reminders of the pain she endured, but she sees some good in them, too. "I can look down at them and be like, 'Well, at least I'm alive,'" Richards says.
Mental recovery has been harder. She already suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to her childhood abuse and her accident in the Navy. Enduring another near-death experience just added one more layer of trauma. But she hasn't been afraid to seek help, and she's been seeing mental-health professionals regularly to work through what happened.
She also has a strong support system of family and friends. Both her mom and dad visited after the shooting, and her dad brought an acoustic guitar with him. "I just started playing that stupid guitar, and playing it and playing it and playing it," she says. In addition to helping strengthen her injured arm, she says, "it just felt good. It was almost like my daily fix."
Writing also helped. Since July, she's filled up three notebooks with her thoughts. "Even venting on my blog helps," she says. "Unfortunately, if I talk about it publicly, people are not really nice." As a result, Richards now does most of her writing where Holmes's fans can't see it.
And she tries not to dwell on the things that have made her a victim. Instead, she spends her time going to punk shows on the weekends, attending meetings of an anti-war group for military veterans, and modeling. She spent one Monday afternoon in March at a suburban house on a cul-de-sac in Aurora, posing both fully clothed and somewhat less so for a group of serious hobby photographers that included two men and two women.
Richards also plays bass guitar and sings in a band called Buckshot. The name is a reference to the shooting and is typical of her dark sense of humor.
Though their connection to Colorado has become more complex, Richards and Townson still try to walk the dog and appreciate their new start here. On occasion, they go to the movies.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.