Forgive, Never Forget
Heather Cameron heard the sound of the gunshots that killed her mother. On Saturday, April 20, 1996, the twelve-year-old was waiting for Debra Cameron -- Debbie, to her friends -- to return from a charity auction at Graland Country Day School, where Heather was in the sixth grade. Debbie had called a little earlier to say she was on her way home and to ask her daughter what she wanted to eat. So Heather sat on the couch of her mom's loft in the Neusteter building, watching MTV and thinking about dinner.
Debbie's call was not the only one she'd fielded that evening. Heather's father, Duncan Cameron, a former prosecutor in the Denver District Attorney's Office who was now in private practice, phoned several times as well. Duncan and Debbie had separated six months earlier. Debbie, a certified public accountant and partner in the Lehman Butterwick & Co. accounting firm, had moved downtown while Duncan stayed in the family's Park Hill home. Heather split her time between her parents.
Her father would often call when she was staying with her mom, but there was something strange about his behavior this night. "He called a bunch of times, maybe four times," Heather remembers. "Asking me, 'Hey, do you want to hang out with me?' 'Hey, do you want to go to a movie?' And I was just like, 'No, I think I'm going to hang out here.' And then he called back later, and he was freaking out at me and yelling and being all weird and saying things like, 'I'm not going to give you your allowance anymore.' And I remember thinking, 'Dad, what is wrong with you?'"
Duncan also asked what level of the neighboring garage her mother parked on and what time she was coming home. Heather told him.
"She was going to be home in like fifteen minutes. And then I heard some gunshots," she says. "I didn't think much of it. I thought, this is downtown, that's not entirely out of the ordinary. But we had an alley view in that loft, and pretty soon after the shots, there were cops in the alley with flashlights, and I was wondering what happened. And then I thought, 'Wait a minute, my mom's not home yet,' and I started to get worried."
Heather called her mom's car phone several times, then her work number, but she didn't get an answer. She stayed up as late as she could, but eventually fell asleep in the living room.
A police officer woke her up.
"I was still kind of asleep," she recalls, "and he started asking me all these questions, like,'Does your mom have a boyfriend?' 'Are your parents separated?' 'Does your dad have any guns?' I was like, 'Yeah, he has a lot of guns.'"
A small arsenal, in fact. There were always guns in the house on East 17th Avenue. Duncan Cameron was the first person to register a semi-automatic assault weapon -- a look-alike AK-47 -- when Denver began requiring that such guns be licensed in 1989. Seven years later, he owned an assault rifle, a shotgun, a .22-caliber revolver, a 9mm Browning, a .357 Magnum revolver, a hunting rifle, a .300 Weatherby, a .30-06 Weatherby, a .22 Marlin rifle and a Colt rifle. There was a bullet hole in the wall of Heather's room, the souvenir of an incident that pre-dated her memory, and she often traced the outline with her finger. Since the separation, Duncan had taken to sleeping in his daughter's empty room; Heather would sometimes find a gun beneath her pillow when she came back home to stay with her dad.
The police continued to pepper Heather with questions but dodged hers, telling her little more than that they'd found her mother's car in the parking garage next door and that her mother was missing. Finally, a police psychologist arrived at the loft.
"She told me that my mom had been shot," Heather remembers, "and I asked her if she was in the hospital. And she said, no, that she had died. And the first thing that went through my head was, 'Oh, crap, my dad did this.'"
For what remained of that night, Heather stayed with Becky and Tom Alfrey, family friends who had introduced Duncan and Debbie thirteen years earlier. The next morning, Heather's family came to comfort and claim her. She was taken to the Lakewood home of her maternal grandparents, Bob and Florence Schliem, where she was visited by her father. Heather had told some of her relatives that she suspected her father had killed her mother, but they'd admonished her not to say such things. Earlier that day, Duncan Cameron had been confronted by investigators while he was golfing at Lakewood Country Club, questioned and then released.
The meeting between father and daughter was tense.
"He leaned in close to me, so we were eye to eye, and asked if it was okay if I lived with my grandparents for a while," Heather remembers. "I said that was fine. And then he leaned in closer and whispered to me, 'If we had only gone out last night.' That was the last time I saw him."
Duncan fled to Colorado Springs, where he rented a car and headed west. A state trooper pulled him over on Interstate 40, just outside of Barstow, California, after noticing that the car's New Mexico plates were coming loose. While the trooper ran Duncan's identification -- which turned out to be fake -- Duncan took out a handgun and shot himself in the head. The trooper discovered a passport and $12,000 in cash in the car.
Later tests revealed that blood on Duncan's Rolex watchband matched Debbie's, and blood on a cable at the parking garage matched Duncan's, confirming what his suicide had suggested: that Duncan Cameron had stabbed, shot and killed his wife. In the carnage, he'd also killed Nathan Clarke, a 23-year-old student and part-time waiter who'd pulled into the garage and tried to help Debbie. Duncan couldn't have predicted that, but he'd clearly planned to kill his wife: He'd bought night-vision goggles so that he could stalk her in the dark.
The deaths shook the city. Duncan had been a standout at West High School, the affable son of a Denver judge, who'd gone on to get a law degree from the University of Colorado and then pursue a successful career as a public defender and a prosecutor. Debbie was beautiful and fiercely intelligent, a Bear Creek graduate who was fast becoming a national expert on real-estate tax credits. When the two met at a cocktail party, Duncan had another date -- but he took her home and then came back to the party to be with Debbie. Though Duncan was thirteen years older and Debbie had been married once before, the two seemed a good match: Duncan was mellowing out of his pretty-girls-and-fast-cars phase, thinking about settling down, and Debbie wanted a child. They married in 1983, and Heather, their only child, was born on January 23, 1984.
But there were cracks in the seams of the marriage.
"They didn't communicate at the same level," Tom Alfrey, whose wife was a childhood friend of Debbie's, told a reporter shortly after her death. "They didn't have the same interests. He was too rigid, and Debbie talked about moving out quite early in the relationship. It became clear to us that neither was very happy."
The problems weren't so obvious to others.
"The mystery of this was incomprehensible to me," says Becky Peters-Combs, the mother of Devon Combs, Heather's best friend at Graland from kindergarten on. "We really cared for both of her parents, and whatever that dynamic was, it didn't work. But that was what was so sad. If he had been horrible and hateful and awful, or abusive towards Heather, then it would have made more sense, but there was never anything like that."
"I think everyone had this picture of my family as better than it was," Heather says. "I'm sure there were some happy times, but when I look back on my childhood, it's hard for me to remember them. It's hard for me not to be resentful."
A month before her parents separated, Duncan's father, Duncan J. Cameron, had passed away. "I think my dad's whole life was driven around being successful, like his father," Heather says. "Then his dad died, and then my mom left my dad; it was like his whole life, everything had gone perfect for him, and suddenly everything was falling apart."
Hundreds of friends and relatives gathered for Debbie Cameron's memorial service at Blessed Sacrament Church in Park Hill on April 29. The back of the program included the quotation "The success of her life was this: that it enabled others to see a glimpse of heaven."
"It was a sad, sad day," remembers Monsignor James W. Rasby, who led the service in the jammed church.
Heather read from the Book of Proverbs.
"I remember trying to do my hair and get ready for the funeral, and I was like, all right, Heather, if you cry, I am going to be so pissed at you," she says. "Don't you dare cry. And I was gritting my teeth, and then I had to get up and speak, and there were like 700 people there. I was shaking because I was trying so hard not to cry."
Although Heather didn't cry, many others in the crowd wept openly -- especially when Father Rasby disclosed that the girl had intercepted a call from Nathan Clarke's mother to her grandmother and had thanked the woman for her son's efforts to save Debbie's life. (Heather also helped set up a memorial fund for Clarke.)
At the end of the ceremony, Heather walked down the aisle with Father Rasby and then outside, followed by the pallbearers carrying her mother's casket.
"She clung to me, this little girl with no mom or dad," Rasby says. "I tried to give her the best direction I could, the best advice."
But what direction do you give in that situation? What do you tell a little girl whose father murdered her mother, then killed himself, leaving her all alone? There are no real answers, just more questions. And as the fifty-car procession snaked its way to Mount Olivet Cemetery to place Debbie Cameron in a crypt, the main question on everyone's mind was what would happen to Heather.
There was talk of Heather going to live with her cousin Steve Franson and his wife, Kristy, whose daughter, Jenn, was Heather's age. The Combs family also considered adopting Heather and raising her alongside Devon. But eventually the courts decided that Heather would live with her maternal grandparents in Lakewood -- a tensely discussed decision, Heather later learned -- and make the 45-minute commute to Graland every day.
All Heather knew was that she wanted to go to school. So much so, in fact, that she was back at Graland the Monday after her mother was shot. But that attempt at normalcy was short-lived: Detectives pulled Heather out of class to tell her that her father had killed himself.
Even before her parents died, Heather had started to rebel. She dyed her hair black, listened to punk music and experimented with drinking. She also started cutting herself. "I was so frustrated with my parents," she remembers. "My mom was this very sensitive, passive person, and she would try to hide them fighting all the time. I was pretty angry, and growing up at Graland, I was such a nerd and the kids were so ruthless. I was really happy that my mom had left my dad, because I always wanted that to happen -- but it turned out to be more difficult than I thought, especially going to my dad's house, me and him alone. It was so tense. You could tell that he was slowly losing it."
Already something of an outcast at Graland, Heather now found herself ostracized: "I remember a guy at school coming up to me and saying, 'Wow, nobody knows how to talk to you anymore.'"
Although she still had Devon to confide in, Heather began hanging out with older students, kids who were ditching class, kids who were smoking weed. After she drifted through seventh grade, her family decided to move her to Carmody Middle School in Lakewood.
"It was weird, because I hated Graland, but at the same time I was really attached to it," Heather remembers. "It was all I knew, and when they told me I was leaving, I was terrified to go to public school. But as soon as I got there, it was great. I had lots of friends -- all the troublemaker kids, but those were the kids I was drawn to, those were the kids who would accept me. At the same time, though, I was incredibly depressed, and I tried to push that away. I've always been very stubborn, and I did not want to let what happened to my parents affect me, to ruin me. I wanted to live my life and move on."
But for Heather, the only way to keep moving was to dull the pain. By eighth grade, she was into partying. Hard. She and her friends would date drug dealers, older guys they didn't care about but who would keep them well-supplied for feeling good -- or, more accurately, not feeling anything.
"As long as you're having fun, nothing really matters," Heather says of her mindset at the time. "If you're laughing, partying, you don't want to die. It's the only life you feel. But any time I wasn't doing that, I was completely suicidal. Any time I was alone -- which was a lot as an only child living with grandparents -- I felt there was no hope for me. I was just hoping to OD someday. I never planned on living past sixteen. I started doing acid, meth, coke."
Her grandparents had no idea how to handle her.
"I was so ungrateful to them at the time, and I feel so bad for that now," she says. "I'm so grateful for everything they have done for me. But I hated them back then. They were so old, and they didn't understand me. Plus, they were still mourning my mom's death, and they saw a lot of my mom in me. And they also saw a lot of my dad in me, whom they hated.
"Adolescence is such a weird time anyway," she continues. "You're so self-absorbed, and you can't see past certain things. I had this boyfriend who was one of my best friends, and my grandparents wouldn't let me see him. A few little instances like that would totally trigger these feelings of not wanting to live anymore. I always thought I was cursed or something, that this cycle of awful things was just going to continue on forever and ever. I thought God must hate me, because I didn't do anything to deserve this."
Her cutting got worse, and then she tried to kill herself. While still in eighth grade, she swallowed a handful of her grandparents' pain pills and had to be rushed to the hospital. Later that year, she took a bunch of sleeping pills. Finally, Heather told her grandparents that she was going to live with her other grandmother, her father's mom. Not knowing what else to do, they let her go.
Pearle Cameron was eighty years old and "somewhat unstable," Heather remembers. But she was more of a kindred spirit, and Heather began to turn things around. She started at Bear Creek High School, and while she continued drinking, she managed to cut out the drugs.
And then on April 20, 1999, three years to the day after her mother was murdered, two teenagers named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold rampaged through Columbine High School, killing twelve students, a teacher and then themselves, and all the feelings Heather had suppressed boiled over. She became obsessed with Columbine, watching every second of coverage on television. Her grandmother had a gun hidden in the house, and Heather would search for it. She never thought about shooting anyone else; her anger was pointed inward.
"I just hated myself," she says. "I knew I was screwing up my life, but I couldn't change. And after Columbine, I started thinking that there was nothing good in this world. That if I grow up and have a family, I'll just screw my kids up and it will be this horrible cycle. I was feeling like nothing was really good or worth it in life."
Heather's grandmother kept a framed portrait of Duncan Cameron above her son's ashes on the mantel in the living room. One day soon after Columbine, Heather was listening to the radio when Everclear's "Father of Mine" came on the radio. "Father of mine/Tell me where have you been/You know I just closed my eyes/My whole world disappeared," the song begins. "Daddy gave me a name/My daddy gave me a name/Then he walked away."
"That stupid Everclear song was playing, and I walked into the living room and I started screaming at the picture of my dad. I was like, 'Look at me, look what you've done to me! I didn't do anything, and now I have nothing!'"
She collapsed to the ground, weeping. Later that night, her grandmother found Heather passed out in the garage with the car running. Family members agreed that Heather should go into a drug-rehab facility.
She hadn't even finished her freshman year.
Heather landed at Shelterwood, a Christ-centered residential-care facility in Westminster that provides counseling and support for teenagers and their families in times of crisis. "The place seemed like prison," Heather remembers.
"She was just pissed off at the world," says Fran Eckhardt, a "big sister" at Shelterwood who met Heather when she checked in. "She was callused and hardened and pissed off. She seemed very detached from the world."
"I remember that she was young, I think fifteen when she came in, and you could just read in her body language the internal struggles of her identity, the issues of abandonment, the trying to conform to peers," agrees Mike Wilson, a former Shelterwood administrator. "At the same time, she was hostile and rebellious. She didn't want to cooperate; there was just attitude coming out everywhere."
Shelterwood was highly structured, with residents earning increased levels of freedom in their day-to-day routine for responsible behavior. After running wild for three years, Heather was shocked by the change. "I was totally addicted to cigarettes at that point, and I had to quit," she remembers. "There were no freedoms at all. I couldn't talk to boys, couldn't have conversations with other people my own age without supervision. It was like Girl, Interrupted. There were all these messed-up girls. It was very disheartening."
Even worse was the requirement that she attend church on Sundays. "Every time we were forced to go to church, that's when I would get in the most trouble," she says. "We got work hours for whatever we did wrong, and when they tried to take us to church, I would talk back and be so ridiculous, and the hours would just pile up. Because I was like, this is bullshit, this is brainwashing. I was so angry, and something about it really offended me. Being around people who are so good and all weird about certain religious things, it's offensive to be in their presence sometimes."
So she did her best to avoid their presence. For the first time since her parents' death, she found herself without any outlet of escape -- no drugs, no boys, no parties. She was alone. Heather took a long look at herself, and she didn't like what she saw. She began thinking that she wanted something better for her life, that she wanted to become a better person.
Then, finally, she allowed herself to mourn, not necessarily for her parents or all of the terrible things that had happened to her, but for how she'd chosen to respond to those events. She mourned her poor choices.
"I realized that people are very resilient," she says. "Horrible, horrible things can happen to you, but you have a choice, you are capable of becoming better, and in some ways, the pain makes you better. It doesn't have to make you messed up. That was a huge realization for me, because for years I felt like I had the right to throw my life away. I thought I could do whatever I wanted, that things happened to me that were so terrible and sucked so bad that no one could judge me. For the first time, I started thinking that maybe that wasn't the right way to be."
While Heather still resented the Christian influence at Shelterwood, she noticed that everyone she came in contact with who'd embraced Christianity seemed really happy. With nothing better to do, she began reading the Bible, starting with the Book of James -- because she had a crush on a boy at Shelterwood named James. In the Bible, she found scripture about sorrow and pain, about how pain develops perseverance and strengthens your character, about how you should be joyful when facing trials in life. She started studying Buddhism and Hinduism as well. And when Kristy Franson took Heather to India later that year, the trip resonated strongly.
"What really stuck with me was the concept of even loving people that you hate," she says. "Especially with how much I hated my dad for everything he put me through. I think humanity is really drawn towards grace, towards forgiveness and love. Love is way harder than hate, and I got into that message. I fell in love with that idea."
"It was amazing for her to come to that point where she was starting to find peace and acceptance in her life," remembers Mike Wilson. "For her to begin to realize that she is not refuse, something just to be tossed aside, but that God spared her life for a reason, that He allowed her to breathe each breath for a real purpose."
Working closely with Eckhardt, Heather thought long and hard about the concept of forgiveness. She realized it isn't a one-time thing, but a struggle people have to fight their entire life.
In 2001, after eighteen months at Shelterwood, Heather checked out of the facility and moved in with the Fransons.
"It was unbelievable, the change I saw in Heather," says Steve Franson. "When she went into Shelterwood, she was lost and very angry about what happened to her family. Her transformation was amazing. She grew up."
Heather attended Green Mountain High School with her second cousin Jen, whom she considers a sister. She was scared about going back into "the real world," nervous about falling back into her old ways. "I knew I had a difficult choice," she remembers. "I could suck it up and hang out with the jocks and the preppy girls that my sister was hanging out with -- which was so not me -- or I could just walk over to the kids who were smoking and meet a bunch of messed-up people and go back to where I was. So I decided to just focus on school and being positive."
Those preppy girls and jocks quickly became her core social group -- she still considers many of them her best friends -- and she even began dating a jock, Tyler. They were so close that when it came time for college, Tyler wanted to follow Heather. But Heather was looking forward to being on her own after coming to terms with a lot of issues, and they called things off. Heather had thought about attending the University of Colorado, where her father had gone, but she worried about the party atmosphere there. Instead she enrolled at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, which was close to her support system. She'd also grown very attached to several middle-school girls she was tutoring through Young Life, a Christian mentoring program, and she wanted to see them through the transition to high school.
"I never really intended to graduate from CCU," Heather says. "I just figured I would go there for a semester or so and then transfer somewhere. But when I figured out I could graduate in two years, I decided I might as well go there and then go somewhere else for grad school if I was still interested."
She majored in social science and psychology, minored in biblical studies, and in 2003 studied in Israel, living in the old city of Jerusalem, passing the Zion Gate and the Wailing Wall every day on her way to school. After graduating from CCU in December 2004, Heather returned to Shelterwood -- this time as a counselor, a big sister herself. Five years after she'd been admitted to the rehab facility, she was now helping other lost girls come to terms with their lives, working grueling hundred-hour weeks.
"I didn't know what the hell I was getting into," Heather says. "The girls can be crazy, and it's very difficult to be around that rejection constantly -- because the girls, they just hate you. Well, they don't hate you, but they hate their situation, and you have to come down on them so hard in all these discipline areas, and I'm not good at that. I'm more the peacemaker type. It was difficult for me to be cleaning up blood all the time from the girls cutting or stabbing each other, running after girls trying to escape at three in the morning. It was intense. It was a hard year. It made me a little cynical."
It also brought back some of her own issues at Shelterwood.
"She was at the very facility where she went through working everything out," says Wilson. "You know, she walks through a room where she remembers something that only she remembers, and something triggers a painful memory that she has to deal with, and all of a sudden she's facing everything all over again. But she was able to deal with it and help the kids there. She was absolutely dynamic with the kids. She could relate to them on so many levels where a lot of counselors couldn't."
While working at Shelterwood, Heather reconnected with Tyler. The two spoke often, and after Tyler graduated from college, he asked Heather to marry him.
"I wanted that," she says. "But I had put a lot of pressure on him to fill a lot of needs in my life. He was a good guy, and I was such a crazy person that I figured he would balance me out."
The two made all the arrangements for their wedding, booked a venue, sent out invitations. Heather picked out a dress. And then, several weeks before they were to wed, Tyler called Heather and backed out. She was crushed, started drinking again, left her job at Shelterwood. She had to find herself all over again.
"I really think this last year has been as difficult as any of them," Heather says. "But it's been really interesting, because I've found that when times are really hard, I become a way-better, more well-rounded person. There are times in life where I have swung so hard to the right, to doing everything the good, clean way, that when I swing back to the left, it's that much more severe. This last year has been about finding the balance. Learning that you can still have fun, be normal, do social things, be a regular person without everything being so rigid."
Today, Heather works at a dinner playhouse in Golden and says she wants to open a coffee shop/performance space of her own. In the meantime, she's moving into a downtown apartment and taking business classes at Metro State. At 22, she loves traveling, meeting new people and hearing their stories. This past summer, she went on a sweeping jaunt through Holland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, Greece and Israel with Jenn.
And encouraged by Eckhardt, her friend and mentor, Heather has begun telling her own story. "We started going to the same church, Lookout Mountain Community Church," Eckhardt explains. "Two summers ago, they asked me to give a talk on forgiveness, and I asked Heather to come and share with me. People were overwhelmed. After her talk, people were coming up to her, weeping. They were so moved by her words."
Heather has spoken to several groups since then, and Eckhardt is encouraging her to speak more. If she does, it will be because Heather sees how her words affect audiences.
"People are so awesome after I speak," she says. "People are so loving. That first time I spoke, I was hurting so bad, with the wedding and everything, but people were coming up to me and were like, 'For the first time in my life, I can forgive my dad for beating me; for the first time in my life, I feel like I have that freedom.' As much as it is difficult for me, it makes it worth it. It lets them see that you don't have to mess up your own life because of what happened to you in the past. You can forgive and move on."
Not that it's easy. Heather struggles every day.
"The thing I've learned is that forgiveness is a life thing," she says. "Every time the pain comes again and you feel the need to take revenge and do whatever you need to do, you have to forgive again. That's been a huge theme in my life. Because when I was younger, I forgave my dad. As horrible as everything he did was, I knew how badly he was hurting. Everyone is capable of pretty atrocious things given the right situations. So it's like, all right, I can forgive my dad, and I'll move on or whatever. But then something will come up, or even just little events, things like high school graduation or going to college, and it's like, well, damn it, you're not here for me again! And that pain is brought up all over again. I miss having parents so much, especially at this age where you can actually be friends with them and get to know them in a whole different way. I would love my mom's advice right now in life. And I know when I get married, I'm going to have to deal with the fear of what happened with my parents and their marriage.
"All the right you think you have to get even with people, you have to let go of. You have to forgive again," she says. And forgive both little and big things. "For example, I hated golf for years and years and years because my dad loved golf. Anything to do with golf, I hated. Or lawyers -- I hated them. Just because it was an easy thing to hate because it was associated with my dad. But then I had to be like, okay, golf in and of itself is not an evil thing. I had to let that go. It's just things like that. It's a choice and it's a hard choice, for me and other people.
"Some of the girls I worked with at Shelterwood, I don't even know how they function in life with all the awful things they have been through. But I've learned, and I hope they learn, that it's possible to be a normal, functioning person and to love and to take risks with life and to forgive and give up all your hate. Forgiveness is a constant struggle, and that's what I want to tell people. They seem to understand that. It gives them hope to see that I'm not so screwed up."
This month, Heather reunited with the Combs family at their house in Park Hill, mere blocks from where she'd lived with her parents. Although Devon and Heather had kept in touch, Devon's parents, Keith and Becky, hadn't seen Heather in over five years.
After dinner, sipping tea and eating cookies in the kitchen, they reminisced about when Heather and Devon were little girls: the carpool; birthday parties at Big Fun; Heather's pet ducks, Donald and Daisy. They talked about the days after the Camerons died, including a time soon after Debbie's funeral when Becky let the girls ditch school and took them on a "fun day," swimming and bowling. For the first year after her parents' death, Heather would spend every Wednesday night at the Combs house, which became a refuge.
Becky brought out an old photo album, with shots of the girls in kindergarten, at arts and crafts, on the playground. There were shots of Debbie Cameron, too, watching her five-year-old daughter at the Graland Rodeo. Kids always loved the rodeo's Buckin' Bronco, a pommel horse attached to long ropes hanging from the gymnasium roof. An eager little cowboy or cowgirl would clamber aboard, and then someone would jerk the rope back and forth, trying to send the rider tumbling onto the wrestling mats below. Heather's father had volunteered for the job, Keith remembered, and he was stunned to see Duncan Cameron -- not exactly the cowboy type -- arrive that day dressed in full Western wear: hat, boots, snap-button shirt, vest, even chaps. Everyone laughed at the memory.
They were amazed that they could laugh, how despite everything that had happened in Heather's life, they could pick up right where they'd left off. How nothing and everything can change. How lost you sometimes have to get to be found.
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.