Life Goes On
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
didn't already know?" she wonders now. "That I'm devastated? That I'm grieving? That my heart is broken? It's like you're under a microscope on the darkest day of your life."
On top of it all, she had to take time off from her job to organize her mom's memorial service, call her family and friends, cook, clean the house and help her stepdad with the eulogy. "In a weird way, it gave me something to do," Rebecca recalls. "I wasn't eating. I wasn't sleeping. These were little tasks I could check off a list so I didn't have to grieve."
Rebecca describes that time as "the rage days," as "one big blur." But she remembers the compassion of people she never knew. Outside the pizzeria, mourners built a shrine of flowers, teddy bears, Bibles, Christmas stockings, sympathy cards and poems. Smoky Hill High School, which a few victims had attended, even held a service. "My mom would have been so proud to have lived in the place where so many people cared," Rebecca says. "People we didn't even know gave us food and sent cards to our house. I could feel the arms of the community around me. It helped restore my faith in people. And I had lost that."
She had also lost her patience with the legal system. Because of the saturation media coverage, a gag order was placed on the Chuck E Cheese investigation. Detectives couldn't tell what had happened or why. Each day, Rebecca found herself poring over newspapers to learn about Dunlap, who was nineteen at the time. "I was so wrapped up in his life, I forgot about my own," she says. "Here is this person who has an enormous impact on you. You don't know who he is. You don't care. But you want to find out how someone could do this. Nothing makes sense. And you're looking for it to make sense. But it never does."
Rebecca wanted to see Dunlap in person. She wanted to attend his hearings and his trial. She wanted to see this teenager who bragged about the killings, sported a Crazy Horse tattoo and left the restaurant with $1,500 in cash, several Chuck E Cheese key chains and a pocket full of video-arcade tokens.
And as much as it might hurt, she wanted to know how her mom died. "The last five minutes of her life I knew nothing about," Rebecca says. "I always wanted to be there when she died. I didn't want her to die alone, to be part of some crime scene, to be part of some pile of evidence. I would go through all these scenarios: Was she scared? Was she lying there thinking, 'Oh, my God, I'm dying'? For me, the unknown was worse than the reality."
What she learned was this: Dunlap had been fired from the restaurant some months earlier and was seeking revenge. On a frigid night less than two weeks before Christmas, he visited the store with a .25-caliber semi-automatic pistol, ordered a ham-and-cheese sandwich and waited in the bathroom until the pizzeria closed. At 10 p.m., he calmly walked through the restaurant with a smirk on his face and systematically shot 19-year-old Sylvia Crowell, 17-year-old Benjamin Grant, 17-year-old Colleen O' Connor, and Rebecca's mom. He also shot 19-year-old Bobby Stephens, who pretended he was dead, then escaped and called police.
None of the victims--all shot in the head at point-blank range--had anything to do with Dunlap's firing. Rebecca's mom had been on the job only a few weeks. That didn't matter. Dunlap ordered her to open the office safe, and after she did, he shot her. Then he spilled the contents of her purse on top of her body, collected the cash and shot her again.
Rebecca remembers sitting in the courtroom and looking right at Dunlap, who refused to return her gaze. "My mom never did anything to provoke this," she says. "She didn't deserve this. I remember thinking, there's a deputy over here and another deputy over there, and I'm eight to ten feet away. I could get to him before they could get to me. At that time, I wanted to hurt him."
Two years passed before Dunlap was finally convicted and sentenced to death. (His execution was recently upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court.) At last, Rebecca thought, he would be held accountable. He would never kill anyone again. As she left the courtroom, she expected to feel a sense of closure. But she didn't. "He was convicted, but it didn't fill up that empty space," she says. "Once the trial ended, I had no more excuses. I had to get on with my life. And that was hard."
She pushed friends away. She sank into depression. She lashed out for no reason. She sat by herself for hours. "I was not a fun person to be around," Rebecca recalls. "At times I wanted to destroy myself. At times I didn't think I'd make it through this. At times I thought that even if I did make it through this, I'll never be happy again. At times I wished it was me who died."
Her stepdad sold the house in Parker and left Colorado. Rebecca and her sister drifted. The ties that had held them so close began to unravel. "People grieve differently," she says. "What works for some people won't work for others. When people grieve so differently in your own family, it adds to the stress. Sometimes families come together. Mine did not."
At one point Rebecca even considered buying a gun. As much as she hated the thought, she didn't feel safe. "I saw every single stranger as a potential killer," she says. "This whole thing shattered my idea of where safe places were and where they weren't. It shattered my whole idea of being able to protect myself from violence."
Finally, she pulled through. She decided that her mom would not want her to live in fear, anger and bitterness. "She didn't want Nathan Dunlap to kill me, too, by turning me into something I wasn't," she says. "My feeling better was not going to come from something external. It had to come from me."
She decided to resume her career. In 1995 she found a way to combine her training in psychology and criminal justice: She became an advocate for the victims of juvenile crime with a local law-enforcement agency. She listens when these victims need to talk, she refers them to counselors, she guides them through the legal system, she sits beside them in court; she also speaks to schoolkids, prison inmates, legislators and anyone else willing to learn how violence affects the survivors. "I just want to be there for them in any way I can," she says.
But Rebecca is careful to separate her personal experience from her professional life--so much so that she does not want her photo to appear in Westword or her workplace mentioned. "I don't claim to be an expert on tragedy and grief," she says. "Everyone's experience is different. Talking about my pain would only take the focus away from victims, and that's not what I want to do. I'm not in this for my own therapy. I'm not on a crusade to save the world. I'm doing this because I like people and I want to help them. If I can make their experience a little less painful, then I've done my job."
After five years, the good memories have begun to shine through the darkness. Rebecca no longer sees her mom for how she died, but for how she lived. She no longer imagines her on the restaurant floor, but in the kitchen with a plate of chocolate chip cookies, telling Rebecca to drive carefully on her way back to California. "Relationships are the most important thing in the world," she says. "When you find people you care about, hang on as tightly as you can, because you never know when something like this will happen."
Although she has not seen her stepdad in three years, they spoke at Christmas. She has also reached out to her sister and her old friends. From time to time, she visits the waterfall near Evergreen where her mom's ashes were scattered and lights a candle at the Mother Cabrini shrine.
The holidays are hard. So is her mom's birthday, Mother's Day and the anniversary of her mom's death. There are times when she'd give anything to feel her mom's embrace, to hear her voice one last time. When those moments come, Rebecca looks hard in the mirror. There she finds the woman Margaret Kohlberg taught her to be.
"I'm living proof that she was here," Rebecca says. "She meant something. She was important. She was a mother, a wife and a friend. This is something I will go through the rest of my life, but I'm happy again. I'm getting on with my life in a way to make my mom proud. Through some small part of me, people will know who she was.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.