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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.

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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.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar