A year after Aurora shooting, grief remains
Family of slain union leader still grapples with unanswered questions
As a Vietnam veteran who survived the ugliness of a bloody war, Ted Beyer has “seen death in many faces.”
Yet “when it hits home,” adds the 72-year-old former soldier with the U. S Army’s 101st Airborne, “it is altogether different.”
Especially when it comes at the hands of a co-worker. A friend. A man both he and his son had gone to bat for many times as union leaders with Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora.
As the first anniversary of the mass shooting at the sprawling Aurora warehouse approaches, Beyer and his wife, Joyce, along with daughter Dawn, agreed to sit down and talk publicly for the first time about the murder of their oldest son Russell, who on Feb. 15, 2019, was one of five Pratt employees gunned down by Gary Martin during Martin’s termination meeting with the company.
It’s the unanswered questions that continue to haunt this close but now shattered family.
“Russ was always the protector of the underdog, even in school,” says 69year-old Joyce Beyer. “What I just can’t understand is why he killed my son when Russ was trying so hard to help him?”
Gathered around the dining room table of their Bristol home where she and Ted, her husband of 50 years, raised their family, it’s apparent this slender, softspoken woman is still in deep mourning. She does not like to say the shooter’s name, nor does Dawn, two years younger than brother Russ, and who describes his killer as “the coward with a gun.”
But Martin’s name easily falls from the mouth of Ted Beyer, who from day-one alluded publicly to the many problems going on inside the Pratt plant, which he insists contributed to the shootings that cold day in February. And that resentment continues to gnaw at him, leaving “an emptiness inside of me” when he makes his daily visits to Russ’ grave at Mount Olive Cemetery.
The Beyers, who might appear on the outside to be going about their daily routines, insist there is nothing normal about their lives since that Friday when Russ was murdered, along with co-workers Vicente Juarez, Clayton Parks, Josh Pinkard and intern Trevor Wehner.
“Our family is broken,” says Dawn, adding that time has done nothing to stop the pain because its passage “is not going to bring back” the sibling she also considered her best friend.
“How can it get better? I lost my big brother,” she says. “Every day we are sucker punched ... with a memory or something that happens.”
Understandably, there is bitterness. But it’s not just directed toward the murderer and the circumstances surrounding his actions. They still feel resentment
because the family had to find out through television that notifications of the dead would take place at Aurora University many hours after the shooting. They also can’t understand why the media seemed to get preferential treatment over the family at the community vigil held on that frigid Sunday after the murders. And there is no love lost for the politicians who came out of the woodwork, offering up condolences as a means of pushing agendas.
“I understand it’s their job,” says Joyce. “But don’t use my son’s death to promote your politics.”
Closure is a foreign word, they insist, especially with so many questions still hanging out there. The holidays brought no joy – they didn’t even decorate – and now the family just wants to get through the anniversary of the shooting, then Russ’ birthday, which happened to fall on the day he was buried.
Only after all the attention surrounding this first anniversary, they tell me, can they perhaps begin to deal with those mixed feelings about the shooter, about the union and about the company, where Russ began working right out of high school and which became like a second family to him, especially after taking on a leadership role with the union.
“He made himself available to those employees 24/7, fighting for their rights. But that’s how we were raised,” says Dawn, referring to her father, who retired from Pratt in 2010 after back surgery and was a union leader there for over a quarter of a century.
“I talked to him every night” about union issues, Ted says. “I was more old school, more direct. He was more humane ... he loved his job and they loved him.”
Which makes his death that much harder to understand.
Ted was crossing Route 47 on his way to Plano to visit the son of his sister Bonnie, who had died the previous week, when he heard sirens and saw squad cars racing toward Aurora. As the news hit there was a shooting at Pratt, he immediately called Joyce, who had just gotten home from her part-time job with Fox Valley Older Adult Services.
When Russ’ phone continued to go unanswered, Ted returned home to await any incoming calls while Joyce sped to the plant, as did Dawn, who works at a Naperville bank.
“I was going 100 down (Interstate) 88 and cops were passing me,” she remembers. “I knew my brother would be in the middle of things ... I knew he would not run away” if bullets were flying.
Neither Dawn nor her mother could get close to the scene of the shooting as the area quickly became blanketed by first responders, and it wasn’t unit late that evening at Aurora University they were officially informed of Russ’ death. Even then, recalls Dawn, the screaming that erupted when the first victim’s name was announced made it impossible to hear if her brother was also on the list.
It was, they agreed, a horrific end to the longest day of their lives.
And the nightmare only continued in the coming weeks and months, as the Beyers insisted upon knowing all the details of the shooting, even paying a visit to the room where Russ took his final breath.
“He was my son,” Joyce says. “I had to know what he went through.”
After dealing with police, the FBI, the media and coroners, the family had to deal with a community in mourning — vigils, tributes, dedications — all of which came far too soon, she insists, and sometimes left them feeling even more emotionally drained as they tried to provide comfort to others reeling from the murder of a man loved and respected by so many.
Then, when the story faded from the headlines, their house grew empty, leaving them to deal with the isolation that follows when family and friends pull away because they don’t know what to say or how to help.
Unless you have been through this kind of violent death, there really is no way to describe it, they tell me.
“In some ways, as time goes on, it is getting harder,” says Joyce. “It’s weird. We do the day-to-day things, but time stopped that day. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Still, her daughter tries. “It’s like who you are as a family came to an end. Josh and I are lost without him,” she says, referring to her younger brother. “We are all lost without Russ.”
And so, the Beyers have no choice but to live day to day — sometimes even hour to hour — surrounded by reminders of Russ’ life and his death.
There’s a large portion of the dining room wall dedicated to his memory, including a plaque from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and a Teddy bear in attire stitched from his Pratt uniform. Near the fireplace is a stone bench holding photos and other mementos. And on the couch are pillows made from his blue jeans, along with a blanket created from the union T-shirts Russ wore almost every day.
Joyce says she still needs to organize the back bedroom, which contains hundreds of cards and letters from people across the country, as well as the now-cleaned clothes her son was wearing when he was shot three times.
Ted Beyer, in the meantime, admits he’s mostly dealing with anger at the perfect storm of missteps that led to the Feb. 15 massacre. Yet, he still regularly visits the Pratt plant, checking in with old colleagues and friends and walking through the rooms where he and his son spent so much time.
“It is,” says Joyce, “still his connection to Russ.”
Her husband, arms folded, stares straight ahead, then finally nods slowly.
“He followed in his dad’s footsteps and tried to do better,” Ted says, his gravely voice perhaps camouflaging the emotions his words carry. “I should never have gotten him involved in the union.”
Yes, there is guilt, and so many questions that, whether they are ever answered, “will not bring back Russ.”
But without at least trying, Ted is convinced the emptiness he now feels will never go away.
“He had a big heart,” said the father of his slain son. “A lot of good people died that day and they shouldn’t have.”
“In some ways, as time goes on, it is getting harder. It’s weird. We do the day-to-day things, but time stopped that day. I don’t know how to explain it.” — Joyce Beyer, mother of Russell
Ted and Joyce Beyer sit down together in their Bristol home to talk about their son Russell’s murder on Feb. 15, 2019, during the warehouse shooting at Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora.
Ted and Joyce Beyer’s home in Bristol is filled with photos, mementos and other reminders of their oldest son, Russell.