A year af­ter Aurora shoot­ing, grief re­mains

Fam­ily of slain union leader still grap­ples with unan­swered ques­tions

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGOLAN­D - By Denise Crosby [email protected]

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

DENISE CROSBY/BEA­CON-NEWS PHO­TOS

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.

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