Carrying a heavy burden, a community moves on
MOSCOW, Idaho – As the crowd cheered, Sgt. Brannon Jordan stood and smiled in his Moscow Police Department uniform.
The evening was a time of remembrance and recognition, and at least 150 people spilled from the City Council chambers into the hallway a week ago. The council and Mayor Nancy Chaney called the special meeting to honor police and fire officials for their service on May 19, when a gunman killed three in a suicidal rampage near the Latah County courthouse.
Jordan – back to working full time – was the last of dozens to be honored; he received a city of Moscow version of the military’s Purple Heart.
A Latah County sheriff’s deputy at the time, Jordan was shot in the back that night as he crouched in cover. He had just helped to rescue Officer Lee Newbill, who was shot three times. A father of three, 48-year-old Newbill later died – the first Moscow officer to be killed in the line of duty.
Jordan, along with four other law enforcement officials, received a Medal of Valor last week. After the City Council meeting, friends and community members came up to Jordan to thank him for his service.
“It’s just been a long road, getting healed up,” Jordan said between handshakes. The road also has been long for the 22,000 residents of Moscow. The May carnage was a shock, and the city is still healing.
“This still is small-town America in many ways,” Chaney said, “but it definitely was a horrific wake-up call to us.”
On May 19 about 10 p.m., 36-year-old Jason Hamilton went home from a Moscow bar and shot his wife, Crystal, 30, in the head. Then he took two high-powered rifles to town and opened fire on the Latah County courthouse, firing about 125 rounds from the First Presbyterian Church parking lot.
That’s the location from which Hamilton shot at Newbill and Officer Bill Shields, who was injured by shrapnel and received an exceptional service certificate during last week’s ceremony. Officials believe Hamilton shot Jordan from inside the church.
Hamilton also shot University of Idaho student Peter Husmann, 20, who had grabbed a pistol when he heard gunfire and rode his bicycle to help. Hit three times, Husmann recovered at a hospital and was released within two weeks.
Between 60 and 80 bullet casings were found inside the church, where Hamilton shot sexton Paul Bauer eight times, then killed himself. Bauer, 62, lived at the church. “I think that probably was as great an effect as the suicide in the sanctuary,” said Pastor Norman Fowler. “Because in a certain way, the sanctuary was violated, but the whole sense of our church family was attacked by losing a member and losing someone that a lot of us knew pretty well and cared for.”
For a few weeks, church services were held off-site, Fowler said. To help the community deal with the trauma, the church hosted prayer times on its lawn, also inviting courthouse employees to join.
“We did a special Sunday where we started in Fellowship Hall and all came up together to enter the sanctuary together and reclaim the sanctuary space that way, as a community,” Fowler said.
First Presbyterian Church also formed a retreat so people could talk, and it plans to plant a tree in Bauer’s memory in May. More than 250 people attended Bauer’s funeral June 5.
“It was an incredibly strange and difficult time,” Fowler said. “But I think, as a church, we’ve pulled together pretty well and are moving along in a pretty reasonable way. Like with anything of that magnitude, it’s something that continues to be with you. Although, I think, for the church anyway, we’ve not let it be something that defines us but just something that was a part of our life.”
Fowler attended a ceremony in November in which the city dedicated a stone bench to Newbill. The officer’s widow, Rebecca, spoke to those in attendance at downtown’s Friendship Square, said Chaney.
The mayor said the dedication put some hope back into the community.
“That’s encouraging that we’re starting to heal, individually and collectively,” Chaney said. “But we’ll never get over it. None of us will.”
Nevertheless, she said, the community “wrapped our collective arms around each other” and grew stronger after the shooting, which capped a streak of violent crime in Moscow.
On March 31, John Delling allegedly shot to death UI student David Boss, 21, in Boss’ Moscow apartment, then allegedly killed another student in Boise. In 2004, two brothers from Seattle, James and Matthew Wells, shot and killed 19-year-old Eric McMillian, a UI football player. Two years earlier, 19-year-old David J. Meister shot and killed Tonya Hart, 21, at her Moscow home.
“I think that there was some loss of innocence,” Chaney said. “We are not immune to those (events). I think people see them as evil from the outside world, but we aren’t immune from that.”
In response to the May shooting, the Moscow Human Rights Commission hosted a panel discussion Oct. 18 with judges, lawyers, professors and mental health professionals. They talked with about 60 attendees about the shooting and what might have prevented it, said Tim Gresback, a Moscow attorney and panel moderator.
He cited the need for a misdemeanor probation office in Moscow. Because of a 2005 charge of choking a girlfriend, Hamilton had been prohibited from possessing firearms. He had a history of violent crime and mental instability.
A regional mental health court also was started “in direct response” to Moscow’s recent incidents of violence, Gresback said.
As for the events of May 19, “we had a really thorough investigation and determined that everybody did what they were supposed to do,” said Police Chief Dan Weaver.
Moscow, Latah County and state emergency responders, along with those from Washington who assisted, worked together through the chaos – including radio dispatchers who had to retreat to the jail as Hamilton fired at the courthouse.
Newbill’s death hit the Moscow Police Department hard, and more than 2,000 officers from across the region attended his memorial service May 15 at UI’s Kibbie Dome.
This season of celebration is the perfect time to honor the emergency officials who responded to the shooting, City Councilwoman Linda Pall said last week.
Jordan was among more than 40 police and fire personnel honored by the City Council. Shaking hands, hugging and smiling for photos brought out the holiday cheer from a community touched deeply by disaster.
“The community support has just been outstanding,” Jordan said. “I’ve received so many wishes to get well. You know, cards and letters. … It’s been incredible”