Parents of Colorado theater shooting victim fear copycat massacre

Jason Sickles, Yahoo
Tom and Caren Teves lost their son, Alex, in the July 2012 Colorado theater shooting massacre. (Photo: Jason Sickles/Yahoo News)

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — Inside a windowless second-floor courtroom on Monday, Tom and Caren Teves came face-to-face again with the gunman who fatally shot their firstborn son in the head.

But that encounter and the start of the long-awaited Colorado movie theater massacre trial, which began on Monday with opening statements, is not what troubles them most.

The Teveses’ biggest worry is the possible effect of the mass media coverage due to the throng of TV news trucks outside the Arapahoe County courthouse and the dozens of reporters assigned to the trial, which is a rare event. Most U.S. mass shooters are killed by police, commit suicide or plead guilty to avoid trial.

In Colorado v. James Holmes, the judge is also allowing a live video stream of the court proceedings.

“One shooter inspires another,” Caren Teves told Yahoo News over the weekend. She fears that there is, in her words, “a contagion effect.”

Her husband is more blunt: “I fear there’s going to be another shooting,” as a result of the anticipated exhaustive media coverage of the trial.

“You watch,” he said. “There’ll be one. I pray to God every night that I’m wrong, but I don’t think that I am.”

The undated photo provided by the family shows Alex Teves. (Courtesy: ACT Foundation)

Alex Teves was among the dozen people killed and 70 injured on July 20, 2012, when Holmes, heavily armed, burst into a packed movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and opened fire during a midnight screening of the Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.”

“People say, ‘Oh, I can’t imagine how you feel,’” Tom Teves said. “And the reality is, ‘No, you can’t.’”

“And we don’t want you to,” his wife said. And that’s why they started their No Notoriety campaign.

After the rampage, the Teves family launched an awareness compaign called No Notoriety, which aims to stop (or at least reasonably limit) news organizations from publishing the theater shooter’s name and photo.

Defense attorneys in the Colorado case have acknowledged that their client was the gunman, but they argue he was in the grips of a psychotic episode at the time. Holmes, who has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, is trying to avoid the death penalty.

The Teveses, who live in Phoenix, don’t say the name of their son’s shooter. Ever.

“He shot a 6-year-old girl point-blank,” Tom Teves said, referring to the youngest victim, Veronica Moser-Sullivan. “That’s not a human being.”

The 12 who were killed at the movie theater. Click image to open gallery. Top (L to R): Matt McQuinn, Alex Teves, Micayla Medek, Jesse Childress, Jon Blunk, Jessica Ghawi. Bottom (L to R): AJ Boik, John Larimer, Alex Sullivan, Gordon Cowden, Rebecca Wingo, and Veronica Moser-Sullivan. (Photo combination by Yahoo News, AP Photos)

No Notoriety has since coalesced into a campaign to change how the media covers all mass shootings, which the FBI says spiked to an average of 16 a year between 2009 to 2012.

“We’re worried about the public because we don’t want other people to join our club,” Tom Teves said. “I never knew grief translates into physical pain until July 20, 2012.”

Almost five months after the Aurora theater shooting, gunman Adam Lanza murdered 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., before killing himself.

Tom Teves, who wears on his right wrist a bracelet that bears his son’s name, worries that new coverage of the Aurora shooting could have been a factor that led to Lanza’s actions.

“We're worried about the public because we don't want other people to join our club” lorem ipsum — Tom Teves, Father

Investigators of the Sandy Hook shooting discovered that the 20-year-old killer had a large cache of news clips about mass murders — especially the 1999 Columbine High School rampage in suburban Denver — and kept a spreadsheet detailing each event by name.

Criminal psychologists say a number of factors motivate mass killers, and exact research hasn’t been conducted on links between publicity and copycat cases. But anecdotally, many experts agree that murderers tend to feed off of infamy and one another.

“Mass killers have been known to inspire mass killers,” noted criminal sociologist Jack Levin told Yahoo News. “The Columbine massacre in April 1999 has played a role in numerous mass murders across the globe. The Columbine killers … have been named in manifestos, diaries, and other messages left by school rampage shooters as well as other mass murderers.”

The Teveses admit that getting mainstream media to commit to their cause is a challenge. Withholding a name conflicts with the tenets of journalism: who, what, why, when, where and how. But the couple maintains they aren’t seeking censorship, just accountability.

“It’s when you have to have the name 17 times in a story,” Tom Teves said.

Monica Guzman, co-vice chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee, said she sees where a happy medium could exist.

“You can’t completely wipe the name from the record,” Guzman wrote in an email. “But they’re right that there’s no reason to plaster the name all over the headlines, or his face. I like the idea of a society that is more thoughtful about this, considering how much more widely news images spread these days. Keeping his name and face to a news-value minimum makes some sense.”

Done responsibly, Levin said reporters have not only a right but a duty to inform the public as to characteristics of mass killers. 

The attention we give to it is well-deserved and actually might teach some members of the public to avoid being victimized, he said. It is, however, the excessive attention and the celebrity status we give to those who commit hideous crimes that contributes to a copycat phenomenon whereby murder is imitated.”

Through the years, controversy has followed after notorious killers were prominently featured in publications. In 1991, People magazine displayed serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer on its cover. Time magazine gave Ted Kaczynski, also known as the “Unabomber,” the same treatment in 1996. In August 2013, Rolling Stone received backlash but doubled its sales when it put Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover.

All of which, Levin says, plays right into the hands of the suspects’ desire to feel important and superior.

“In the midst of his killing spree at Virginia Tech in April 2007, the killer stopped after taking two lives to walk across the street to a post office, where he mailed photographs to NBC News depicting him as a powerful and dangerous person,” Levin said. “Then, he went back on campus and shot to death 30 more victims.”

Levin, co-author of “Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder,” said that for most people, rampages like the theater shooting are so extraordinary and grotesque that they seem pretend like a true crime novel.

Alex Teves and his girlfriend at an Arizona homecoming football game in 2011. (Courtesy: ACT Foundation)

“It becomes an escape from the all too real problems of everyday life, such as avoiding muggers or paying the bills,” he said. “Therefore, mass murder can actually be entertaining. True crime might as well be a novel.”

What Alex Teves, 24, endured was far from fiction. When the shooter began spraying gunfire, the former high school wrestler tackled and pinned his girlfriend, Amanda, to the theater floor.

“He covered her entirely with his body,” Caren Teves said. “He gave up his life to save his girlfriend. The violent nature of it and the senseless nature of it, it’s just very, very difficult as a parent.”

"A horrible wound," District Attorney George Brauchler said in his opening statement.

Alex Teves received a master’s in counseling psychology the month before his death. The happy-go-lucky young man had already achieved hero status at a Denver school where he mentored kids with learning and behavioral needs.

His parents said it’s disheartening that the public undoubtedly knows more about the theater shooter than the dozen who died.

“Evil is always trying to kill good, right?” Tom Teves said. “Had Alex met him, he probably could have helped him, and he probably would have helped him.”

(This story has been updated since it originally published.)

Jason Sickles is a reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).