Parkland Families Share How They Keep Loved Ones Memories Alive

On Wednesday, Nov. 2, the Parkland school shooter was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for murdering 17 people and injuring 17 others inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.

For more than four years and during lengthy and at times contentious court proceedings, the victims' families worked tirelessly to keep their loved ones' memories front and center — even while much of the focus remained on the shooter and the morbid details of how he callously ended their lives.

"No one that is up here right now can imagine what it is like to have a little sister murdered and you cannot begin to understand the depth of pain that it is to relive it in a very public setting surrounded by strangers," Meghan Petty, the sister of victim Alaina Petty, said in court prior to the killer's sentencing.

"I have heard the gunshots that killed her through the speakers in here. I have listened to the medical examiner describe the fatal gunshot wound that he inflicted on my 14-year-old baby sister," she continued.

Throughout the sentencing trial, families were unable to wear buttons, bracelets or T-shirts depicting their loved ones. Graphic videos of their loved ones' final moments were shown. Medical examiners testified, in horrid detail, on how the victims died — showing the pathways of the bullets and evidence of their mortal wounds.

"Too often, we see the media focus on the perpetrator of these heinous acts," Tony Montalto, 55, told TODAY Parents during the trial. "Yes, it's a tragedy because of who we lost, but they were so much more than victims."

Before sentencing the shooter, Judge Elizabeth Scherer thanked the families for “the privilege of learning about each and every one your loved ones.”

“I can tell you they will not be forgotten and I can tell you that I feel I know each and every one of them from the personal stories you have given,” she added. “As a group of people, you are so strong and so united that if anything good came out of this event, I feel seeing you I can know that you are all going to be OK because you have each other.”

As they now cope with accepting the sentencing verdict, three families shared with TODAY Parents what they want the world to remember about the loved ones stolen from them.

Gina Montalto, 14

"Gina was our firstborn, and she came into this world wide-eyed and ready to take on any challenge," Montalto said. "She was beautiful. She was just fantastic. She was a loving daughter; a fantastic big sister to her brother, Anthony; she was bright; she was friendly; she was kind; she was compassionate."

Gina was a Girl Scout and active in her local church, Montalto shared. Describing her as a "friend others could count on," the proud father said she was often "the first kid in the neighborhood to reach out to someone new and welcome them."

US-JUSTICE-HOMICIDE-PARKLAND-TRIAL (Mike Stocker / AFP via Getty Images)
US-JUSTICE-HOMICIDE-PARKLAND-TRIAL (Mike Stocker / AFP via Getty Images)

She also loved her family and her cousins, and enjoyed cooking with her father and her grandmother.

"I could tell you 100 stories," Montalto said with a laugh. "She was everything I could have hoped for — she was full of life. She enjoyed being 'out there' and participating and she could be a little silly or goofy at times, but that's just who she was. She was a phenomenal, phenomenal kid."

Gina was shot four times, according to Dr. Marlon Osbourne, the medical examiner who performed her autopsy. When testifying in court, Osbourne said Gina was shot at close range. "The end of the gun muzzle was in contact with clothing," he told the court.

Gina loved art, her father said, and was "illustrating occasionally" for a local magazine.

"She would spend hours in her room, sketching things or studying how to be a better artist," he explained fondly. "She had a fair amount of talent and teachers recognized that and would encourage it."

Gina also loved books, her father said — especially the way they felt and smelled. "She once told my wife she loved books so much she wanted to live in a library," he said with a laugh.

Her dad says he misses attending Girl Scout father-daughter dances and watching Gina eat his famous barbecue ribs. He also misses his daughter's laugh, especially when he makes "silly dad jokes," and walking passed his double-jointed daughter to see her foot laying inexplicably on top of her head.

"Normal parents would be very upset seeing their child like this, but that was our Gina," he said.

The Gina Rose Montalto Memorial Foundation has been established in Gina's honor and helps students pay for the cost of secondary education something Gina never got a chance to pursue.

Christopher "Chris" Hixon, 49

Debbie Hixon met her husband, Christopher, at a wedding in 1988. They would have been married for 28 years, but her husband was shot and killed after running into the building in an attempt to subdue the shooter.

"The first time I saw him, I thought, 'Oh gosh, what a nerd,'" Debbie told TODAY Parents. "He loved 'Miami Vice' and dressed like Don Johnson. He thought he was very stylish — no one thought that but him."

Feeling sorry for him, Debbie asked him to dance. Their first date was also with her mom, a friend "who was very pregnant" and her daughter, because Debbie already had plans with them.

"My mother loved him from that day on," she added. "She always picked his side in a fight."

Image: (Amy Beth Bennett / AP)
Image: (Amy Beth Bennett / AP)

The pair had plans to travel the world after they got married, but Debbie's mother grew ill. The newlywed needed to care for her mother and told her husband she knew he "didn't sign up for this" and that she would understand if he no longer wanted to stay married.

"He got really mad and said, 'We said for better or worse,'" she explained. "So he got out of the service after his time was up and moved into the house with my mom and we took care of her."

The mom of two remembers her husband as "very crabby but funny, and just one of those people that when they walk into the room, they just fill up the space."

She said Chris knew everybody, was always helping people and was "one of those unsung heroes that did all the work in the background and very seldom got the accolades that came with it." While it bothered her that her husband didn't receive the praise he deserved, she said it never bothered him.

Chris was shot as he opened the door to the building, the Chief Assistant State Attorney, Mike Satz, said in court. He crawled across the hallway, where he was shot again. Chris — an Iraq War veteran and athletic director — tried for several minutes to stand to his feet and stood guard until the police arrived before he died.

US-JUSTICE-HOMICIDE-PARKLAND-TRIAL (Mike Stocker / AFP via Getty Images)
US-JUSTICE-HOMICIDE-PARKLAND-TRIAL (Mike Stocker / AFP via Getty Images)

Fatherhood made her husband "worry more about security and safety," Debbie said, and he made sure the couple were only friends with people who were going to be good role models to their two sons, now 30 and 27.

Debbie misses her husband "singing at the top of his lungs, even though he could not sing very well" or breaking out into a random dance. She also misses his goofy faces, his pranks and their bedtime routine.

"As the athletic director, he often came home at 10 at night, so he would always eat the dinner I left in the microwave, then crawl into bed with me and watch Jimmy Kimmel," she shared. "We would just talk about the day, the crazy thing that happened or what we're happy about and looking forward to. He also loved to massage my back and my neck — that's where I had a lot of stress. I miss that sense of safety and security and comfort."

The Chris Hixon Athletic Scholarship has been founded to honor Chris, providing a one-time scholarship to student-athletes who attend the three high schools where Chris made a direct impact.

Luke Hoyer, 15

Mom of three Gena Hoyer remembers her youngest son, Luke, as a sweet, "easy baby and always happy child."

"A friend at school one day was taking pictures at an event and she asked if Luke was 'always like this,'" Gena told TODAY. "I was like, 'Yes, he's always goofing off.'"

While he was always quiet, Gena said her son was comforting, funny and had a smile that was contagious.

"He loved to make people laugh, which he always did," she added. "I used to say to my husband, 'He was our surprise baby, but what would we do without him?'"

Luke was the shooter’s first victim that day. He was shot twice while waiting outside a classroom. The first bullet hit his jaw and neck, filling his lungs up with blood, the medical examiner, Dr. Terril Tops, testified in court. The second gunshot shattered parts of his pelvis.

Gena said her baby boy was always considerate and something of a "mama's boy."

"I asked him, because it was just me and him, if he wanted me to have another child," she explained. "He said, 'No, mama, I like being the only child.'"

Her son loved to eat, she shared, so she could never feed him enough chicken nuggets — his "all time favorite." Gena can still look at her refrigerator and see her son grabbing a pint of ice cream, asking her if she would like some, too.

Gena Hoyer reacts as she hears that her son's murderer will not receive the death penalty as the verdicts are announced in the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Oct. 13, 2022,  Hoyers son, Luke, was killed in the 2018 shootings. Cruz, who plead guilty to 17 counts of premeditated murder in the 2018 shootings, is the most lethal mass shooter to stand trial in the U.S. He was previously sentenced to 17 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole for 17 additional counts of attempted murder for the students he injured that day. (Amy Beth Bennett / Pool via Getty Images)
Gena Hoyer reacts as she hears that her son's murderer will not receive the death penalty as the verdicts are announced in the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Oct. 13, 2022, Hoyers son, Luke, was killed in the 2018 shootings. Cruz, who plead guilty to 17 counts of premeditated murder in the 2018 shootings, is the most lethal mass shooter to stand trial in the U.S. He was previously sentenced to 17 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole for 17 additional counts of attempted murder for the students he injured that day. (Amy Beth Bennett / Pool via Getty Images)

He loved basketball, and was best known for saying "I'm just chilling."

"He had a calm nature," Gena said. "So that became kind of our motto. I keep his pictures in my car, and if I start getting upset I just look at him and go, 'Alright Luke, I'm going to practice my Luke Inner Calm.' He was just a special little boy."

The proud mom says she misses playing jokes with and on Luke — especially the moments when the two tried to scare each other. She can still see him bouncing a basketball in the house, or hear him grump when she made him cut the grass. She can still hear him tell her how much he loves her.

"One thing that always sticks in my mind was when Luke was 5 years old," Gena shared. "I would put him to bed, kiss him on his cheek and he would always wipe it off because he wanted me to come back and put the kiss back on his cheek. That was our ritual, and a favorite memory of Luke."

Gena's older children, ages 27 and 24, are both out of the house. She had planned on having at least four more years with Luke at home.

"It's very hard," she added. "My house is quiet now. I always think he is going to walk through our front door. I just still can't believe he is gone. But he's always with me. Every day I can feel him — we just have a different relationship now."

The Luke Hoyer Athletic Fund was established in memory of Luke, which provides special funds to allow children the opportunity to participate in sports — something Luke loved.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com