BY CHASE GORSKI
This past summer, local journalism became a national topic for all the wrong reasons.
The Capital Gazette, an Annapolis-based newspaper that covers a large portion of Anne Arundel County, was the target of senseless and violent tragedy after a lone gunman entered its office and opened fire.
Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith were the five victims killed in the shooting.
Five lives abruptly ended as a result of a targeted attack on a newsroom, with two others injured as well. But what many may forget are the ones that do not become statistics.
The number of lives altered by that date is countless.
Salisbury University senior Anthony Messenger falls under that category.
A media productions major with a strong interest in writing, Messenger contacted The Capital last winter to inquire about potential internships.
“I’m from Anne Arundel County, so I grew up reading the Capital … I played sports in the area, so I was familiar with some of the reporters there,” Messenger said. “I was like, ‘I’m familiar with that paper, I might as well try there.’”
The Crofton native always had a strong interest in writing, which led him toward an internship as a news reporter. Despite an awareness that news reporting may not be his specific career preference, Messenger knew it was still a great opportunity to gain experience.
The internship established a lot of “firsts” for Messenger, like heading out to Bowie for a story about a horse farm, covering early voting at a polling station or attending a dragon boat race.
For a writer who had previously focused on sports, it was quite the switch.
“You had to be a self-starter; if you’re just sitting there then you’re going to sit there all day, you’re not going to have anything, so that was the hardest part for me,” Messenger said. “It wasn’t hard to get into the flow because it was so fast-paced … get in the lane and go or you’re getting ran over.”
Two weeks into the internship, Messenger had found his lane.
With a daily routine of coming in at 8 a.m. and going over the storyboard to see what stories were being covered, he became comfortable. Getting article ideas, scheduling interviews and writing crime briefs were all a part of the daily job.
But one day drastically changed that summer and the foreseeable future for Messenger and the rest of the Capital staff.
“It was a completely normal day,” Messenger said. “It’s weird because we, the reporters were covering the death of a surfer and he was a paraplegic. He drowned and they wanted us to reach out to the organization he was a part of.”
He explained how that story was something he remembered specifically. Army veteran Cody Iorns, who was well known within the paddle boarding community in Annapolis, was a part of the organization Capital SUP and had unexpectedly drowned in the Chesapeake Bay.
But it was not the details that stuck with Messenger, rather the task at hand. As a part of a statement on Facebook, Capital SUP explained their grief and the need for time and space.
“I thought we were just going to use that statement to write a piece, and they wanted me to keep calling, and I called them twice and didn’t get an answer,” Messenger said. “At some point in time it hit me; for me I was just uncomfortable bothering them…I took my phone out and from the second call on, I had my phone on the call screen and I would just fake a call.”
While he understood the nature of the job, it was a personal line that Messenger was not willing to cross.
“That just doesn’t feel right to me. He just died,” Messenger said.
After completing two crime briefs that morning and working through the dead paddle boarder story, Messenger went on his usual lunch break around noon, returning an hour later to continue what had been a normal day.
Around 2:40 p.m., Messenger said he found himself chatting with writer Selene San Felice when they heard a “pop” come from the front of the office.
“I had never really been around guns; I didn’t grow up around guns so I thought it was a firework … and I heard glass shatter,” Messenger said. “I sit kind of farther back in the office with my back towards the front door. I’m hearing some screams but not anything blood-curling, and I’m thinking ‘Oh it was an accident, somebody busted the glass.’”
With all possible innocent options running through his head, a second “pop” brought a shock of reality.
The reality was that Jarrod Ramos, 38, had entered the Capital Gazette with a shotgun in hand and revenge on his mind, according to authorities. Reports later confirmed the Laurel native targeted the local newspaper after a history of a feud that began back in 2011.
After the Capital Gazette had published an article that detailed a criminal harassment charge against him, and a failed defamation lawsuit, Ramos harbored this grudge until he walked into the office that day.
Once the second gunshot was heard, Messenger and San Felice headed for the back door of the office.
That door looked to be the safe haven that was needed, a door that locked from the outside and needed key card access to enter, but was unlocked for those attempting to exit.
“That door is never, ever, ever locked,” Messenger said. “[San Felice] goes to get out and she jiggles the handle, jams it again and then she turns and was like, ‘It’s locked.’ We’re still hearing pops and when she said it’s locked, I was like ‘Oh (expletive), this is bad.’”
Reports later brought to light that Ramos had blocked the door to prevent employees from escaping, thus adding to the methodical planning that went into his attack.
The realization of the shooting had not kicked in yet, but through the shock, Messenger was aware of the gravity of the moment. At that point, instincts took over.
Both Messenger and San Felice returned to the back corner cubicle and huddled together under the desk they previously left while the mayhem continued. Once hidden, San Felice instructed him to call 911.
Trying to snap out of the shock that had frozen him for a few moments, Messenger grabbed his phone and quickly dialed the police
“I was about to speak and then I see another coworker, Rachael Pacella, she runs into our view and she hits the wall and has blood all over her face … I’m thinking she got shot in the head,” Messenger said. “She falls and that’s when I realize ‘I’m in a shooting, we’re in a shooting.’”
Despite what Messenger had thought, Pacella had not been shot, but instead suffered other injuries.
Messenger was still on the phone with the 911 operator, unable to speak as the events unfolded before his eyes.
McNamara was the next person to rush to the exit door, and upon coming to the same realization that it was locked, went under the desk directly across from Messenger and San Felice.
“At that point in time, I heard the footsteps of the shooter to my right and I just got quiet … and I’m still on the phone so [the operator] is like ‘Hello, hello?’” Messenger said. “And then [the shooter] shot John, he hit him right in his ribs, and we saw that.”
As both he and San Felice tried to stay quiet, the 911 operator had heard the blast and hung up as she sent emergency response teams to the Capital Gazette office.
Messenger recalled sitting under the desk watching McNamara and knowing he was going to die, and then coming to another bone-chilling conclusion.
“That’s when for me, I’m like, ‘Oh, not only am I in a shooting, but I’m going to die,’ because his progression through the office was moving back to our desk,” Messenger said. “I’m waiting for him to turn the corner and me to see the barrel of the gun.”
But the progression for the shooter was not to Messenger and San Felice. As the two continued to stay silent, they heard a final gunshot and what Messenger explains he thought was the sound of the gun dropping to the ground.
While his immediate thought was that the nightmare had ended as a murder-suicide, there was too much fear to move from under that desk. All that was left was the smell of gunpowder.
“You can smell it just filling your nostrils … that bothers me, gunpowder, it’s a sickening, nasty smell now,” Messenger said.
Messenger handed his phone to San Felice and told her to contact who she needed to if there were any last goodbyes to be made. As they both sat in silence Messenger noticed she had opened Twitter, but paid no attention to it.
It was 2:43 p.m. and San Felice had sent a tweet from Messenger’s Twitter account that read “Active shooter 888 Bestgate please help us” in an effort to get the word out.
This had come after the phone lines were busy when they tried to redial 911.
“It was really heads-up by her, I saw she was on Twitter but I didn’t know what she was doing,” Messenger said. “I wanted to make sure that when and if I did speak about it that she got the credit for sending it out.”
As the minutes rolled by, sirens could be heard in the distance, and it was not long before they had amplified right outside of the building. The room sat in silence without movement until first responders entered the office and Messenger, San Felice and other colleagues made themselves known appearing from where they had hidden.
Once the police were able to identify they were not the shooters, they were instructed to form a line with hands on each-other’s shoulders and to not look down as they walked.
“Being human, we’re going to look, but being reporters who are specifically curious we are looking,” Messenger said. “We had to walk over the body of one of our coworkers, Wendi Winters, and that really messed me up.”
Reports following the shooting brought to light the fact that Winters had rushed the shooter in an attempt to stop him.
“She probably saved my life … if it wasn’t for her holding him up for at least a second, I don’t know what would have happened,” Messenger said.
The six survivors had made it out of the office to the sound of sirens and emergency vehicles – they were finally safe.
In the days and weeks following June 28, a newspaper that operated as a family came together to continue with their jobs in honor of their fallen members.
“Everybody talks about family atmosphere, everybody preaches it at their job or team, but they really lived it even before the shooting … great people, nobody there was anything but welcoming.” Messenger said. “To see them take care of their own after the fact … they didn’t shy away from writing the stuff that makes you feel something.”
One aspect following the shooting that sticks in Messenger’s memory was the outpouring of support from strangers.
He recalled a specific moment sitting in the police precinct before being interviewed and remembered being in shambles, questioning all he had ever known and trusted with any last sliver of innocence being stripped away.
“My phone is just lighting up with people reaching out, and it was like a flipped switch,” Messenger said. “I’m not going to look at it from that perspective. I looked at it as all of these people that said they love me, it’s true. I got a letter from a random lady in Texas, and that really moved me … there’s a lot of good out there and people care.”
After visiting his coworkers, Messenger made the decision that he would not be able to return to complete his internship after what happened.
“I couldn’t look them in the face and work every day and try to not bring that up every second of every day,” Messenger said. “I needed space … I had to take myself out of the environment to really decompress.”
As time has gone on, those wounds are still present for the lives that had a hand in that day. Even now, trying to come to terms with what happened is still in the distance.
“I don’t know if I’ve accepted it, I could lie and say that I definitely know that I have but I don’t know that that’s true,” Messenger said. “I’ve been trying to be completely honest with myself and allow myself to feel the range of emotions.”
For Messenger, there was another key for him trying to move forward and come back to school. He credits not just strong relationships around him, but his optimism and his faith that helped him to try and find meaning.
“I trust that there’s a God out there, because that’s the only way; divine intervention is the only way that I walked out of there,” Messenger said. “If I didn’t think that way, I would be terrified to be on campus.”
That faith not only helped Messenger during a time of tragedy, but it also helped him try and come to terms with it, and ultimately settle on his belief in his meaning and why he is still here.
“It’s almost like a freedom. You got a second lease on life so you might as well live it as hard as you can,” Messenger said. “As far as the things I have a say in, I’m bullish in doing the things that make me feel fulfilled … because it could be snatched away from you like that.”
Now back at Salisbury and surrounded by friends, the emotional and mental scars from June 28 still linger, but Messenger is finding his way.
As an aspiring author, Messenger plans to do exactly that – pursue any and everything that fulfills him.
“I know true deep fear, and in that moment, it clarifies everything that matters to you externally,” Messenger said. “There’s a few things I know; family, faith and experiences. Making good, fruitful memories.”
An event that could change the core makeup of a person drastically has brought out a strong desire to improve and be the best possible person in Messenger. To continue living for the five victims whose lives were taken too soon.
“You should do everything in your power to be the best person that you can be, because you’re here,” Messenger said.
“Because you’re alive.”