Sandy Phillips Fights for Stronger, Smarter Gun Laws in the Aftermath of the Murder of her Daughter in the Aurora Mass Shooting

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FOC-Jessica-Ghawi-2Sandy Anglin Phillips was witnessing a metamorphosis in the summer of 2012. Her daughter, Jessica Redfield Ghawi, was spreading her wings—confidently. The blossoming young woman had discovered her passion, and was ready to take flight into the brilliant and promising skies of a new career.

On July 20, 2012, her flight ended abruptly, loudly, and unnaturally. Ghawi was among the 12 souls lost when a man waged war on theater patrons enjoying a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado.

Phillips struggles with the unrelenting reality that her 24-year-old daughter is no longer a part of a world that she routinely brightened. She wants her daughter’s spirit to live on through good works, and she wants our society to search its collective soul on the subject of guns.

Miracle Baby

Phillips, now 63, spent four years trying to conceive her son, Jordan. When he was 16 months old, his mother learned she was pregnant again with a baby girl.

“I was 37 when I got pregnant with her. When I was pregnant the second time, I found out on April Fools Day. The doctor said, ‘no, not joking,’” Phillips remembers.

Phillips’ due date was Thanksgiving Day. She went into labor on schedule, but Jessica came along the day after the holiday. She was named after her grandfather.

“When I found out I was pregnant, my father had just been diagnosed with cancer. He was very touched to know she was named after him,” Phillips said.

Phillips called her daughter “Jessi.” The two were as close as a mother and daughter could be. Phillips describes her as a “hugger” who was joyous and impulsive, but who had certain fears.

“Jessi was always afraid of fireworks. She didn’t like the sound of them. She said they sounded like guns.”

Phillips and Jessi’s dad divorced and she raised Jessi and her brother as a single mom while working in the tourism industry.

As Jessi grew older, her compassion for others was evident.

“She was always about people who were hurting or were in trouble or having issues. She fought the bullies. She was just kind. She was a very loving, compassionate, kind young woman. She had been her whole life.”

Jessi had become well known for spontaneous acts of kindness. She would write letters to friends to tell them how special they were. When the text messaging age began, texting became yet another tool Jessi used to spread her unique variety of out-of-the-blue kindness.

She also developed a passion for sports while watching it with her boyfriend’s family.

“She went to a hockey game and she was hooked. She decided that she might like to go into sports journalism,” Phillips said.

Jessi’s plan was to finish her college education and form as many connections in sports broadcasting as she could along the way. Phillips gave Jessi her blessing when friends in Denver promised to look after Jessi like a little sister.

“I felt very comfortable with her moving there and she just soared. The people that she met loved her.”

She enrolled at Metropolitan State University in Denver, majoring in journalism and sports broadcasting. She was learning what it meant to be an adult in the real world. She had three internships. She scored a dream gig covering the Avalanche Hockey team for a radio station. She blogged under the name Jessica Redfield. Redfield was the maiden name of a grandmother who never achieved her own journalism dreams. Jessi earned a reputation as a young woman who knew her hockey, and knew it well.

She was making all the right connections. She was going places. She was both busy—and broke. She realized she needed to trim her spending, so she moved into a more affordable apartment in Aurora, Colorado.

Jessi had only been in the new place for ten days when she bought tickets to a movie on that fateful night. Her childhood friend, Brent Lowak, had flown out for a visit. She called Lowak her “best guy friend.” Phillips was just four days away from flying out to see the apartment and give Jessi a little money to sustain her.

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July 20

Jessi was raised in the Internet age. She Tweeted. She texted. Seated with Lowak in the middle rows of theater 9 at the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, she was doing both before the theater went dark.

On Twitter, she engaged in friendly ribbing with a follower who was not at the movies seeing the much-anticipated Batman movie. She texted her mom, who was suffering from sleeplessness in San Antonio.

“I woke up and texted her and asked if she was still up. She texted me back from the movie theater. The last thing she said to me was ‘go get some rest, can’t wait for you visit. I need my momma.’ And I wrote back, ‘I need my baby girl.’”

Jessi was wearing a red Canada hoodie sweatshirt that her boyfriend had given her. She snacked on popcorn. The movie began.

Fifteen minutes after Jessi had last texted her mom, Phillips’ phone rang. It was Brent, breathless. Phillips could hear screaming in the background and she asked what was happening.

“He said ‘there’s been a shooting. It’s random.’” Phillips asked if he was okay.

He said, “I’ve been shot twice. I think Jessi’s been shot twice too.”

Phillips pleaded for information. “I said, please tell me she’s not dead. He just said ‘I’m sorry.’ From that point forward I was just decimated.”

“I went into shock. I called my son and told him that Brent had just called and said Jessi was dead. He came over and took charge. He’s a paramedic and can compartmentalize.”

Lowak survived his significant injuries. With his help, Phillips knows the details of her daughter’s last moments. When the shooting began, Lowak and Jessi both crouched on the floor. Jessi was shot in one of her legs. Lowak, also a paramedic, put pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding. He then noticed blood staining her bright red hair. She had been shot in the head. His experience, and the sounds of her labored breathing, made him realize that her wounds were not survivable. With gunfire exploding in the background, he prayed over Jessi. The shooting stopped. Lowak wondered if the shooter had paused to reload. He knew he had to leave while he had the chance.

Two policemen found Jessi. She was still barely breathing. A police cruiser took her to the nearest hospital where she was declared dead shortly after arriving.

Phillips was thankful for one thing.

“That was a comfort. I didn’t want to think about my baby lying in chalk. Somebody had tried to take care of her.”

The Close Call

Soon after the shooting, Jessi’s name rose to prominence in the headlines. Hers was an eerie twist: she had just missed a mall shooting in Toronto five weeks earlier. She was in a food court when an uneasy feeling overcame her. She asked her boyfriend if they could leave. Three minutes later—gunfire. In total, five people were shot. One young man died. He was Jessi’s age—24. She blogged about the experience and its effect on her.

I was shown how fragile life was on Saturday. I saw the terror on bystanders’ faces. I saw the victims of a senseless crime. I saw lives change. I was reminded that we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath. For one man, it was in the middle of a busy food court on a Saturday evening.

I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing. So often I have found myself taking it for granted. Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude are all blessings. Every second of every day is a gift. After Saturday evening, I know I truly understand how blessed I am for each second I am given.

— Jessica Ghawi

Phillips attempted to comfort Jessi after the mall shooting. She told her, “At least you’ve seen the worst of humanity and you’ll never see it again.”

The Aftermath and Advocacy

FOC-JessicaGhawi3Phillips struggles with her senses. She can’t handle the smell of popcorn anymore. She struggles with the silence of her cell phone, which no longer beeps a dozen times a day with news from Jessi. She won’t go to the movies anymore. She dare not attend a fireworks display, remembering how Jessi hated the sound.

Through tears, Phillips said, “It’s just not right that that is the last sound she heard. That it’s the last sound those little kids heard in Newtown.”

The man who unleashed the terror in Aurora is named James Holmes.

“My husband and I don’t give him much thought at all,” she said. They do not attend his court hearings.

However, she does think about the weapons Holmes used. Jessi was shot multiple times with an AR-15.

“It takes a lot of lives in a short amount of time. The Colorado shooting only lasted 90 seconds. He had a 100-round drum. Had his gun not jammed he would have killed so many (more) people,” said Phillips.

Holmes had allegedly obtained six thousand rounds of ammunition online without being flagged.  

Phillips said, “[That’s] ironic since we can’t buy Sudafed without filling out paperwork and being limited to how much we can buy.”

Many people would be surprised to know that Phillips is a gun owner who supports the Second Amendment. She believes a balance exists between Second Amendment freedoms, and the rights of the public to be protected. She wants to see loopholes closed, and limits imposed on the type of gun and amount of ammunition that can be sold to a person. She wants to see the NRA’s political influence diluted.

“It’s just wrong for our society to not want to make a positive change. It’s bad enough that we lose 32 people a day to shootings. An AR-15 is not a good self- defense weapon. It’s not a good hunting weapon. There is no reason in a free society that we should have weapons that kill mass numbers of people within seconds,” Phillips said.

“There are too many James Holmeses and Adam Lanzas and angry husbands and people who believe their right to have fun outweighs the rights of citizens to go to the movies or to church or to restaurants or to schools. It doesn’t.”

Jessi’s Legacy

Before Jessi died, she was researching how she could start a foundation to help collect sports equipment for victims of the destructive Colorado wildfires. After her death, a charity in Denver called A Precious Child collected 25,000 pieces of new and used sports equipment in Jessi’s memory.

Her efforts to continue her education will not be forgotten either.

“When she died I knew instantly we needed to start a scholarship program so some young girl would not have to work as hard as Jessi had to work,” Phillips said.

More than $30,000 has been raised for scholarships that carry Jessi’s name.

479945_395258337202354_952793816_nEven though Jessi’s metamorphosis was cut short, her mother is having one of her own. After 50 years of working in the tourism industry, she is now a paid victim’s advocate for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

“I miss telling her how proud I am of her. I know she’d be really proud of the work I am doing now and the work her stepdad is doing. She’d be very proud of that.”

“She was my biggest fan and I was hers. I miss that so much. She was a gift and I was thankful to have her.”

Click for the Jessica Redfield Ghawi Scholarship Fund