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Wendi Winters honored with Courage in Journalism award 2018

'Wendi Winters saved my life': Capital Gazette staff say their fallen colleague charged the shooter

Danielle Ohl, Capital Gazette

When a man with a shotgun shattered the glass door of the Capital Gazette newspaper office and began to shoot, Wendi Winters stood up.

Weeks before the June 28 attack in Annapolis, Winters had taken active shooter training at her church, where a police officer presented the options: Run if you can run. Hide if you can hide. Fight only if you must.

Winters fought.

Janel Cooley, a survivor of the shooting that killed Winters and four others, spoke about her experience for the first time in an interview with The Capital. She said she watched from under her desk as the 20-year newspaper veteran rose to meet her attacker.

Winters charged forward holding a trash can and recycling bin, said Cooley, a sales consultant. Winters shouted something like, “No! You stop that!” or “You get out of here!” like she was warding off an unwanted dog.

“She may have distracted him enough that he forgot about me because I definitely stood up and was looking at the door,” Cooley said. “I’m sure he wasn’t expecting … anyone to charge him.”

Winters’ colleagues agree she saved their lives. Of the 11 employees in the office during the attack, six survived.

But the training shouldn’t get all the credit — not according to those who knew Winters.

Winters once gave fellow reporter Rachael Pacella the shirt off her back when Pacella spilled gasoline on her clothes before an important interview. She checked in on photojournalist Paul W. Gillespie incessantly after his brother died. Intern Anthony Messenger, who started at The Capital weeks before the attack, said Winters always tried to make him feel comfortable.

From the details her family has of the attack, Winters’ son Phoenix Geimer said, “It sounds like her.”

“She’s got four kids — she’s not going to take it from anyone,” he said.

Winters was defending her home away from home, said the Rev. John Crestwell, Winters’ pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis. “That was Wendi.”

When Cooley heard the wall-shaking bang that began the attack, she was the only sales representative in the office. She was about to leave for a meeting in Baltimore, wrapping up a call with a client. Most of the sales staff had already left for their meetings.

She saw an intruder with a gun and dropped to the floor, where she heard Winters confront the shooter and heard the weapon fire. After the attacker passed her, Cooley was able to run from her hiding spot and out of the building.

Gillespie heard Winters yell a defiant “No!” from his hiding place a few steps away. Reporters Phil Davis and Pacella didn’t see Winters charge, but they saw her body in the newsroom walkway, not at her usual seat. Messenger saw the same.

The gunman killed Winters and four others — editor Rob Hiaasen, editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, editor and sports writer John McNamara and sales assistant Rebecca Smith. Jarrod Ramos, a man with a longtime grudge against the paper, has been charged in their deaths.

Anne Arundel County Police Lt. Ryan Frashure declined to comment on Winters’ actions during shooting, citing the ongoing investigation.

Cpl. Jim Shiloh told trainees at the Unitarian Universalist session Winters attended that creating a distraction could buy time for others. Police use the “run, hide, fight” training nationwide, said Frashure, a police spokesman. The Anne Arundel County Police Department began sharing active shooter training on Facebook after the San Bernardino shooting on Dec. 2, 2015.

If a threat is imminent and people are dying, Frashure said, anything — a fire extinguisher, a stapler, a trash can — can be used as a deterrent.

Winters bought time for Pacella, Davis and Messenger, they said, who were at their desks toward the back of the newsroom when the shooting started. Pacella hid under her desk. Messenger grabbed his keys and headed for the back door, which was barricaded, and then hid. Davis looked toward the crashing glass, then hit the floor.

Davis has a snapshot in his mind of everyone where they were when the gunman blasted in, he said. Winters was originally at her desk. Messenger said he remembers seeing Winters there with a puzzled look on her face as the attack began.

As Pacella and Davis hid, they heard the same shots Cooley did. Then there was a pause. They thought it was over.

The pause, Davis said, could have been Winters intervening. It gave Pacella time to get up from under her desk, run for the back door and then hide between filing cabinets.

“I think that Wendi doing what she did served as enough of a distraction that maybe he didn’t see us,” Pacella said. “I absolutely think that Wendi Winters saved my life.”

 

A message from MDDC President Brian Karem

Nearly a year ago, friends and co-workers, members of our professional family were ripped from us in a day we should never forget. We should also work until our last breath to make sure the tragedy is never repeated.

Five members of the Capital Gazette died when a man burst into the Capital Gazette in Annapolis with a Mossberg shotgun.

Gerald Fischman. 61. Columnist and Editorial Page Editor

Rob Hiassen. 59. Assistant Editor and weekend columnist

John McNamara. 56. Sports reporter and editor and primary reporter for the Bowie Blade-News.

Rebecca Smith. 34. Sales Assistant.

Wendi Winters. 65. Community beat reporter.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Capital Gazette shooting was one of only two incidents in which multiple journalists were killed in the United States since the organization began compiling data in 1992.

The incident also figured in the recent Reporters Without Borders assessment that now ranks the United States as only the 48th freest country for journalists and places us in the troubled category.

Today the members of the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Press Association celebrate the best work our reporters from more than 100 papers have prepared during the last year for more than three million combined readers.

We take pride in our efforts and strive hard to provide vetted, factual information in a timely fashion. We get things wrong on occasion. We are human. We correct our mistakes and we move on.

We are members of our communities across the two states and the District of Columbia. We are fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers. We are not the enemy of the people.

We are the people.

And while none of the dead in Annapolis went to work on June 28 2018 thinking they would never see their families again, all of them already knew well the growing danger we all face and continue to face.

You shouldn’t have to worry about dying while covering local sports, or editing copy or trying to sell an ad.

We should, however, all of us here and all of us across the country and indeed the world celebrate the lives of these people we’ve lost and remember they gave their last full measure of life trying to serve others. We should redouble our efforts. We should work harder in their memories and for ourselves to communicate, educate and illuminate.

It isn’t enough today to name an award that celebrates courage in journalism after the fallen.

But it is a start.

Where it leads is up to the courage in all of us to be as committed as those we’ve lost.

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