Hear Neil Heslin on the loss of his son, Jesse.
Hear Neil Heslin on the loss of his son, Jesse.

Story highlights

Six months after massacre, actions of one man still affect the lives of so many

Town's soul embodied by five people: Rabbi, doctor, student, leader and victim's father

Tragedy has changed them and altered their beliefs on guns, society, mental illness

Click on each photo to hear them describe their feelings of loss and recovery

Newtown, Connecticut CNN —  

The door to the shuttered mental hospital swings open onto a scene of decay: Chunks of fallen plaster and mold-infested insulation rest on the floor of a once magnificent room.

Chandeliers have given way to crumbling ceilings. Walls are stained from rain running down the sides after two decades of neglect.

Standing amid the ruins, it’s hard not to think about Adam Lanza, our mental health system – and whether it failed him and the people of Newtown.

The hilltop campus of Fairfield Hills, a former Connecticut state mental institution that closed in 1995 after more than 60 years, overlooks the community.

To the left, about a half mile down Church Hill Road, stands the National Sports Shooting Foundation, a lobbying arm for the gun industry. To the right and around a few bends sits Sandy Hook Elementary School, the site of the horrific massacre of 26 people, including 20 children.

It seems like the crossroads of tragic irony – a closed mental hospital, headquarters of a powerful gun group and the Sandy Hook school, all within about three miles and at the center of national debate.

It’s also home to Pat Llodra’s office.

Llodra is the Republican first selectman of Newtown, the equivalent of a town mayor; her office is in the former hospital’s refurbished dining hall.

The sprawling campus, which once housed as many as 5,000 patients, is a network of massive brick buildings. Some, like Llodra’s office, have been remodeled and are used for a new purpose. Others are crumbling relics, a reminder of how the mentally ill were once housed in America.

The irony isn’t lost on Llodra, who was in her office at 9:35 a.m. on December 14 when she was notified through emergency dispatch of “a significant event at Sandy Hook school.”

Today, a teddy bear sits on a shelf in her office, next to a “Town of Newtown” commemorative plate and a Sandy Hook school baseball cap, adorned with a green ribbon to honor those who died.

Before Sandy Hook, Llodra had once liked target shooting. The level of concentration it took to hit a target was exhilarating and rewarding.

Now she’s put gun control in her sights. She feels compelled to speak out on behalf of her town and the victims of the massacre.

And Llodra won’t relent.

“The way in which these children were lost was so horrific and so violent and so incomprehensible that even today – every day, it will strike me at some point that, ‘Wow, this really happened.’”

The 70-year-old grandmother has taken on lawmakers in Hartford and Washington about the need to curb assault weapons, and she’s seen mixed results. The Connecticut General Assembly banned more than 100 types of military-style weapons and magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of bullets.

Congress, on the other hand, refused to act. Senators in April defeated a bipartisan measure that would have expanded background checks to gun shows and online sales.

States tighten, loosen gun laws after Newtown

Representatives from the nearby shooting foundation approached Llodra shortly after the massacre about what it believed might be common ground on gun control, but the meeting didn’t last long.

“I’m OK that they have their own agenda,” Llodra says. “I have mine, but I don’t want to try to be persuaded that there’s common ground, because there is not.”

Looking out for children has always been foremost in Llodra’s life. As a young mother, she joined the PTA to be more active in her kids’ schooling. She eventually became a teacher and then a principal, a powerful maternal figure dedicated to her students. Among her highest honors was being named a fellow for The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, a prestigious award to help further shape educators into national leaders.

Upon retirement, the long-time Newtown resident figured she’d give public service a whirl. She served two terms on the town’s legislative council before running for the town’s highest position.

“And here I am.”

One of seven children reared on a farm in Massachusetts, Llodra grew up around guns.

But she has strayed from many in her party with her desire for expanded background checks and a ban on military-style weapons. As a lifelong educator, she always felt high-powered guns were too easily available, but “this event just galvanized that thinking for me.”

“If the horror of this event – seeing 20 innocent 6-year-olds be shot down by a crazed killer – if that isn’t enough to change a legislator’s heart and mind and do what is right and needed, then I don’t know what could change that person.”

Treatment for the mentally ill is also part of her focus. Working in a closed mental hospital reinforces that. Society’s failure to recognize how deeply disturbed Adam Lanza was, she says, is one more key component in preventing a mass shooting like this from happening again.

“It’s just my nature to try to understand why things are the way they are,” she says. “I’ve been woefully unsuccessful in making any meaning out of this at all. And part of that is I don’t know what happened with Adam Lanza – why he turned into a person who was so hateful and had so much self-hatred.

“We don’t know what it is, but we better figure it out. That’s an obligation we have.”

Even with all the investigations, all the hearings on Capitol Hill and all the debate across the nation, one question looms over Newtown like a suppressive fog: Why?

Remembering the Sandy Hook shooting victims

Coming out of the cocoon

I returned to Newtown to speak with those affected by what happened. I had covered the tragedy in the week after the shooting and wondered how the town of 28,000 was coping in its aftermath. I especially wanted to talk with gun owners about what it’s like to bear arms in a place where gun violence left such a scar.

Candles and tears: Portrait of a grieving town

Walking the streets of Newtown, listening to residents and their stories, it became clear that what happened here is much larger than guns.

It’s a lesson of loss and recovery, and how the actions of one man still affect the lives of so many. I spoke with more than two dozen Newtowners who shared their thoughts, even their darkest moments, and met five residents who collectively embody the community’s soul.

A father wears a silver-plated belt buckle with a boy sitting beneath a mourning horse: “Jesse 2006-2012.” A teenager rubs a bracelet with all the victims’ names to find comfort. A doctor fights for medical research to study gun violence across America. A rabbi contemplates why society has become so barbaric. And Llodra tries to keep the town together.

Newtown rabbi: We’re not ‘freaks’

Hear Dr. William Begg on efforts to stop gun violence.
Hear Dr. William Begg on efforts to stop gun violence.

The tragedy has changed them all and altered their beliefs on guns, on society, on mental illness. Their sadness is profound, yet so is their resiliency.

One symbol has emerged in town: the butterfly in honor of Dylan Hockley, a 6-year-old killed inside the school. Dylan had autism and, when he got happy, he flapped his arms like a butterfly.

Just like a butterfly’s metamorphosis, Newtowners are determined to transform the tragedy here into a form of action. Doing nothing would mean those 26 victims – those “20 little angels,” as they say, and their six adult protectors – died in vain.

“Our collective strength and resilience will serve as an example to the rest of the world,” the high school principal told students upon their return to school. It has become a mantra repeated by residents and posted on signs around town.

More than 60 organizations have formed here since the tragedy, from grass-roots activist groups to charities helping victims’ families.

The resilience of Newtowners keeps getting tested – by gun manufacturers, by the National Rifle Association, by lawmakers who balk at tightening gun laws. It’s then that residents rely on their strength to keep pressing forward.

Llodra says she wants Newtown to be “remembered for being honorable in the struggle that we had since December 14 – that we were courageous, that we worked together, that we helped each other, that we recognized that we’re all in this together.”

A sign on a window across from her office reads simply, “We are Sandy Hook. We choose love.”

’Best friends and best buddies’

Jesse Lewis burst into this world around 6:30 p.m. on June 30, 2006, weighing in at a hefty 11 pounds and stretching 23¼ inches.

“Happiest day of my life and the best day of my life,” says Neil Heslin.

The boy came to Heslin late in life. He was 44 and thought the days of ever becoming a father had passed him years before. Dad didn’t cut the cord, but he was there for the delivery.

He held Jesse right away and thought how his life was blessed.

The bonds between father and son only grew. The two fished, hiked and rode horses together. By then, Heslin and Jesse’s mother, Scarlett Lewis, had split. He lived with his mother at Wild Rose Farm, where Jesse was first put in a saddle at the age of 2.

Every moment Heslin spent with his son was precious. Jesse played soccer in a local league, but he mostly loved shooting hoops and throwing the football with his father.

“I don’t really like playing on a team,” Jesse would say. “I just like playing with you, Dad.”

Other times, in those moments of father-son revelry, the two would hold each other and Jesse would confide: “We’re best friends and best buddies!”

Every Father’s Day, the two would attend a car show in a neighboring town. They’d gawk at Model Ts and Studebakers and grab an ice cream cone from a restored Good Humor truck. “Happy Daddy’s Day,” Jesse would say.

Father and son were working to restore a 1948 Ford tractor. Jesse’s plan was to have it ready for the Newtown Labor Day parade and throw candy from the back.

At the tender age of 6, Jesse had become interested in politics during the November election. He couldn’t pronounce the president’s name: “Rock Bomber” is what he would say. The two planned a trip to the nation’s capital for spring so Jesse could learn more about the nation’s history.

On December 13, Jesse’s mind was far from that trip to Washington. He was thinking of the gingerbread houses he was to make with his class the next day. Father and son stopped at the Big Y grocery store before they headed home.

In the newsstand section, Jesse flipped through a gun magazine. That wasn’t unusual. His father was a former marksman and taught Jesse how to shoot a BB gun, always standing over him and showing him proper shooting techniques.

Searching the pages, Jesse stopped on one bearing images of three guns: a Glock handgun, a Sig Sauer handgun and a .223-caliber Bushmaster. The next day, Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook armed with all three.

Jesse asked his father about the guns. Heslin told him that Americans use the weapons for protection and carry the handguns in holsters. He told Jesse about the military-style rifle on the page, too.

“They use them in the Army to kill with,” Jesse said.

“Yeah, pretty much, Jess,” Heslin responded.

Dad didn’t think much about it at the time, but after the shooting he returned to the magazine rack and flipped to the page to “make sure what I remembered was true.” Heslin later told that story to lawmakers in Washington as he campaigned for gun control.

Heslin points to the side of his head and then his forehead, indicating the two bullets that struck Jesse. “His fatal shot was to his forehead and it exited the back of his head,” he says. “Clearly he was standing face to face with Adam Lanza and clearly looked him in the face.”

Ten of Jesse’s classmates survived; Jesse’s last word, his father was told, was “Run!”

“I can’t say it brings me comfort,” Heslin says.

The dad’s monotone slows to almost a grunt: “I hope Jesse’s words did help save those children.”

“I accept what happened. I don’t like it. I can’t change it. Of course, I wish it never happened. I wish I wasn’t part of it,” he says.

“I think more so than anything I’m just disgusted. I’m disgusted that I lost my little boy, disgusted that something like this happened, disgusted it could happen; disappointed that we as a society let something like this happen.

“I ask myself: ‘Why?’”

Killer’s house still standing

What pushed Adam Lanza, 20, to the extreme may never be known, but clues lie somewhere behind the plywood that covers the front door of the spacious yellow colonial at 36 Yogananda Street.

Hear Sarah Clements on how schools are healing.
Hear Sarah Clements on how schools are healing.

It’s difficult to get a good glimpse of the home from the road because it sits so high on a hill on two acres of land. The home was last appraised at $523,620 in 2012. Dozens of similarly nice homes worth well over half a million dollars dot the neighborhood.

With scenic views of the rolling hills of southern Connecticut, it’s not where you would expect to find a boy who would become one of the nation’s most notorious killers.

It was in that home where authorities found more than 1,600 rounds of ammunition, at least 10 knives, three samurai swords and a slew of other weaponry.

His mother, Nancy Lanza, was found shot through her forehead by a .22-caliber rifle left in her second-floor bedroom. Nearby was a blue-and-white duffel bag containing 50 rounds of rifle ammo, ear protection, eye protection, binoculars, paper targets and a certificate from the National Rifle Association bearing Adam Lanza’s name.

A gun safe and smashed computer equipment were discovered in the basement where Adam lived. Books found inside the home included two related to autism – “Look Me In The Eye” and “Born On a Blue Day” – as well as one related to guns, “NRA Guide to the Basics of Pistol Shooting.”

Newtowners hope the house will be torn down.

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’We have to do something’

“Books heal hearts.” That simple message greets visitors to the C.H. Booth Library along Main Street. Dozens of books, displayed atop pressed white tablecloths, line tables in the long entry. Among the titles: “I Cry Alone,” “As We Grieve” and “Tear Soup.”

Sarah Clements, a 17-year-old junior at Newtown High, works at the library. In the weeks after the massacre, she took a phone call at the circulation desk.

“Are you the Newtown library?” the man said.

“Yes. Can I help you?”

“Did the shooting actually happen at Sandy Hook elementary?” the caller asked.

Shaking, Sarah hung up. Her mother is a second-grade teacher at the school and was in the building that day. She attended third and fourth grades at Sandy Hook and had volunteered almost every day after classes to help her mother at the school.

Since December 14, she has suffered panic attacks. Ordinary tasks have become labored. It’s hard to concentrate during tests. Even walking into a classroom brings anxiety.

And now somebody had the audacity to call and question if it was real?

Sarah returned to the desk after a 20-minute break, still trembling. A woman approached and offered comfort. “For every one person that says that to you,” the woman said, “there are hundreds of thousands of us that are standing behind you when you fall.”

The caller might’ve caught Sarah off-guard, but he picked the wrong person. Standing up is what she does best.

“We didn’t want this to happen,” she says. “But because of it, we have to do something.”

The teen has become an outspoken advocate as chairwoman of the junior chapter of the Newtown Action Alliance, one of the groups that emerged from the tragedy that is pushing to reduce gun violence through legislation and cultural change. Sarah urges teens to call lawmakers to get their voices heard, to “help move anger and sadness into good things.”

“Students should be at the core of this debate,” she says. “We’re the next generation. We’re going to be living in the world that our legislators are creating for us. So I think we need to tell them directly that this is what we want to see: ‘I want my town to be safer. I want my country to be safer.’”

She helped send a group of Newtown youth to a New England conference sponsored by PeaceJam, a foundation working to shape young leaders with the help of Nobel Peace Prize winners. She is helping plan other events, including a summer symposium for teens from all over the nation to discuss reducing gun violence.

Gun rights groups might have celebrated the defeat of universal background checks this spring, she says, but they had better be prepared for a long battle: “We aren’t going anywhere, and just like the violence does not deter us, neither will these small ‘defeats’ in Washington.”

Sarah’s arms are lined with bracelets honoring the 26 victims at Sandy Hook. Most are green and white, the school’s colors. One was sent from a Virginia Tech student; another was from a group in Tucson, Arizona, that aims to spread messages of kindness. That’s where former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was gravely wounded in a shooting spree that killed six.

She used to wear fancier bracelets but has traded them in for this new fashion statement. “The fact I’ve given up that part of me in honor of what happened is really meaningful to me.

“It actually provides something for me to hold onto.”

In those moments when the pain is unbearable, she rubs one bracelet with the names of all 26 victims. “It’s raised so I can, like, feel it,” she says. “I like rubbing it.”

“The coping is going to take a long time, and I think people are starting to realize that,” she says. “I like being at school because being in classes takes our minds off of things.”

The high school provided counselors in the days and weeks afterward. Therapy dogs were brought in, too. Students loved snuggling with them. They also found comfort in each other. “If you saw a person crying, you just walked up to them and hugged them.”

Principal Charles Dumais sent students, teachers and parents e-mails imploring them to not accept the tragedy as “the new normal,” saying, “We will get through this and we will move forward.” He ended the notes by telling people to close their eyes and think of a brighter future, a place that’s safer.

“I felt like he was talking to me, saying, ‘You have to do what you have to do to heal yourself, but also heal others.’”

Sarah has kept the e-mails and reads them repeatedly to help her in her grief.

“For high schoolers, I don’t know how to explain it. It shattered our innocence and at the same time I think it opened our eyes to reality, even though on the opposite side, like, ‘How can that be reality?’”

Beneath her wavy hair, her eyes appear weary, too many tears shed since December. Yet like so many others, she doesn’t let the sadness crush her. She channels that energy to motivate others. In addition to her work with various groups, she has helped organize a program called Healing Through the Arts that links teens with younger children to draw, paint and create art. Even before the massacre, Sarah was an activist. She has served as the co-vice president of the high school’s gay-straight alliance and the co-founder of the Creative Cultural Arts Council.

Her message remains basic: People just need to be kinder.

Hear Rabbi Shaul Praver on the need for action.
Hear Rabbi Shaul Praver on the need for action.

She knows firsthand the power of kindness. In the library where she received that disturbing phone call, Sarah found a surprise this spring amid the stacks. It was an envelope containing a green ribbon car magnet in honor of Sandy Hook student Ana Marquez-Greene.

There was also a message inside: “Have a good day.”

That simple act, she says, was a highlight of the days since the massacre. It inspired her to do “the same with one of my clubs” – to look for ways to leave surprises for strangers, to put smiles on their faces.

“Everything that I do, I feel like I do it in honor of the people that passed away.”

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A marathon, not a sprint

Dr. William Begg was in the emergency room of Danbury Hospital on December 14. He was told to expect multiple shooting victims from Sandy Hook, a school he knew well from living in Newtown the last two decades.

But only a few people with minor wounds arrived. Most of the victims had been killed at close range by a Bushmaster, an assault rifle some people would like to see banned.

The doctor had witnessed the extreme lethality of assault weapons since his first shift in an emergency room as a medical student in New York in 1987, when a store owner arrived at Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx with multiple gunshots.

“I still can vividly remember the horrible wounds on that store owner,” Begg says. “That was my first introduction to gun violence.”

Yet he was young and preoccupied with earning a living. In the years that followed, he never spoke up about what he and his colleagues were witnessing in the emergency room: more and more patients coming in with horrific gunshot wounds.

December 14 sparked him to action.

“I cannot sit back any longer and be part of the silent majority,” he says. “I knew from the time I was in the emergency room (on December 14) that I would absolutely try my best efforts to try to afford some type of legislative change.”