‘I See Those Women and I Smell Death’

Survivors of another misogyny-fueled mass shooting tell their stories.

Jose Cardoso, 50, grieves at a makeshift memorial in front of the IV Deli Mart, in Isla Vista, California, May 25, 2014. A mass shooting on May 23 in the town near the University of California at Santa Barbara left seven people dead and 13 injured.
National Journal
Marin Cogan
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Marin Cogan
May 30, 2014, 1 a.m.

It’s the smell of smoke that takes Beth Karns back. Not just gun smoke, but wood smoke — the smell kicked up by the spray of bul­lets that struck the gym floor when the shoot­er opened fire. De­pend­ing on how she’s feel­ing that day, the trail she walks be­hind her Pennsylvania home, near a shoot­ing range, is either great de­sens­it­iz­a­tion ther­apy or an emo­tion­al mine­field.

There are oth­er trig­gers, which might come un­ex­pec­tedly and then stay with her for days, linger­ing like smoke. Like news stor­ies about an­oth­er mass shoot­ing some­where in Amer­ica.

It happened last week in Isla Vista, Cal­if. El­li­ot Rodger, the men­tally ill son of a Hol­ly­wood dir­ect­or, killed three room­mates be­fore open­ing fire and killing three more, in­jur­ing 13, and then tak­ing his own life. Five years ago this Au­gust, a sys­tems ana­lyst just out­side of Pitt­s­burgh named George Sodini opened fire in a fit­ness club, killing three and wound­ing nine be­fore tak­ing his own life. Both killers left be­hind ex­tens­ive on­line doc­u­ments de­tail­ing their rage over per­ceived re­jec­tions from wo­men. Both left be­hind vic­tims and sur­viv­ors who had no choice but to carry on with their lives after watch­ing oth­ers lose theirs.

Karns is one of them. The 44-year-old Ve­r­i­zon Wire­less em­ploy­ee hadn’t even tech­nic­ally star­ted her second job at the LA Fit­ness club that Thursday night; her first day was sup­posed to be Sat­urday. But after she re­turned home from a workout there, her fu­ture man­ager called and asked her to come back to help with the cleanup for an in­spec­tion the next morn­ing. That’s how she found her­self stand­ing next to the door of the aer­obics classroom, wip­ing down a piece of gym equip­ment, when Sodini walked in­to the crowded room, turned off the lights and opened fire.

It was around 7 p.m. The gym was packed; mu­sic was blar­ing. It was hard to tell what was hap­pen­ing at first. The fact that the lights were out in the aer­obics room didn’t strike her as odd — in­struct­ors turned them off dur­ing workouts all the time. Then she saw the flash of gun­fire.

Lisa Flee­her was one of the wo­men in the room. She wasn’t alarmed when the man in all black walked in shortly after their aer­obic dance class began. She figured he was the hus­band of one of the wo­men. When he star­ted shoot­ing, she was near the middle of the room. She spied the closest exit, but then watched as a wo­man who tried to es­cape was shot in the back. Flee­her lay down on the ground, amid oth­er bod­ies, hop­ing that the shoot­er would think she’d already been hit. “That was my best op­tion,” she said. “I ended up get­ting shot any­way.”

Karns’s first in­stinct was to count the flashes. In her former ca­reer train­ing as a private in­vest­ig­at­or, she’d learned to count the rounds of gun­fire to de­term­ine what kind of gun the shoot­er might be car­ry­ing and how many rounds might be left. One … two … three.”¦ Around her, people screamed and ran for the exits. They left trails of blood. She coun­ted to 13 be­fore someone grabbed her and star­ted mov­ing her to­ward the en­trance.

Her hands trembled as she tried to dial 911 from the front desk. When a gym pat­ron wear­ing a T-shirt that iden­ti­fied him as a first re­spon­der picked up a stool and star­ted head­ing to­ward the aer­obics room, she went with him, not know­ing the plan but know­ing that she needed to help.

When the room fi­nally went quiet, Flee­her and oth­ers got up and fled. Karns entered and turned on the lights. The first per­son she saw was the in­struct­or — a preg­nant wo­man named Mary Primis — ly­ing on the ground, wounded. An­oth­er wo­man had lain on top of her to shield her from the bul­lets. Primis was shot twice, but she was alive. Karns ap­proached one of the vic­tims and tried to stop her bleed­ing. She re­mem­bers the way the vic­tim’s skin felt, like wet tis­sues. She re­mem­bers the mo­ment when she real­ized the wo­man had stopped breath­ing. She moved on to an­oth­er vic­tim, and held her un­til po­lice burst through the door.

Both Sodini and the Isla Vista shoot­er ac­ted on their hatred of wo­men; vi­ol­ent miso­gyny is a thread that con­nects them to oth­er mass shoot­ers, such as George Hennard, who killed 24 people in Killeen, Texas, in 1991; the Vir­gin­ia Tech shoot­er; and the Columbine killers.

But neither Karns nor Flee­her has much in­terest in the polit­ic­al de­bate that in­ev­it­ably fol­lows a shoot­ing. “The whole situ­ation with me doesn’t make me hate guns or any­thing like that,” Flee­her, who re­covered and had two chil­dren, says. “I just think they need to be used for the right thing in the right way by people who are trained to use them.” Karns is sus­pi­cious about how politi­cians could help. “I don’t know that there’s any­thing that can be done,” she says.

The wo­men have more press­ing, and per­son­al, con­cerns. Flee­her spent months in re­cov­ery after the shoot­ing. Both spent months in coun­sel­ing for post-trau­mat­ic stress. Karns is haunted by all the times she saw Sodini in the gym. Some­times she won­ders if reach­ing out to him could have saved lives.

If there’s one thing she wished people could un­der­stand about what it’s like to go through a mass shoot­ing, it’s that they can nev­er un­der­stand. “It’s nev­er over. People don’t want to hear about it. Or I have friends who will listen, but there’s noth­ing left to say any­more. If some­body comes up to me at work and they scare me in a jok­ing man­ner or I jump at a loud noise, they don’t un­der­stand,” she says. “It’s not one of the ones that gets lis­ted when they dis­cuss mass shoot­ings; no one men­tions the LA Fit­ness shoot­ing in Pitt­s­burgh. I get it. But are they go­ing to re­mem­ber or am I go­ing to be the only one? I don’t want it to be for­got­ten. I don’t want it to be everything, but I don’t want it to be for­got­ten.”

Some­times, on the toughest days, she opens the note­pad app on her smart­phone and writes di­ary entries for her­self:

“I see those wo­men and I smell death. Every day. I have got­ten used to it. But noth­ing takes away what he did. Those wo­men died at the wrong place and wrong time. He killed me on pur­pose.”

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