Newspaper shooting leaves enduring mark on Maryland capital

Summerleigh Geimer, left, and her sister Montana Geimer, daughters of Wendi Winters, a community beat reporter who died in the Capital Gazette newsroom shooting, react during a press conference following a verdict in the trial of Jarrod W. Ramos, Thursday, July 15, 2021, in Annapolis, Md. The jury found the gunman who killed five people at the newspaper criminally responsible, rejecting defense attorneys’ mental illness arguments. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Three years after a mass shooting left five dead at a Maryland newspaper, relief that the gunman has been found criminally responsible is tempered by lingering sorrow among residents of the state’s picturesque capital who vividly recall the attack that shattered their community.

The 2018 rampage at the Capital Gazette was unique in its horror — one of the deadliest attacks on journalists in American history. Yet in numerous other ways, it was painfully similar to other mass shootings in communities across the U.S. And many Annapolis residents have discovered that the searing effects leave a wound that endures.

“I think it hurt a lot of people here, not just in our newsroom. Their local paper was attacked, and we were such a part of this community that it felt like an attack on them,” said Paul Gillespie, the Capital Gazette’s photographer who managed to escape the newsroom during the bloodbath and struggles with posttraumatic stress symptoms.

Thursday’s verdict means that shooter Jarrod Ramos will be sentenced to prison, not a maximum-security mental health facility. Prosecutors are seeking five life sentences without the possibility of parole for the killer with a grudge against the local paper.

Because Annapolis is an extraordinarily tight-knit community, nearly everyone — young and old — was somehow affected by the rampage that was easily the most shocking event to befall the capital of roughly 40,000 people in recent memory.

Behind the counter of a book and antique shop on the cobblestone main street, Priscilla Witt described the shooting as a transformative experience for Annapolis.

“Unfortunately, there’s just no getting that innocence back,” Witt said after the jury’s verdict. “The attack really had a huge effect here because Annapolis is a small town, really. I think that’s why it hurt so badly. There was a sense that things won’t ever be the same.”

Research has found that find that violent tragedies affect the entire community where it occurs as residents grapple with losing the that-can’t-happen-here notion and can cause negative spillover effects including depression and increased smoking.

Aparna Soni, an assistant professor in the public administration and policy department at Washington’s American University, co-authored recent research looking at how mass shootings — the murder of four or more people — affect community well-being. She said shootings like the one in Annapolis “pose significant societal costs and their impacts extend beyond those directly exposed to the shooting.”

“It’s important to take these spillover costs into account as we think about the costs and benefits of investing in policies to reduce mass shootings,” Soni said in an email.

Some residents said the 2018 attack sadly proved that the quaint capital boasting more original standing colonial buildings than any other city in the nation was just as vulnerable to homicidal rage as anywhere else in the U.S.

“It showed us that what’s happened with these insane shootings in spots all over the country can also happen here,” said Roseann Mahanes, as she visited a new memorial in Annapolis to the five staffers — including her dear friend, special publications editor Wendi Winters — who were murdered at the Capital Gazette.

After the 2018 shooting, Annapolis residents held fundraisers and gave employees a roughly 2-mile (3-kilometer) rolling standing ovation when they marched in the July Fourth parade just days after the attack.

That generosity has never flagged, former and current Capital Gazette staffers say. During the trial, which started on June 29, a day after the attack’s three-year anniversary, Annapolis businesses provided free lunches and breakfasts, massages to relieve stress, and a private lounge for witnesses and their loved ones to console one another and decompress.

Living through the horror of the mass shooting ended up reinforcing the town’s closely interwoven ties.

“This is going to be something we take with us for the rest of our lives, but it’s also a thing that unites us,” said Danielle Ohl, a former Capital Gazette reporter who was on vacation when she first saw messages pouring in that something horrible was going on in her newsroom. “We didn’t let this horrific attack keep us from doing what we love to do and being a community that advocates for itself and fiercely protects its own.”

The Capital Gazette may have survived the shooting, but its future prospects are hazy — despite winning a special Pulitzer Prize citation for its coverage of the attack and insistence on putting out the next day’s paper.

Its physical newsroom was shuttered recently, sending the remaining tiny cadre of staff to work remotely, after being acquired by New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital. The Alden deal is the latest major acquisition of a newspaper company by an investment firm dedicated to maximizing profits in distressed industries.

“We lost journalists on that day in 2018 and now we think we might be losing our local paper as well,” Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley said in a phone interview. “But we’re going to do everything we can to keep the local paper. We need it.”

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