Colorado shootings: Pursuing the story in the night

July 25, 2012
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Beat of the Week Colorado shooting
Tom Sullivan, center, embraces family members outside Gateway High School where he has been searching franticly for his son Alex Sullivan who celebrated his 27th birthday by going to see "The Dark Knight Rises," movie where a gunman opened fire Friday, July 20, 2012, in Aurora, Colo. (AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez)
In this July 24 note to The Associated Press staff, AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes recounts the resourcefulness displayed by four AP journalists, including a photographer at the scene, in reporting on the deadly Colorado theater shootings.

The horrifying news began to trickle in to AP in the middle of the New York night. A lone gunman, armed to the teeth and wearing body armor, walked calmly to the front of a suburban Denver movie theater and opened fire, killing 12 and injuring dozens more at a midnight showing of the new Batman film. The AP moved quickly to cover the worst mass shooting in the country since Fort Hood in 2009.

Denver staff photographer Ed Andrieski answered the early morning call from the New York headquarters photo desk and raced to the scene. He got that call because AP Radio supervisor Mike Hempen in Washington heard an unconfirmed report of shootings and deaths at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and alerted the Nerve Center, which called the West Desk in Phoenix and all platforms.

Andrieski was beginning to make photos as the police were closing the area around the theater when he spotted a Denver Post photographer he’d known for a long time. He persuaded the photographer to send his photos directly from his car to the AP Photo Desk in New York. Those first photos, along with Andrieski’s own images, beat all competition to the wire by more than three hours. The Chicago Sun-Times said that AP’s first photos reached their system at 4:37 am CDT. The first photos from any AP competitor, a Getty Images shot of the daylight exterior of the theater, reached the member at 7:58 a.m.

With the scene now closed off, Andrieski decided to go to the suspect’s apartment. While driving there, he looked in his rearview mirror and saw what he described as about 100 police cars with lights and sirens swelling up behind him. He pulled over, let a few pass, and then decided to slip back into the caravan, essentially getting a police escort to the apartment. 

Andrieski continued to ensure AP’s dominance, directing freelance photographer Barry Gutierrez to nearby Gateway High School, where police set up a staging area for families and witnesses. Gutierrez provided heart-wrenching images of survivors and family members, including the now-iconic photo of the grieving father holding two relatives. The same man also waved photos of his son, screaming for anyone who might have seen him. “His voice rattled my bones. It shattered me and I started crying immediately,” said Gutierrez, who had covered the 1999 Columbine school massacre for the Rocky Mountain News.  The image of the father with relatives made a staggering 97 fronts. Gutierrez followed up the next morning with impressive images of mourners outside the theater at dawn. 

As the story began to gel, reporters across the AP worked their sources. In Washington, Homeland Security reporter Alicia A. Caldwell and counterterrorism reporter Eileen Sullivan used their numerous contacts inside federal law enforcement and the Obama administration to generate scoops. Caldwell was sitting in a D.C. bar on Saturday night, ready to go home, when she got word that a good source might show up. She stayed, and it paid off. She was the first to report that the gunman’s semi-automatic rifle jammed during the attack, forcing him to switch to another weapon and probably limiting the death toll. She was the first to report the specific types of weapons used in the attack, including the high-capacity magazine for the assault weapon. She was first with details about how the attack was carried out, discovering that the gunman bought a movie ticket, then propped open the theater exit door where he had left his weapons. She also passed to the West regional desk a tip that James Holmes, the suspect, had been a student at the University of Colorado, a fact then confirmed by West reporters. 

Sullivan, relying on U.S. officials, confirmed the suspect’s name and what he was wearing when arrested, and she was first with an FBI bulletin acknowledging that police hadn’t found a motive for the attack. 

For aggressive pursuit of a huge breaking story, Andrieski, Gutierrez, Caldwell and Sullivan share this week’s $500 Beat of the Week prize.

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