COLORADO SPRINGS — He remembers the hum of the vacuum cleaner, the sound of closing time at the Aurora Chuck E. Cheese restaurant where he worked in 1993.
He remembers the dishes and the clatter they made when he dropped them to the floor after being shot in the face. He remembers the sight of his co-worker, just a teenager, lying motionless on a blood-soaked floor. He remembers a smile on the killer’s face.
For Bobby Stephens, the lone survivor of the mass shooting at the Chuck E. Cheese that claimed four lives, the flashbacks are infrequent now. He’s busy working and raising four rambunctious boys at home.
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And, yet, the shooting — and the, so far, unsettled sentence for the killer, Nathan Dunlap — still looms in his life.
“Every time I seem to move on with my life, I move past everything, it’s in the back of my mind — because you can never really truly forget, but you can place it aside and not have it affect you,” he said. “But, it seems like every time I do so, something happens and it gets stirred back up.”
That’s what happened nearly six years ago, when former Gov. John Hickenlooper granted an indefinite reprieve to Dunlap, placing his execution in a state of limbo. That’s what happened when current Gov. Jared Polis took office in January — and then made no announcement about how he would handle Dunlap’s case.
And that is what is happening now that lawmakers at the state Capitol are introducing a bill to repeal the death penalty. The bill would not directly affect Dunlap’s sentence. But Polis has said he supports repealing the punishment, and he told Colorado Public Radio he would commute the sentences of those currently on death row, including Dunlap, if a repeal bill becomes law.
It raises a confusing clash of emotions within Stephens — his anger and a belief that Dunlap deserves to die for his crime; his altruism and a sense that the criminal justice system needs to be fair and thorough; his exhaustion and a hope that the case will finally come to an end.
But the question for him comes down to this: 25 years after he pulled himself up from the kitchen floor and ran out the restaurant’s back door to seek help, how is this what justice looks like?
“This has been going on so long. So long,” he said. “And it just doesn’t make sense to me that this process has been what it’s been.”
Even in a state sadly familiar with mass murder, it’s hard to exaggerate how shocking the Chuck E. Cheese shooting was.
Three of the victims — Sylvia Crowell, Ben Grant and Colleen O’Connor — were only teenagers. (Stephens, at 20, wasn’t much older.) The fourth victim, manager Margaret Kohlberg, was 50 and like a mother to her young crew.
Dunlap, who was 19 at the time, had previously worked at the restaurant, but, after he was fired, he vowed to get even. Eleven days before Christmas in 1993, he hid in a bathroom until the restaurant closed, then shot the only people remaining inside. When it was over, he made off with $1,500 and some game tokens.
The public reaction almost set a template for debates to come. There was discussion about gun violence and the ease of acquiring firearms. There was debate about mental health. Businesses increased security. The community held vigils. Politicians made speeches. Prosecutors and defense attorneys readied their arguments. The headlines went on for months.
To Stephens, it was bewildering.
“Even back then, it seemed like all of this was a big game,” he said of the legal proceedings. “It was a political circus.”
He had his own struggles. He had reconstructive surgery and his body healed, but he still felt uneasy.
One day, he said, he tried going to a shopping mall, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that someone there would shoot him. He watched the hands of everyone who passed by, looking for sudden movement.
On another day, he hit the floor in a 7-Eleven when a child using the air machine out front overinflated his bike tire, resulting in a loud pop. He moved to Arizona for a bit to get away from it all, but a coworker there recognized him from the news. At his lowest point, he said, he attempted to take his own life.
With the court case, he tried to set aside his anger and view it fairly. He wanted the system to work the way it is supposed to — from arrest, to trial, to jury, to verdict, and then to possible punishment. He would be patient, even though his emotions were sometimes anything but.
A few years ago, he set foot inside a Chuck E. Cheese again — the first time since the shooting. It was his nephew’s birthday, he said, and the restaurant’s design and decor had changed so much since his time working there.
It started off well.
“And then one of the employees started vacuuming the floors,” he said. “And I lost everything, including my stomach.”
The years of appeals ticked by, longer and longer periods of quiet punctuated with reminders and turmoil. Then came 2013, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied the last of the appeals that Dunlap was legally guaranteed. Colorado’s rusty gears of execution began to turn, and Dunlap’s attorneys sent Hickenlooper a petition for clemency.
Stephens and family members of the victims wrote Hickenlooper letters. They just wanted a decision.
“We asked for the same thing: Put this behind us,” Stephens said. “Put this to rest, and either carry out the sentence or not.”
“So now here we are another five years later.”
Stephens said his personal belief is that death is the appropriate punishment for Dunlap — whom Stephens’ sometimes refers to simply as Nathan. An eye for an eye.
But part of Stephens’ healing has been recognizing that the case is bigger than just him. He wants to respect the opinions of family members of the victims, not all of whom favor execution.
Part of him, he said, would be relieved if Polis commuted Dunlap’s sentence to life in prison.
“At least it’s over,” he said.
But another part feels just as strongly that anything short of execution would be an injustice — not because he would take comfort in lethal vengeance, but because that’s what the legal process ordered.
“That’s where a lot of the turmoil comes from,” he said. “I put my faith in the judicial system. And at that point, I figured, I’ll let our system do its job. I’ll let our system decide whether he should live. … A verdict was given. And then, all of a sudden, it came to a screeching halt.
“To be honest with you, I wonder why we’re still playing this game 25 years later.”
And, so, Bobby Stephens sits in his home in Colorado Springs, surrounded by the life he’s built after tragedy — children playing, family photos spread across the walls — waiting for the end of a case that’s already haunted him for more than half of his life.
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