Feature

The Politics of Killing

Fifteen years after the Chuck E. Cheese massacre in Aurora, the shooter is still on death row. Nathan Dunlap's only hope that his life might be spared is Colorado Governor Bill Ritter.

December 2008

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THE MASSACRE
Fifty-year-old Margaret Kohlberg watched the clock. It was nearly 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night in December 1993, and her crew was antsy. A family birthday party had stayed late at the Aurora Chuck E. Cheese, and the parents were just now bundling up their two kids against the winter cold. Margaret headed back to the office to start tallying the night's receipts. She'd go home in a few minutes, after she got her teenage workers out the door.

Sylvia Crowell started cleaning the salad bar. The 19-year-old was balancing a full-time work schedule and classes at Metro State, but that day she'd gone shopping with her best friend, Carole Richins, before they'd clocked in for the night shift at the pizzeria. Carole had just left, shouting, "I love you!" over the restaurant's cacophony of arcade games and animated toys.

Nearby, Ben Grant, a high school junior, turned on the vacuum, and its whirring helped drown out the noise. He tossed the cord behind him, absentmindedly sucking up pizza crumbs and food left crushed into the carpet by the kids. Colleen O'Connor was helping close that night too, but she was distracted. The 17-year-old had called her mom during a break three hours before and found out her parents were giving her a car.

In the kitchen, Bobby Stephens scrubbed away. He hadn't been scheduled to work that day, but he needed the cash. Just 20, he had a seven-month-old baby boy at home. With the holidays coming up, he had stopped in to ask for extra hours, and they had put him to work. The small crew continued closing, the routine so familiar that they moved with the robotic motions of the mechanized creatures that danced, twirled, and sang around them.

Sylvia didn't even hear the intruder come up behind her. Silently, he raised the .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol to her left ear and squeezed.

Bang.

As she fell, he looked away. He couldn't stomach the sight of gore and blood. He moved quickly to where Ben was vacuuming.

Bang.

The bullet entered near Ben's eye, lodging in his brain as he fell to the ground.

Colleen saw him coming. He was a boy with a gun; he had too-big brown eyes above hollowed cheeks and a mouth that twisted in a half-smile. Kneeling in front of him, she begged for her life, raising her arms, her fists clenched, as he held a gun just 18 inches from her head.

"Don't shoot," she cried. "I won't tell."

"I have to," the shooter said as he pulled the trigger again.

Bang.

Inside the kitchen, Bobby heard the three sharp cracks, but he didn't stop working. He figured it was probably Sylvia or Colleen popping balloons. He didn't have time to think about it much before the kid with the gun barged into the kitchen. Tall but gaunt, like a boy who's not quite yet a man, the intruder was wearing a jacket, gloves with holes cut out at the knuckles, and a baseball cap perched backward on his head. Stunned, Bobby started to say hello. Half-smirking, the shooter raised his arm.

Bang.

The bullet entered Bobby's jaw and sent him sprawling to the floor. It felt like a burn, a cigarette scorching his skin, and then like a baseball bat slamming into his face. He watched as a pair of black high-top shoes headed toward the office. Margaret was still counting the evening receipts. She did what he asked and opened the safe. The last words she heard were "thank you."

Bang.

He shot her in the ear. Then he grabbed her bag, filled it with game tokens, key chains, cards, $1,591 and change.

Bang.

He shot her again, in the other ear, just to make sure.

Six .25-caliber shell casings dotted the floor. The shooting spree couldn't have lasted more than five minutes.

It would only take a few hours after the Chuck E. Cheese massacre for police to track down the shooter: 19-year-old Nathan Jerard Dunlap was at his girlfriend's apartment. The couple was having sex when his pager went off with a message from his mom, who was relaying a message from the cops. The investigators had heard he ate dinner at the restaurant that night and wanted to ask him a few questions. Dunlap agreed to meet. Before returning to his home, an apartment he shared with his mother, the teenager washed his hands with hydrogen peroxide and jumped in the shower, then stashed some of the money under the freezer. Back at his home, the police questioned him, swabbed his hands for gunshot residue, and took his clothes into evidence. About 12 hours after the murders the police returned to Dunlap's home and cuffed and arrested the teen.

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