Five years ago this month Jeanne Assam shot a gunman at New Life Church in Colorado Springs and saved countless lives. She was called a national hero and lauded by President George W. Bush. It looked As if her life would change forever. But before Assam could move forward, she first had to confront herself.
This article was a finalist for the 2013 City and Regional Magazine Award in the personality profile category.
A few seconds after the first rifle blasts outside New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Jeanne Assam hears the screams. The shots continue outside a set of double glass doors in the snowy parking lot where one person is already dead. The noise gets progressively louder. Glass in one of the doors explodes. Then another.
New Life serves more than 10,000 worshipers each week, and thousands of people are leaving the megachurch following Sunday service on December 9, 2007. Now, some of them are dodging bullets. A wave of panicked churchgoers bears down on Assam’s position near the center of the church—a tentlike colossus rising from the 42-acre campus. Assam, in her second month as a volunteer for the church security team, is more than 100 yards from the exploding doors. Between her and the doorway are multiple hallways and classrooms filling with terrified people. “Jeanne!” a security team member yells behind her. “He’s coming through the doors!”
Assam is 42, with blond hair and green eyes hidden behind mascaraed eyelashes. She wears a suit jacket and blue jeans. A cop by trade, Assam has found purpose these past months at this church. Quite literally, she believes it has saved her. She is newly born-again, zealous in her recently discovered faith. On this day, she planned to end a three-day fast and had already read her Bible before coming to work for the 11 a.m. service. Now, looking down the hallway, she pulls out the .9 millimeter Beretta tucked into the front of her jeans and begins sprinting through the crush of people running past her.
There are more blasts at the doors. More people. More screams. Then, suddenly, nothing. The corridor is empty. People take cover in rooms; some are hiding in bathroom stalls. In the distance, Assam sees a man opening one of the doors. He’s holding a weapon. The man moves slowly, deliberately. Assam can only think of one thing: I need to end this right now. She rushes toward a hallway to her right. She stands close to the wall, puts her Beretta at a low-ready position, and prays.
When she was young—a tomboy who preferred games of cowboys and Indians to ballet—Assam built a fort in her backyard. Four walls, no roof. She loved sitting in there. Just her, safe, looking up at the stars. In that fort, it was only her and God.
Matthew Murray, a thin, 24-year-old man, is wearing blue earplugs, a flak jacket, kneepads, black lace-up boots, and a backpack as he walks up the corridor. He’s holding a Bushmaster AR-style rifle. Murray also has two .9 millimeter handguns, and he’s carrying at least 1,000 rounds of ammunition. He fires his weapon down the hallway, again and again. He is the plague who’s come to wipe out those who have sinned against him.
From Assam’s hiding place, the rifle shots are deafening. She can hear the man mumbling between rounds. He fires again. Assam is calm and alert. She wants to shoot the gunman when he passes, but it seems too risky. There’s nowhere to run if he sees her first. God, please be with me, she thinks. Assam steps from behind the wall, gun stretched from her body. Murray is 20 yards away. “Police officer!” she yells. “Drop your weapon!”
The man jerks his rifle toward Assam. She fires five quick shots. Murray falls backward. Assam moves to the middle of the corridor and rushes forward. She’s a few dozen feet from Murray now, exposed in the middle of the hallway. “Drop your weapon, or I will kill you!” she yells. Murray sits up to face her. He’s still holding the rifle. Boom-boom-boom. Bullets rip past her and pepper a wall. While Murray shoots, Assam fires three times.
Through the haze of gun smoke, Assam sees the man struggling on the floor. He props his head against a wall. Her weapon is up, trained on the man. She sees his hands moving near his shoulder. He’s trying to pull the pin on a grenade. He’s going to kill everyone around here, Assam thinks. She instinctively steps back and fires two more shots.