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.
The dark blue plastic case is on a bookshelf in her apartment. It’s next to the stack of awards and plaques, just below the photo of President George W. Bush embracing her, in one corner of a room where her past is stored. Usually, she keeps it in the closet, but on a bright fall afternoon this year in Denver, Assam grabs the case and carries it to her family room. She gently places it on her coffee table, pops two clasps, and swings it open.
The Beretta is black and smells of gun lubricant. She removes it from its foam casing, takes out the 15-round magazine, and pulls back the slide to show that the chamber is empty. The gun is surprisingly large and surprisingly heavy and cold to the touch. Against her frame, the weapon looks immense. There are small chips at the bottom of the magazine, where thin lines of metal are rubbed free from the dark veneer. The gun itself is in perfect condition. She holds it in her right hand, points it at a wall, and pulls the trigger. Click.
It’s been years since she fired the gun. Mostly, the blue case stays in the closet. “That was a different chapter in my life,” she says, putting the weapon back into the foam. “There’s no use dwelling on it.”
And yet it seems as though Jeanne Assam is stuck in time. She’s in her mid-40s now, but she doesn’t look like she’s aged. Same jeans, same athletic build, same mascara, same blond hair styled the same way. In fact, if you didn’t notice the corner in her apartment, you’d think nothing monumental happened on that late fall day five years ago. Perhaps it’s easy to forget. The legend of Jeanne Assam, the overnight hero whose story was told in newspapers and on cable channels across the country, has faded from history. In the years since she stopped Matthew Murray’s murderous rampage—he killed four people at two churches over 12 hours and wounded four more—Assam’s own life has been laid bare in some of the most intrusive and embarrassing ways possible. In the process, she has battled depression, persistent unemployment, and her own constant questions.
Today, she lives alone. Her savings are nearly gone, and she makes do largely from money borrowed from a friend in Colorado Springs. Her moods vacillate between hopeful and desperate. Perhaps worst of all, she isn’t quite sure who she is anymore. “I’ve struggled,” she admits as she leans back on her couch in a cozy, second-story family room overlooking a grassy field. The television is set to a home-improvement show and her cat, Kleetus, is curled on her lap. “I’d never change what I did at New Life, but this can’t be it for me,” she continues. “I feel like I’ve been buried, but I’m not dead. I know there’s more.”
She’s felt buried a number of times in her life. When she arrived at New Life in the summer of 2007, she’d been dismissed from her job as a parole officer in Colorado Springs—a position she’d had for only six months—after, she says, her bosses told her she was habitually late and frequently unavailable. (Assam denied the claims; the Colorado Department of Corrections does not publicly discuss personnel matters.)
That was nearly a decade after she filed a discrimination claim in Minneapolis. She’d been considered among the best officers in her precinct, but when it came time for promotions or commendations, she was overlooked. Then, in 1997, she swore at a city bus driver after the man blocked her squad car during a call—hardly a fireable offense. When her superiors questioned her about the incident, she lied about it under oath. There was video that contradicted her. (Assam says she didn’t swear directly at the man.) She was put on leave, then dismissed, and her discrimination claim was expanded to include retaliatory discharge. She’d been retaliated against, she thought, because she spoke out. Three years later, in 2000, the department offered her a settlement—both Assam and her former attorney say it was well into six figures—which she rejected. The department built a case against Assam in court. After three days of deliberations, a jury rejected Assam’s claims.
The firing devastated her—“I went home and put my gun to my head, but I couldn’t do it,” she says—and she felt like the most important thing in the world had been ripped away. After she lost her police job, she found work, first in Minnesota, then in Colorado. Nothing seemed to fit.
Then she found New Life. Actually, she’d been there a few times before—in 2004, when then-senior pastor and New Life founder Ted Haggard was preaching. She’d been turned off by those sermons—“He hated women,” Assam says of Haggard—but by 2007, as she struggled through the final weeks of her parole officer job, a friend suggested she give the church another chance. Assam rejected the idea at first; she realized the scars from her past abuse hadn’t healed, and she wasn’t eager to have religion in her life. Plus, she was still dubious about the church. New Life had gone through its own identity crisis in the previous 18 months after Haggard had been caught in a gay-sex scandal with a masseur and was forced out. Anti-homosexual rhetoric now permeated the church, Assam thought, and she worried if anyone learned her secret, it might ruin her. But in May, emotionally destroyed and desperate for help, she finally relented. She’d give the church another chance.
When she arrived at New Life, it was for a Sunday service. She clung to the ideas of belonging, fellowship, and honor. And if she couldn’t live that life as a cop, maybe she could find it in a pew. She returned to church the next week, and then the next. Each time she came back, the message seemed to be written just for her. Redemption, salvation. There is something better in this life, she was told, and God will lead you there. She found a Bible and studied it. She began to pray. Assam asked God for help, for guidance, for assurance, for a sign things would get better. Her answer, she says, came on July 17, 2007. While she was praying, she felt an overwhelming sense of hope wash over her. She had never been more certain of anything in her life. She knew she’d been saved.
Her transformation was swift. By late summer, she found a job in a Christian ministry’s call center and made $11.54 an hour. She began going to New Life more regularly. Soon, she took a volunteer position on New Life’s security team. She was the only woman out of 12 volunteers, and it made her proud. They told her to carry a gun.
The more she listened to the messages at church, the more Assam knew she was on the precipice of something new and wonderful. The final step was to renounce who she was. In those first months at New Life, she couldn’t escape the message: Homosexuality was a sin, an abomination. Eventually, she believed it, too. By late summer, she stopped dating women. No longer a sinner in her church’s eyes, no longer lost, Assam could concentrate on becoming the person she was certain New Life wanted her to be. With God at her side, she thought, anything was possible.