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.
She can still see it. In her mind, she’s in the hallway again: “I take seven steps out from behind cover,” Assam says. “This amazing, you know—this presence of God—this powerful presence shields me. I felt that. I felt like I was protected by God himself. It was powerful.” Even all these years after the shooting, it’s not the gunfire she remembers most vividly but the feeling she had when she faced Matthew Murray and realized she was safe, protected. She’s held onto the feeling as if her life depended on it. “I’d give anything to feel it again,” she says. “I’d give anything if God would just talk to me.”
A week after the shootings, her life had crumbled again. Her firing in Minneapolis was made public in a newspaper story a few days after the incident and included vague details of her brief tenure as a parole officer. Around the same time, the El Paso County coroner ruled Murray’s death a suicide. Murray had been injured by Assam’s shots, but it was a single self-inflicted shot from his .9 millimeter handgun that ended his life. How Murray died was likely of little importance to the scores of people who’d been saved by Assam’s actions, but the coroner’s report cut to the core of her faith and to the idea that God was with her in the hallway. “I know God used me to bring that man peace,” she says. “If he killed himself, Satan would have gotten him. I know [killing him] was the most merciful thing I could have done.” After what she’d endured with the newspaper story, she could be forgiven for feeling like people were trying to knock her down, trying to diminish her role in saving so many lives, trying to somehow attack her.
Then, in early 2008, a book agent who was working with Assam accidentally outed her to a New Life pastor. Assam says she was confronted about her homosexuality at church and was told not to write a book about the shooting or her life. It was clear to her that church officials were still stung by the Ted Haggard story. She says New Life officials began to treat her differently. Fellow congregants stopped talking to her; she no longer was given high-profile security details on Sundays. (New Life denies Assam’s claims, and a spokeswoman for the church referred to Assam as a “hero.”) Every time Assam left church, it was as if she’d had a hole burned into her heart.
The decision to leave New Life for good in June 2009 was difficult. She’d been marginalized among those she’d saved less than two years earlier, but she still clung to God and Jesus and to the idea that hope was right over the mountaintop. After she’d shot Murray, she imagined she had climbed the mountain, that she’d completed an assignment and would soon see the rewards. She realized she was nowhere near the end of her journey.
With New Life now in her past, her priorities were to find a new church and to write her book. (Assam would have to self-publish it; the agent that had outed Assam had dropped her as a client.) As she did research, she realized she was missing an important part of her story: Matthew Murray. Until then, the young man had remained a shadow in her mind. She’d briefly met his parents several months after the shooting—“They were such kind people,” Assam says—though the meeting did little to clear up questions in her mind. From Internet searches and police reports, she’d already begun to piece together a troubling outline. Assam learned Murray had been raised in a Christian home in Englewood, he’d lost a job, and he’d struggled through community college classes before ultimately dropping out a few months before his rampage. He was socially awkward and had trouble making friends. His tipping point actually may have come three years earlier, when Murray was kicked out of a missionary training program. He never recovered. After his death, authorities found a letter Murray wrote to God. “What have I done so wrong?” he asked. “What is wrong with me anyways? Am I really such a bad person?… I wish I knew the truth.... Am I too lost to be saved?”
On August 18, 2009, nearly two years after the shootings, Assam drove from Colorado Springs to Ronald Murray’s office in Lone Tree. She’d set up an appointment with the neurologist and his wife, Loretta. In the suburban office, Assam found the couple to be loving and understanding. There was no animosity. Loretta sat next to Assam and showed photos of her son: There was Matthew in a high chair. There was Matthew at the Flintstones theme park in South Dakota, the same place Assam often visited as a child. The boy in those photos was always smiling. She learned he’d run competitively—something Assam had done in school—and was adept at fixing computers. Matthew put together a plan for a computer-repair business, Ronald told Assam. It was perfect. It looked as if Matthew’s life would change in the new year.
Sitting with Murray’s parents—looking at photos, listening to stories—a clearer image of Murray emerged. The moment was both intense and difficult to comprehend. “He became a human being,” Assam says of Murray. “And I was the one who shot him.”
Six months after the visit, she published her book, God, the Gunman & Me, which sold 700 copies. She moved to an apartment in Centennial. She attended a new gay-friendly church and applied for jobs at local police departments. With each rejection, she sank further into depression. Regardless of what she’d done at New Life, she was sure her work history haunted her.
Discouraged and lonely, she was drinking by herself at a restaurant in October 2010 when she decided she’d had enough. Assam looked up the address to a gay bar in downtown Denver and drove there. When she walked inside, she immediately felt welcomed. It was as if she’d removed a stifling mask. “I could finally be the person I really am,” she says. “I was just Jeanne.”
While she was relieved to reclaim a part of herself, her homosexuality didn’t define who she was. Her work did. This past summer, just before she moved to Denver, her application for a police job was rejected again. She was done being a cop.
Assam walked to her kitchen and grabbed a pair of scissors and a trash bag. She went to her office and opened her closet door. In front of her, hung neatly on hangers, were the pieces of her police past: jackets, T-shirts, sweatshirts, badges. The jackets were the first to go. She cut up the sleeves and the patches. She pulled her metal nametags from the breast pockets. She shredded the T-shirts. She cut up the sweaters. Five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes passed. The pain was blinding. Item by item, years of frustration piled up in the trash bag.
When the final sweatshirt was in ribbons, only her police badges remained. She grabbed them, held them in her hands, and then put them away. Jeanne Assam could destroy her memories, but she could never part with the thing that had once made her feel whole again.