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.
As a kid in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Jeanne Assam went to church on Sundays. Mom went regularly, which meant Jeanne had to go. Her parents were well-known around the city, though they weren’t always home, and Jeanne was often left in other people’s care. When she was four, she was sexually abused for the first time. When she was 14, an elder at her church molested her. When he told her not to tell, she didn’t. This was a man of God, and she was just a child. Who would people believe? The abuse continued for years.
Eventually, she pushed that piece of her away. She separated that fragment of her past until she no longer recognized it as part of herself. Years later, before the shooting that would make her famous around the world, Assam went to a therapist. The doctor asked her to draw a timeline of her life on a whiteboard. When Assam finished, the doctor studied her work. The first 16 years of her life were blank.
She was a victim, but she’d never thought of herself that way. Even after she’d left home in 1985, gone to college in Nebraska and later in California, and discovered more abuse at the hands of men, she refused to see herself as weak. She was young and pretty and men were attracted to her. But when she was with men, she felt uncomfortable. It was never that way around women. When she was around women who flirted with her, she never felt like a sexual object. It felt right. The few encounters she had were never forced; the intimacy that grew from those relationships was natural, unlike anything she’d ever felt.
In 1989, Assam transferred to Hamline University, a liberal arts school in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She studied criminal justice and hoped to become a police officer. During her first year in Minnesota, she dated a cop with the Minneapolis Police Department, and she often went on ride-alongs with the woman. The action made an indelible impression on her. Each call was an uncertainty, its own prepackaged adrenaline rush, night after night. There was an immediacy about the justice—how police could bring peace so quickly—and she loved to watch good cops work. The best were fit and athletic, daring and brave. She thought she was all of that. One night, she proved it: During a ride-along, Assam helped her girlfriend break up a fight between two men. One of the men had a knife, and Assam swiped it from him. After the men were arrested and in the back of the squad car, her girlfriend was upset. Assam wasn’t trained; it was a stupid move and she could have gotten killed. Assam didn’t care. She knew she was going to be a cop.
She graduated from Hamline in 1992. Assam attended the police academy and joined the Minneapolis Police Department in 1993. She was in her mid-20s when she was assigned to the Fourth Precinct, the city’s most dangerous ward. Assam couldn’t have been happier. In her uniform, she found purpose. Her shirtsleeves were perfectly creased; her black boots were spotless. Her badge, with number 0234 etched into it, was polished brass. It gleamed under the lights. Her badge was like the missing piece to her life’s puzzle. With it, she felt whole.
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.
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.
Sunday morning, early fall. Assam walks through the sanctuary doors at the nondenominational Mile Hi Church in Lakewood. It’s a massive structure; hundreds of people fill dozens of pews that face two oversized screens on each side of a warmly lit, polished stage. There’s some music and reflection, and then more music. A singer belts out Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” while folks stand and sing and sway. In the last row, Assam remains seated.
Dr. Roger W. Teel, Mile Hi’s senior minister, gazes out toward the worshipers. Gray-haired with an almost permanent, easy smile, he’s dressed in a suit jacket and pressed slacks. The screens on the wall flash his image, there is a call to prayer, and the congregation goes silent.
This morning, the sermon is about change—how each season is a metaphor for stages in life. “Seasons of the soul,” the minister calls them. Winter is a time of quiet, he says; spring, a moment for initiating change; summer, a time of fulfillment, of moving on. And then there is fall. Changing leaves shrivel, then fall to the ground. Autumn begins the process of letting go, Teel says, to “clean out the soul’s garage.” From her seat, Assam nods. It’s as if the minister is speaking to her. “I just went through that release,” she whispers.
Teel talks some more, and for the next 15 minutes, Assam listens. Then there’s more music and more singing and more swaying. The collection basket comes around, and Assam drops a couple of dollars into it. “Everyone holds hands after this, and I’m not too touchy-feely,” she says. “Let’s go.”
But she doesn’t get far. A few minutes later, she’s in a line with 50-some people, all of whom are waiting to see Teel. “He’s doing some deep healing,” Assam says of the minister. She wants him to know she feels welcomed here. Assam says she’s closer to becoming the woman she knows is deep inside her. It’s the same woman who stared down a killer and revealed her true self—confident, calm, and most important to her, obedient to God’s will. For now, she is certain about who she is not. A few months ago, someone on the staff learned Assam was attending the church and asked if she wanted to join the security team. She declined politely.
The line shrinks quickly and Teel spots Assam. He wraps her in a hug. “Jeanne, it’s so great to see you!” he says. They exchange greetings for a few moments, then Assam steps back. “I just wanted to tell you,” she says, “how great this church has been for me.”
The man smiles. “I’m so glad to hear that,” Teel says. He asks if she’s planning to attend the “Beyond Limits” class on Tuesday, which is designed to help people lead happy and effective lives.
“I’ll see you then,” she tells him.
Teel reaches out both arms and wraps her in another hug. Assam says goodbye, and then walks through the church doors into the sunlight.