When Jillian Groh checked in to the downtown Westin Hotel one cold night almost seven years ago, everything felt certain. Then things changed forever.
The youngest of three, Jill was a lively kid. Though she was born in Austin, Texas, the family moved to Arizona before her 12th birthday. Jill took an interest in cheerleading at an early age. Cheerleading ran in the family, and Bill’s little Jilly Bean, as the family called her, had the lungs for it. “Even in fourth grade,” he says, “she was the loudest cheerleader.”
In high school, Jill was a straight-A student and was president of her senior class. She captained the cheerleading squad and was a star on the softball team. Jill still found time to volunteer in the community, helping raise money for multiple sclerosis research and delivering anti-drug messages at local elementary schools. Jill’s skills on the softball diamond earned her a scholarship at a small college in Oklahoma. After a year, though, she left to attend Northern Arizona University (NAU), a two-hour drive from Fountain Hills. She entered the hospitality management program, which seemed like a good fit for Jill’s easy temperament. Working in the hotel industry had also become something of a family profession.
Jill arrived on the NAU campus in the fall of 2003 and immediately made an impact on those around her. She captained the cheerleading squad and helped with community events. “Everybody loved her,” says one of Jill’s former NAU professors, Frances Ann Hill. “There is a spontaneous affection for Jillian everywhere.” One particular moment stands out in Hill’s mind. Every semester for nine years, Hill had taught a hospitality leadership course. At the end of the course, she required students to present a personal mission statement—a snapshot of who they are and what they’ve learned during the semester. On a spring day in 2005, Jill walked into class to present her statement. When it was her turn, instead of talking about herself, Jill named each of her fellow cheerleaders and spoke about their strengths and what she had learned from them. “It was beautiful,” Hill says, “how she made her personal mission statement a reflection of all the gifts that they had given her.”
Because NAU is known for its hospitality program, each spring recruiters from many of the major hotels arrive on campus in search of new employees. The Hyatt approached Jill her senior year with a job offer. She accepted. There was no location attached to the deal; the Hyatt could assign Jill to any of its more than 500 properties around the country—something of a game of roulette. Not long after she took the job, Jill learned she would start her career in Denver.
Jill moved to the Mile High City in the spring of 2006. Despite Denver being where Janelle attended high school, the Grohs were uneasy about their daughter’s new home. Jill had recently ended a long relationship with a Broncos recruit, and Bill and Janelle were worried her ex-boyfriend would be a distraction.
Jill left the snow-covered peaks of the Front Range in December 2006 to travel home for the holidays. She told her father she felt stifled at her new job. Bill encouraged his daughter to stick it out in Denver for at least a year, enough time to give this chapter of her life a chance to take shape.
When she returned to Denver and the calendar flipped to the new year, things turned for Jill. She was promoted at the Hyatt. Jill also learned the Colorado Rapids were holding tryouts for the team’s cheerleading squad; she thought she would give it a shot. Toward the end of February, Jill heard she had made the squad. “Jillian was just beside herself with joy,” Janelle says. Jill and her roommate, Jacquelyn, signed a new lease on a two-bedroom apartment, cementing their place in Denver for another year.
To mark the occasion, Jill invited a friend from Arizona to celebrate. Jill’s sister booked them a room at the Westin on the corner of 17th and Lawrence streets for $49. On that night in March, Jill called her parents to say she was going out with friends. At moments like this, Bill and Janelle were particularly proud of their youngest daughter, pleased she had stuck it out in Denver. But parents being parents, they’d also talked to her about being safe that night. “We’ve got a room at the Westin,” Jill said. “We’ll be fine, Dad.”