FEBRUARY 26, 2016: “In Hesston, one person’s actions ripple across whole town”

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At the corner of Park Street and Lincoln, near one of the few big intersections in town, a crosswalk guard in an orange vest helped students across the street in the small, rural town of Hesston, and you could be forgiven for having confused Friday for any day.

The only sign that something was different was a red Big Dog lawn mower sitting on the corner with an American flag blowing in the wind, then a yellow Raptor lawn mower a couple of doors down the street, with sunshine reflecting off the ripples of another flag.

Both lawn mowers were made by Excel, the plant at which a gunman had shot and killed three people less than 24 hours before.

Across the street, every parking space was taken at the King Park community center, as the city manager explained to reporters that President Obama had called and offered condolences to the town, which, one police sergeant said, in his nearly 20 years of service had never in his memory required an officer to use force.

The zero-turn riding lawn mowers the company built have had a huge impact on the town.

The plant had grown rapidly, tripling in size in the last few years, several workers said. The town of Hesston revolves around two big manufacturing plants, one of which is Excel, and everyone knows somebody who works there.

So it was not a surprise that Cameron Rankin, 20, said he’d started working at Excel on the assembly line just a week and a half before. He’d had two days of orientation and was told, he said, that if he carried a weapon with him he needed to leave it locked up in his car, out of sight.

Rankin moved to Hesston six months ago, he said, because he was trying to escape a group of people that made it too easy for him to make bad choices. When the shooter entered the plant, Rankin had in his safety earplugs and didn’t pay much attention to the loud popping sound he heard until a coworker told him to start running.

“But sometimes trouble finds a way to follow you,” Rankin said at the Sonic, soon after serving a group of fraternity brothers from the University of Denver who had, unknowingly, stopped off the highway as this little town dealt with one of the worst acts of violence to hit the state of Kansas….Continue Reading

MARCH 11, 2016: “Dispatchers kept calm through chaos of mass shooting

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Rachel Corn decided it was time.

On Friday morning Corn finally listened to recordings of the emergency 911 calls she and her five colleagues responded to on Feb. 19 when Cedric Ford shot 17 people, killing three, before being shot and killed by police.

Corn has been involved in emergency dispatching in some form or another for 11 years, so she was as experienced as anyone besides the director to field calls that day.

She has taken suicide calls before, calls about horrible car accidents and calls about people being stabbed. She is used to coming home after work sometimes a little strung out.

When she came home that night, more than 15 hours after she left for work, she sat on the couch next to her fiance, a law enforcement man himself, who listened to her talk about the final five hours of work.

Corn couldn’t sleep. The adrenaline was pumping too much, she said, and in her mind she replayed the phone calls. A bullet to the head. Four dead. A woman who said she might have given guns to the shooter. Another woman kept calling over and over, sobbing in the background, asking if her husband was one of the ones who was dead.

Corn knew through a process of elimination that he probably was. But all she could do was calmly tell the woman that she would call her if she had any new information.

The next day she wanted a moment of space to think about something else. But when she turned on the radio, she heard more about the shooting. When she showed up at work at 8 a.m. the next day, with too little sleep, they talked about the shooting. That’s all people in town wanted to talk about, she said, and for days afterward everywhere she went, she heard more about the tragedy.

But on Friday, three weeks later, enough time had passed, and she finally was ready to listen to what had happened that day.

She clicked play…..Continue reading

FEBRUARY 26, 2016: “After Hesston shooting, some answers”

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Two major questions surrounding Thursday’s shooting rampage at Excel Industries in Hesston appeared to have been answered Friday:

What triggered Excel employee Cedric Ford to return to the plant after his break and shoot 17 people, three fatally?

And where did Ford get the weapons used in the attack?

Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton said Friday that the sheriff’s office served Ford, 38, with a protection from abuse order from his ex-girlfriend in Wichita at about 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the Excel plant.

Walton said he thinks that was likely what triggered the attack, which began about 90 minutes later.

The mother of Ford’s two children, Sarah J. Hopkins of Newton, is facing a federal charge after authorities said she is suspected of giving Ford the two weapons used in the attack.

Hopkins, 28, is the mother of Ford’s 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, according to court records obtained by The Eagle on Friday afternoon. She was charged with one count of knowingly transferring a firearm to a convicted felon, U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said in an e-mailed news release Friday.

Authorities on Friday also confirmed the names of the three people killed in the attack: Renee Benjamin, 30; Josh Higbee, 31; and Brian Sadowsky, 44.

Nearly all of the wounded are recovering; one person remains in critical condition at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis.

Hundreds of people gathered Friday night in Hesston’s Heritage Park for a candlelight vigil, the first step in what is likely to be a long healing process….Continue Reading

February 24, 2017 “A year after the most violent crime a small town has faced, Hesston rethinks its identity

Few people in Hesston knew Cedric Ford a year ago when he shot 17 people at Excel Industries, killing three.

He lived in Newton and was just one face, among hundreds, who drove in and out of town every day to work.

Ford committed one of the worst crimes to hit the state of Kansas and one of the worst crimes to ever befall a town the size of Hesston. But a year later, many people in town said that, though they will never forget what happened that day, they have largely moved on.

Some say that it’s partly because the town’s residents shared so much in common and banded together to support one another under the slogan “Hesston Strong.” And because of the non-violent tenets of the predominant Mennonite faith, the town didn’t become embroiled in arguments over gun control that have followed other mass shootings.

But one of the main reasons that they moved on so quickly, they said, is that they didn’t know anyone directly who was still dealing with tragedy. When Ford returned to Excel, he opened fire on the production line, killing and injuring people just like himself, blue collar workers who commuted in and out, not the ones who filled most of Hesston’s pews on Sundays.

Excel Industries, which makes riding lawnmowers, ramped up its production a few years ago, growing from a few hundred employees to around 1,000. And just about as many workers come and go every day from AGCO, the farm equipment manufacturer that is the town’s other major employer.

It is nearly impossible to find a home for less than $150,000, according to Hesston’s mayor. So many of the production workers at Excel and AGCO can’t afford to live in town and instead commute from Newton, Wichita or a dozen other nearby towns.

One year later, some town leaders are struggling with how or even whether they should do more to incorporate the transient workforce, which suffered the most during this tragedy, into the fabric of the town.

The city of Hesston decided to shut down its only mobile home park, which was one of the few places in town that factory workers at Hesston could afford. The decision sparked controversy, but the town hopes to turn the land into affordable housing, so that the people who are pushed out can someday return.

“Hesston is kind of an odd community in that … more than half of the people who work here don’t live here, and there is a disconnect between the residents of the community and that workforce that comes every day and leaves every day and in many ways we never know and never knows us,” said Keith Schadel, the pastor at Hesston United Methodist….Continue reading

February 24, 2017 “Woman who was with Hesston mass shooter describes his drug-addled last days and hours”

A Wichita woman had one of the last, most intimate views of what life was like for Cedric Ford, the mass shooter that upended the lives of so many.

She describes a man who told her he was depressed, who drank alcohol and snorted meth to the point that he sometimes had to stay in bed for days.

But he was also kind to her and considerate, someone who offered to buy her food and drinks and who she would laugh with. She said she messaged him on Facebook the day of the shooting, and they had plans to see each other that night….Continue reading

February 24, 2017 “In Hesston, most people say they have moved on, but small signs of grief linger

Shirley Weber, the owner of D’angelo’s Pizzeria, can tell that life has gone back to normal: Her restaurant is loud again. After the shooting at Excel Industries last February, the mood was somber.

“The town itself is such a strong Christian-based town, the faith that they have in each other. …” Weber said. “They don’t let something like this scare you, but just makes them strong.”

A “Hesston Strong” poster still hangs in the window of her shop. Her son, an EMS worker in training, saw things last year that, Weber said, no 18-year-old should have to see, and afterward her son said high school sports no longer seemed as important.

Even though most people say they have moved on, small signs of grief linger. A commemorative plaque is visible in the Excel lobby….Continue reading

A couple of years later I covered a mass shooting in Pittsburgh for PublicSource. (I was the environment reporter but was helping out.)

The election is Tuesday: Where do candidates on the Allegheny County ballot stand on gun violence after synagogue attack?

After the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday that left 11 dead, the gun control debate loomed.

Some politicians immediately began calling for gun control measures, while others said that it was, and is, too soon to politicize the tragedy. Some sitting politicians and hopeful candidates have called for increased efforts to tackle hate violence, and some have said nothing public at all.

This Tuesday, the synagogue shooting will likely still weigh heavily on the minds of voters. At the polls, they will have a chance to vote on who they want leading the debate on gun laws and hate crimes. PublicSource emailed the following question to all 51 candidates who will appear on the Allegheny County ballots on Tuesday:

Following the mass shooting in Squirrel Hill, what legislation do you plan to introduce or support to keep Pennsylvania residents safe from gun violence?

We gave the candidates a day and a half to respond and received 21 responses. We will add additional responses that we receive as they come in, leading up to the Nov. 6 election….Continue reading

Jewish tradition frequently stands against the death penalty. Synagogue shooter’s case may put it to the test.

Shiva is over. The seven-day mourning period is tradition in the Jewish community. And while many will continue to grieve over the heinous murder of 11 of their own at the Tree of Life synagogue, the focus is now allowed to shift toward the pursuit of justice.

The legal system is moving forward with 44 counts against Robert Bowers, the 46-year-old from Baldwin Borough accused of perpetrating the most deadly crime against Jews in the history of America. Bowers pleaded not guilty on Thursday and requested a jury trial.

The hate crimes Bowers is accused of can carry the death penalty, a sentence that would ultimately have to be approved by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

But all of the major Jewish denominations in the United States oppose the death penalty in the United States, either in principle or because of how unfairly they say it is being carried out.

There is a strong belief in the Jewish tradition that every life is sacred, which makes some Jews leery of using the death penalty in most cases. Every denomination has called out the often discriminatory way that the death penalty has been applied to black convicts and to cases when people have been put to death and later found to be innocent.

But the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue could put Jewish principles to the test. Jewish scholars say there is Biblical support for implementing the death penalty in principle but there is a wide variety of opinions about how or whether it can be fairly applied. Some individual rabbis and congregations support the death penalty, at least in some cases, even when their denomination is officially opposed.

This case could open up a renewed debate in the Jewish community about the death penalty, which has been largely unified in opposition to it in recent years.

“This is one of those rare cases where even opponents of capital punishment and even those who have valid concerns about its implementation, they might find that their concerns are allayed,” said Sam Levine, a professor and the director of the Jewish Law Institute at the Touro Law Center….Continue reading

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