Rosalyn Stanley was just finishing an episode of “Dr. Phil” on a June night when the show was interrupted by a breaking news alert.
There’d been a shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
“At Emanuel?” thought Rosalyn, who had grown up in Charleston and gone to a church just up the street.
The shooting, she’d learn, had erupted during a Wednesday evening Bible study. Nine people were killed – all African Americans. A manhunt was on for the alleged shooter, a white man soon identified as Dylann Roof.
Rosalyn, 67, absorbed the details in a motorized wheelchair parked in her living room – a constant reminder of the racial shooting spree she’d survived 40 years earlier in Wheaton, Md., that killed two and wounded her and four others. Just as in Charleston, the shooter was white, and his targets were all African Americans.
Rosalyn didn’t discover who had died at Emanuel AME until two days later. That’s when she heard a familiar name on TV: Myra Thompson.
Her old friend Myra? Rosalyn had known the 59-year-old retired schoolteacher for 20 years. They’d met through Rosalyn’s mother; all three belonged to the same sorority. A phone conversation with Myra that lasted an hour was short.
“It can’t be,” she thought. “No. No.”
Rosalyn couldn’t stop thinking about Myra’s final moments. Did she die first? Last? Did she have time to think of Rosalyn, paralyzed from the waist down, shot in the back by a white man walking up a street in Maryland picking off black people one by one?
“She had to,” Rosalyn says, sitting in her wheelchair at the end of her dining-room table outside of Philadelphia. Her husband, Cliff, a retired Marine general, sits next to her, just as he did the night she was shot. Back then, they were new parents of a 3-month-old girl when the bullets from a .45-caliber pistol wrecked Rosalyn’s spine and killed two scientists in a shooting hardly anyone remembers except the victims.
But now, after seeing Myra and the others in Charleston slaughtered all these years later, the Stanleys are trying to comprehend the strange arc of their lives, their bookend connection to a terrifying era of American life: the age of mass shootings.
In 1975, someone walking up the street shooting people was such an alien idea that one of the officers who responded didn’t believe it and hadn’t been trained for it. The phrase “active shooter” had yet to enter the cultural lexicon. Now mass shootings are so common that the assailants draw inspiration from one another, and the degrees of separation between victims appear to be closing.
Rosalyn took a bullet to her back. Four decades later, her friend Myra was shot multiple times.
“I suppose this was bound to happen at some point,” says Grant Duwe, a criminologist who wrote “Mass Murder in the United States: A History.”
Different time, different place, different shooter, same social circle.
Every new mass shooting sends Rosalyn’s mind racing back 40 years. In a country where moviegoers, first-graders, TV journalists, community college students and county health department workers are gunned down, the reminders are relentless – and, with Charleston, the link is personal.
“The first thing you think is the fear,” she says. “The second thing is the randomness.”
Rosalyn was in the front passenger seat of the family car on April 13, 1975. Cliff was driving. His parents were in the back holding the couple’s baby, Angela. As Cliff, then 28, steered his white 1973 Pontiac Grand Prix up Georgia Avenue, he noticed he was running low on gas.
“I was moving slow,” he recalls. “I had to find a gas station.”
And then: bang, bang, bang.
“I see all these people ducking everywhere,” remembers Rosalyn, who was 26. “What is going on? What is happening here?”
It was Sunday. A beautiful spring evening. “The Godfather: Part II” was playing at the Wheaton Plaza movie theater, the date-night destination for John and Lorene Sligh. The couple worked at what was then called the National Bureau of Standards, where he was a chemist and she worked in procurement. They were waiting at a red light at Veirs Mill Road and Reedie Drive when the shooting began.
Rosalyn and her husband were headed from a family dinner in Wheaton to their apartment in Annapolis, where Cliff, then a captain, taught leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was following his uncle, Connie Stanley, a 52-year-old organic chemist, a few cars ahead in a 1972 Dodge.
The Stanleys, the Slighs, a young waiter at the Anchor Inn who had been sent to the store to replenish the applesauce – they all became targets of Michael Edward Pearch.
The 29-year-old unemployed former Army counterintelligence officer was staying at his mother’s house in Silver Spring. He was a Revolutionary War buff who had attended the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts after serving in Germany, says his sister, Marianne Scholer.
But something changed when he got home in 1972. “He told my mother that America was really loud,” Scholer says. A year before his rampage, Pearch shot and killed his mother’s cat.
The day of the shootings, Pearch slept most of the day. He woke up and put on a green Army field jacket, slipping away without his mother noticing. He had a .45-caliber handgun and a knapsack of ammunition. Witnesses later told police that he smiled as he pulled the trigger.
First, he opened fire at the Slighs through the car windows, hitting John, 40, in the back twice and Lorene, 40, in the leg. He walked along Veirs Mill Road and shot a man in the foot.
Pearch kept walking. He kept smiling. He found the waiter, Harold Navy, near the intersection of Georgia and University Boulevard, shooting him in the stomach. Then he put a bullet in Connie Stanley’s chest. Rosalyn and Cliff heard the gunshots, but they didn’t realize Connie had been shot.
Pearch came up on Rosalyn and Cliff at a red light. She saw him approach out of the corner of her eye and ducked. Pearch shot her in the back.
People ran for cover. A witness named Sigmund Fritz called 911. Four decades later, a recording of the call captures the shock and confusion.
“A man with a gun is shooting people as they go by in cars. Wheaton Plaza. Veirs Mill.”
“Is anybody hurt?” the dispatcher asked.
Fritz: “I think some people are injured seriously.”
“He shot some Negroes,” he added. “Man shot some Negroes.”
“Do you have a description of the car?”
Fritz: “No, he’s just standing in the street.”
A few blocks away, Steve Hall Jr., a Montgomery County, Md., police officer, was writing traffic tickets. Hall, then 25, had been on the force almost two years.
After hearing on the radio that someone had been shot at Wheaton Plaza, he raced over. He found the first officer on the scene giving first aid to John Sligh. Pop, pop, pop. More shots. People screamed at the officers to help, pointing up Reedie Drive, where the shooter had fled.
Hall got back in his patrol car, flipped on the flashing lights, and went after him. “Is this like a gang war or something?” he says he wondered. His father was a Montgomery police officer, too. Hall loved policing. Yet he had never heard of someone just walking around shooting people.
Moments later, he spotted Pearch. “We made eye contact. We looked right at each other,” Hall says. “Every instinct told me to run in the other direction.” Instead, Hall stopped the car. Officers were required to wear hats back then; he put his on. Then he grabbed his shotgun.
Another officer pulled up. They chased Pearch on foot as he shot another driver in the abdomen. Bystanders screamed and ran. Hall was looking for a clear shot to avoid injuring anyone else. Pearch kept firing.
“I said to myself, ‘This has got to end now,’ ” Hall remembers.
He opened fire, emptying his shotgun’s four shells. Pearch fell to the ground. Hall ran over and kicked the .45 out of his hands. Pearch was still breathing.
“If you move I’m going to blow your head off,” Hall says he told him, his own chin bleeding from the recoil on the shotgun. Pearch didn’t move. He was dying. Connie Stanley was dying. John Sligh was dying.
“Save yourself,” Sligh told Lorene as he bled to death. “I’m gone.”
Police lights flashed everywhere. Over the radio, the officers and dispatchers struggled to figure out how many people were hurt.
“Are you okay?” Cliff Stanley asked his wife after the gunfire stopped.
“I’m okay,” Rosalyn said.
Cliff jumped out of the car with his father to go find his uncle.
From the back seat, Cliff’s mother looked at her and said, “Rozy, you’ve been shot.”
“No, I haven’t,” she said.
She couldn’t feel the wound.
The Wheaton rampage commanded the front page of The Washington Post for two days, then faded not only from the news, but also from most people’s memory.
“I’ve never had anyone come in and ask me about it,” says Jeff Bobrow, whose family has owned Elbe’s Beer and Wine, located just a couple of blocks from the crime scene, for 65 years. Bobrow, 62, has only a vague recollection of the shooting. “I think it’s lost to history.”
And not just the history of Wheaton or the Washington region, but the history of mass shootings. In many ways, that’s an accident of timing.
The shooting was overshadowed by intense interest in another Wheaton crime that had occurred just a couple of weeks earlier: the abduction of the Lyons sisters – Sheila, 12, and Katherine, 10 – from Wheaton Plaza. In a matter of 18 days, two girls went missing, and seven people were shot, all within a few blocks.
The police even wondered whether Pearch was somehow involved in the sisters’ disappearance. Detectives searched a cabin he had in Western Maryland for a sign of the girls, but they found nothing. The mystery of the Lyons sisters consumed the region for years. A suspect was arrested just this past summer.
Searching Google for the Lyons sisters turns up nearly a million hits. Searching Google for information on “Wheaton mass shooting” turns up nothing.
Duwe, the criminologist, has studied more than 1,300 mass shootings, but he had never heard of the one in Wheaton. He wonders how many other Wheatons remain undiscovered by researchers trying to piece together the country’s mass shootings timeline.
Up until a half-century ago, experts believe there were very few public massacres. That began to change on Aug. 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman killed 14 and wounded 32 at the University of Texas, picking off his victims with an arsenal of guns from high up in a clock tower. There was intense media coverage of the Whitman rampage, which was followed by several other similar, but smaller, incidents starting later that year – the earliest suggestion of a contagion effect.
Yet even today, it’s difficult to connect those early shootings. A federal database didn’t provide reliable data until around 1976.
“If you are trying to search on Google, you may or may not uncover them,” Duwe says.
It was Columbine that changed everything. On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 and wounded 23 at Columbine High School in Colorado – a horrifying event that occurred just as the Internet was taking root in the lives of ordinary Americans.
Harris, 18, and Klebold, 17, were savvy about incorporating the Internet into their terrorism, posting rants about the world on a Trench Coat Mafia Web site. Their digital footprints gave investigators insight into their minds and motives. But it also helped inspire other mass killers, providing an easy way to research Harris and Klebold and seek ways to emulate them.
Mother Jones magazine has identified 21 successful Columbine copycat attacks, leaving 89 dead and 126 wounded. Roof’s manifesto in the Charleston attack specifically mentioned Columbine. Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech student who killed 32 students and teachers on campus in 2007, idolized Harris and Klebold. And when Vester L. Flanagan II killed a Virginia TV reporter and cameraman on the air earlier this year, he did it with Columbine and Virginia Tech on his mind.
“Also, I was influenced by Seung-Hui Cho,” he wrote in a letter to ABC News. “That’s my boy right there. He got NEARLY double the amount that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold got . . . just sayin.’ “
An FBI study of active shooter incidents identifies 160 incidents between 2000 and 2013 that took 1,043 lives. And the frequency of the attacks is accelerating. In the first seven years of the study, there was an average of 6.4 incidents a year. In the past seven years, the incidents more than doubled, to 16.4 a year.
Investigators almost always use the killers’ computers to trace the roots of their violence – their search history, chat logs, reading interests. In 1975, there was no digital blueprint of Pearch’s mind or motivation.
An autopsy turned up a pituitary gland tumor, but not one that would make him violent, doctors said then. His girlfriend had died in a car crash in Germany, but why would that make him target black people?
Was he a white supremacist like Roof? Given his targets, his actions must have been fueled by racial animosity, but there was no trace of his inspiration or ideology.
During her four months in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, Rosalyn Stanley learned to catheterize herself. She discovered how to muscle her way from the bed to her wheelchair. It became a full-scale production just to bathe.
At first, the doctors held out hope that she might walk again. But eventually, she was told she wouldn’t.
Rosalyn cried for just a few moments. She had a baby at home. “I had to function as a mother,” she explains. “I had to get on with my life.”
She and Cliff, who met as students at South Carolina State University, were planning to have two more children. Pearch had stolen that future from them. But they had Angela. And they had each other.
“You look at the alternative,” she says. “Connie died. The other man died. I can see the sunshine.”
She encouraged Cliff to get on with his career.
“I wanted to be independent,” she says. “He wanted me to independent.”
It wasn’t easy. A few years later, Cliff went to Okinawa for 12 months, leaving Rosalyn and Angela in Dumphries, Va. One day while he was gone, Rosalyn fell out of her chair in the garage. A neighbor had to rescue her, prompting her to plead, “Do not tell Cliff.” The neighbor told Cliff.
He eventually rose to major general, became the first African American to command a Marine regiment and later served as an undersecretary of defense in the Obama administration. His daughter followed him into the military. Angela, 40, is a nurse and Navy commander.
Cliff, now a consultant, is a deacon in his church. He once taught a class on forgiveness. The Stanleys took it to heart with Pearch.
“Scripture tells you that’s what you do,” Cliff says.
“If you dwell on it, you get nowhere fast,” Rosalyn says.
On one of her long days in the hospital, Pearch’s parents stopped by.
“We are so sorry,” they said.
Rosalyn says she assured them, “It’s not your fault.” She tears up a bit recounting the encounter: “There was no need to look at them and be hateful.”
The children of John Sligh Jr., the first person Pearch shot, don’t feel the same way.
“I would love to have faced him,” says Alta Sligh, who was 20 when the shooting happened. “How dare he get out the easy way?”
Her brother, John Sligh III, was 10. He remembers having this thought: “I would have wanted to kill him.”
Their late mother, Lorene, who was shot in the leg during the rampage, smoked and drank her way through grief.
“It almost broke her as a person,” John Sligh III says.
But like Rosalyn Stanley, Lorene, too, realized she needed to be there for her children. John Sligh III became an IT administrator at Booz Allen Hamilton. He lives in Prince George’s County, as does his sister Alta, a homemaker. Another sister, Ivy, lives in Germantown.
Alta Sligh still has the lighter she’d bought her dad for Father’s Day, the one she never gave him. Her brother has his father’s old office chair in his office. He has his wallet. And he has those 10 years.
“I always say it’s better to have had a great dad for 10 years than a bad one for 20,” he explains. “He was a great guy. It’s just a huge loss.”
Karen Stanley Williams, the daughter of Connie Stanley, still can’t bring herself to visit her father’s grave at a cemetery in Landover.
“I just can’t go there,” she says.
Is she angry? A therapist once asked her that question.
“I said no. I don’t know why I’m not,” she acknowledges. But she is damaged.
Williams is an anesthesiologist at George Washington University Medical Center. She helps run the operating rooms. Shootings – every one of them – remind her of her father. She had to recuse herself in 2009 when three people shot at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum were rushed to the hospital, including James W. von Brunn, an 88-year-old white supremacist and anti-Semite who killed a guard, Stephen T. Johns, 39, before being shot by other guards.
“It all comes back to you,” Williams says. “Every time.”
Her brother Reggie was living near Boston when his father died in Wheaton. He was 15, a gifted figure skater competing against the likes of future Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton. The Olympics were on Reggie’s radar. He had just won a U.S. novice championship. After his father died, nothing was the same. He’d break down crying on the ice. He eventually hurt his ankle, ending his career.
“There’s always this questioning about what could have been,” says Reggie, now the chief executive of ImpactUS, a District company connecting investors with mission-based organizations. “Now that I have distance from it, I think my will gave out. It never felt the same. My body gave out, but it was really my will that gave out.”
Hall, the officer who ended the rampage, struggled with depression. He grew up going to Sunday school. Taking Pearch’s life weighed on him. Thou shalt not kill.
“How does this square with God?” he wondered.
His wife sought help for him from a retired police officer who had became a pastor.
“He came over to the house, and he just laid it out to me in a way that took the burden off me. We’ve all heard, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but he said the better translation should say, ‘Thou shalt not commit murder.’ He told me, ‘What you did was not murder.’ “
When he became an officer, Hall fell away from church. He spent a lot of time carousing with officers late at night, putting strains on his family.
After the shooting, he recommitted himself to his faith and his family, raising four kids. One of them, also named Steve, became a police officer near Charleston.
After the June 17 massacre at Emanuel, he helped search for Roof.
“It was a manhunt,” says Hall’s son, who has been an officer in North Charleston for almost 10 years. “We were just riding around looking for this guy. It was frantic.”
Unlike his father, the younger Hall had yearly training in active shooter situations, learning what his father did instinctively: Run toward the shooting, even if you’re by yourself. “It’s scary as hell,” he says, “but hopefully you save lives.”
The younger Steve Hall was ready to do that with Roof, who was eventually apprehended without incident in North Carolina.
Afterward, he called his younger brother Joe, a TV editor and independent filmmaker in Hollywood. He’d written a screenplay about that day in Wheaton and had been trying to get it made.
Both sons know how much of an impact the shooting had on their father.
“That single event changed him and our family forever,” Joe Hall says. “It’s like the butterfly’s wings. I might not have been born. My mom could have left him. Who knows?”
The older Hall also received forgiveness from Pearch’s sister, Marianne Scholer, who was a sheriff’s deputy in Florida and now teaches at a police academy. “I was very glad my brother did not kill those officers,” she says.
A few weeks after the shooting, she wrote Hall a letter and later visited him at the police station. “Thought is really given to the police officer who needs, in a matter of moments and under difficult circumstances, to discharge his duty as he sees fit,” she wrote, adding that she was “grateful for your courage.”
Hall retired in 2003, four years after Columbine, when officers had begun training for active shooter situations. He spends a lot of time wondering what could stop all these shooting sprees.
Williams does, too. After Charleston, she wrote a letter to President Obama describing how her father, Connie Stanley, had died 40 years earlier. If there was anything she could do – lobby for gun control, speak out in any way – she wanted to help.
She heard back from Obama a couple of months ago.
“I am deeply saddened to hear about the loss of your father and the pain you have experienced,” Obama wrote. “Too many of our fellow Americans have died at the end of a gun, and if there is even one thing we can do to keep our children and our communities safe, then we have an obligation to try.”
Williams was stunned to get a reply, but the shootings haven’t stopped. And each is a fresh reminder of a spring night in Wheaton.
She was reminded when the TV reporter and cameraman were killed in Roanoke by a former co-worker who recorded himself pulling the trigger and then posted the video to Facebook and Twitter. She was reminded when the gunman at Umpqua Community College killed nine people and wounded at least 10 others in Oregon before killing himself. She is reminded when she embraces her cousin’s wife, Rosalyn, in her wheelchair.
“Every time I see her,” Williams says, “I tell her, ‘I’m so glad you’re still here.’ “
But so many others are gone. Her father. John Sligh. The teens at Columbine, the college students at Virginia Tech, the first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the office workers at the Washington Navy Yard.
Rosalyn’s friend Myra Thompson is also gone, buried in Carolina Memorial Gardens in a mahogany casket that was covered in red roses and white orchids. Hundreds of people attended her funeral at the church where she’d been shot, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.
It was too hard for Rosalyn to go, so she sent a condolence letter to Myra’s husband, the Rev. Anthony Thompson. In it, Rosalyn described her late-night phone conversations with Myra, recalled the days when she’d drive over to the house for a visit.
It was shocking, Rosalyn wrote, to learn her friend was a victim – not mentioning the extraordinary reality that she was a victim, too.
Link to Washington Post interactive graphic on mass shootings: