Thirty-seven years have passed since murder was a part of my daily life, and since Carol Spencer, a grieving mother with muscular dystrophy, taught me a lesson about it.
Back then, I was a cub reporter at the Review-Journal in Las Vegas. New guys were given the police beat, but not during the cushy daytime hours when police chiefs and spokespeople waxed philosophical about crimes. I worked the night shift, when all the action took place and the only people available to talk were grieving or in shock.
I didn’t worry much about mass shootings in 1984 because they rarely happened. I didn’t worry about a pandemic because the world hadn’t seen one of those since the end of World War I.
Now we have both — a pandemic involving a virus and one involving mass killings.
We almost forgot about the latter. Until last week, the United States hadn’t seen a large-scale multiple-death shooting in public — the kind that rivets national attention — in a year, since about the time everyone was told to stay inside and to wear masks if they went out. Some people thought we might have cured the urge to kill lots of people at once. That illusion was broken when a guy with a gun shot eight people, six of them women of Asian descent, in spas in the Atlanta area. It was shattered for good on Monday when a 21-year-old man opened fire on a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado. We’re back to the bad old days.
But we might have seen the reprieve as an illusion even during the darkest days of the pandemic if we had looked hard enough.
The Gun Violence Archive, which collects such data from law enforcement, media, government and commercial sources, says there were 611 mass shootings involving four or more victims in 2020. This was a lot more than the 417 recorded in 2019.
It’s just that many of those involved people who knew each other, who lived in the same home, got into fights or were members of gangs. They didn’t grab the headlines, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t matter.
Which brings me back to Carol Spencer. I last wrote about her in 1997, but I doubt many people remember. I will never forget.
Back then, we had rules about what sorts of murders made the paper. Las Vegas had a lot of them, and in those pre-internet days we had only so much room on a page. The crime had to be notable, with an element of the spectacular, astonishing or alarming to deserve ink. Dramatic manhunts and serial killers rose to the front page.
The murder of Carol’s daughter, Kim Spencer, didn’t qualify. While it was plenty gruesome — she was stabbed multiple times with a steak knife — it was easily solved. Because she was afraid to live alone in a dangerous neighborhood, Kim had a secret rhythmic door knock only friends and relatives knew. If you didn’t knock the right way, she wouldn’t open.
Police quickly narrowed the search to her boyfriend’s former roommate. Case closed.
Except that when Carol called me, with tears in her voice, wanting to know why her daughter’s death wasn’t a community tragedy like the ones I had been writing about, I had a hard time answering. Instead, I went to her home and spent a few hours with her.
Carol spent her time knitting pillows and outfits for small dolls. She was in constant pain and had trouble getting around.
She told me how her husband had left the family four years earlier. Then she painted a vivid picture of Kim as a devoted daughter and caretaker. One day, Carol’s illness and depression had been particularly bad. Kim had cleverly used reverse psychology, telling her mother she couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t walk and couldn’t drive. Carol got so angry she walked to her car and drove around the block to prove a point, only later realizing what her daughter had done for her.
That episode gave Carol the confidence to face other difficult days. But now she didn’t know what to do without Kim. She was left with her dolls and her knitting, but no concerned daughter to look in on her; no one to make her angry enough to drive around the block.
A seemingly insignificant murder now had a face and a story that breathed life into what was, indeed, a community tragedy.
What does this have to do with shootings in Boulder and Atlanta?
A lot of people are wringing their hands. Politicians talk of gun control. People on social media rant in anger. I don’t have the definitive answer. I don’t know what makes someone want to kill strangers.
But, thanks to Carol Spencer, I do know that every victim — whether of a highly publicized mass shooting or a largely ignored crime — is a person with a story and with other people who love them.
I know that if people begin seeing them this way, begin seeing each murder as a true community tragedy, it will change them, as the murder of Kim Spencer changed me.