BAILEY, COLO. — It is a sad — and almost cruel — twist of fate. 16 years ago, Ellen and John Michael Keyes were happily anticipating the birth of twins, due September 27th, 1990. The babies, who they named Emily and Casey, arrived early. But last week, that September 27th date became significant again—this time all too tragically.
Ellen Keyes, Emily's mother: The irony of the date is pretty painful.
Meredith Vieira, NBC News: September 27th was the day. That’s got to go through your mind. That’s so strange.
Ellen Keyes: It does. And I haven’t been able to connect that loop in my head at all.
This year, September 27th fell on a Wednesday, and for the Keyes family, it was a day that began uneventfully. Just as she had done every morning for years, Ellen took her 16-year-old twins to school.
Ellen Keyes: The little things, driving them to school every day… and I drove back home, and it was worth every moment to have done this for years and years. To have done it that morning especially.
Vieira: Who drove the car that morning?
Ellen Keyes: Emily. Had the music loud (laughter). Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Vieira: And John Michael where were you?
John Michael Keyes, Emily's father: I was probably eating breakfast (laughter).
At 7 a.m., Emily Keyes drove down the winding dirt road that leads from the family’s mountain top home in Bailey, Colorado, gazing at a serene landscape dotted with gorgeous yellow Aspens. At 7:17, she and her twin brother got out of the car at Platte Canyon High School.
It should have been just another routine school day. Casey was going on a field trip. Emily was relieved she had no tests. But a few hours later, September 27th became anything but ordinary— a day when the small, close-knit town of Bailey would lose its innocence to violence—a day that would intertwine the lives of the Keyes family, a local sheriff, and a hateful stranger in ways they never could have envisioned.
Vieira: When did the two of you realize that something was wrong? That something was going on at the school?
John Michael Keyes: I got a call. Ellen was going downtown to pick up toner cartridges, some you know, mundane stuff. And she gave me a call and said “Something’s going on at the school, shots fired in room 206.”
Vieira: How did you know?
Ellen Keyes: They had it on the police scanner. It was about 20 or 30 minutes after it started.
An employee at this gas station heard the call come across the police scanner at 11:40 a.m. Ellen told her husband to get on the computer to check the twins’ class schedule—their hearts sank. Emily was scheduled to be in room 206.
John Michael Keyes: I was in denial. "Well, maybe she’s not there."
Emily’s mom headed to a local sheriff’s station, where she heard there would be more information—and her dad raced for the school.
John Michael Keyes: A lot of erratic driving. Saw that there was a road block on the highway. And there’s a back road and I got to a couple hundred feet away from the school.
There, standing along the highway outside the school, Emily’s dad found 30 other distraught parents.
John Michael Keyes: A lot of parents, angry, crying, tears.
Vieira: What do you mean, angry?
John Michael Keyes: What’s going on here, in our place?
Bailey is only 28 miles from Columbine, where 7 years ago, 12 students and a teacher were murdered in this country’s deadliest school shooting. And soon images of that tragedy would echo all too eerily—and visibly—right there at Platte Canyon high. There were streams of kids coming out with their hands on their heads and the buses evacuating them. The panic and frustration as parents desperately tried to determine whose children were still inside.
John Michael Keyes: The authorities really didn’t want us there. At one point one of the deputies came out and said “You guys have to go back to the substation” and 20 heads turned and said “no.”
Vieira: "We’re staying"?
John Michael Keyes: Yeah, absolutely.
Vieira: Did you say to any of those parents “I think my daughter is in that classroom”?
John Michael Keyes: Yeah, yeah. And it was still spotty information there.
Vieira: You just don’t know what to believe.
And then details of the horror unfolding inside began to emerge—a man dressed like a student, with a dark-hooded sweatshirt and backpack had calmly walked into the school and taken seven girls hostage in room 206, lining them up face first against the chalkboard. Armed with a semi-automatic pistol and revolver, he claimed he had a bomb and fired off a warning shot.
Seven terrified hostages and Emily’s frightened parents knew she was probably one of them.
Ellen Keyes: That was scary. That was real scary.
Vieira: You knew there were guns, and the possibility of a bomb.
John Michael Keyes: Yeah.
Vieira: At this point, you did know that?
John Michael Keyes: Yeah.
Vieira: I don’t even know how you process that.
Ellen Keyes: It was pretty hard.
Making it worse, Emily’s parents weren’t even together — her dad on the highway outside the school, her mom still at the sheriff substation, a couple of miles away.
Vieira: I have trouble even imagining that you have to be separated at this point and how hard that must be…
Ellen Keyes: We talked about him coming to substation, us being together. And I thought, I really wanted him there.
Vieira: You mean there, closer to the school?
Ellen Keyes: Just knowing that he could see the school and I couldn’t—
Amid the chaos, there was some good news: Emily’s twin brother Casey was perfectly safe, 40 miles away, on his field trip... far from this scene of terror.
But then, their worst fear was confirmed -- someone at the sheriff substation had sobering news.
Ellen Keyes: They pulled me in, and were able to tell me that she was in the room it was grim, because that’s when we were told she was a hostage.
John Michael Keyes was now desperate to make contact with his daughter — but how?
John Michael Keyes: I’m a tech guy, but I look at my cell phone, and I’ve never sent a text message. And I looked around and said, “Is there anyone here under 30? I need to do a text message.” (laughter) And the reporter from the flume was up there. And she looked at the phone and quickly typed in the letters, “R u ok?” And that’s what I asked her to type is, “Are you okay?”
Vieira: So, Emily received the text message, “R u ok”?
John Michael Keyes: Yeah, in that room. And within minutes, I get one back. And it says, “I love you guys.”
Vieira: When you saw that—
John Michael Keyes: You know, in hindsight, I’m saying she’s in there, she’s scared, horrible things are happening in that room, and she sends that. Amazing little woman.
Ellen Keyes: It felt dangerous. And then he did text her back after that.
John Michael Keyes: Where Are You? nothing.
Vieira: No other message ever came in—
Ellen Keyes: The fact that another message didn’t come back didn’t feel good.
Emily’s agonized parents could only wait, but inside the school—on the second floor, 12 police officers and 3 hostage negotiators were struggling to contain a gunman they could neither see nor begin to comprehend.
Sheriff Fred Wegener: He had turned off all the lights, and it was very dark.
Sheriff Fred Wegener, who arrived at the school minutes after that first shot rang out, was controlling the scene as negotiators tried to talk to the gunman through the classroom door.
Wegener: Initially he talked to the officers, yelling, kind of agitated. You know “Get back, stay down. You know, everything will be alright you know.”
Vieira: He’s saying “Everything will be alright”?
Wegener: Yeah, everything will be ok.
Vieira: Was there a window on this door? Can you see through this door?
Wegener: Yeah, it’s a solid core door and then there’s two safety windows next to it.
Vieira: And you could clearly see who was in that classroom?
Wegener: Well, you could look in.
Vieira: What could you make out?
Wegener: Shadows. That was pretty much all you make out. And of course the screams of the girls.
Those screams made the sheriff seethe. For him, this was personal. He isn’t just Bailey’s sheriff, he’s also a parent with his own 16-year-old son, Ben, a student at Platte Canyon High.
Vieira: It had to hit you that you’re also a dad?
Wegener: Yeah. There’s a big time emotion that’s going on there but if you lose it, you’re not going to help the other kids.
Vieira: I can’t even imagine what that was like for you, because you’re really wearing two hats.
Wegener: Yeah, it’s easier said than done. I think afterwards is when you know it will hit you.
However this played out, it was bound to hit hard: by now Sheriff Wegener was calling the hostages “my girls.”
Vieira: How well did you know Emily’s family before all this Fred?
Wegener: My son, they had a crush on each other back in elementary school.
Vieira: Oh, you’re kidding.
Wegener: So I know her, just like I know everyone else.
The sheriff’s struggle to stay emotionally detached became increasingly difficult, especially at 12:15, when the gunman began releasing hostages and the sheriff learned more about what was happening in the shadowy darkness of room 206.
Wegener: About every 30 minutes, he’s releasing a hostage.
Vieira: And what are these girls saying as they come out?
Wegener: Each one of them had been molested in some way.
It was more horrible than anyone wanted to imagine. Not only were the girls being held hostage by this gun-wielding man, they were being sexually violated.
Vieira: As each girl comes out, she’s obviously shaken. Relieved, but probably very shaken that she’s been assaulted. At that point are they making it clear to you that they think this guy could do something really frightening?
Wegener: No, not yet. And even though I’m getting the reports of the molesting, I’m still hopeful.
Vieira: That it could end without any gunfire?
Vieira: As one child was released after another, you were aware that that was happening?
John Michael Keyes: My firemen friends would come out and say “two girls are now out.”
Vieira: So that must have given you a certain amount of hope, that okay, one by one, they’re being released.
John Michael Keyes: Yeah.
For a time, it had seemed encouraging. As each half hour ticked by, another free hostage, but the information from inside soon became foreboding. Emily and two other girls were still being held. The gunman had yet to make a single demand—and there was the bomb: police had no idea when, or how, he planned to use it.
Vieira: And the negotiation—
Ellen Keyes: They didn’t know what they were negotiating. There was nothing.
Vieira: No demands —
Ellen Keyes: No.
Vieira: Are you panicking at all at this point?
John Michael Keyes: I’m not panicking. I’m starting to say, she is in that room. They’ve let girls out at this point, and Emily hasn’t come out yet.
Then, at 3:20 p.m., just after releasing his fifth hostage, the gunman told police something “big” would happen at 4 o’ clock.
Wegener: He just says "It’ll be over at four. Something will happen at four." And he won’t talk to the negotiators anymore.
The gunman became ominously silent. And there were still two terrified girls inside room 206: one of them was Emily Keyes.
Ellen Keyes: In my heart, I knew she was gonna come out because I didn’t see any other end possible.
Emily’s parents tried to focus on the brave act of a 16-year-old who could have answered that text message “are you ok?” in so many frightened ways, but instead, simply said “I love you guys.” Her dad was now overwhelmed by the need to be closer to his daughter.
John Michael Keyes: I tried everything with the folks at the road block to say "Let me in. I need to be closer.”
Vieira: Did you say, “my daughter is in there”?
John Michael Keyes: Yeah, and there was some humor, because it still can’t turn out bad. There’s no way. And the parents rallied. They said “we’ve got to get him closer” and the fire guy pulled me closer to the school. There was cheering on the highway from the parents.
Vieira: What provoked cheering?
John Michael Keyes: The fact that they were letting me in.
But sadly, those cheers of support from the other parents would soon dissolve into screams and tears. At 3:30 p.m., a SWAT team suddenly stormed the school.
John Michael Keyes: I heard an explosion. I heard gunfire. And I think I sat down at that point and I said, “What the hell is going on?”
John Michael Keyes, Emily's father: They brought Emily out in front of me: 30 yards away maybe.
Minutes after a SWAT team forced its way into the classroom where a gunman was holding Emily Keyes hostage, her dad finally set eyes on his daughter—but it was hardly the joyful reunion he’d imagined. Emily was on a gurney: he couldn’t even see her face.
John Michael Keyes: I said, ‘Is there anything that would provide her comfort right now?’ And he said ‘no.’ And I knew at that point.
Before Emily’s dad could even grasp what was happening, his daughter was whisked away on a “flight for life” helicopter.
John Michael Keyes: They got her on the helicopter. Somebody put me in a sheriff’s car.
The car stopped to pick up Emily’s mom. It was the first time her parents had seen each other since all the horror began to unfold.
But now, there was nothing to say. It was a profoundly sad, and silent, ride.
Ellen Keyes: We maybe said five words to each other on the way down. Because you hope that this is the miracle.
John Michael Keyes: It was a very quiet ride. Tears.
At the same time, the helicopter carrying their daughter landed on the roof of this hospital and doctors rushed to her side.
Meredith Vieira, NBC News: And when you got to the hospital, the doctors were waiting?
Ellen Keyes: We were put into a comfortable room. And they sent a surgeon in.
John Michael Keyes: And a chaplain.
Ellen Keyes: And honestly, it wasn’t that tearful. I was so numb. That all the tears come later.
Emily Keyes, who’d celebrated her 16th birthday only two weeks earlier, was pronounced dead at 4:32 p.m. on September 27th. Her death was so abrupt, the only thing her adoring parents wanted was to hug her dearest friend—her twin brother Casey.
Ellen Keyes: He came to the hospital with friends later. And that’s when we were finally able to hug him. That was increasingly important --- just touching my son.
As Emily’s family grieved, Sheriff Fred Wegener agonized. He had made the fateful decision to send in the SWAT team.
Vieira: Was that the hardest decision you had to make that day?
Wegener: Hopefully it was the hardest decision I’ll ever make. I was mad.
Wegener: Mad that it came to this. Mad that he entered the school.
But anger was not what motivated Sheriff Wegener, it was 5 teenage girls describing unspeakable abuse and a gunman who not only still had two hostages, but claimed to have a bomb—and had issued an ominous warning that something would go down at 4 p.m.
Wegener: The fact that he broke off the conversation.
Wegener: Yeah. I think that did. I just felt I couldn’t wait to 1600 to see what was gonna happen.
Vieira: That has to be a very difficult decision to make, because you know he’s in the room with two students.
Wegener: Correct. And that he’s armed.
Vieira: And you’re now thinking about storming the room and anything can happen.
Wegener: The frustration level is probably at an all-time high right about now.
The SWAT team used explosives to storm the classroom from three different locations. The gunman inside room fired back and there was a barrage of bullets.
Wegener: He shot the shield as they were coming in.
Vieira: The shield that they hold in front of themselves…
It did not end the way the sheriff had hoped. Even in the hail of gunfire, one girl ran for freedom. But tragically, Emily Keyes wasn’t as lucky.
The gunman clutched Emily, using her as a human shield -- then he fired once at Emily’s head before turning the gun on himself.
The people of Bailey, Colorado immediately embraced their sheriff, flooding his office with calls of support, never once questioning his decision. But Fred Wegener has second guessed himself ever since.
Wegener: For me, it’s gonna beat me up every day, because I still have to live with Emily’s death. That’s nobody else’s responsibility. That’s mine.
Vieira: You didn’t take Emily’s life Fred.
Wegener: (emotional) No. But the decision. So the decision is mine, so I have to stay with that.
Vieira: Well, I only know that this community has embraced you.
Wegener: Oh, very much so.
Vieira: And said 'thank you' to you.
Wegener: Yeah, yeah.
Vieira: Quite the opposite of where you might be in your head.
Wegener: Yeah, it’s a great community.
If the way the community rallied on his behalf was surprising, nothing prepared the sheriff for the reaction he got when he visited Emily’s parents the day after her murder. He came to apologize.
Vieira: Emily’s dad—
Wegener: Emily’s dad. Great guy.
Vieira: He gave you a hug.
Wegener: Yeah —
Vieira: He said thank you.
Of all things, a thank you and a heartfelt, warm embrace.
Vieira: What did he say to the two of you?
John Michael Keyes: I’m sorry.
Vieira: You hugged him.
John Michael Keyes: Absolutely.
Vieira: You say absolutely, as if there could be no other response. You lost your daughter.
John Michael Keyes: I know. This community needs to heal. And I know this guy—I know Fred—don’t always agree with him as you probably visually can tell (laughter).
John Michael Keyes: It was a horrible outcome but he was there for my girl, and those other girls.
Ellen Keyes: And he’s known our family for years. Maybe if he did something different, there would have been a different result. But we can play the what if game all day. We just agree with him that he made the right decision.
It was a remarkable response from a remarkably strong family whose generosity and grace has extended all the way to the man who murdered their daughter.
Vieira: Is there anger at this man who took your daughter? At this situation?
John Michael Keyes: No.
Ellen Keyes: It’s a dead end.
Vieira: But it’s so easy to go there.
John Michael Keyes: Don’t -- it’s irrelevant. That doesn’t matter. That man did a horrible thing. Done. We don’t need to focus on the bad.
Vieira: The bad being that man?
John Michael Keyes: Yeah.
That man is Duane Morrison, a 53-year-old drifter who’d been living out of this jeep. While Emily’s parents say they don’t even want to hear his name, Sheriff Wegener is desperate to know why this man picked his town, this school.
Vieira: That’s the question you want answered, “Why”?
Wegener: That’s exactly right, yes.
Vieira: You wanna know why Duane Morrison —
Wegener: Came to that school, why he had to shoot Emily, why he had to hurt those other girls.
Vieira: So where does that leave you at the end of the day?
Wegener: Still shaking my head.
The things the sheriff does know about Duane Morrison are both mundane and bizarre.
He’d worked as a carpenter in the Denver area, and in an almost creepy twist, claimed to be a co-owner of a haunted house called “Primitive Fear.” His has a short record of minor criminal offenses, with arrests for larceny and marijuana possession.
Police found his jeep parked in the high school parking lot. Inside: camping gear, prescription pills, and a key to this 40 dollar a night motel. The morning of his rampage, he mailed a 14-page letter to his brother.
Wegener: I consider it to be a suicide note. He very much talks about the end. He also talks about how his family is not going to be proud of him.
Vieira: Do you believe that this man set out Wednesday morning, that he had it in his head, Duane Morrison, that ‘I’m gonna go into this school and I’m not gonna come out alive?”
Disturbingly, Morrison’s backpack contained no bomb—just a collection of sex toys. And he did have an affection for guns—he once called police to report 15 had been stolen from his apartment.
There were also hints of a violent temper. Two years ago, in as profanity-laced phone message, he threatened to kill salesmen at a motorcycle store because they’d sent him some promotional fliers.
Rumors that this violent man had entered Platte Canyon high school with a list of names, perhaps seeking out specific students, even Emily Keyes herself, don’t seem to be valid.
But none of it matters one bit to Emily’s family. They refuse to think about the gunman who murdered their daughter, focusing instead on a campaign they call “random acts of kindness for Emily.” It’s the idea being that people should respond to this seemingly random act of violence by performing random acts of kindness.
Vieira: How were you able to take this, so quickly and transform it into something positive?
John Michael Keyes: Maybe it’s Emily’s gift. "I love you guys." Maybe that’s it.
Vieira: That text message?
John Michael Keyes: Her message. Her heart. Always, “I love you guys.”
The response in Bailey has astounded Emily’s family. The entire town is plastered with pink ribbons and the color pink, Emily’s favorite, is everywhere.
Vieira: You can’t go anywhere in this town without seeing it. On the one hand it’s such a tribute to Emily, but it’s a reminder too.
John Michael Keyes: You know, a reminder isn’t bad.
John Michael Keyes: It’s not bad. I don’t wanna forget.
Vieira: It seems to me the first act of random kindness was Emily’s. She wanted — if anything were to ever happen to her— she had requested, from what I understand, that her organs be donated and you honored that request.
John Michael Keyes: Yeah.
Ellen Keyes: A-huh
Vieira: Was that a hard request to honor? Or did it just feel…
Ellen Keyes: No.
John Michael Keyes: Not a bit.
Vieira: Do you find yourselves talking to Emily?
Ellen Keyes: Yes.
John Michael Keyes: Oh (sighs) all the time. Sometimes I forget. I forget that it happened for just a split second and so it’s a “Gasp. Oh! Because I forgot for a split second that she was gone.”
The tears mostly come in private, at quiet times. Yet even as this remarkable family struggles to come to grips with the loss of their beloved Emily, they are continually moved by the many touching gestures of kindness their close-knit town ... indeed, the whole world, has extended.
Last month, Emily was one of 3,000 kids who attended PeaceJam, a Denver event attended by Nobel Laureates and young activists to promote peace. Desmond Tutu was in the crowd—and on Tuesday, he sent Emily’s mom this moving email.
“Your reaction to the murder of your beautiful Emily is inspiring and awesome” it reads ... “Emily is smiling at you from on high. May God wipe the tears from your eyes” ... “It is a privilege to have shared this planet with her — and you.”
John Michael Keyes: Emily was brave. She did some brave things in there.
Ellen Keyes: She’s our little hero.
John Michael Keyes: She was a force of nature. She was magic. (sigh) I miss her. God.
Yet Emily’s family will forever be comforted by those four simple, but now so poignant and meaningful words: I love you guys.
Emily’s family and friends have set up a charity in Emily’s memory. The I Love U Guys Foundation seeks to raise money “to restore and protect the joy of youth through educational programs and positive actions in collaboration with families, schools, communities, and government entities.”
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