Thursday's reopening of the suburban Denver movie where 12 people were killed and nearly 60 wounded in a July shooting spree is being praised by state and local officials, but boycotted by some victims and their families.
Nearly six months to the day after the shootings, Aurora's Century 16 has been renamed the Century Aurora, remodeled and cleansed of bloodstained aisles, seats and hallways that marked the July 20 massacre. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who will attend, tells USA TODAY that the reopening, which came after Aurora officials surveyed residents about the theater's future, is the right thing to do.
Discussions ranged from reopening to tearing it down and erecting a memorial to the victims.
"There were different opinions from a lot of parts of the community, but a majority wanted to have it reopened just as a way of moving forward," says Hickenlooper, who will speak along with Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan in a ceremony that victims' families have been told will be an evening of remembrance.
Sandy Phillips, whose 24-year-old daughter, aspiring sportscaster Jessica Ghawi, was among those killed, says she won't be attending. Phillips remains in contact with families who lost loved ones. Some were hurt by theater operator Cinemark Holdings' invitation, others were angered, she says.
"There's been no condolence letter, no reaching out, no apologies, then two days after Christmas, we get this invitation to attend a reopening of a killing field. We were shocked by the insensitivity," Phillips says. "For some people, this might bring a sense of closure. But we won't ever step in a movie theater again."
At least seven victims and victims' families have filed personal injury or wrongful death suits against Cinemark Holdings, charging that the security was lax. Police say shooting suspect James Holmes left through an emergency door during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, armed himself with guns and assault gear from his car, then re-entered the theater, firing nearly 80 rounds from an assault rifle, shotgun and semiautomatic pistol.
After an emotionally charged preliminary hearing last week, during which prosecutors presented evidence showing the bullet-ridden, blood-marred complex and photos taken by Holmes casing out the property, the 25-year-old University of Colorado doctoral program dropout faces a March 12 arraignment on more than 160 charges of murder and attempted murder.
Cinemark CEO Tim Warner and other officials did not respond to repeated telephone calls and e-mail requests for comment. The theater, enveloped by a tarp-covered, chain-link fence for several months, was opened Tuesday and Wednesday to victims and family members who sought a private viewing. Cinemark has spent more than $1 million redesigning and renovating the complex. including combining two theaters where victims were shot into a large, X-D digital viewing room. It's providing free tickets to shooting victims, first responders and medical personnel who aided victims after the shootings.
The theater is also offering free tickets to the general public this weekend. It has not disclosed what movies will be shown.
Tom Teves, whose 24-year-old son, Alex, was among those killed, refuses to attend. Teves says he isn't opposed to the reopening, but is upset at Cinemark's handling of the event and its lack of response to victims and victims' families over the past six months.
"I got an e-mail on Dec. 27 -- my birthday -- to go up and see something that's been completely sanitized,'' says Teves, who is not among the nine family members suing Cinemark. "They've had plenty of time to reach out to us. But this is the only correspondence I've had with them. I've tried to reach out to them, but they've shown no interest in speaking to any of us -- no real compassion for the families who lost someone. They've been very, very insensitive."
Hickenlooper says it's understandable that families remain angry. "I completely understand where they are coming from,'' he says. Hickenlooper says he plans to be "more consoler than figurehead" tonight.
"It's not to be the speaker as much as to be the backstop, the person who can listen and really try to hear people with such deep emotions on all sides of this," Hickenlooper says. "It won't be an easy night."
Mayor Hogan, who asked Plano, Texas-based Cinemark in September to reopen the theater, declined several interview requests.
"My message will be one of thanks to those who helped in any way that terrible night, continued healing to our community, hope for all for the future, and strength and determination for now. It will be brief. Those attending are not doing so to listen to long speeches,'' he said in an e-mailed statement.
Yousef Gharbi, who was wounded in the right temple and spent several weeks hospitalized, attended Holmes' preliminary hearing, but won't be at tonight's theater event.
"If they want to reopen, there is still money to be made,'' says Gharbi, a 17-year-old high school senior. "If I had the time, I might go, but there will be lots of press and drama. And I've got homework to do."
Mental health professionals have treated traumatized patients suffering from anxiety, mood disorders, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and other behavioral issues, says Aurora Mental Health Center psychologist Mara Kailin.
Kailin says she is attending the reopening to support victims, families, first responders and others impacted by the shootings.
"For some, this can be really healing. They need to revisit the site and confront their fears, to show themselves they can move forward beyond this,'' Kailin says. "But some people don't want anything to do with this theater and may never go to a movie again."