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Virginia Beach Is Still Healing from Its 2019 Mass Shooting

On May 31, 2019, a city engineer shot and killed 12 people and injured five others before being fatally shot by the police. Five years later, the community is still healing and implementing new systems to prevent violence.

A memorial to honor the victims killed during a mass shooting
A memorial to honor the victims killed during a mass shooting that took place Friday, May 31, 2019 at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center continues to grow Monday afternoon, June 3, 2019.
(L. Todd Spencer / The Virginian-Pilot)
Survivors and family members of the victims who died in a mass shooting at the Virginia Beach, Va., Municipal Center five years ago are still trying to heal. They’ve found some solace in connecting with others who have had a similar experience. And they’re hopeful financial support for their ongoing mental health care will soon come from a new state fund.

But the pain of that horrid day has stayed with them. Many sons, daughters, siblings, spouses of the victims suffer from endless grief, confusion and isolation.

They long for closure that may never come, but have not entirely given up hope.

“Don’t think if a person wasn’t physically affected, wasn’t physically there, that they don’t carry some scars from it,” said Dwight Brown in a video produced by VTVCare, a nonprofit organization founded by families affected by the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting.

Brown’s sister, LaQuita Brown, died in the May 31, 2019, shooting inside Building 2 at the municipal center. A city engineer shot and killed 12 people and injured five others that afternoon before he was fatally shot by police.

Brown and several other family members of the deceased and a survivor have shared their grievances in a series of video testimonials. Sarah Gayle Leonard, who’s mother, Mary Lou Gayle, was shot and killed that day, speaks in one of the videos. She has started to “embrace the journey” by advocating for the recovery of people like her who are affected by a mass shooting. Leonard’s mother worked for the city for 24 years.

“Definitely being able to put our hearts together, to tell our stories together, it’s helpful to be able to connect with victims of tragedy across the country,” Leonard said.

She’s also been an integral part of 5/31 Families United, a group of relatives of the victims who last year held a separate candlelight vigil and moment of silence from the city-organized service.

Many of the family members have unresolved frustration with how Virginia Beach government handled the shooting’s aftermath. Leonard wants the city to be more proactive, to meet with the families to hear their concerns. She also wants financial support for her growing mental health expenses.

Establishing a Care Fund

VTVCare, a program of the nonprofit VTV Family Outreach Foundation, worked with the 5/31 families to push for a permanent $10 million endowment fund in Virginia that will reimburse mass-shooting survivors and families of the slain for certain expenses not covered by their insurance and other funds.

The Virginia Mass Violence Care Fund will invest the money to yield an expected $400,000 per year for victims. A work group will determine investment details and eligibility requirements by Sept. 1. The General Assembly likely will take up a bill in the 2025 session to launch the fund. Money could be available for victims in 2026.

The first eligible recipients will be the survivors and families of mass shootings at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center in 2019, and the University of Virginia and the Chesapeake Walmart in 2022, according to Joseph Samaha, a member of the work group. In Virginia Beach, city officials said 507 people filed workers’ compensation claims related to the shooting.

Other states also are working to create such funds as part of their emergency response plans for the long-term care needs of people impacted by mass violence.

Samaha, whose daughter Reema was killed in 2007 at Virginia Tech, also helps lead VTVCare, which launched a national campus safety initiative and created a funding model for covering victims’ expenses.

Through his work at VTVCare, he’s remained in communication with 5/31 survivors and family members who have shared their feelings of isolation.

“Many of them are on islands,” said Samaha. “We’ve been through this out of the VA Tech shooting. We understand some of the trauma they are going through, some of the advocacy they’ve been seeking to get more help out of the city.”

Samaha recently reached out to Virginia Beach City Council members about opening up the dialogue.

“I have proposed baby steps. … to embrace those families and survivors five years later because many of them have not gotten better,” he said.

Victims of tragedy need “truth, accountability and apology,” Samaha said. “You apologize because you sincerely care for the community or the person where it happened.”

Family members have said they feel promises made by the city to ensure their needs would be met have been broken. They want city leaders to publicly address security shortfalls cited in the mass shooting investigations and share corrective measures being taken.

Accountability gives survivors purpose, said Samaha. It reassures them that their loved ones didn’t die in vain.

Changes Implemented by the City

In the years since the mass shooting, an independent investigation and a state commission report recommended steps the city and state can take to improve workplace security, safety and communication to prevent violence.

Some have been implemented, according to the city.

At the time of the 5/31 shooting, Virginia Beach didn’t have a centralized system for tracking employee complaints. In January 2021, the R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (Report Employee Situations Promptly to Enable Change Together) online reporting system was established to track incidents of potential workplace violence and complaint investigations. One of the shooter’s coworkers had expressed concerns about him and another employee to her spouse the night before the shooting.

The city’s Emergency Management department has created a security division which implemented a mobile alert app called the Rave Panic Button. It’s an emergency notification tool that allows employees to privately communicate with one another if an emergency occurs in their work area and places a 911 call.

An effort to educate new city employees about the 5/31 shooting and ways they can be supportive colleagues is now part of the onboarding process.

Staff from public utilities, planning, public works and information technology departments who were relocated after the shooting are in the process of moving back to the municipal campus. An city transition team has been created to ease the move, according to a city spokesperson.

Building 2 was gutted and renovated into the Virginia Beach Police Department’s new First Police Precinct. The new facility opened in 2023 with a new Real Time Crime Center to monitor public safety information and incidents at the municipal campus and throughout the city. A memorial plaque was installed in the entrance.

The VB Strong Center, which has offered programming and services for those affected by the tragedy, has been open for five years. However, some family members, including Leonard, are disappointed with what they describe as the lack of support from the center. It will close in September with mental health services transitioning back to the city through a dedicated in-house mental health professional, according to the city.

5/31 Memorial Progress

A 5/31 memorial committee selected a memorial site at the corner of Nimmo Parkway and Princess Anne Road. The city has approved funding — $1.2 million for design and $8.5 million for construction. But a construction request for proposal this month didn’t receive any responses and will be reissued next month, according to the city.

Throughout May, Virginia Beach has offered ways to remember victims and honor the first responders. Among them, remembrance flags featuring the Love For VB forget-me-not flower are being flown at more than 40 locations.

A memorial ceremony marking the anniversary of the shootings will be held at 4 p.m. Friday at the site of the future memorial. The event will include a moment of silence, reading of names and dedication of the site. Attendees will be able to share memories and sentiments on biodegradable paper to be buried at the memorial. It will be livestreamed on and the city’s Facebook page.

©2024 The Virginian-Pilot. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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