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Neil Heslin, Father of Newtown Victim: “Something Has to Change”

Neil Heslin was the father of 6-year-old Jesse Lewis, who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In January, Heslin gave emotional testimony urging the Gun Violence Prevention Working Group in Hartford to strengthen state gun laws, and was heckled by pro-gun activists. In this interview conducted on Feb. 4, 2013, he reflects on his last moments with Jesse, his positions on gun control and why he believes society has to change in order to prevent future tragedies. “People don’t want change,” he told FRONTLINE. “But it’s clear something has to change, however that change comes.”

Can you take us through the morning of [Dec.] 14th for you, how that unfolded?

On the morning on the 14th, Jesse got up and got ready for school. We headed to school, stopped and had our breakfast at Misty Vale Deli on Rt. 34, so he had his usual sausage, egg and cheese on a hard roll and hot chocolate. And he had a snack for lunch, a pack of honey potato chips. We sat and had our breakfast, headed to school, got there about 10 to 9:00, up to Sandy Hook Elementary School. …

He got out the back of the truck. He gave me a big hug, just held me, embraced me and rubbing me and patting me on the back, and he said: “It’s going to be alright. Everything’s going to be OK Dad.” I didn’t think much of it.

Then we walked in the school. He holds my finger — not my hand but my finger — and walking across the parking lot he said to me, “Too bad we didn’t make the gingerbreads last night.” And that was at Stew Leonard’s [supermarket], they were having a little Christmas workshop to make gingerbread houses, and we were there. I said, “Sign up, maybe we can make them,” and they were full, we couldn’t. So that was that.

And I said, “But we’re going to do them to today.” I said, “Mom and Dad, we’re going to come back together, and we’re going to make the gingerbread houses this afternoon.” And he said to me, “We’re not making them.” And I said, “We’re going to do them this afternoon,” and he said, “Dad, we’re not making them today. We’re not going to do them.”

And I didn’t think much of that either, and I figured he had his day mixed up or something and walked him into school, and he gave me a hug and a kiss. I gave him a hug and a kiss back, “I love you Jess,” and he said, “I love you Dad,” and he started to run around the corner. And he stopped and he said, “I love Mom too.” Around the corner he went.

I saw the clock in the office. It was 9:04. And short time later, I guess it was probably around 10:00, maybe 10:15, not sure of the time, that’s when the 911 emergency calls came to the phones, and we talked back and forth between his mother [Scarlett Lewis] and I.

The first 911 call said it had been a shooting in Newtown, the schools were lockdown. And a few minutes later there was another emergency broadcasting that comes on the phones, and it said there was a shooting in one of the schools and they were in lockdown. And the third one was a shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary.

What did you think after the first calls?

I didn’t really. I wasn’t that upset or concerned with it. I thought it could’ve been in town here or could’ve been anywhere. Didn’t say it was a school. Then the second one said it was a school, and my initial thought was maybe it was a domestic dispute between somebody, a boyfriend or a husband or a wife or a suicide.

And you’re not thinking it could be at Sandy Hook at this point?

No, I didn’t think it was at that point. I had heard it was outside the school, and I heard it was in Sandy Hook School and that there was a gunman in the school, and we rushed back to the school. And then when we arrived at the school, the area of the school, was probably by 10:30, it was evident something very bad had happened, very serious.

How could you tell? What was the scene there?

Just a magnitude of what was going on. There were police cars all over, couldn’t get anywhere near the school, helicopters overhead, state police all over, law enforcement, and we had to walk up to the school, or up to the firehouse, as close as we can get.

There was a couple of ambulances leaving at the time and a law enforcement vehicle behind them as an escort.

So what are you thinking seeing all of this?

I didn’t really know what to think. I knew at that point, I had it at my head there was a gunman in the school, somebody was killed or hurt or injured. Then I got up to the firehouse, and that’s where the kids all were. His mom was there, and we were looking for Jesse, text messaging back and forth, and Jesse was nowhere to be found. Nor was Ms. Soto’s class. We’d asked a couple of the students who knew Jesse if they saw Jesse. Nobody did, but it was very well organized for what had happened.

There were a lot of people looking for children and their loved ones, couldn’t get up near the school. Like I said, a lot of law enforcement being local police, state police, SWAT teams, ambulance, fire, volunteer firemen were there. Fair to say there was hundreds if not a thousand people there.

Ever see anything like that? …

No, not in an environment like this, a school situation or a community situation.

It’s so out of character for that school, right?

It was totally out of character for the town, the community, for the school.

Tell me about that school.

That school was a great school. It was a very, very good school education-wise. The teachers and staff were all incredible there. Everybody was happy, everybody was pleasant.

“[Jesse] could cheer anybody up. If he was mad about something, it blew over real quick. But he [was] happy go lucky you know. Nothing bothered him. Nothing fazed him.”

It was like Mayberry going to that school when you walk in, very private, set back, on a private road, very secluded. It just was a really, really great school, and I was proud and glad that Jesse was in that school.

He had Ms. Vulner last year, his kindergarten teacher. She was incredible. The class, it was just great. And this year he had Ms. Soto, who I met four times. She was the sweetest girl in the world, just loved the kids. You could speak to her, you could tell how important teaching was to her and how much a part of her life it was. Just really a sweet person, and the curriculum I thought was great there.

Jesse liked it as well?

He loved it there. He loved school. He was so happy all the time to go. He loved his teacher, Ms. Soto. They told me how Jesse kept on laughing day in and day out with his jokes or comments.

Was he like that at home too?

Yeah, he could cheer anybody up. If he was mad about something, it blew over real quick. But he [was] happy go lucky you know, nothing bothered him, nothing fazed him. He was upset about something, he’d blow it off pretty quick and loved everybody.

Loved trying to help people. He’d go out of his way to help people. He’d go out of his way to help animals. He had a great relationship and a great bond with animals, horses, dogs. Even though he was very high energy and he’d wear you out quick, he had an unbelievable calmness when it came to animals.

At the firehouse, you’re looking, you’re texting back and forth. Were you panicked early on, or was it just you got a mission?

Did I ever panic during the whole ordeal? No, I didn’t. As the day went on, my gut feeling was he wasn’t coming back, but I had hope that possibly he was injured, possibly he was hurt, possibly he got out and was in the woods, injured or hiding in a cabinet. Clearly that wasn’t the case.

I think it was maybe 3:30, 4:00 Gov. [Dannel] Malloy got up and had a briefing, and as I remember, he said there were still victims in the school. And I asked him, I said, “Are any of those victims alive?” And he hesitated on answering the question. I asked the question again, and Gov. Malloy said, “No, there’s no more survivors.”

So at that point it was pretty clear that Jesse was a victim, but I still had hope that he had gotten out and was somewhere alive. I saw that the families left and went home to wait to hear that their child or their loved one was a victim. I opted to stay there. I stayed there ’til about 1:30 in the morning, ’til it was confirmed that Jesse was a victim.

His mother and I both gave descriptions of him and pictures, and I gave a description of what he had on that day. He had a striped shirt on with a Carhartt to school that day, with a hooded Carhartt. And his Merrill shoes and carpenter pants that were too short. They fit him in September, but he had gone through a growing spurt. …

Was it a police officer who [was] asking for the photos and descriptions?

It was detectives of whoever, state police or law enforcement doing the investigation, yes.

And you’re at the firehouse?

Yeah, this was during the day. They were asking for description, names of the child that were missing or the children.

Did they ever bring you to the school?

No.

And [it] also was an officer that gave you the final word?

Yes, it was a state trooper.

So what did you do at that point? Did you go home?

I actually went with the state trooper to Scarlett’s mother, where Scarlett [Lewis, Jesse's mother] was staying, to give her the notice, final confirmation. … And that day was the worst day in my life and the saddest day in my life, extending into the day that I laid him to rest four days, five days later. The happiest day and the best day of my life was the day he was born. That was June 30, 2006.

They’ve given you some indication of his final moments, and perhaps he had helped some of the other children?

Yeah, that was said. It’s very brief about what has been confirmed. A lot of that came from the other students or people I guess in the school. He did yell, “Run!” I know that for a fact. “Run now!” he said. So based on that, I hope that saved the lives of the surviving classmates, helped save his friends.

Do you feel you have a mission now? Is there something you’re hoping to do to honor Jesse to make the world better?

Can’t say I have a mission; can’t say I’m on a mission. I hope to see a change. I support changes that may help prevent something like this from ever happening again. It can’t ever happen again. It’s not just one change that has to happen or occur. There’s many changes that have to happen for a change to happen.

I support a ban on assault weapons, military-style, so-called assault weapons, high capacity magazines. I don’t feel there’s a reason to have them in society.

I support gun ownership. I support the Second Amendment, although I don’t have anything to do with weapons or guns anymore. That’s my choice.

I grew up with guns shooting, target shooting with a family that shot and hunted. In fact I started skeet shooting and target shooting when I was eight years old with my father. I was quite young, a year and a half older than Jesse was in fact.

But I was taught gun safety. It was drilled into me. I think that’s something that should be mandatory, better training. I support on a federal basis licensing and background checks which include mental health checks. I think those will have a strong impact of preventing something like this from happening.

You’re never going to get rid of all the accidental shootings or gun shootings. I feel when people say, well, you take them from the law-abiding citizens, that’s not the case. What I’m suggesting isn’t taking them from the law-abiding citizens.

All of these people that committed these crimes were law-abiding citizens until they committed these crimes. It’s not a criminal off the street. They were law-abiding citizens, and the guns were in legal possession by somebody they got them from, whether it was a family member or whatnot.

Assault weapons, there’s so many out there. They’re so popular. Is the cat out of the bag on that? … Do you favor a ban going forward? …

I think that’s a very hard thing to do, because I don’t think there’s a lot of documentation on who owns those weapons or who has them in possession.

I’m in favor of very strict regulations on ownership of them, what they have for machine guns and fully automatic weapons. Federal licensing, and just very strict control of them. My opinion is there’s too many of them out there, too easily accessible to come by. …

I can relate to a lot of people say, well, they want that firepower to protect themselves. A criminal or somebody invading their home, they’re assuming they’d have that. I can relate to that.

But it doesn’t correct the problem, doesn’t [help] the problem or what happened in Sandy Hook or at Aurora or Virginia Tech. They were all committed with high-capacity magazines, assault-type weapons. Wasn’t a 10-shot semi-automatic handgun, wasn’t a six or eight-shot deer rifle, it was high-capacity weapons.

… Would Adam Lanza, do you think, have had a 30-round magazine if they weren’t legal?

He possibly could have. I think how they have to address that is a very strict regulation and control of those high-capacity magazines, whether it be law enforcement, military people who have licensing permits to hold them.

I think anybody that’s found in possession of them illegally, there should be harsh criminal penalties. Mandatory jail time. I mean hard time, 10 years, 15 years. And I think that’s the way you’ll take the illegal weapons and guns out of the hands of people that shouldn’t have them. …

If we had the sort of restriction on AR-style and the military-style weapons that we have on machine guns, would that make schools safer? Would that make communities safe?

“I support the gun owners, pro-gun people and I support the people who are anti-gun.”

It helps make society safer with regards to mass killings, mass shootings. People can very well go in there and commit a crime, a similar crime with a different type of weapon. You wouldn’t have the magnitude of it, wouldn’t have the devastation of it. I don’t think people fully realize the damage those weapons can do and what they’ve done with Sandy Hook Elementary.

Everybody’s been real respectful of my views, and I’ve been respectful of their views in discussions I’ve had. There’s a lot of people in favor of keeping the way the laws are.

There was a fairly strong reactions to your statement up at the Capitol the other day. Did that bother you?

It didn’t really faze me what happened. And I’m not directing this statement at the people at the Capitol or the people [who support] the Second Amendment. I think a lot of it is people don’t want change, don’t feel comfortable with it. Some of it’s stubbornness, some of it’s ignorance.

But it’s clear something has to change, however that change comes. It’s Aurora and Virginia Tech, those were all terrible tragedies, but what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, these were little babies. It could’ve been a 3 year old or these 6 year olds, and you know what, it wouldn’t have been any different, the effect. They were babies.

They needed our protection. They come home at night. They can’t stay or survive on their own. They need our protection as parents. And Columbine out in Colorado, those were classmates that went in and committed that crime, but those students that were there they were young adults, they had a survival instinct.

These kids didn’t have a survival instinct. They go to school and they’re happy, even when they heard those initial gunshots. I’m sure they were clueless to what was going on. For all they knew it was fireworks. And something like that can’t happen again. …

Are you confident there will be change? … We didn’t see significant change after mass tragedies. There does seem to be a sense maybe Sandy Hook is different. Do you see it that way?

I think there’s a lot of mixed feelings all around out there. I think there’s a lot of people that are pro-gun, in favor of gun ownership, and not looking for changes and not wanting to lose any rights, that feel changes have to happen to prevent something like this again.

Do I think there will be changes? I hope there will be. I hope when changes occur [they] have a positive effect, and it’s just not another law in a book not enforced or serves no purpose. Any changes that do happen I hope they’re effective changes. … It’s not one thing that’s going to make a change. There’s several things that are going to make a change, and society has to change along with it. …

… Do you think of yourself as pro-gun, anti-gun?

I would consider myself in the middle of the road. I support the gun owners, pro-gun people, and I support the people who are anti-gun. Not to the extremes because that’s not the answer, and everybody should take a look at it from a realistic standpoint and a rational standpoint, what’s reasonable and what’s effective.

As I know the Second Amendment to read, it says “well regulated,” which clearly the guns weren’t well regulated to have violence like we have now, gun violence. The massacres we have never occurred.

We’re not a third world nation. We’re far from it, and these acts that have been carried out, these mass murders and killings and the violence that has been seen in recent years, [are] acts that would be carried out in the third world nation.

“We’re not a third world nation. We’re far from it, and these acts that have been carried out, these mass murders and killings and the violence that has been seen in recent years, [are] acts that would be carried out in the third world nation.”

Why do you think that even after incidents like these, even after Sandy Hook, there are people so strongly opposed to changing access to weapons, even these military style weapons?

I think because people, they’re afraid of change, and I think that’s stubbornness in some people. And I’m not criticizing or putting anybody down directing that statement to anybody. And I think it’s lack of knowledge too.

But if everybody out there that opposes change, whether they’re pro-gun or anti-gun, could see what happened that day in Sandy Hook firsthand, I honestly think their views would change.

I don’t think people fully realize the devastation affected and what happened that day there. They saw the news media, they heard about it on TV, saw about it on the Internet. A lot of people think, well it happened in Sandy Hook, Conn. I live in New Mexico, I live in West Virginia, that’ll never happen in my community, my town or to me.

But never did I think it would happen in Sandy Hook. Never did I think I would lose my son to something like that. Nor did I ever think it would happen at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

And I think the odds of that, the luck of that happening isn’t too good. And I think what are the chances 600 students — not wishing anything bad on anybody else — but what are the odds, what are the chances my son would be a victim, our son would be a victim? And he is a victim.

How are you taking care of yourself going forward? How are you processing this? Have you?

I’m going day by day. I wish it never happened. I miss Jesse something terrible. I wish he was here, wish he was here sitting next to me today doing this interview. But that’s not the case.

I can’t change what happened. I don’t like what happened. Maybe I can help make a change with things and make a change in society and prevent things like this from possibly ever happening again. I’m not angry about it. I think I’m more disgusted than anything.

I don’t have any anger towards the Lanza family, Mr. Lanza, Ryan Lanza. I have a lot of anger towards Adam Lanza. Probably resentment, but it’s something I have to deal with.

Tough because we may never know, and it’s incomprehensible. You made any sense of how he could do something like that?

I feel confident they’ll come up with a theory or things together why it possibly happened. I’m sure Mr. Lanza is wondering why it happened, asking himself why did his son do what he did.

A lot of people changing the subject they say more people were killed by cars or drunk drivers, more children. Maybe that’s the case, but the difference is a drunk driver, he didn’t get up in the morning and say I’m going to go kill two people. It was a poor choice in judgment on what he did that caused the accident. That’s why they call them accidents. Accidents on the highway, lives were lost, were without seatbelts, why they call them accidents.

What happened that day was no accident, and Adam Lanza got up that morning and knew he was going to kill people, that’s what he did. A lot of people blame his mother. I have no idea, there’s nothing that’s been confirmed that he had access to those guns freely.

Clearly he had access somehow, but Mrs. Lanza never, when she went to bed that night, didn’t think of ways or dream of ways she’d be part of this, or think of ways that her son killed people or killed children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary. May have been a poor judgment on her behalf of how she stored weapons or how they were kept.

… So certainly not an accident. How do you describe this?

I would describe it as a merciless, cowardice act. And he clearly was a coward. He picked women and children that couldn’t defend themselves against him, had no means, no ability to. He went into a situation, the school, and he clearly knew nobody had guns or weapons to defend themselves.

He went in there with plenty of firepower — wasn’t like he knocked at the door and was greeted openhandedly — he shot his way into the building through the glass. It was no accident. He didn’t go down that hallway or into that school, accidentally shoot the principal or the guidance counselor or Ms. Soto or the students.

Some say let’s put police officers in schools or even let’s arm school personnel. Do you have thoughts on those?

If there was a policeman there, an armed policeman, he probably would’ve been a statistic too. Short of having National Guard or a guard there with fully automatic weapons or firepower, it wouldn’t have changed anything. I don’t think teachers should be armed. They’re not trained for it. They’re trained to be teachers and teach our children.

If they were to make it mandatory all teachers had to carry weapons, I think it would open up a whole other problem. What about the high school student that got angry and lost his temper and took the gun from the smaller teacher, a woman or somebody they could overpower? I think it opens a lot more potential for something to happen. …

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