EVERGREEN, Colo. (AP) – Every year on his daughter’s birthday, Ian Sullivan visits the grave of the child he lost when a gunman slipped into a Colorado movie theater and fatally shot the 6-year-old as she sat with her mother in the fourth row.
And every year, he finds a birthday card on the headstone from the man who was with Veronica when Sullivan couldn’t be: the police officer who carried the dying girl out of the theater in his arms.
Since the 2012 attack, survivors and their loved ones have each sought comfort in their own ways. One wounded couple got married. A father whose son was killed became a gun-control advocate. Others turned to faith.
The 28-year-old Sullivan withdrew, cutting ties to many of those who had been closest to him and retreating to a home in the mountains. But he found a lifeline in the police officer he only knows by his first name, Mike.
The officer still checks in on Sullivan with texts on the days that are the hardest – holidays and the birthday, Sullivan said.
“It’s not so much all he was able to tell me, but more so the understanding that I was not alone,” he said.
The officer is Mike Hawkins, who declined to comment to The Associated Press, citing a judge’s gag order barring attorneys, authorities or witnesses from talking to the news media about the case.
The young girl he scooped up that night was born when Sullivan was 19. At the time, he and the girl’s mother, Ashley Moser, weren’t necessarily ready for parenthood, he said.
But he was proud when he saw his newborn daughter. “It dramatically changed my life to have her,” he said.
The couple divorced when Veronica was 3, but he still saw her regularly. He reveled in their time outdoors. A high point came in May 2012, when she caught her first fish, a trout, and gutted it herself.
On a recent afternoon at his home, Sullivan flipped through photos of her: Veronica on a sandy beach. In a race car. On the first day of kindergarten. She flashes a toothless grin beneath her sandy blonde hair and Hello Kitty earrings.
He pushed a button on a photo frame she gave him a month before her death, and her voice filled the room.
“I love you, Daddy,” she cooed, stumbling over a Father’s Day greeting.
To keep Veronica’s memory alive, he tries to do the things he used to do with her – hiking, skiing, working on cars. She used to hand him wrenches while he was under the chassis, he said.
He tries to stay busy to keep his mind from wandering into darker thoughts. It doesn’t always work.
“I wasn’t there to protect her,” he said.
Sullivan’s father, Robert Sullivan, said he encourages his son to talk and tries to listen.
“What I notice is a very strong underlying anger and anguish that is going to be very difficult to overcome,” he said. “It’s going to forever alter him.”
Attorneys for the gunman, James Holmes, acknowledge that he killed 12 people and injured 70 others. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Jury selection in his murder trial began Tuesday and is expected to continue for months.
Just after midnight on July 20, 2012, Sullivan fell asleep at his Denver studio apartment, exhausted after returning from one of the long-haul routes he drove as a trucker. Two hours later, he was awakened by his phone.
A relative of his ex-wife told him there had been a shooting at the theater. Veronica was dying.
He arrived too late to say goodbye to his daughter. Her mother was paralyzed in the attack.
Days later, he asked a victim’s advocate to introduce him to the police officer who carried Veronica from the theater. They met at a police station in Aurora, not far from the theater.
The officer told Sullivan that he, too, was a father. Sullivan said the officer told him that he thought he felt Veronica’s heartbeat as he carried her. Sullivan realizes the officer probably felt his own pulse racing.
“The most comforting thing for me was knowing he was a father himself. To know that he picked her up the same way he picks up his own kids and he carried her the same way he carries his own kids,” Sullivan said.
He told the officer the hardest part was feeling powerless and unable to protect his daughter.
“I know it took a lot out of him as well,” he said. “I could see how much damage it had done to him.”
Getting the sporadic text messages and seeing the birthday cards reminds him that someone else out there is thinking about his pain.
“It helps,” Sullivan said, “to understand there’s still someone there who actually cares.”
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