National News from ABC

Parkland families give emotional statements at penalty phase of gunman’s trial

Amy Beth Bennett-Pool/Getty Images

(PARKLAND, Fla.) — Families of the Parkland mass shooting victims are addressing the jury during the penalty phase of confessed shooter Nikolas Cruz’s trial.

The penalty phase of the trial is to determine if Cruz will be sentenced to death for gunning down 14 students and three staff members at his former South Florida school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, on Feb. 14, 2018.

Helena Ramsay

Helena Ramsay, 17, was born in Portsmouth, a port city on the southern tip of England, and lived there for the first year of her life before moving to Florida, her mother, Anne Ramsay, said in court on Thursday.

“She grew into a beautiful, tall, graceful young woman who played the clarinet, was a strong, competent swimmer, a fast sprinter,” Anne Ramsay said.

Helena’s interests went far beyond competitive sport, though. She loved arts and crafts, dancing, music and watching Alex Trebek host “Jeopardy!,” her mother said. She was also interested in environmental and humanitarian issues, participating in her school’s Model U.N. club and, after learning about the decline of bee populations, drafted a list of bee-friendly plants to grow in the Coral Springs community garden.

In March 2016, just 11 months before she died, Helena attended a concert in Orlando to benefit the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, Anne Ramsay said.

“As Helena’s mother, I was most impressed by Helena’s wisdom and strength of character as a young girl,” she said.

Although Helena had lived in the same neighborhood in Coral Springs for nearly all her life, she considered returning to England for college, her mother said.

She was murdered on her father’s birthday.

“That day will never be a celebration and can never be the same for him,” Anne Ramsay said. “And now is filled with pain, as is every day we both miss our brave, beautiful and one-of-a kind, selfless daughter.

Chris Hixon

Chris Hixon, the school’s athletic director and head wrestling coach, as well as a U.S. Navy reservist who had been deployed to Iraq., died while running toward the shooter.

A father to two sons, Tommy and Corey, who has special needs and with whom Hixon shared a special bond. Hixon’s death left a hole in his family “that will never be filled,” his wife, Deborah Hixon, testified in court Thursday.

“He was not just my husband, but my life partner,” Deborah Hixon said. “He was the person I plannned my entire adult life around, all of my plans, my dreams. They were centered around the life we made together.”

The couple met in 1988, Deborah Hixon said, describing her husband as the love of her life.

“We made a beautiful family together, and I will be forever grateful to him for making my life such an adventure,” she said. “But I’m heartbroken that our journey ended too soon. We weren’t done making memories, sharing our dreams or living our life together.”

Tommy Hixon, now an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, lamented the fact that his father, who was 49 when he died, will never know the role of grandfather.

“As my wife and I begin to start our family, my children will have to grow up without ever meeting their grandpa,” Tommy Hixon said. “Instead, they will be relegated only knowing him through pictures and stories. This fact is something that has weighed heavily on my wife and I over the last four years.”

The last time Tommy Hixon saw his father wearing his military uniform alive was in 2014, during his commissioning into the Marine Corps, he said. The next time he saw his father wearing that uniform was the day he was buried, he said.

“The burden, honor of prepping his uniform for his funeral felt to me taking hours to get ready, as it was never good enough for me,” Tommy Hixon said. “The crease is not sharp enough, the awards not placed perfectly enough. The neckerchief not ever square enough, and the shoes not shined up. A part of me knew that this was my way of saying goodbye, and I wasn’t ready to do that.”

His death also affected the entire community, as he was also a mentor to many of his peers and students and a coach across several schools in Broward County, his wife said.

Peter Wang

Peter Wang, an Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet with “a lifetime goal to attend” the U.S. Military Academy known as West Point, was wearing his JROTC uniform when he was killed.

The 15-year-old was trying to help his fellow classmates by holding a door open for them to escape when he was struck, his friends said.

Gabriel Ammirata, a friend of Peter’s and his family since middle school, spoke in court Thursday about the “impact of friends.”

“Friendship is the crux of my testimony today,” Ammirata said.

Ammirata remembered Peter as someone who “always” had his back, who was always the “first person to stand up for us.” Peter was known to include his younger siblings and cousins in the fun when he hosted friends at his home. One day when Ammirata forgot his lunch, Peter “couldn’t wait to run to the vending machine to get me a snack and drink.”

“It wasn’t something that was extraordinary. It was just typical Peter,” Ammirata said. “He was the most selfless friend anyone could have. He always knew how to put a smile on my face or make me laugh.”

Peter’s mother, Linda Wang, has gotten a tattoo every year on Feb. 14 to mark the loss of her oldest son — a total of four so far, she wrote in a letter shared with the court.

Linda Wang described him as “the perfect son” who was goofy, respectful, outgoing and possessed the quality of giving.

“That leaves marks in people’s hearts,” Linda Wang wrote.

Alex Schachter

Alex Schachter, 14, was a talented trombone player in the school marching band. He would have graduated high school in 2021.

He was just 4 years old when his mother died, his father, Max Schachter, said during his eulogy in 2018. After Max Schachter remarried, he moved the family to Parkland because “it was an idyllic little community,” he said.

On Wednesday, Max Schachter reminded the world of his son during a victim impact speech in court.

In addition to his music skills, Alex Schachter played guard on a recreational basketball team and was a fan of the New England Patriots and Boston Celtics, his father said. His preferences for snacks included chocolate chip cookies and smoothies. He loved to play video games, “especially late at night with his friends.” He was a “jokester, a nephew, a cousin, a grandson, a brother” and is now “forever a 14-year-old little boy,” Max Schachter said.

He then detailed the devastation his family has experienced ever since his son was killed. Never will he have conversations with Alex about how much fun college is, or his career, or his love life, he said.

“Our family is broken. There is this constant emptiness,” he said. “I feel I can’t truly be happy. If I smile, I know that behind that smile is the sharp realization that part of me will always be sad and miserable, because Alex isn’t here.”

Martin Duque Anguiano

Martin Duque Anguiano, 14, was born in a small town in Mexico and dreamed of becoming a U.S. Navy seal, his family said through a statement read in court Tuesday.

“He would always tell his parents that when he grew up, he would buy them a house,” his family said.

The teen was a “Star Wars” lover and an “old soul,” who “always tried to see the best in people,” his family said.

“We miss him very much and it’s been so hard to live without him,” the family said. “But I know he would want me to push and keep going.”

Aaron Feis

A statement was read in court Tuesday on behalf of Melissa Feis, the wife of slain football coach Aaron Feis.

She wrote, “I was 16 years old when I met Aaron during a church service. Even at a young age, Aaron never wavered in his faith.”

“Aaron loved sports and was an example of hard work and determination,” and he was a mentor to boys in need, Melissa Feis said.

“He loved to cook and feed others,” she wrote. “There were many joyful holidays and celebrations because Aaron made sure everyone felt welcome.”

Their daughter, Ariel, was 8 years old when Aaron Feis was killed.

“Aaron was the doting father every little girl wishes and dreams about. I can see his light in Ariel and recognize his spirit woven into her fabric,” Melissa Feis said. “Navigating as a widow with a young — but not so young — daughter can be overwhelming and challenging.”

“It causes me great emotional pain that there are so many milestones in our daughter’s life that Aaron has missed in the last four years. I have to refrain from letting my heart think about what he will continue to miss out on in Ariel’s life. There are the special outings and moments that Aaron and Ariel shared together, like their daddy-daughter diner dates, that will never be again,” she said. “Ariel will be 13 in June. She misses her father terribly. Sometimes she is searching for answers to questions. It is these moments she will ask, ‘What would Daddy say? What advice do you think he would give me?’ It is these days I feel his absence more.”

Meadow Pollack

Shara Kaplan, mother of 18-year-old victim Meadow Pollack, said through tears Tuesday, “The relationship I have with my daughter is one of admiration, overwhelming love and great respect.”

Kaplan described Pollack as empathetic, inclusive and strong.

“She was an old soul with an understanding of the world far beyond her years,” Kaplan said.

The 18-year-old left behind two older brothers who always wanted to protect her, she said.

“To try to articulate how it has affected me would be for me to rip my heart out and present it to you shattered in a million pieces,” she said.

“It has destroyed my life and my capability of ever living a productive existence. I am only able to carry on for the deep love I have for my” two sons, she said.

“I suppress my reality to survive,” she said.

Jaime Guttenberg

Jaime Guttenberg, 14, was a competitive dancer who still fit in time to volunteer helping dance students with special needs, her mother, Jennifer Guttenberg, said in court Tuesday.

“She was full of life” but “had a quiet, insightful side, too,” she said. “She was tiny but fierce and stood up against bullies.”

“She was smart and focused” and “wise beyond her years,” she said.

“Every day I live with the fact that Jaime’s life was cut too short and that she was unable to show the world her fullest potential,” Jennifer Guttenberg said.

“I lost my purpose in life that day,” she said.

“My life feels so empty, lonely and incomplete. There are days that the sadness is so overwhelming and the crying comes from deep within the gut and causes physical pain,” she said. “I can’t sleep well. My career has suffered, as working with other people’s children, especially at their school, is now so emotionally taxing.”

Jaime’s father, Fred Guttenberg, said Feb. 14, 2018, began as a “perfectly normal morning with kids running late and we were rushing them out the door.”

“I was so eager to get them out the door that my last words were: ‘You gotta go, you’re gonna be late.’ My last words were not: ‘I love you,'” he said in court Tuesday. “I never knew that I would lose the chance to say it over and over and over again.”

Fred Guttenberg, who has become an activist for gun reform in the wake of his daughter’s murder, then shared a story he said he had never discussed publicly.

Through tears, he said, “My son [Jesse, 17, who survived the shooting,] wishes it was him. He struggles with the reality that he could not save his sister and he wishes it was him. He has struggles with me. I was the one who convinced him to run. I was the one who told him not to turn around.”

“My son used to be my mini-me — we used to do everything together. This changed that. Our relationship is very different now,” he said. “He’s angry at me for convincing him to run, and I’m angry at his loss of his childhood.”

“Our family is broken,” he said. “Jaime used to be the leader of the energy in our home. She was incredibly silly and she loved to talk. You were either laughing with her or yelling at her, but when around Jaime, you were always responding to her.”

Fred Guttenberg said while his path of grieving has been public, Jaime’s mother and brother have grieved privately.

“My need to pursue change because of what happened to my children has made my life harder for my wife and for my son, and for that, I am sorry,” he said. “What happened to my family now shapes every second of my life. I cannot hold a normal job. … My strength, my purpose in life, now comes from reacting to what happened to my daughter and my family.”

“Jaime will be forever 14, but it was not supposed to be that way. I couldn’t wait to teach her drive. I couldn’t wait to throw her a Sweet 16 party. I couldn’t wait to see her have her first boyfriend, and yes, I had my dad speech all worked out for whoever that boy was gonna be,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to see her graduate. I couldn’t wait to see her achieve her dream of getting into the University of Florida and rooming with her cousin and living her best life. I couldn’t wait to see her graduate and ultimately become a pediatric physical therapist, working her dream job.”

“Jaime imagined she’d be married by 25. I used to think every day about that moment and walking my daughter down the aisle. Becoming a grandparent to the two kids she already decided she was gonna have,” he said.

“What if Jaime wasn’t murdered? What would these moments end up being like?” Fred Guttenberg said. “Not a day goes by where the constant image of Jaime walking down the aisle is not still a part of my daily imagination. Along with that image of what should have been her future, our future together. I now struggle every day with the reality that I didn’t get to tell Jaime one last time that I love her.”

Carmen Schentrup

A statement was read in court Tuesday on behalf of the family of 16-year-old Carmen Schentrup.

The statement said: “Carmen was our middle child and the kind of daughter that parents wish for. The one that says she will take care of you when you’re old. The one that’s responsible and wants to help with chores.”

Carmen “devoured books, routinely reading over 100 per year” and played piano, violin, guitar and sang in the church choir, the family said.

“While many people consider Carmen mature beyond her years, she was still a kid at heart,” the family said. “We loved that she never outgrew our hugs and would hug us before she went to bed.”

“Carmen was strong. When she was 12, she had major surgery that resulted in four metal rods sticking out of her leg for months. She never once complained about it and never attempted to hide the scars,” the statement said.

Carmen was a dreamer and accomplished student, the family said. She hoped to become a medical scientist and discover a cure for diseases like ALS.

“Without Carmen, our lives are filled with anger, sorrow and tears. It is difficult to get through each day knowing Carmen is no longer here with us,” the statement said. “Sleep is a struggle, tossing and turning most nights. Some mornings it is hard to get up, hearing how quiet the house, seeing her empty chair at the table.”

“To miss her smile each day, to try to live on without her. Our days of being a happy family ended when Carmen was killed. Carmen will be forever missed.”

Luke Hoyer

To Gena Hoyer, 15-year-old Luke Hoyer was her “precious Lukey bear.”

“His presence could change a room,” Luke Hoyer’s mother said Tuesday. “I miss his physical presence so much. I miss hearing his voice say ‘Mom.'”

“The morning of Feb. 14, I woke up as usual to get him ready for school,” she said. “He yelled from upstairs, ‘Mom, thank you for my Valentine card and candy.'”

Gena Hoyer said she didn’t move that gift for over a year.

She also hasn’t changed Luke’s room since the day he was killed.

“His glasses, his phone charger are still on his nightstand. His clothes are still in the same place,” she said. “It makes me almost physically ill to change or move anything in his room.”

“Losing my son Luke has caused me so much pain — pain that I cannot even come close to describing,” Gena Hoyer said. “I will never see my sweet boy grow up. I had to walk across the stage to receive Luke’s high school diploma … there were no graduation pictures, no college acceptance letters, no prom pictures, no car trips to South Carolina for Christmas. Christmases are almost unbearable.”

Luke wore a cross every day, and Gena Hoyer requested to get it from his body so she could wear it to his funeral. She said she now wears the cross every day “and it gives me such strength.”

“I was so lucky to be his mom,” she said.

Luke’s older sister, Abby Hoyer, said, “Coming home to a shrine of my dead brother is not normal. Walking into my mother’s closet to borrow a pair of socks and seeing Luke’s ashes displayed on her shelf is not normal.”

“Watching my parents break down just from the mention of Luke’s name is not normal,” she said. “Being in this courtroom trying to explain what my life without Luke is like, is not only not normal, but it is nearly impossible.”

“Memories made with Luke have a clear end date: Feb. 14, 2018. I crave these memories, trying to etch each onto my brain, committing every detail to memory as best I can,” Abby Hoyer said. “While all at the same time, they haunt me. They keep me up at night, they stop me dead in my tracks at random times during the day, bringing me to tears. On the days I don’t think about my brother, I feel guilty. On the days I do think about him, I feel broken. There is no peace.”

Luke Hoyer leaves behind two much older siblings.

His father, Thomas Hoyer, described Luke as “our surprise baby — a wonderful, glorious surprise.”

“The numbness I felt after his death has worn off and I’m resigned to this reality. I don’t know that I will ever find real peace,” he said. “Never again will the world feel right now that we’re a family of four.”

Nicholas Dworet

Nicholas Dworet, 17, was an excellent student and captain of his high school swim team, and he dreamed of being an Olympic swimmer, said his mother Annika Dworet.

He had just received a student athletic scholarship to the University of Indianapolis before he was killed, she said in court Tuesday.

Nicholas loved music and food. While “he would eat just about anything,” his favorites were sushi, pizza and Oreos, she said.

“Nick had plans to study finance in college. Always talked about one day moving to Boston with his girlfriend, Daria,” Annika Dworet said.

The young couple had a “truly beautiful relationship,” she said. “They were always so loving and he would do anything for her.”

“We have an empty bedroom in our house. There is an empty chair at our dining table. [Nick’s brother] Alex will never have a brother to talk or hang out with. They will never again go for a drive blasting very loud music,” Annika Dworet said through tears. “We did not get to see Nick graduate from high school or college. We will not get to see him getting married. We will always hesitate before answering the question, ‘How many kids do you have?'”

“The world is missing out not having Nick in it,” she said.

Alyssa Alhadeff

Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed, said in court Tuesday, “How can I possible measure the impact felt by the loss of Alyssa? It’s as if I have all the love in the world to give and no one to give it to.”

“This kind of pain and emptiness almost certainly lasts forever,” she said. “It is the most devastating event when a parent outlives his or her own child.”

Alhadeff called her daughter her best friend and “the heartbeat of our family.”

“She loved soccer and riding the waves of Long Beach Island, New Jersey, every summer,” Alhadeff said.

“I look around our home and see photo albums that will never be filled with mementos or memories of Alyssa after the age of 14. I see framed pictures with only photos of Alyssa at the very beginning of her teenage years,” Alhadeff said. “I still cannot accept our scrapbooks will never hold pictures or memories of Alyssa’s high school or college graduations, her wedding, her babies, and on and on and on. She wasn’t given time here with us to continue to write her story. The pain does not subside and the grief does not lessen. I surely would have traded places with her that day if I could have. But the life I now lead is in honor of my Alyssa Miriam Alhadeff, our angel who will always be remembered.”

Dr. Ilan Alhadeff, Alyssa’s father, said his wife sleeps with Alyssa’s blanket and occasionally sprays her daughter’s perfume to try to smell her.

Alyssa was “taken from me,” he said, adding that a piece of his heart was “ripped out of my damn chest.”

“I get to watch my friends, my neighbors, colleagues, spend time enjoying their daughters, all the normal milestones,” he said. “I can only watch videos or go to the cemetery to see my daughter.”

“To me, it was yesterday,” Ilan Alhadeff said of his daughter’s death. “Alyssa will always be 14.”

“It took me so long to be able to feel empathy again and this prevented me from doing what I’m good at, which is caring for patients,” he said.

“I try to stay busy so I don’t break down,” he added.

Alyssa died before all four of her grandparents.

After Alyssa was killed, her paternal grandfather was “never the same” and died one year later, Ilan Alhadeff said.

“My elderly mother,” he said, “struggles to find happiness in her life.”

“Then there’s my father-in-law,” he said, who had a “very special bond” with Alyssa, “one that you love to see between grandparents and grandchildren.” He is still too upset to talk about her, Ilan Alhadeff said.

For Alyssa’s maternal grandmother, “not a day goes by that she doesn’t get emotional,” he said, and she dedicates herself to decorating Alyssa’s gravesite.

If Alyssa was alive, she would be in her second year of college, her father said.

“Soon she’d go on to be a professional soccer player. She’d get her law degree and maybe become one of the most successful business negotiation lawyers the world would see,” he said.

“She was supposed to get married,” he said through tears, “and I was gonna have my father-daughter dance. She would’ve had a beautiful family … all those plans came to an end with Alyssa’s murder.”

Scott Beigel

Stoneman Douglas geography teacher and cross-country coach Scott Beigel, who was killed in the shooting, spoke with his mother Linda Beigel Schulman most days, she said in court.

“Scott and I had an amazing mother-son bond that cannot really be put into words,” she said Monday. “We had an unspoken understanding that we could vent to each other, not be judgmental, give advice only if asked, and never ever get it thrown back in our face.”

Scott Beigel, a New York native, spent every Sunday with his grandmother, who lived nearby in Florida.

“The two of them had a very special bond,” Schulman said. “Scott was the safety net she always counted on.”

She described her son as humble, witty and great with children.

Scott Beigel spent his childhood going to sleepaway camp and loved it so much, he ended up running the boys’ camp when he was in his 30s, she said.

As a cross-country coach, it didn’t matter if a student was the fastest runner or the slowest, he treated everyone equally, she said.

“Scott’s cross-country team loved him as he loved each and every one of them. To this day I still hear from many of them,” Schulman said.

As for her grief, Schulman said, “I am still trying to learn to live with this every day, and it’s not getting any easier.”

Scott Beigel’s father, Michael Schulman, said he adopted Scott and his sister when they were in their 20s, explaining, “I wanted to be their dad and not their stepdad.”

Michael Schulman recalled helping his son set up his first apartment when he moved to Florida.

“We painted, hung pictures, installed ceiling and wall fixtures and built furniture. It was one of the most fondest memories I have of Scott and I, working together, father and son, getting him set up for his new life in Florida,” he said.

“On Feb. 14, 2018, my entire life was put into a blender. My life was turned upside down and inside out. Each day, some thought or memory of Scott comes to mind. I try desperately to hold onto those memories because it’s all I have left,” he said.

“I will never go to another ball game with Scott, I will never help him set up another home,” he said. “I miss you, son. I will miss you forever.”

Alaina Petty

Kelly Petty, whose youngest child, Alaina Petty, was killed at age 14, said Alaina was a “momma’s girl” who loved church and the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.

“On Feb. 14, 2018, my heart stopped beating,” Kelly Petty said Monday.

“I am heartbroken that I won’t be able to watch her become the amazing young woman she was turning into,” she said through tears.

Alaina’s older sister by five years, Meghan Petty, described Alaina as smart, confident and someone who “shined with integrity.”

“I try my hardest, but her loss makes me feel empty and like truly loving anyone ever again is impossible,” Meghan Petty said.

“She never got a chance to even truly live. She never got her braces off. She never had her first kiss. It causes me pain to know she never went on a first date … never got to fall in love, never got to experience heartbreak and come out stronger and wiser. … She’ll never go get her driver’s license, she’ll never feel the satisfaction of getting her first paycheck. She didn’t get to pick what college she wanted to attend or feel the anticipation of waiting for that acceptance or rejection letter,” Meghan Petty said. “She’ll never be able to get married or have kids of her own — and she probably hadn’t even begun to think about those things because she was supposed to have a lifetime to figure that out.”

“No amount of strength can prepare you for hours of waiting and worrying only to see your parents come home with one of your siblings but not another one,” she continued. “The initial pain of finding out she was dead has been nothing compared to the pain of living without her. I keep waiting for her to walk through the door.”

Meghan Petty said Alaina’s death “looms” in the back of her mind at all times.

“Her absence screams at me, even when I’m focused on other things,” she said.

“I try to just shut it out,” she said, because she “cannot emotionally comprehend” that her sister is gone.

Joaquin Oliver

Patricia Oliver, whose 17-year-old son Joaquin Oliver was killed, called her son “the missing link of our family.”

“During the whole pregnancy we enjoyed every moment of it, including the doctors’ visits,” she said in court Monday. “Aug. 4, the best day of our family’s life, our beautiful, dear little boy, big eyes, has arrived. Joaquin.”

“We miss him more than words can say,” she said.

“I must let the listeners feel how painful it is to live with this deep hole in my heart,” she continued.

Joaquin was a planner, his mother said, planning everything from his high school graduation outfit to his college plans. He should have graduated college this year with a degree in business, Patricia Oliver said.

“I keep talking to him in my mind. I have to imagine the moments we were supposed to live and share with him,” she said.

“All the future ahead of him was taken from us. Getting his first professional job. Moving on his own. Cooking, doing laundry, everything he was supposed to learn from me,” she said.

Joaquin Oliver’s partner, Victoria Gonzalez, also gave a statement, explaining, “I was not labeled the girlfriend until the day he died … The label that we gave each other was always soulmate — that was my partner.”

Overcome with emotion, she said out loud, “I’m gonna do it,” as she began to read her statement.

“Joaquin loved to make people smile. He loved to dance down the hallways at school … He loved to sit in my passenger seat and sing his heart out,” Gonzalez said.

“He worked so hard in class — all he wanted was to graduate and make his family proud. He wanted to travel and run away with me to Paris,” she said.

On Valentine’s Day 2018 — the day Joaquin was killed — they had a movie date planned.

“I remember wondering if, amongst the chaos later that day, we would still have a quiet night together at the theater. I lost myself that day,” she said, crying. “I lost my soulmate in the flesh.”

“I lost the friend who understood me most. I lost the excitement to watch him grow up,” she said. “I lost innocence, I lost purity. I lost the love letters he was writing for me in that fourth-period creative writing class — I never actually received them. They were pinned to his shirt. I miss my best friend and the way he made me feel at home.”

Patricia Oliver wept as Gonzalez spoke.

Cruz pleaded guilty in October 2021 to 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder. Cruz said in court last year he believes the victims’ families should be the ones to decide whether he gets the death penalty.

The jury’s decision must be unanimous for the death penalty.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Now Playing On X101

Download The X101 App