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Theater shooting survivor continues to heal, look forward

Published: Friday, July 19, 2013 5:36 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, July 20, 2013 12:25 p.m. CDT

A year ago today, Julia Vojtsek was inside an Aurora, Colo., movie theater with her boyfriend, John Larimer, for a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

They were sitting in the middle section, in row four or five.

At 12:37 a.m., with Anne Hathaway on the screen, tear gas filled the theater, and two shots were fired into the air before gunfire was directed at the moviegoers.

“John grabbed my head, pushed me to the floor ... protecting me,” Vojtsek said. “Sometime in that process, he was shot.”

The shooting killed Larimer, a Crystal Lake native, and 11 others. Seventy people were wounded. James Holmes is facing 24 counts of murder and 140 counts of attempted murder, among other charges, in the shooting.

Vojtsek escaped the theater physically unharmed, but in the past year, the Jacobs High School graduate has been working through the emotional scars left behind.

Vojtsek, who was visiting her father and Larimer at the time of the shooting, has been going through individual and group therapy to work through her grief and post-traumatic stress.

• • •

During the shooting, Vojtsek and Larimer were sitting in the middle section of the theater, in what investigators have called the kill zone.

Tear gas investigators say Holmes set off before opening fire stopped the battery on Vojtsek’s watch at 12:37 a.m.

Larimer, a Navy petty officer 3rd class, was part of the U.S. Fleet Cyber Command/U.S. 10th Fleet stationed at Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado. He worked as a cryptologic technician and was the fourth generation of his family to serve in the Navy.

Larimer’s fellow military personnel helped Vojtsek out of the theater and tried to get Larimer out as well.

As they awaited word on his condition, all held out hope that maybe he was in a hospital in surgery. Vojtsek eventually received word from Larimer’s family that he didn’t make it.

• • •

In the month after the shooting, Vojtsek said she was kind of in a robotic state of shock. Major depression hit in the second month.

Vojtsek started seeing a therapist in Peoria, where she lived at the time, who started working with her on being able to leave her apartment.

“I was so depressed, in such grief, nothing mattered to me,” Vojtsek said. Post-traumatic stress has been an issue. She has difficulty driving. If a candle is blown out, she thinks of tear gas. She has a hard time hearing sirens or fire alarms. A pop can hitting the floor sounds like a tear gas canister falling to the ground.

The 24-year-old Algonquin native dealt with night terrors for three months. Her mother, Kelley, would tell her she was screaming in her sleep for Larimer.

Vojtsek received $5,000 from the Colorado Victim Compensation Fund, which helped pay for therapy.

“I feel very blessed and grateful for what we have gotten from them,” Vojtsek said.

Along with her group therapy, Vojtsek is going through Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy to help her through the PTSD and process the trauma.

“It’s gotten better over time,” Vojtsek said.

Vojtsek eventually began having migraines and nausea. She couldn’t tell whether the additional issues were because of the emotional stress of the shooting.

An unrelated tumor was discovered in the back of her head; doctors have determined it is benign, she said.

• • •

She has since moved to Centennial, Colo., to be close to her parents. Her father, Fred Vojtsek, works as the executive director of the Eastern Hills Community Church in Aurora, Colo. Kelley Vojtsek left her job at Pioneer Center for Human Services to take care of her daughter.

Julia Vojtsek and Larimer had dated off and on for years. They became a couple again two months before the shooting. They first met when both worked as servers at the Chili’s in Algonquin before Vojtsek went to college.

She remembers his humor and kindness.

“John was very protective over me,” Vojtsek said. “He took care of me ... and made me feel very special. That’s what I remember most about him.”

• • •

Since the shooting, she has been following the criminal case closely and attends some hearings. In June, Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity; Vojtsek said she doesn’t believe Holmes was insane, and views the insanity defense as a stalling tactic.

“That’s his last card he could possibly play,” Vojtsek said. “If he was insane, which I strongly believe he was not ... I don’t think it would make a difference in his fate [being in a] mental hospital or prison.”

Vojtsek said she goes back and forth on what type of punishment, whether it be the death penalty or life in prison without parole, Holmes should receive if convicted.

“Either way, it’s not going to change anything for my life,” she said. “John’s gone. I’m changed irreversibly; my parents are changed irreversibly. It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day what happens to James Holmes.”

• • •

The last year has been difficult, as another close friend has died and other friends have been hurt.

She said a lot of people are struggling, and the theater shooting will affect those involved for the rest of their lives.

But she does want to look to the future and find something she is passionate about. The Bradley University graduate is thinking about going back to school and studying biology.

“I want to go back to school,” Vojtsek said. “It’s about getting normalcy back in my life. I’m working on getting my faith back, and getting more friendships. It’s been hard to form any emotional connection with anybody since the shooting. ... What’s next for me is continued therapy, [continuing] to heal.”

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