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updated: 7/24/2012 5:22 AM

Colorado shooting turns private lives into public knowledge

Girlfriend of Crystal Lake sailor returns home

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  • Debbie Vojtsek wipes away a tear while speaking to the media outside the home of her niece Julia Vojtsek in Algonquin. Julia said her boyfriend, John Larimer of Crystal Lake, saved her life by shielding her from the bullets that claimed him and 11 others in the movie theater shooting in Colorado Friday. Debbie Vojtsek talked about his bravery and how appreciative her family is for the actions that saved the life of her niece.

       Debbie Vojtsek wipes away a tear while speaking to the media outside the home of her niece Julia Vojtsek in Algonquin. Julia said her boyfriend, John Larimer of Crystal Lake, saved her life by shielding her from the bullets that claimed him and 11 others in the movie theater shooting in Colorado Friday. Debbie Vojtsek talked about his bravery and how appreciative her family is for the actions that saved the life of her niece.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • The flag was at half staff at Crystal Lake South High School Monday in honor of alumnus John Larimer, who was killed along with 11 others in the theater shooting in Colorado.

       The flag was at half staff at Crystal Lake South High School Monday in honor of alumnus John Larimer, who was killed along with 11 others in the theater shooting in Colorado.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Debbie Vojtsek speaks to the media outside the home of her niece, Julia Vojtsek, Monday in Algonquin. Julia said her boyfriend, John Larimer of Crystal Lake, saved her life by shielding her from the bullets that claimed him and 11 others in the movie theater shooting Friday in Colorado.

       Debbie Vojtsek speaks to the media outside the home of her niece, Julia Vojtsek, Monday in Algonquin. Julia said her boyfriend, John Larimer of Crystal Lake, saved her life by shielding her from the bullets that claimed him and 11 others in the movie theater shooting Friday in Colorado.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 

The attention-grabbing TV trucks sporting station logos look out of place on this otherwise quiet, curvy subdivision road that winds past the home of Julia Vojtsek of Algonquin. We newspaper reporters lurking in our cars appear less conspicuous, but we all approach the house with purposeful strides the instant an SUV pulls into the driveway and a mother and daughter emerge.

Neither woman is Julia Vojtsek, who recently flew back into town after her visit to Colorado. Julia, 23, had been watching that new Batman movie shortly after midnight on Friday when a gunman shot up the theater and killed 12 people, including her boyfriend, John Larimer, a 27-year-old sailor from Crystal Lake.

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"John saved her," Debbie Vojtsek, Julia's aunt, tells the media, as Julia's cousin Jessie, 18, who looks a lot like the Facebook photos of Julia, stands a few feet away. "He's a hero. He's serving his country, and then to do what he did. We just want to show our sincere gratitude to his family."

The aunt just drove back from Iowa where she had dropped off another daughter for college. She's tired and clearly not seeking this public attention. When a reporter asks her to repeat everything she just said, only this time in front of a TV camera, the emotions hit her. She fails in her struggle to hold back the tears as she once again expresses her gratitude to the family of Larimer.

Asked how Julia is holding up, the aunt shrugs.

"Is there a certain way to hold up?" she says.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for someone in that situation, although we've seen enough tragedy to know the options. Survivors can be overcome by the grief. They can angrily lash out. They can joyously give thanks for being spared. They can post messages on Facebook for the world to read. They can retreat into an isolation so solitary that it is impossible for even loved ones to enter.

In a written statement given to some media members hours later, Julia says, "John willingly gave his life in order to save another."

Sitting in the middle of the theater that night when the gunman opened fire, "John immediately and instinctively covered me and brought me to the ground in order to protect me from any danger," Julie writes. "Moments later, John knowingly shielded me from a spray of gunshots. It was then I believe John was hit with a bullet that would have very possibly struck me. I feel very strongly that I was saved by John and his ultimate kindness."

In today's world, many people don't get to choose how they respond to a tragedy. While Julia is able to craft the statement honoring her boyfriend, her Facebook page features tons of photos of fun times, including a shot of her with Larimer, who is wearing a comical T-shirt. These happy photos seem out of place now, too. These are literally snapshots from her life, not the full picture. Her favorite quotations: "Nothin bad happens when yur doing the right thing ...:)" and "Life is all about moments of impact, and how they change us forever" seem haunting now.

Do an Internet search for Julia Vojtsek and you can still find a YouTube video of a very nice 2002 gymnastic performance on the uneven bars. But the latest mentions are more likely to identify her as "shooting massacre victim's girlfriend."

One minute she was just a private young woman watching a movie, and in an instant she became known publicly as "shooting massacre victim's girlfriend." How must that feel?

"Please understand that this girl's experience is her own. She should not have to deal with being plastered across the TV screen, newspapers, and online when her life has just been turned upside down," reads an email received from a person who was in the auditorium for the deadly Valentine's Day shooting at Northern Illinois University in 2008. Seeing life go from private to public in the flash of a gun muzzle, this person politely and adamantly declines to share thoughts about NIU or the Colorado shooting.

Life is "going well and I'm very happy," reads the email. But this person is private now and requests to remain so.

The people in the theater that night, with the possible exception of the gunman and whatever his mental condition was, did not make a conscious choice to share their private lives with the public. Thanking the media members who try to be kind while bombarding the family with phone messages and notes, the Vojtseks are forced to traverse that difficult path between private to public and back again.

Julia responds by turning the attention back on Larimer, saying her boyfriend wanted to be deployed in the military for two reasons.

"He wanted to protect his country, and he wanted to save others from danger and harm," Julia says in concluding her statement. "John served his country to the fullest, fulfilling both of his goals."

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