'It's happening in my town,' Aurora man says of making his 26,275th to 26,279th white crosses

Greg Zanis has driven hundreds of thousands of miles crisscrossing the country to deliver white crosses — 26,274 altogether in the last 22 years — mostly for victims of gun violence.

Until Friday, he never thought he'd be doing that in his hometown of Aurora, where five mass shooting victims brought the number to 26,279.

“I've been watching this all around the country,” he said, “and just now, it's happening in my town, in Aurora. I just didn't see it coming.”

Five civilians along with the gunman were killed after the shooter, a factory worker at Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora, opened fire during a termination meeting, authorities said.

Zanis, who lives near the police station, said he knew something terrible happened when he heard dozens of squad cars speed by Friday afternoon. Shortly after, he found out there was an active shooter situation in town. Later that evening, he got a phone call from one of the victim's families, whom he knows, and found out people had died.

He immediately set to work to make crosses, he said.

The five civilian victims were Trevor Wehner, 21, of DeKalb; Clayton Parks, 32, of Elgin; Josh Pinkard, 37, of Oswego; Russell Beyer, 47, of Yorkville; and Vicente Juarez, 54, of Oswego. All were employees of the manufacturing warehouse at 614 Archer Ave. Five police officers and another civilian were injured by gunfire.

Zanis said he placed five white crosses early Saturday outside the warehouse and replaced them with crosses with the victims' names after they were publicly disclosed by police later that morning. On Sunday, he attended vigils for the victims.

Unlike in the past, he can't simply deliver crosses and leave, because he's in the middle of it all, a community mourning all around him.

“Last night I had people stopping at my house all night. I didn't get to sleep,” he said. “I feel like I am carrying the weight of the whole city on my shoulders. I am expected to attend all the vigils and all the funerals. And of course I will be there.”

Zanis said he made his first cross for Nico Contreras, a 6-year-old boy who died in a gang-related shooting in November 1996, at Nico's mother's request. Within two weeks, he made another 15 crosses, and more and more in the coming months and years.

All the crosses are for people who died of “unanticipated deaths,” including vehicle and plane crashes, but mostly gun violence, he said. He uses “the best lumber I can find” and paints two white coats, a large red heart, the victim's name and a serial number.

“Zanis Crosses for Losses” has made crosses for mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012; San Bernardino, California, in 2015; Orlando, Florida, in 2016; Las Vegas in 2017; and Parkland, Florida, in 2018; as well as the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. There are more, many more — always too many, Zanis said.

Zanis said he made about 5,000 crosses last year alone and is working on a batch of crosses for victims of gun violence this year in Chicago that he will deliver to a vigil Sunday.

People often ask him about his stance on gun control, Zanis said, but he will not discuss that.

“It's about the heart,” he said. “We just need to show more love in our country.”

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  Greg Zanis of Aurora said that unlike in the past, he can't simply deliver crosses and drive out of town, because he's in the middle of it all, a community mourning all around him after Friday's deadly mass shooting. Brian Hill/
  A mourner places a flower Sunday at one of the five crosses made by Greg Zanis and placed outside the Henry Pratt Co. manufacturing warehouse in Aurora, where five employees were killed Friday. Jeff Knox/
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