The past year has been a long — sometimes painful — journey for people in Copley who struggled to come to terms with the shooting rampage that left seven victims dead in their quiet, close-knit community.
Amid the horror emerged two clerics who reached out to help the families of the victims, and the community at large, find moments of comfort and peace. Both men, the Rev. Bob Denton and the Rev. Jeff Bogue, were summoned via telephone calls.
The calls came after Michael Hance, 51, went on a shooting spree in a township neighborhood, seriously wounding his girlfriend, Rebecca Dieter, then 49. He killed his neighbors, Russell Johnson, 67; Johnson’s wife, Gudrun, 64; their son, Bryan Johnson, 44, and his daughter, Autumn Johnson, 16; Autumn’s friend, Amelia Shambaugh, 16; and his girlfriend’s brother, Craig Dieter, 51, and Dieter’s son, Scott, 11. A Copley police officer shot and killed Hance.
Bogue, senior pastor at Grace (Brethren) Church, had a more visible presence, leading a prayer vigil at Copley Community Park on that fateful day and subsequently officiating at five of the seven funerals for the victims.
Denton, executive director of Summit County Victim Assistance and chaplain for the Akron Police Department, worked mostly in the background, making death notifications and debriefing first responders to help them with a healthy reflection of their experiences.
“When these things happen, it’s like getting slammed by an ocean wave. You get knocked down. You’re disoriented. You get salt water in your mouth. Then, as soon as you’re able to stand up, another wave comes and knocks you down. Over time, the waves come farther and farther apart,” said Denton, who lives in Copley. “I can’t believe it has been a year, but it isn’t over for the people who were directly affected. On the anniversary, it is something people are going to be thinking about.”
Sharing a message
As community members continue to process their thoughts and emotions, Bogue’s congregation is offering them a chance to come together to mark the one-year anniversary of the tragedy at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Copley Community Park, where a memorial garden to honor the seven victims is located.
“It will be a time of prayer, remembrance and celebration of the lives of the victims. We’re not going to let the evil actions of a madman rob us of our love for those who lost their lives,” said Bogue, a former Copley resident. “We want to make a statement from our community that we stand together, that we love those who died and we miss them.”
Bogue said his message this year will include the same general theme as the message he shared last year in the same park on the evening of the shootings: to run to the answers and not to the questions. Bogue said his message is rooted in Ephesians 3:17-19 (“so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” NIV)
“I still don’t know why this happened. I still don’t know why it had to happen. I still don’t know why God allowed this to happen. I choose to trust and believe the heart of God, even when I don’t know the mind of God,” Bogue said. “Faith is choosing to believe in what I cannot and will not fully understand. That is the answer I would love us to run to — God’s love surpasses all knowledge.”
Bogue’s involvement in caring for the community began last year when he received a phone call from a member of his congregation who asked if he would speak at a prayer vigil being organized on the day of the shootings. At that time, Bogue had no idea that members of his congregation were among the victims.
“We answered the call because we wanted to share our love with people and to help them know the love of Jesus,” Bogue said. “As we have talked and cried and prayed together over the past year, I have seen people who are grieving and hurting but who are also living and trusting and believing in God’s love for them. My heart and prayers are still with the families and the community.”
Much like Bogue, Denton worked to bring calm in the midst of the storm after he received calls from the three police departments that investigated the shootings, Copley, Akron and Summit County.
Copley police Chief Michael Mier said Denton was among his first phone calls, because he was needed to help manage things away from the crime scene.
“When an incident this big occurs, there is a tremendous amount of work we have to do at a crime scene, gathering evidence. But equally important is helping the victims and family members,” Mier said. “Bob Denton and his staff at Victim Assistance play a very important role meeting the needs of the people who are affected by the incident.
“Secondly, he was able to help the officer [who used deadly force] and his family. And in the days and weeks that followed, he debriefed other first responders,” Mier said.
On the day of the shootings, Denton and his staff helped set up space at the community center for people from the neighborhood where the shootings took place. Neighbors were directed to the center as police closed off their community to gather evidence.
“Making the death notifications was the hardest part, by far,” Denton said. “One of the most difficult things that people from the community were trying to deal with was the incongruence — how could something like this happen in ‘Mayberry,’ so to speak. What really helped to balance things was watching good people respond in strong ways.
“Fortunately, there’s enough good still going on that it overshadows the bad. Looking through the rearview mirror, you can really see the Lord at work,” Denton said. “We’re still here, and we’ll continue ministering as long as we’re needed.”
Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or firstname.lastname@example.org.