Johnny Hurley often thought about what he would do if he heard gunshots. He discussed it with his friends, his sister, and his partner. But it wasn’t just idle talk. By summer 2021, the longtime chef had spent nearly a year training for the possibility—working with former military personnel, learning the intricacies of his Springfield Hellcat handgun. The 40-year-old carried a gun with him nearly everywhere he went. At some point, he was certain, his time for action would come.
On June 21, 2021, shotgun blasts echoed through Olde Town Arvada around 1:30 p.m. It was a warm Monday, and as on most summer days, the Denver suburb’s quaint commercial district was buzzing with activity. Friends took lunch together on patios; co-workers met over coffees near the town square; and children played in the water fountains. Now, the afternoon had given way to chaos. People ran, ducked under bistro tables, and dove for cover behind parked vehicles.
An Arvada police officer collapsed onto a sidewalk at the far end of the square, near the intersection of an alleyway and a parking lot adjacent to Olde Town’s library. The assailant—a heavyset man in a black T-shirt, black shorts, a black fisherman-style bucket hat, and a black face mask—turned away from the lifeless body of Officer Gordon Beesley, then fired again, this time shattering the rear window of a parked police SUV. The man casually walked away, through a nearby parking lot to where an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle was resting inside his Ford F-150.
Officer Kraig Brownlow and two colleagues from the Arvada Police Department heard the shots from inside a one-story, unmarked police building about 30 yards from where the downed officer lay. Brownlow—a veteran of the Arvada force—and the others were there as part of a team assigned to work within Olde Town, in part to act as community liaisons between business owners and the district’s growing homeless population. Each shotgun blast sounded like a fist pounding against the building’s back door.
“What the fuck was that?” one of the officers said, according to a Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office report. The officers rushed to look out a window in a metal door at the back of the building. They saw a man in a black T-shirt and bucket hat holding a weapon as he walked through the parking lot. “Holy shit,” one of the officers said.
Johnny Hurley heard the gunshots, too. He was shopping at Arvada Army Navy Surplus, less than a football field’s distance from where Beesley had been shot and killed. Hurley had been shopping for new work boots and wanted to purchase a fishing license, but now he was looking out the storefront window and saw the assailant walking away. “He has a gun!” Hurley said, pointing to the man in the distance.
Dressed in a red T-shirt, brown pants, and a red baseball cap he wore backward, Hurley ran out the store’s front door. He pulled his Hellcat out of its holster, dashed toward the town square, and crouched behind a brick wall. He asked a bystander if he knew where the shooter had gone; the bystander shrugged and pointed in the general direction of the assailant’s path. Hurley peered around the barrier and saw the man in black walking toward him, through the parking lot. The man was carrying an AR-15 in his right hand. Hurley ducked back for a moment, then steadied himself as the gunman drew closer. Hurley stepped out, aimed, and fired six times.
Meanwhile, Brownlow stayed at the back-door window while the other officers took up different positions inside the building. A figure appeared in Brownlow’s field of vision. The officer did a quick assessment. The man was about 75 feet away, his back to the officer: red T-shirt, brown pants, backward baseball cap. He was kneeling and holding an AR-15, its muzzle pointing down. The man appeared to be manipulating the rifle. Is he loading the gun? Brownlow asked himself, according to a Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office report.
Brownlow slowly opened the door. He kept his gun up, never losing sight of his suspect. He trained the weapon at the man’s back. Should he demand that the man drop his gun? Brownlow wondered. He knew that his service pistol was no match for an AR-15 and that he’d be alone if this turned into a gunfight.
Eleven seconds passed. There’d be no warning, Brownlow decided. He trained his pistol’s sight on the man holding the rifle and squeezed the trigger.
Brownlow fired two more shots. A bullet struck Hurley in the back, near his right hip—severing an artery and lodging near his left hip. Hurley collapsed and dropped the assailant’s AR-15, which he had been disarming. He died less than 45 minutes later.
It’s a story that could really only happen in America: an active shooter taken out by an armed citizen, who’s then gunned down by police. Between 2000 and 2021, there were 434 active shooter attacks in America, events in which at least one shooter killed or attempted to kill multiple unrelated people in a populated place. In 2021 alone, the nation averaged more than one a week. Three other shootings that year were stopped by armed civilians, but none ended like the one in Arvada.
After Brownlow’s third and final gunshot, two fellow officers rushed past him and toward Hurley. Brownlow cut right, through bushes and trees, and saw Beesley, a 19-year Arvada police veteran, dead on the sidewalk. Brownlow eventually went to where the alley met the narrow asphalt parking lot. By then, officers had handcuffed and patted down the mortally wounded Hurley.
As more Arvada police officers arrived at the scene, Brownlow looked down the alley and saw a third body, this one belonging to an overweight white man wearing black shorts, a black T-shirt, and a black bucket hat. In an interview with Arvada police investigators hours after the shooting, Brownlow struggled to make sense of what had happened and apparently forgot he’d shot Hurley. “In my head, Beesley shot the guy in red, and I thought there were two shooters,” Brownlow said, referring to the dead officer. “Literally, the name Klebold and Harris came in my head…,” Brownlow added, referencing the Columbine High School killers.
At the same time Brownlow was being questioned, details of the incident were becoming clearer. This was not the dual-threat, Columbine-type incident the officer had imagined. Almost immediately, witnesses began identifying Hurley as a hero. Time and again, they told police that a man wearing red rushed toward the danger. Witnesses told police they’d initially confused Hurley for a plainclothes police officer, ex-military, or a “task force type of guy.” “Good Sam,” one witness called him, shorthand for Good Samaritan.
Observers reported Hurley’s calm demeanor, tactical crouch, and movements from the surplus store to the brick wall. Video surveillance from the Army Navy store and other parts of Olde Town showed Hurley cross the street and enter the town square in just seven seconds. When Hurley saw the man in black—an AR-15 in his hand—he fired six shots, striking the shooter five times and spiraling the man to the ground.
But some witnesses were confused by what exactly had happened. As one, who had hid next to a parked car during the shootings, told investigators, “We had an active shooter, and now we don’t have an active shooter. Something happened in between. I really do hope the end of that story is different than what I fear in my own head.”
Erin Hurley got the knock on her door around 8 that night. Hurley’s sister had been napping in her Golden apartment after working six consecutive days at a restaurant where her brother had also worked for a time to make ends meet. She’d spent part of her afternoon packing for a camping trip she was planning on taking with her brother. A police officer and two people from the coroner’s office delivered the news. “It was like my life ended,” she says. Law enforcement didn’t have specifics, Erin was told, just that her brother had been shot and killed.
Days passed. Erin and her mother, Kathleen Boleyn, took refuge in Boleyn’s house in Colorado Springs, where the Hurley kids had grown up. Information came in a slow trickle. They stayed away from news coverage, both on the television and online, but Erin became uneasy. If an active shooter had killed her brother, it seemed her family would know by now.
On Friday, four days after the shooting, Erin and her mother were shuttled to a meeting at the Wheat Ridge police station, a few miles from Arvada. “I was glad we were finally getting some answers,” Boleyn remembers. There were seven people in the room, including the police chief and the city’s public information officer. There was a labored windup: active shooter, dead police officer, dangerous situation. “Then they got to Johnny, and it was all this talk about how he stepped in, how he stopped it,” Erin says. “They used the word ‘hero.’ ”
And then, this: Boleyn and her daughter learned that a responding officer had shot and killed Hurley. The room went quiet as Hurley’s mother and sister cried. Erin was stunned—and furious. “Not one person said to my mom that they were sorry,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it. A fucking cop killed my brother.”
On May 7, 2011, Johnny Hurley walked up to a security line in the main terminal at Denver International Airport prepared to make trouble. One year earlier, in 2010, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had begun using extensive, full-body scanners at airport checkpoints nationwide in an attempt to provide more robust security for air travelers. Although most Americans accepted the scanners as the cost of traveling post-9/11, Hurley saw them as an extraordinary invasion of privacy. Americans’ freedoms were being eroded, he told a growing group of anarchist friends. Now, he was going to confront the authoritarians himself.
Except for the small video camera he clutched in his right hand, Hurley, who was 30 at the time, looked like any other passenger flying out of DIA that May morning. Wearing a black suit, he stopped just outside the queue where air travelers get their boarding passes and IDs checked. Hurley walked up to a roped barrier and unfastened it. He walked a few steps and unclipped the next barrier, and then another. Security camera footage captured the confused looks from passengers as Hurley advanced from one rope to the next, then finally reached the checkpoint. He brushed past it. A TSA official attempted to stop him, but Hurley sidestepped the man.
TSA agents quickly apprehended Hurley, who later received misdemeanor charges of disturbing the peace and police interference. (There’s no record of whether Hurley was ever prosecuted.) At a Denver police facility inside the airport, Hurley refused to give his name or provide identification. He also declined to be advised of his rights. The stunt, a Denver police officer wrote in a brief report, caused TSA to temporarily close one screening area. The event was a minor inconvenience at an airport as busy as DIA, but to Hurley, it would become a badge of honor and was celebrated among his anarchist friends. “Johnny never backed down,” says Bruce Baumann, who was one of Hurley’s closest friends. “He wasn’t scared of anything.”
Hurley was born on August 9, 1980, into a world of contradictions. His father was a straight-laced U.S. diplomat; his mother was a professional harpist who’d marched against the Vietnam War as a college student. When Hurley was six, his parents divorced. He and his sister grew up in Colorado Springs, in his mom’s two-story house with a view of Pikes Peak on the city’s northwest end.
Hurley lived a fairly typical childhood, filled with curiosity and moments of rebellion. As a high schooler, Hurley looked the part of the stereotypical ’90s skater—oversize shirts and pants, brown hair that reached the middle of his back—but his appearance belied a softer side. He sang in a traveling school choir and performed an exquisite rendition of “Christmas Bells” at the Chapel Hills Mall one holiday season. He was a protector who loved his mother and sister; he asked questions and listened. “When Johnny was with you,” Boleyn, his mother, says, “he gave you his all.”
After graduating high school in 1999, Hurley moved to Denver and worked jobs in restaurant kitchens before enrolling in the Cook Street School of Culinary Arts in 2001. He quickly became enamored with sustainable food philosophies and making healthy meals. Hurley worked for a time at a chain restaurant in Fort Collins, then returned to Denver sometime around 2006, when he rented a Capitol Hill apartment and skateboarded to his job in the kitchen at Appaloosa Grill, on the 16th Street Mall. Kitchen jobs rarely pay well, and he lived much of his life in a paycheck-to-paycheck existence. The lifestyle never seemed to bother him.
Hurley had a coterie of friends in the city. He’d always had a penchant for spirited debates—about food and music, mostly—but he rarely spoke about politics. That changed in 2007 when he watched Zeitgeist, a film notable for its promotion of conspiracy theories, particularly that the U.S. government orchestrated the attacks on 9/11. The film also questions Jesus’ existence and claims the Federal Reserve is controlled by a cabal of international bankers who helped orchestrate the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Zeitgeist has been panned by critics as far-right propaganda, but it’s developed a cult following. One friend eventually nicknamed Hurley “Johnny Zeitgeist.”
Hurley’s mother and partner couldn’t understand what had made him so susceptible to the conspiracies. “He was never a fan of authority, but this went so far beyond that,” says Taylor Garland, 39, who frequently found herself at odds with her partner’s beliefs. “A lot changed about how he saw the world.” In 2008, Hurley met a group of activists on the 16th Street Mall who were handing out free DVDs on the 9/11 truth movement, which claimed the Twin Towers’ collapse was the result of a staged demolition. It wasn’t long before Hurley, too, was passing out DVDs.
Over the next 14 years, Hurley’s proselytizing would extend beyond free videos. He started the group We Are Change Colorado, a nonpartisan collective focused on liberty, based in the metro area. Hurley created T-shirts that read “No Masters No Slaves.” He took a side gig under the stage name DJ Johnny Verbal and performed political pieces. “You can handle facing the darkness of slavery and the light of liberty; they can’t,” he posted on his social media channels in 2018. “Don’t give up. We all want the truth whether we know it or not, whether we can handle it or not. Keep your fire burning. Stay on the path. Get free. Speak. The. Truth.”
Hurley’s ideologies would both grow his considerable stable of friends over the years and deeply confuse, and concern, some of those who’d known and loved him the longest. He considered himself a free thinker and believed truly free nations are ones that prioritize individualist anarchism, a theory that places individual liberties above all else. He’d grown distrustful of the government on everything from law enforcement to oversight of the food supply to tax collection. “Listening to Johnny could be exhausting,” says Garland, who’d known Hurley since they were teenagers.
With his rebel friends, Hurley orchestrated the DIA confrontation and challenged Denver Water executives on water fluoridation. In 2018, he traveled to the Anarchapulco conference in Acapulco, Mexico, which bills itself as the “world’s premier liberty event” and has come to include high-profile speakers, such as former Republican congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul. Hurley and his friends badgered Nancy Pelosi and Dick Cheney during speaking events in and around Denver. “There were a lot of people wanting to fight us, calling us un-American,” says Douglas Evans (who goes by the nickname Turtle), a member of We Are Change Colorado. “You couldn’t intimidate Johnny.”
Despite his firmly held convictions, it was impossible to place Hurley into an ideological silo. “It seemed like he wanted to doubt everything,” his mother says. “Johnny would say things where I’m thinking, Oh, my God, is he a Trumper? But then he’d sound libertarian or way, way liberal.” Hurley distrusted right- and left-wing media. He was a staunch Second Amendment advocate but also an environmentalist. “Every time I run a length of plastic film at work I now see it in my mind floating in the ocean in a giant raft of other trash,” he wrote online. “It hurts.”
He took a particularly dim view of American policing, which he saw as heavy-handed. Years before the 2020 marches over police brutality against Black Americans, Hurley attended a Denver march in which he held up a mirror to patrolling cops, asking them to see themselves, to look beyond their uniforms and recognize their humanity. “Johnny was about finding the truth and holding people accountable,” says Baumann, who is involved with We Are Change Colorado. “He expected you to stand up for yourself and back it up, because that’s what he did.”
His political views began consuming more space in his life, but Hurley still found time to be immersed in cooking and in his relationships with family and friends. He helped Garland get a food truck business started and assisted a friend who opened a food collective in Arvada. He’d invite friends to camp with him, then create campfire-cooked gourmet meals. Hurley helped a friend who’d worked to get a GMO-labeling initiative on Colorado’s ballot in 2014 by rallying support for the initiative once it was on the ballot. He organized “free hugs” events in Denver, during which he stood on sidewalks downtown with a hand-painted sign that offered embraces to strangers. “It’s going to be OK,” he hollered in one video of the event, which was posted on YouTube. Time and again, passersby wrapped their arms around the slim, bearded man and smiled.
In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, people closest to Hurley began seeing his impatient side. Friends in We Are Change Colorado viewed the pandemic as a way the American government could exert control over its citizens, but Hurley seemed more despondent and angrier than the others. He’d taken catering jobs to pay bills, but those were falling through due to stay-at-home orders. The few food jobs that remained required employees to wear protective masks, which Hurley often refused. His bank account began to dwindle as he pulled further away from cooking. He took handyman jobs from friends and got work picking up couches and tables for a thrift store Turtle owned, but money was scarce. His black-framed eyeglasses were chipped and held together with tape.
The strain was apparent in other ways, too. A government takeover was imminent, Hurley said to those he was close to. He would question Garland’s friends about seemingly everything. “I couldn’t bring him to parties, because everything turned into a debate,” she remembers. Hurley told Garland he’d been banned from the King Soopers on 38th Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard because he refused to wear a mask. He even became disillusioned with We Are Change Colorado, telling his mother that the group seemed more interested in socializing than activism. He told his closest friends he’d grown tired of trying to change minds, that he wanted to direct his energy toward friends and family. “Johnny was running out of patience,” Baumann says. “Preaching to the masses had become a waste of time.”
Sometime in late 2020, Hurley approached Turtle, who had a concealed carry license. At the very least, Hurley said, he wanted to have a concealed weapon in case of an active shooter situation. He wanted to be able to protect himself and others if bullets began to fly.
Soon after getting his concealed carry license, Hurley again approached Turtle. It was the beginning of 2021, and he wanted to advance his training beyond the basics. “Johnny was never about learning the minimum,” Turtle says. “He was going all the way.” Turtle recommended a slew of ex-military men, and Hurley worked with them for months, learning tactical procedures and advanced gun safety and shooting. As part of his training, he learned how to disarm an incapacitated combatant to further secure an area, just as police are trained to do with downed shooters.
Not long before his death, Hurley had a serious conversation with Turtle. In any firearms training, instructors always tell participants there’s one key question to consider: run or fight? Hurley’s first concealed carry class advised trainees to find a safe place and call 911. Turtle had four children at the time, and he told Hurley there was no way he was jumping into an active shooting. Hurley didn’t have the same concern. He didn’t have a wife or a kid. “There was no doubt in his mind what he’d do,” Turtle says. “If he went out, he’d do it saving people.”
At home, Hurley found himself conflicted. He loved Garland intensely. At one point, they’d even discussed having a child together. In the last months of his life, though, Hurley drew a bright line between his worlds. There was the helpful, gentle side, and then the one in which weaponization had become an animating force. Over time, they became incompatible. When Garland visited Hurley’s Denver apartment for a meal, she noted the weapons cache—handguns, rifles, shotguns. This isn’t safe, she remembers thinking.
In mid-June 2021, the two had an argument. Why was he like this? she demanded. She was angry her partner was so willing to court danger. Didn’t he know the exponential threat that came with having weapons in his apartment? she asked.
Hurley didn’t understand why she felt unsafe around him. He was offended. Didn’t she know how much work he’d put into his training? Did she really think he’d actively put her in danger?
He couldn’t stand the idea of having these dueling passions in his life—the woman he loved and his own, firmly held beliefs. His weapons, he told her, were part of his life. Why couldn’t Garland accept this? he asked through tears.
She left the apartment in a daze. “It was disheartening,” Garland says. More than a year after the shooting, she can recall nearly every emotion she felt during the argument. “I thought Johnny’s guns might get him killed, and Johnny was certain his guns were going to save people,” she says. “In the end, I guess we were both right.”
Three months after Hurley’s death, 1st Judicial District Attorney Alexis King declined to file criminal charges against Brownlow, the Arvada officer, in the shooting. In her formal letter on the incident, King wrote, “Because Officer Brownlow’s objectively reasonable belief that a lesser degree of force was inadequate to resolve the imminent threat posed by what he reasonably believed was a second mass gunman, and because Brownlow had objectively reasonable grounds to believe, and did believe, that he and other persons were in imminent danger of being killed or suffering serious bodily injury after hearing many gunshots, shooting John Hurley was legally justified despite his heroic actions that day.” By then, Brownlow had left the department. Arvada police said he was welcome to return.
In June 2022, Boleyn filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Jefferson County District Court against Brownlow, alleging the officer was inadequately trained and executed poor judgment when he failed to warn Hurley that he planned to shoot. “In a society that chooses to tolerate personal gun ownership the way we do, carrying a gun or holding a gun can’t be a license to be shot by police,” Boleyn’s attorney, Matt Cron, says.
In addition to unspecified financial damages, Boleyn is seeking changes to Arvada police training. Brownlow’s attorney did not respond to 5280’s requests for comment; the Arvada police department has said in the past that it is not reconsidering its training programs. The department provided 5280 with the following written statement: “We are prepared to move forward and have full faith in the justice system process.” (Boleyn and Cron have also filed a civil rights lawsuit against Brownlow and Arvada Police Chief Link Strate—who retired in December 2022—in Jefferson County District Court.)
There is little research on law enforcement firearms training in the United States, but a 2011 study in Police Quarterly reported that, although more than 14,000 departments exist in the United States, there’s no standardized instruction among police. Most active shooter training consists of work on the shooting range, which experts deem insufficient because it doesn’t teach techniques such as how to shoot while moving, correctly identify threats, or determine proper uses of cover.
After Hurley was shot and killed, the Arvada department stated its officers undergo active shooter training, which includes the philosophy “stop the killing, stop the dying, start the healing.” As part of the instruction, Arvada officers are taught to set up an “ambush point” if they’re alone with a gunman to mitigate chances the officer might get killed or spark a larger-scale gun battle.
“Law enforcement receives less training in the police academy than a high school athlete would get [in a sport] in a single season,” says J. Pete Blair, executive director of Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training and a Texas State University professor who trains law enforcement to respond to shootings and works with the FBI on shooting statistics. In Brownlow’s case, Blair says the scene would have been extremely confusing and difficult to train for. “You’re adding to the formula non-law enforcement that’s rushing into the situation to help, but there’s nothing distinguishing that person from a bad guy trying to do harm,” Blair says. “You’ve got police in a high-stress situation where an officer is being asked to make a split-second decision.”
Brownlow “responded the way he was trained,” says David Klinger, a former police officer who’s written extensively about police training in his job as a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Faced with an unknown man holding an AR-15, Klinger says, Brownlow “was correct when he assessed that he was outgunned in the situation. There was a potentially large victim pool nearby.”
Cron argues Brownlow should have given Hurley instructions to drop the AR-15. “Training might explain why Officer Brownlow acted the way he did, but that does not excuse his actions,” the attorney says. “You have to expect a reasonable officer to recognize the need for individualized decision-making.” Not only did Brownlow make a poor decision to shoot, Cron argues, but the officer also flubbed nearly every aspect of the moment. “Johnny and the bad guy looked nothing alike. Johnny was stationary, wasn’t running at anyone or threatening anyone. He was unloading a rifle to make it safe for the community. There were zero indications that Johnny posed a threat.”
Body cameras weren’t mandated among Colorado officers at the time—and won’t be until July. No footage exists of Brownlow’s view of the shooting or from the two officers who were inside the police building.
Cron also argues Brownlow and the other two Arvada officers weren’t effective in their response to the active shooter, who was identified as a 59-year-old Jefferson County man who’d previously had a run-in with Brownlow’s team and wanted to exact revenge on officers for acts of police brutality nationwide. As part of their response, Cron says, the three officers remained inside after the shooting started, rather than engaging the shooter as a group as the man walked to his truck. “These officers took a passive approach and put themselves in an information deficit,” Cron says. “Contrast that with Johnny’s actions: Johnny ran out of the building he was in, confronted the shooter, and saved the day. You’d hope an officer in your community would behave more like Johnny than these three officers who stayed inside and hid.
“Policing is an inherently dangerous job,” Cron continues. “But officers know what they’re signing up for. At every turn, Officer Brownlow chose self-preservation. In the end, he chose not to confront the bad guy while [the shooter] was walking around and firing a weapon. He did, however, make the decision to shoot Johnny from behind.”
The day before Hurley died, he spent the afternoon with his mother in his basement apartment in northwest Denver. The two had been eager to hang out together and talked about the camping trip he was taking with his sister. Afterward, he opened his computer, and they watched videos of Jordan Peterson, a right-wing former clinical psychologist, on YouTube.
It didn’t bother Boleyn that her son had gotten political. Like most mothers, she simply wanted to be supportive. She knew he had a concealed carry permit, but he never showed her his weapons. Hurley once asked his mother to consider purchasing a handgun that would fit in her purse. When she demurred, he took the hint. “He probably did that out of respect for me,” she says.
One day this past fall, Boleyn was sitting, cross-legged, on an upholstered chair in her family room. A photo of Johnny as a teenager—holding a skateboard in his right hand—rested on a table next to a folded American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol the week after his death. Next to that was a small photo of Johnny on a boat, bearded and smiling.
She had recently begun to cull the memorial that had popped up in the front yard. A large photo of her son was now out back, leaning against a low brick wall. A laminated piece of paper sat next to the photo: “In loving memory of Johnny Hurley. Hero of Arvada shooting. June 21, 2021. Grew up in this house where his mother still resides.”
The tears stopped coming a few months ago, she says. Boleyn is in her early 70s and adjusting to life without the calls and visits from her only son. She’s at a point where she can finally imagine her son as something other than the extremes of hero and victim. It’s a small victory, but one she holds on to tightly. Over the past year she’d been to memorials and funerals and fundraisers. She’d gotten to know the wife of Gordon Beesley, the Arvada officer who was killed the same day as her son.
Boleyn learned Beesley had been in a band and that he was loved by nearly everyone he met. She couldn’t wait to tell her son about the officer; she caught herself reaching for her phone. Boleyn met some of her son’s friends and liked how they talked about Johnny, about his confidence and passion to help. She’d grown close to Garland, Johnny’s partner, and the two spoke regularly.
Sometimes, she allowed herself to think about Kraig Brownlow. “He must be devastated,” she says. He’s younger than her son, she says, and he will live with his actions for the rest of his life. There was a time when she imagined forgiving him; she still thinks that’s a possibility, but she’s stopped focusing on it. “Maybe I wore that out,” she admits. “Maybe I cried too much every time I thought about it.”
The folks at a mobile phone store helped her save the voicemails her son had left on her cell phone on two thumb drives. Most of Hurley’s stuff from his apartment is in storage. Boleyn and her daughter will get to it someday. She thinks about that apartment in Denver, the last day she and her son had together. “We sat there and talked and talked and talked and talked and laughed and talked,” she remembers. “When you were having a good time with Johnny, there was no one else you’d rather be with. My God, I was lucky to have him.”
Taylor Garland adjusts a piñon log in her fireplace, lights a match, and steps back to watch the first flickers of flame. It’s mid-December in New Mexico, and the temperature on the high desert this afternoon is hovering around 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Her 10-year-old, white-and-black Australian shepherd, Hurley (who had been named after Johnny a decade earlier, which he found hilarious), bounds from the living room to the kitchen and back. Garland has been here a year, but the old house is a work in progress with its uneven barnwood and not-quite-right-angle construction. The windows aren’t entirely weatherproof. The roof leaks. At the moment, a gray mouse is trying to jump out of the sink.
A year before Hurley’s death, the two had talked about moving to New Mexico, breaking away and simplifying their lives. Garland had been working on a series of small businesses—the food truck and a greeting card company—but increasingly found herself stressed about the never-ending demands from her work in Denver.
Hurley wasn’t doing much of anything that would keep him attached to Colorado. They made the decision to move on a camping trip a few months before the shooting. They talked about finding a piece of land somewhere down in New Mexico—a good distance from Denver, but not so far that it would keep Hurley from seeing his mom and sister. They talked about growing their own food, of Garland using her savings to start a bed-and-breakfast, of Hurley creating farm-to-table meals for guests, of them finally settling down after having known each other for 24 years.
She and Hurley came down a few times to look at properties, but nothing fit. The land didn’t look right, or the houses needed too much work. Garland had been planning to visit New Mexico again, in late June, when Hurley was killed. She called her real estate agent and put everything on hold. If Hurley wasn’t going to share this with her, she wasn’t sure she wanted to continue.
There were memorials and the funeral. Hurley’s friends wanted to talk about activism and 9/11 and guns and cops—the Johnny they knew—but Garland wanted to remember her lover and friend. She wanted to remember the two of them jumping off a bridge and into a river when they were kids; the time after a tough night with her food truck, when she cried, and how Hurley had wrapped her in a hug and said he’d never been so proud. In the months after the shooting, Garland wrote Hurley letters nearly every day—about how she missed him and how sorry she was that they had argued that last week, how she wasn’t sure how she would move on.
The real estate agent called in late fall that year. There was a property for sale in Carson, New Mexico, about 15 miles west of Taos. Garland said she wasn’t interested. Her grief was like an anchor holding her down. The agent called again and again, until Garland finally gave in. She drove down to check out the nine-acre lot, the dilapidated barnwood house, and the view of Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico. When she saw it, she thought, Why not?
With the fire beginning to take life, she looks out the window toward Wheeler. At night, she says, the sky explodes with starlight. Catch it at the right time, and it’s a mystical, overwhelming sight.
She imagines Hurley out there, looking at the pin-pricks of light. Garland’s certain he would have grown to love this place. By now, he would’ve been putting together the tiny A-frames for the Airbnb Garland’s planning in the field east of the house. He would’ve had power and water running out there, and he’d have planned out the garden. The windows and doors would’ve been replaced in the main house, keeping out the summer heat and the winter chill.
His birthday was in August, and Boleyn came down to visit. Hurley’s mother planned to stick around for a day or two, but she ended up staying nearly a week. Boleyn gave Garland some of Johnny’s ashes. Before Boleyn left, Garland backed the woman into a doorway off the kitchen, took out a pencil, and measured her against the door frame—the way parents do with a child. Garland does this with all her friends who come to visit; it’s a little reminder of home. Next to Boleyn’s horizontal line, Garland wrote, “Momma Hurley.”
It had now been 18 months since the shooting. Eighteen months of Garland trying to figure out her new life. A photo of Hurley hangs on her wall—him on a trail, staring at a sunset. One of his pillows is on her bed.
Hurley, the dog, whimpers at the front door. The neighbor’s dog is outside and wants to play. Garland walks to the kitchen and opens the door. There’s a blast of afternoon cold. When she looks back to her family room, she sees the piñon fire roaring in her fireplace. She lets out a giggle. “Would you look at that?” she says, looking at the flames. “I think Johnny would be proud.”
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