Officer John Gonzales no longer believes the attack was over by the time he arrived.
“I could still hear the gunfire when I got up to the door,” he said.
He’s convinced of it now, even though a report commissioned years ago by the city of Aurora concluded otherwise.
Regardless, his training told him he needed to get in and find the shooter.
“That’s what we do,” he said. “That’s what you signed up for. That’s what you’re trained to do. That’s why you go in.”
After receiving a gas mask from a fellow officer, Gonzales – a trained SWAT team member – burst into Theater 9.
That’s when the enormity of the situation hit him.
He didn’t immediately spot any shooter, but he did see wounded people everywhere.
“You knew there were going to be people who were not ever going to leave that building,” he said.
Outside, Officer Jason Oviatt was headed toward the rear exit door to Theater 9.
Instantly, his eyes were drawn toward a man with a gas mask and body armor.
“When I first saw him, I thought he was a cop,” Oviatt said.
The more he looked, the more he realized the man wasn’t wearing the type of gear Oviatt was used to seeing.
Seven minutes after the first 911 call, Officers Oviatt and Jason Sweeney arrested the shooter without incident.
“I would say he surrendered,” Oviatt said. “He gave up.”
Photo: Aurora Officer Jason Oviatt
Back inside the theater, Officer Jon Marek heard Oviatt’s radio call. He wasn’t convinced the attack was over, however.
“My thought was, ok, we’re looking for a second person,” Marek said.
There were too many wounded, and there was a shotgun on the floor.
Marek had already seen a rifle near the rear exit door when he went in.
Two long guns told him there may be two shooters.
FULL INTERVIEW: Aurora Police Officer John Marek on entering the theater
Sgt. Jonsgaard found the environment around him horrific.
“The volume of that night was just beyond your senses,” he said.
He had seen plenty of trauma during his career, but nothing quite like what he saw all around him inside Theater 9.
And then there were the fire alarms, distinctive and pulsing. They just kept blaring.
Yet, that wasn’t even the worst sound, according to Jonsgaard.
Once word began to filter out of the area and onto social media of the shooting, the cell phones started to ring within the theater. Many of the phones belonged to people either seriously wounded or dead.
The sound was brutal on the officers.
Jonsgaard said it took him years to feel comfortable around the sound of a random cell phone ringing.
“[They] used to make me so mad,” he said. “They’d be ringing and I’d want to throw them out the window.”
PHOTOS: The officers behind Aurora Theater shooting response
Before James Waselkow became an Aurora cop, he served one tour in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army.
It hardly prepared him for what he saw the moment he walked into Theater 9.
“You just don’t expect to see those things in the United States,” he said. “It was just carnage. It was just people shot.”
“There was a lot of blood,” he added.
Lieutenant Stephen Redfearn (then a sergeant) quickly grew frustrated with the sheer number of wounded patients and the lack of ambulances nearby.
Officers like Waselkow were carrying out the wounded, one by one, to a few spots just outside of the theater, but many of the responding ambulances remained much too far away to be of any good.
“[I thought] we’ve got to do something,” Redfearn said. “These people are dying here, and we’re not getting the help we need.”
A city-commissioned after-action report would later conclude that a variety of factors – including crew safety and lack of accessible pathways – contributed to the ambulance issue.
Standing outside with the wounded, Redfearn remembered a much smaller active shooter case from 2010 in which officers placed a victim inside a police car in order to take him out of the immediate area.
“That crossed my mind,” Redfearn said. “Hey, it worked once, it can hopefully work again.”
Bryan Butler, now retired, called the lack of ambulances frustrating.
“We’re not paramedics. We’re not doctors. We can’t help them,” he said.
But they could drive their cars to the people who could ultimately help the wounded.
Redfearn began marking on a latex glove where he was sending each of the many victims. One side represented Medical Center of Aurora. The other represented University of Colorado Hospital.
Sgt. Mike Hawkins (then an officer) took two of the wounded in his car to University Hospital.
“A firefighter stopped me and said, ‘Do you have a car?’” Hawkins said.
One of the wounded was clearly dying.
“The firefighter said very quietly to me, ‘You need to go like hell. You need to get there fast,’” Hawkins added.
Twenty three of the victims who went to University of Colorado Hospital arrived in police cars.
“The doctors told us afterwards everybody with survivable injuries survived,” Redfearn said.