10 Years Later, a State Trooper Who Responded to Sandy Hook Looks Back

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Bill Cario, who was among the first law enforcement officers to enter Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, is adamant that a story about the 10th anniversary of the shooting that killed 20 first graders and six educators should not focus on him.

He said it should be about Rick Thorne, the school janitor who heard gunfire and moved down hallways locking classrooms to protect those inside. Or about the unnamed officer who helped lead the hunt for the gunman while knowing his boy was somewhere in the school.

Or about Rachael Van Ness, the police detective who hand-laundered the clothing children wore that day and returned the items to their grieving parents, nestled in small trunks she decorated in each child’s favorite colors.

And most of all about the families themselves, who have honored their loved ones with countless acts of charity and public service.

There is no photograph of Mr. Cario in this article because he did not want one.

“I am telling you what everybody else did. I did nothing alone, and I still don’t,” Mr. Cario said over lunch at the Blue Colony diner in Newtown.

But many of those whom Mr. Cario credits say he personifies a response to Sandy Hook that began with duty and ended with love.

“He’s your typical soldier for good. He’s grounded us,” said Bill Lavin, a former New Jersey firefighter and founder of the Where Angels Play Foundation that built 26 playgrounds to commemorate the victims. “But it’s tough to get Bill to verbalize any of it.”

Mr. Cario was a Connecticut state police sergeant parked near Newtown when the call came in that day. Rushing into the school, he encountered Natalie Hammond, a wounded educator, sheltering in a conference room. He told her he would be back for her, and with a Newtown police officer ran on in pursuit of the gunman, whose body they found moments later.

Then, inside the classroom that held most of the young victims, he found Ben Wheeler, 6, still breathing but with wounds that left little hope for survival. It has haunted Mr. Cario and his fellow troopers that they could not save those who died that day. But they could protect their families by resolving never to discuss what they had seen with anyone but them.

Mr. Cario maintained this code through post-traumatic stress, divorce, retirement and a new struggle with a life-threatening illness. By resisting the limelight, the troopers helped preserve the families’ ability to reckon with the massacre in their own time, David Wheeler, Ben’s father, said this week.

The Sandy Hook School Massacre

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Enduring grief. A brutal shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 was among the deadliest in the country’s history, and it has fundamentally changed its gun politics. Here’s what to know:

A devastating attack. On Dec. 14, 2012, a 20-year-old gunman killed his mother and then walked into the elementary school armed with semiautomatic pistols and a semiautomatic rifle. He killed 26 people there, 20 of them children, before killing himself.

The push for gun control. Then-President Barack Obama vowed to “use whatever power this office holds” to stop such massacres from happening again. Though legislative efforts to pass a ban on assault weapons and expand background checks failed, a new wave of activism focused on gun control gained traction.

Fueling misinformation. Conspiracy theories that the shooting was a hoax have loomed over the tragedy. The lies were amplified in particular by the far-right broadcaster Alex Jones, who lost several defamation lawsuits filed by families of the victims and was ordered to pay nearly $1.5 billion in damages.

An important win. On Feb. 15, Remington, the maker of the AR-15-style rifle used in the attack, agreed in a settlement to pay $73 million to the victims’ families. The suit worked around a federal law shielding gun companies from litigation by arguing that Remington had irresponsibly marketed the weapon, violating state consumer law.

Though “a desire for information is always buzzing at the back of my head,” Mr. Wheeler said, he began to learn more about Ben’s last moments only recently, when he felt he had the strength to delve into the reports of the day. His research has deepened his appreciation for the officers’ deeds, and their silence since.

“Their default mechanism was not to assume that we want the information they have, to make sure that above and beyond anything else they were careful and protective,” Mr. Wheeler said in an interview.

“The more the world knows about Bill Cario, the better,” Mr. Wheeler added. “I feel that way about the entire team.”

A memorial featuring one wooden angel for each of the 26 Sandy Hook victims.Credit…Michael Appleton for The New York Times

A Report, and Silence

All that is publicly known about Mr. Cario’s experience after the shooting is contained in his official reports.

He described entering Classroom 8, which looked empty until he and another officer peered into the classroom’s bathroom. Fifteen children had attempted to hide in the roughly 4½-foot by 3½-foot space.

“As I stared in disbelief, I recognized the face of a little boy,” Mr. Cario wrote, his anguish clear even in the written record.

“The face of the little boy is the only specific image I have in that room.”

The little boy was Ben Wheeler. The rules of triage required that Mr. Cario first tend to Ms. Hammond, to stanch her bleeding. Then he ran, carrying Ben, to a squad car near the school entrance, which transported them to a waiting ambulance. The child died minutes later, en route to the hospital. Ms. Hammond survived.

The choice forced upon Mr. Cario that day tormented him, but he did not speak publicly about it.

Locals gathering for an interfaith prayer service in Newtown, Conn., days after the shooting in 2012.Credit…Marcus Yam for The New York Times

An Encounter in the School

After the shooting, the state of Connecticut assigned a trooper to every family who desired one, to protect and guide them through the ensuing investigation. One of their duties was to escort family members who wanted to visit the school before it was demolished.

“I didn’t want to see, and I didn’t want to see, and one morning I woke up and I had to go,” David Wheeler recalled. His wife and Ben’s mother, Francine Wheeler, visited the school at a different time.

Mr. Wheeler arrived accompanied by Francine and Ben’s pastor, and was met by a small group of troopers including Mr. Cario, who stood quietly by. Work crews had removed everything touched by the carnage: tiles, carpet, drywall. The bathroom where Ben and his classmates had died was stripped to the studs.

Peering into the tiny space “was a really hard thing to do,” Mr. Wheeler recalled. The troopers said they would share any details he needed. “The only question I could think to ask was, ‘How many shell casings did they find on the floor here?’ And they said ‘80.’ It was devastating.”

There was another conversation, though, between Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Cario. Its details remain private, but they say it brought peace to them both.

“I’m so glad he was there,” Mr. Wheeler said. “There’s something more than meaningful in the fact that he took the time to say, ‘If David is going to the school I should be there, too.’”

Last week Mr. Cario responded to a request for an interview by text message: “Interview depends on what direction you’re going in.” His meaning was that others should be the focus of an article, not him. “I was a spoke in the wheel of the state police and am grateful to have worn the uniform shared by so many amazing people,” he said.

“I have heartbreak about this, but anyone in America with a heart has that,” Mr. Cario said in a subsequent conversation. His own heartbreak centers on the fact that “I couldn’t do anything to change the outcome.”

On Monday Mr. Cario visited the new permanent memorial to the Sandy Hook victims, in sight of the new Sandy Hook school. At the memorial’s core is a gently flowing pool of water, with a sturdy sapling growing from an island in its center. The pool’s granite sides are engraved with the names of the victims, and a white rose lay on each name.

Firefighters kneeling at a memorial in 2012.Credit…Marcus Yam for The New York Times

The rose on Jessica Adrienne Rekos’s name had fallen. “She’s the one who liked horses,” noted Mr. Cario, who raises draft horses. He retrieved the flower and replaced it.

Four years ago, Mr. Cario retired from the state police. He now works part-time for the force, including at a local elementary school, an experience he describes as “everything 12/14 wasn’t.” Children who live on farms sometimes bring him apples, or honey from their bees.

Grinning, he pulled up a cellphone photo of himself observing the school’s “pajama day” last week, when he wore his fluorescent traffic vest over a plaid bathrobe and pajamas emblazoned with cartoons and the slogan “Life is good.”

Mr. Cario observes the date of the shooting in his own way, often by visiting the graves of the children. The quiet for him contrasts with the scene that day.

Visiting one of the burial places soon after the shooting, Mr. Cario encountered Roy, an older man who spent most days back then at the graves of his wife and a daughter who had died in the same year. The man, a World War II veteran, addressed Mr. Cario as “Sarge” when they met, and proposed that they “get through this together,” Mr. Cario recalled. They began meeting for coffee or a beer.

Roy asked his surviving daughter to check in with Mr. Cario by phone on days when ill health kept the older man home. A couple of years ago Roy died, but remains on the long list of people Mr. Cario wants to honor instead of himself.

“I don’t think these people, acts of kindness, or unexplained events, occur due to coincidence,” he said. “I think they are there to get us through, and to help us heal.”

Dec. 14 this year comes for Mr. Cario amid grueling treatment for pancreatic cancer. His illness is another subject Mr. Cario is reluctant to discuss. Mr. Wheeler did not know he was ill.

“There’s part of me that wishes I had worked harder to sort of force Bill Cario and the others to be part of my life, to let them know how important they are,” Mr. Wheeler said this week. “But I think maybe it didn’t happen because somehow, it wasn’t supposed to.”

Mr. Cario agreed. His conversation with Mr. Wheeler in the empty school a decade ago told him everything.

“His words to me did so much good,” Mr. Cario said. “He said that he understood.”

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