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Events

Reporting on a national tragedy in Oak Creek, Wisconsin

It’s been more than a month since Oak Creek, Wisconsin stepped into the national spotlight when a crazed gunman slaughtered six people and injured several others at the Sikh Temple. I learned on Monday, August 6th from fellow Working Writer Barbara Abel that Time Inc. was seeking a reporter to cover the aftermath of the tragedy from a local angle. About an hour after accepting the assignment, I set off for Oak Creek. In my briefcase, was a hastily written letter I had requested from the news director in case anyone questioned my credentials. In the darkness, outside a local church, I stood among about a hundred solemn others at the first of several candlelight vigils held in honor of the victims.

I respectfully requested interviews, fully aware that Temple members were among the crowd, as well as shocked residents from throughout the area. They all simply found it too painful to sit in front of their television sets and do nothing. I gained easy access to people close to the tragedy, the shock still fresh on their faces. Yet, they needed to give voice to the voiceless—their friends, family members and peaceful worshippers–who stared at the barrel of a gun that Sunday morning on August 5. I felt the raw pain of the Sikh Temple vice president Vikramjit Singh who lost not only his leader, but his friend.

I filed my first story.

The next day, I got in my car and drove to the Cudahy neighborhood where Wade Michael Page, the gunman last lived in an upper duplex just above a single mom and her two girls, ages 11 and 17. After doing a bit of research, I learned the address. The family had been there for a year prior to Page moving in above their heads. I thought I’d interview neighbors, but was surprised when I found Jennifer Dunn and her two daughters and their black lab huddled together on their front porch.

As I slowly approached, the lab moved forward barking loudly, sensing yet another intruding reporter. I backed off and smiled that I didn’t want to upset her dog. Somehow when I asked if she lived at the home and whether I could talk to her, Dunn sighed and simply asked, “Do you have a camera?” I quickly responded no, and that turned out to be my passport to gain entry onto the front porch.

It was a surreal scene as we sat on her porch in the early afternoon sun with gawkers slowly driving by, reminding me of the Jeffrey Dahmer scene. Another neighborhood disrupted by mass violence. Dunn remarked that she wasn’t sleeping, and mentioned she was lying awake nights figuring “how to get out of here.” It was clear she had a lot to struggle with. As a psychiatric nurse, she was second guessing herself for not figuring out that Page had some mental health issues. She was upset at her landlord for telling her he ran a proper background check on his new tenant, and she blamed herself for unwittingly exposing her vulnerable children to a mass murderer.

I set aside my journalist role for a minute to tell her, “You can’t blame yourself for not figuring this man to be a killer after five minutes of conversation over a three-week period.” She nodded, and I went on with the interview. As I left her porch front, I realized Page himself had walked up and down these same stairs. Both mailboxes– for the upper and lower units –were in the front of the house.

I filed my second and final story.

A few days later, I started a long-term corporate consulting project with a leading downtown Milwaukee global financial services provider, but I’ve often wondered whatever happened to Dunn and her two girls. I’ll also remember them as the family with the unfortunate luck of renting the same home as one of the nation’s most notorious killers. Thankfully, they lived to tell the tale.

Read Hyler’s Time articles at:

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Lora Hyler began her career as a radio news journalist with WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and WISN radio, an ABC affiliate. She now works primarily in corporate communications, public relations and marketing. She’s based in Glendale, Wisconsin.

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