Chapter 1: Brett
Brett Cross tore down Highway 90 in his red Chevy Cobalt, foot heavy on the gas and hurtling toward Uvalde.
It was a workday, Tuesday, May 24.
A few minutes earlier, the 31-year-old wind turbine technician had been at work near Brackettville, putting together a promotional booklet for his boss.
Then, shortly before noon, he got a call from his wife. Nikki was screaming.
This is not a joke! There’s a shooter at Robb!
Robb Elementary School. Uziyah’s school.
I’m heading there.
He had 35 miles to cover, fast.
As the Chevy hit 100, Brett’s cellphone rang again. It was Nikki, outside the school, shrieking.
He’s still in there shooting!
The sound of gunshots pierced through the phone. Brett hung up and forced his way through his fear.
This happens to other kids, other families, he thought. Not mine.
In the rearview mirror, Brett spotted police cruisers and flashing lights.
You can pull me over when I get there. His foot stayed steady on the gas.
The flashing lights drew closer. But the police didn’t stop him.
They passed him.
At the Border Patrol checkpoint close to his south Texas hometown, everyone usually comes to a stop. This time, agents waved every driver through.
Nikki called again.
Don’t go to the school. They’re busing the kids to the civic center.
Brett zipped down Main Street, pulled into the parking lot of the civic center and ran across the lush green lawn in front of the building.
And then they waited.
Bus after bus after bus rolled up. Each time, families swarmed around them, searching for their kids as police ushered them into the civic center. Parents broke through the lines to hug their children and were immediately pulled away.
Every child needed to be inside. Every child needed to be accounted for.
Still no Uziyah. Brett needed an answer.
He called his 10-year-old son, Jaxon.
Call Uzi. Text his friends. See if anyone knows where he is.
Uziyah, a fourth grader, was the Crosses’ nephew, but they were raising him as their son. Uziyah and his two sisters had been living with Nikki, Brett and their four other children in Uvalde for the past school year.
Uziyah called Brett Dad. He called Nikki Mom.
During that time, his stutter faded. His grades improved. He played basketball.
He wanted to be a cop.
Then came the call from Jaxon. Brett stepped away from Nikki in case it was bad news.
Nobody knows anything, but we heard that Mr. Reyes was shot.
Mr. Reyes – that was Arnulfo Reyes. Uzi’s teacher.
Maybe Uziyah wasn’t in the classroom. Maybe someone just went after Mr. Reyes.
Brett knew he was reaching.
Uziyah wasn’t on the buses. He wasn’t in the neighborhood near the school. He wasn’t with friends. No one on social media reported seeing him.
The last bus rolled into the civic center. Uziyah wasn’t on it.
Then someone from the front of the civic center called out to the families on the lawn.
All the parents who don’t have their kids need to come inside. Come inside.
Hours passed. Day turned to night.
About 7:45, an officer asked Brett, Nikki and her sister - Uziyah’s biological mother – to join him in a private room.
“I’m sorry,” the man said, “but your son was one of the casualties.”
The women began to wail.
Brett wanted answers.
“Where is that son of a bitch?” he asked.
But there was no one to hurt. The gunman was already dead.
The police had killed him.
Dumbstruck, Brett stood there silently. He could feel his eyes glaze with tears, but they never fully formed.
“I’ll go and get the car,” he said. “We have to go tell the kids.”
Chapter 2: Kim
Kim Hammond was sitting in her recliner working on a video game when she thought she heard something pop outside.
Gunfire? Nah. Could be a car speeding down a bumpy road. Or someone unloading lumber.
It was a school day, Tuesday, May 24.
She got up, popped two Bar-S hot dogs into the microwave for 45 seconds, walked back into the living room and sat back down.
Then she heard it again. More pops.
Something wasn’t right.
The rumbling of a low-flying chopper shook her windows. Kim walked to her screened-in back porch and into the yard. Birds were flying from swaying trees. The rotors roared. It was like a windstorm had hit the yard.
This was where Kim usually came to relax, stare at her neighbor’s oak trees, watch squirrels play in the water feeder, and listen to the children at Robb Elementary School.
Kim didn’t have any children of her own, but she relished the sound of the little kids shouting and laughing. From her brick ranch house on Old Carrizo Road, just two doors down from the school, Kim could hear them count down – “Ten, nine, eight.” She had no idea what they were playing, but they were kids, and that’s what kids do, and it made her smile.
The 51-year-old former postmaster hadn’t been in Uvalde long, just nine months. Raised in Montana, Kim had lived in Texas for years to be closer to her partner’s mother. But Uvalde was even closer, and the pair loved the little town of 15,000 people.
Kim was a logical thinker, a step-by-step plotter, a characteristic that came from her father while growing up on a farm in Hardin, Montana. Here’s how you hitch up a trailer. Here’s how you feed the animals. Always think ahead.
Her two-plus years in the Army, where she set up mobile communications for the troops, taught her to slow down and think strategically.
Her 18 years working in the post office taught her her discipline, leadership, people skills and a respect for details. Her time as a mayor in small-town Hardin showed her how government works.
Now, as the helicopter hovered over her house that May afternoon, people were running past her home toward the school. And that’s when she knew.
That was gunfire.
Kim walked to the end of the street near the school. Frantic parents were running everywhere. Some people guessed it was a bailout, when vehicles smuggling migrants lead authorities on high-speed chases until there’s a crash and the occupants scatter.
But there were so many cops. At some point, hundreds. And soon, Kim heard there was an active shooter at the school.
The strategic thinker started thinking.
What kind of gun did he have, and how did he get inside?
Then Kim noticed something and started texting her partner:
She stopped counting at 10.
Why would they need that many ambulances? she asked herself.
Kim scoured social media, watched the news and checked on her neighbors. Then she heard on the radio that people were dead. First it was two. Then it was 14. Then 19. Then 19 children, 2 teachers.
Nineteen kids who would never graduate from elementary school. Two teachers who would never return home.
Kim was enraged.
The first target of that rage: Pete Arredondo, chief of the Uvalde school district police department. Investigators said Arredondo led the response.
And that response had been to wait 77 minutes until U.S. Border Patrol agents finally entered the classroom to kill the shooter.
That meant wounded teachers and students waited in a room with the gunman for more than an hour while police stood just outside the door. No one knows how many of them might have lived if only someone had acted sooner.
But nobody had taken responsibility. No one had apologized.
By mid-June, Arredondo was still the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District’s police chief. And it wasn’t just that.
Arredondo, just weeks before the shooting, had also been elected to the City Council. The city swore him into office behind closed doors.
So when a friend suggested protesting against Arredondo on a Saturday in early June, Kim jumped into the fray.
The protest was at the town square, one of two main memorials for the fallen 21 from Robb Elementary. The park was filled with flowers, crosses, signs, stuffed animals and mourners. But Kim was carrying an anti-Arredondo poster:
HEROES 2 ZEROES IN 77 MINUTES.
The sight of the protest so close to the memorial appalled some people. Several stopped by to give Kim a tongue-lashing.
You shouldn’t be here, they said. This is disrespectful. This is a memorial.
But then a victim's mother stopped.
Thank you, she said. And gave Kim a hug.
That was all Kim needed to keep going.
The next weekend, someone new showed up.
In the weeks since the murders, the man's anger had been building. But in the haze of his grief, he didn’t know what to do.
Then, while driving by one day, he saw a few people protesting at the town square.
On June 18, he joined them, holding a poster-board sign reading “Their Blood on Pete’s Hands.” Two little red handprints stood out from the middle of the paper.
From a distance, Kim saw him standing at the corner of Getty and Main streets. She could see how he felt. His soul had been scorched.
She walked up and introduced herself. She was Kim.
He was Brett. Brett Cross.
Chapter 3: Adam
Adam Martinez’s heart was pounding.
Armed police were patrolling the front of Robb Elementary. Officers were yelling at parents to stay back. Families were screaming, cussing, recording on their cellphones.
It was Tuesday, May 24.
A shooter was inside the school. And to the frantic parents of Uvalde, it looked as if nobody was doing anything.
Adam, a food service manager, had been eating Tex Mex enchiladas at Lunkers Grill and Bar when his wife called him, screaming about a shooter at Robb Elementary.
He sped to the school, parked his white Toyota Corolla on the street and dashed toward the front office. A school administrator stopped him.
Can I help you, sir?
Adam tried to focus. I’m looking for my son.
Zayon. Eight-year-old, 4-foot-7, 80-pound Zayon, who made a mean pitcher of sweet green tea, loved toy soldiers and always raced to say “See you later, alligator” before his grandfather did. He was in second grade.
You can’t be here, the administrator said.
Adam turned and raced toward a police officer.
Soon, police and parents were circling each other as if ready to pounce.
Get back on the sidewalk, the officer barked. They refused.
One officer pushed Adam. Adam – still in the cowboy boots he’d worn to work that day – dug in.
Another officer tried a different approach. All I know, he told them, is that a gunman is barricaded in a classroom.
Is anyone shot? Adam asked.
We don't know right now, the officer answered. That's all we know.
Then Adam heard a man yelling from down the street. "They’re letting kids out!"
Adam started running again.
Around campus, children were being dragged out of windows, rushed through outside doors and led across the street into Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home.
Adam barreled through the funeral home doors and into pure chaos. Children were crying. Searching parents screamed their kids’ names. Adam tried to swallow his panic as he scanned a large room where students sat on benches usually reserved for funeral-goers.
Then he spotted a little boy with dark hair across the room.
Zayon? No. Adam looked away.
Maybe? Doubting himself, Adam looked again.
It wasn’t him.
So, once again, Adam found himself running back to the school. He felt his phone vibrate in his right front pocket. It was his wife, Raquel. Their 18-year-old daughter, who had hurried to Robb Elementary with one of her friend’s parents, had spotted Zayon rushing toward a school bus headed for the civic center.
He had no shoes on. Zayon had kicked them off while getting ready to watch a movie and, in the rush, had fled the school without them. His sister gave him her yellow Crocs before he boarded the bus.
Adam looked in several nearby buses, all of which were parked and empty.
The spot where he left his car was now encircled by police barricades. He ran to a nearby restaurant and waited for his father to pick him up.
He called Raquel again. She was in the truck on speaker. Adam still hadn’t heard his son’s voice.
And then he did.
By the time Adam got home, Zayon was sitting at the dining room table eating french fries.
Adam tried not to cry as he hugged the son he had almost lost.
He said little about the shooting to Zayon. It wasn’t the right time.
But Adam was seething.
Just under a month later, Adam stepped into the civic center, this time waiting for the City Council meeting to begin.
He had that feeling, the fear that he had lost his son forever, seared into his memory. And in his hands, he held a big sign that read, “FIRE PETE.”
A man and woman slid into the gray folding chairs one row in front of him. Both were wearing the Uvalde school color: maroon. He wore a maroon and white ball cap. She wore a maroon T-shirt. Adam didn’t know either of them.
Arredondo, she said, had asked for a leave of absence.
On its face, it made sense. People were furious at Arredondo, so he would go on leave.
But according to the city charter, if the new councilman failed to show up for three meetings in a row, he could be ejected from office.
No waiting for a recall election. Just out.
“What you can do right now is not give him – as he requested – a leave of absence,” Kim told the board. “Don’t give him an out.”
The council listened. It denied Arredondo a leave of absence. The crowd cheered and whistled.
But what should have been a moment of celebration quickly turned ugly.
“Keep in mind,” Councilman Chip King noted after the vote, “he has the right to show up at these meetings.”
“So do we,” members of the crowd snapped back.
The crowd talked over one another, suddenly angry at King. Adam jumped from his seat.
“You said you don’t want people causing problems,” Adam said. “Don’t insult us.”
After the meeting, Adam and Brett talked about a photo they had seen of the interior of the school the day of the shooting. At least one officer was visible.
Let’s go find him, the two decided together.
Kim watched them storm off.
“I hope I have bail money,” she said as she followed them.
Kim saw the man first, confirmed he was the Uvalde Police Department officer in the photo, then pointed him out to Brett. Brett walked straight to him and remembers the conversation as short but ugly.
Hey, man, is this you? Brett asked, holding up his phone.
Yep, the cop answered.
What the f---, man? Brett said
Have a nice day, the cop answered.
Brett backed off. He knew he could spend years in jail for assaulting a police officer. Adam, however, didn’t care.
He immediately started telling off the Uvalde officer, swearing, calling him foul names.
Brett hovered by closely.
They are not about to touch this man, he thought.
Another officer stepped in between the men, calmly separated them and led the other cop away.
And as Brett walked back to his car, he was awed by what had just happened with Adam.
I don’t even know this guy.
Adam wasn’t just fighting for himself, Brett realized that night. He was fighting for Uziyah.
This guy, Brett thought, is up there fighting for my kid.
Chapter 5: The fight
Brett hadn’t slept well in months. Four hours, tops, if he was lucky.
He took a leave of absence from work. He spent his days and nights trying to comfort his mourning family. He took a trip to Washington, D.C., to sway legislators to clamp down on guns.
And he was constantly on the phone. He talked to reporters, to victims’ families, to friends and strangers wanting to help. He texted Kim and Adam to plot their next moves.
And he posted online.
“I go from bawling to anger,” he wrote one day on Facebook. “I’m tired. Exhausted. A part of me is gone and will never return. I can’t breathe. I’m shaking.”
There were things he couldn’t forget.
The sound of his daughter screaming when he told his six remaining children that their brother wasn’t coming home. Sitting, sobbing, on the floor with his youngest children. The way his 15-year-old daughter ran out the back door and cried on the trampoline Uziyah had loved. The last time he hugged Uzi before sending the 10-year-old off to bed. The sight of his child in a casket.
They’d dressed Uziyah in the clothes he’d specifically requested for his next school dance, the one he’d never go to: a red, long-sleeved shirt, black bow tie, black slacks, a thin gold chain and his favorite red and black Nikes.
No one had truly been held accountable.
Brett wrestled with his rage, his thoughts cloudy.
Adam needed to vent and plan. His wife, introverted, didn’t want to play that part.
Kim needed them both, to keep herself focused.
They remembered the promises they had made to themselves.
I will always have your back, Kim had decided when she met Brett. I don’t care how long it takes. We will get them.
So, together, they fought. And they started to win.
In June, Arredondo was placed on leave from his job as police chief.
In July, he resigned from the City Council.
In August, the school board finally fired Arredondo as police chief.
In September, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed seven of its officers were under investigation for their responses to the school shooting.
Adam stayed in the news, talking about how police had done more to stop parents that day than to stop the shooter. Talking about why Zayon wasn’t ready to go back to school. He raised money for families by selling barbecue plates and persuaded people to write down their grievances against the school superintendent for failing to do more to protect the children.
Brett kept the story in the news, too, appearing on television interviews and podcasts. Kim, who had gone to care for family in Montana, worked on complaints to the Texas Education Agency about the school’s failures.
Though many community members supported the trio’s fight for accountability, not everyone joined them.
Some focused solely on gun control. Some defended Arredondo and the school superintendent. Some stayed quiet and leaned on God.
Not the trio.
“Not a single one of us will back down or step off until we feel justice has been served,” Kim said.
Chapter 6: The wait
At the end of September, Brett turned to social media, as he does again and again.
“It’s been 4 months,” he wrote Sept. 24, “and nothing’s changed. Nobody is being held accountable. Nothing has been done.”
A few days later, he decided to do something new.
He walked up to the school district’s office and stood in the doorway.
Brett wanted answers. The school district’s tiny police force had been there that awful day in May. Why weren’t those officers being investigated? Brett refused to leave the property until his demands were met.
His eyes no longer glazed over. The tears were long past. And there was no need for silence.
Hours passed. Day turned to night.
Brett slept on a cot nestled in a doorway of the school district building.
And that was where he stayed, for 10 days, broadcasting on social media and using a projector to screen videos of the dead children on the building wall.
He wasn’t alone. His wife and supporters joined him in the district parking lot. People delivered food to them. They sat under tents on folding chairs, plotting their next moves. And right there with them was Adam.
More answers started coming.
Crimson Elizondo, one of the Department of Public Safety officers under investigation for her role in the shooting, had been hired as a police officer by the Uvalde school district. After news reports brought this to light Oct. 5, she was promptly fired.
On Oct. 7, school officials suspended the entire police force. A few days later, the school superintendent of 31 years confirmed he would retire.
After 10 days, Brett packed up his things.
In Uvalde, the kids are back in school, though not at Robb Elementary.
The birds are headed south. The summer heat is gone. Kim’s yard is quiet now. The sounds of the children counting from the playground have been silenced.
It's Nov. 24.
Kim's 52 now, back in Uvalde after spending months visiting family in Montana. But she doesn't like this little Texas city anymore. After everything that happened, and continues to happen, it doesn't feel right.
Adam has a new baby at home now. Zayon is 9 now. He takes online classes from home now. He can study barefoot.
Adam, now 38, started a group to support families affected by the shooting, find ways to improve the community and continue pushing for accountability.
Then there’s Brett. He’s 32 now. For all the answers he has gotten, Brett is still trying to make sense of his new life. Even the little things are hard.
On trash day, Tuesdays, it was always Jaxon and Uziyah’s job to take out the garbage together.
Hey boys, take out the trash, Brett would say.
Now it’s Hey Jaxon …
Because Brett's not working right now, the days of the week don’t mean quite as much as they used to. In his calendar, there’s really only one date. The 24th of every month.
By five months after the shooting, officers had been fired. Officials had resigned. Brett turned to social media, as he does almost every day.
“It’s been 5 months since the unthinkable happened,” he wrote:
“5 months since since my boy walked out of the front door, jumped on the bus, went to school and never returned. … 5 months since we were gutted, left behind in time as the world continues spinning.”
It's a month later now, six months since the shooting, but it doesn't matter. Every day is Tuesday, May 24th.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Uvalde school shooting, six months later: How 3 friends sought justice