KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Standing in the parking lot of the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Texas Township, Michigan State Police 1st Lt. Dale Hinz said the awful memories of a Saturday night one year ago come rushing back.
“Not a time goes by that I don’t think about that night,” said Hinz, who commands MSP’s Paw Paw Post and responded to the restaurant on the night of the Kalamazoo-area shooting rampage that killed six people.
The events of Feb. 20, 2016 remain seared in the collective conscience of first responders. A year later, some still describe those moments as “mind-boggling.”
Multiple shootings hours and miles apart — an apartment complex, a car dealership, a restaurant. The most violent crime scene was outside the Cracker Barrel, where four people died.
Hinz still feels the pain of the lives lost.
“You remember the shock of it all. Obviously, we lost a lot of people that evening,” he said.
Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety Chief Jeff Hadley remembers the chaos of the night, the trauma and then the worldwide spotlight. Kalamazoo found itself the newest member of a heartbreaking fraternity of communities coping with a sudden and unexpected outburst of violence.
“You really feel for those folks that are missing their loved ones today because it shouldn’t be that way, right? We shouldn’t have to live in a society where we have to worry that those kinds of things might happen. But we know that it unfortunately did happen,” said Hadley.
In the midst of Kalamazoo’s worst moment, the first responders that night were at their best — superheroes, but not super human. Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller says the rampage threatened to open psychological wounds.
The county’s Critical Incident Stress Management Team was activated. It held two sessions on how to properly cope. Each was attended by at least 50 people.
“The emergency responders, the hospital staff, EMS, firefighters and the police officers involved — what they witnessed, how they had to act, what they had to do. And talking about it as a group of people who had to deal with this, it helps,” Fuller said.
Uber driver Jason Dalton, 45, stands accused of embarking on the blind rampage. He faces six counts of open murder, along with 10 other charges.
For the officers who responded that night, Dalton’s trial can’t come soon enough.
“I think it’s important that we get the prosecution behind us so we can all put some closure to this and move the best way possible,” said Hadley.
Dalton remains housed in the Kalamazoo County Jail and his next court appearance is scheduled for early March. Hadley says Dalton has only had two consistent visitors while locked up: his now ex-wife Carole and his attorney. His motives, thoughts and actions remain unknown.
Hinz says he takes solace in simply knowing Dalton is locked up.
“His day in court will come and we will deal with the court proceedings at that time,” Hinz said.
As for Hadley, Dalton remains an enigma and he’s afraid it might stay that way.
“That’s the million-dollar question: how could this happen from a seemingly normal citizen? I think that’s what people want to try and understand because that’s what we do as human beings,” said Hadley. “I’m not sure we’ll get there.”
Monday night, the Kalamazoo community comes together to honor the victims and thank the brave men and women who helped that night. It will be a moment of gratitude; a moment to be forever strong.
“I think that on a first anniversary, it’s a good thing to do. It allows people to remember together, grieve together and I think overall it will be helpful to the community as well as the survivors,” Hinz said.