This as-told-to essay is part of a short series explaining what it was like during the shooting at Highland Park. It is based on a conversation with Josh Leavitt, a 62-year-old who has lived in Highland Park since 1995. The conversation has been transcribed, condensed, and edited for clarity by Hannah Docter-Loeb.
I go to the parade every year, it’s a little slice of Americana here in Highland Park, I always got a kick out of it. I usually sit in a certain spot where there’s a Dairy Queen, which as it turned out would be one of the two spots where most of the shooting occured. This year,before the parade started, I went to get some coffee at the pancake house, which is about 40 yards up the street.
I was meeting my niece and her two young sons, 3 and 5 years old, and the parade had just started. It turned out that the area we moved to was also an area where they were shooting. There was a little break in the beginning of the parade, and we were at a corner, I was on the south west side, so behind us there was a cosmetic store, to our right was this pancake house, kitty corner from us was Uncle Dan’s, and across from us was Ross’s. Ross’s and Uncle Dan’s is where it turned out the shooter was right across the street.
I heard firecracker-type noise, thought it was a firecracker, it was pretty loud, but it was the Fourth of July. Then I heard another staccato burst of it, and then I’m thinking, ‘boy, this is a real jerk.’ And I start looking around to see who’s blasting firecrackers. I didn’t look up because I thought it was someone just blasting them on the ground. It was right then where I saw people starting to duck and cover. In that moment, I still thought it was possible that it was firecrackers and not anything else.
I had these two little kids and my niece, and we really didn’t have a place ourselves to cover. Behind us, there was a Bluemercury store, and we went into there. I wasn’t even sure it was open, but it turned out there was a store manager in there and she let us in, and we were the only ones in the store. We ended up moving the kids away from the windows, she gave them some paper and pens to color with. And we basically watched everything that transpired outside.
I saw someone being worked on with CPR just right across the street in front of that pancake house. I was thinking, ‘they could be having a heart attack because I didn’t see any blood’. And so I still wasn’t sure even after all this time what exactly was going on.
I ended up seeing about five people on the ground, two kitty corner from us, one across the street, the one laying in the street where we had been standing, and then across the street, the one that had the CPR going on, Later that person died, and they had covered up that body. We were in the store for about 90 minutes spending most of the time trying to keep the boys away from looking out the window. The store manager was really helpful to us.
The police realized we were in there and they said to stay put. We eventually were escorted to a perimeter. My niece and her sons were picked up in a car. I decided to stay back with the store manager to make sure she was OK and eventually walked her to her house, which was about six or seven blocks away. When they took us to the perimeter, I said to them, ‘I heard the killer’s still on the loose.’ And they couldn’t really tell me anything or wouldn’t tell me anything, so I said, ‘well, if you don’t know where he is,how do you know he is not outside the perimeter?’
The irony of all that is I took this woman home and then went towards my own house—it turned out that the house of the mother of the shooter was in the area where we walked to, and he actually turned out to be there. Of course, no one knew this at the time.
When I got home and the killer was still on the loose, I made my wife turn on our alarm system. One of my daughters was home. We stayed upstairs until dinner time, and then it looked like they were capturing the guy, so we turned off the alarm. And then it started to hit me.
Today I started thinking about the what ifs. What if I didn’t go have that cup of coffee? Or what if I was just standing 10 feet in one direction? Or what if, when I didn’t recognize that these were gunshots, what if, God forbid, one of us was shot? One of these two little kids could have been shot while I was deciding what to do.
There’s people who saw horrific open bleeding wounds, eviscerated people. I was talking to a friend of mine who saw some pretty bad stuff, he’s pretty shaken. I think in reaching out to my friends I think I found out a lot of personal things about other people who have had pretty horrific experiences, so in that sense there’s a community feeling coming together. But I am not that hopeful that there will be something done about these problems. I think I already knew the lesson that this could happen anywhere.