VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The mass shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center in 2019 changed the city forever. Nearly four years later, family members of those killed are banding together and fighting for more money and resources from the government.
Sarah Gayle-Leonard’s mother, Mary Louise Gayle, was one of the 12 people killed on May 31, 2019. Leonard describes the treatment of her family as an “indescribable hell that it's hard to even put into words.”
Last week, she spoke to the Virginia Beach Mass Shooting Commission in Richmond about how her mother devoted herself to Virginia Beach for 24 years.
"Her work family was our family, and the City of Virginia Beach has been part of our identity," said Gayle-Leonard. "We have been exploited for our loyalty, silenced with empty promises, and our loved ones have been given no justice.”
Eleven others were killed that day when city employee DeWayne Craddock opened fire on his former employees. Four others were wounded in the attack.
Victim Bert Snelling was the only person killed who didn’t work for the city. He was in the building for a construction project he was working on and getting documents.
Eight families of those killed are now being represented by the former lieutenant governor of Virginia and attorney, Justin Fairfax.
Fairfax said they've asked to have $40 million set aside in the state budget for the 12 families who lost someone during the mass shooting, and the 400 employees who were impacted that day. They're waiting to see what lawmakers decide as they continue to work on the details of the state budget.
“The resources that they need will go towards their mental health care, which they have been having to pay for out of pocket themselves," said Fairfax. "That will go towards alleviating some of the burden that [has] accumulated now over the last four years. These families are suffering tremendously.”
The families have the support of VTV Care, a nonprofit created to honor the victims of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. According to the the VTVCare website, the group works to support the survivors and advocates for change that promotes a safer, more compassionate and caring world.
Fairfax said the Virginia Tech victims' families and others impacted by the shooting in 2007 received financial support from the state after an $11 million settlement. He also noted that some of them have free mental health resources for life.
But family members of those killed in the 2019 mass shooting tell News 3 they feel forgotten. Some said they had previously struggled to find lawyers to represent them.
“These families have not gotten support at the levels they need to heal," said Fairfax.
One major issue family members have continually expressed is their belief of a clear motive from Craddock. They said he was angry and disgruntled, and their loved ones had complained about his behavior before he killed them.
Previously, the city and Hillard Heintze — an outside agency hired by the city — concluded that there was no evidence that could provide a clear motive.
Some of the victims' families were furious. Several told News 3 that this assessment hindered their healing processes, reaffirming that they believe Craddock had a motive.
“If anybody tells me that they don’t have a motive, that’s insane,” said Jason Nixon, who lost his wife, Kate, and has been outspoken about the motive since the beginning of the investigations.
Nixon said his wife was concerned about Craddock and complained about him several times.
During her speech to the State Commission in Richmond, Gayle-Leonard said her mother raised similar concerns about Craddock.
“Mom knew DeWayne wasn’t okay," she said. "His performance was suffering, which affected hers, and his mannerisms indicated he was progressively mentally troubled. Temper flares, throwing small things, and staring intently at walls."
Later in her speech, she said her mother's concern for Craddock worsened with time.
“Over the course of their last six months, [my] mom’s concern for DeWayne escalated into fear. I encouraged her to report DeWayne herself, and she came back from that meeting with her supervisor saying, quote, ‘the City does not care.' She lost sleep over this,” said Gayle-Leonard.
According to the FBI, the Virginia Beach Police Department requested assistance from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), based in Quantico, Virginia.
An excerpt of BAU's findings on Craddock is as follows:
“The shooter was motivated by perceived workplace grievances, which he fixated on for years. BAU found the shooter struggled with how he perceived his own work performance and how others at work viewed him. The shooter’s inflated sense of self-importance contributed to this conflict and led him to believe he was unjustly and repeatedly criticized and slighted. Violence was viewed by the shooter as a way to reconcile this conflict and restore his perverted view of justice.”
The News 3 I-team has met with these families over the last few months.
Aliaksei Huseu’s twin brother, Alexander, was killed in the mass shooting. He said there is a perception that the families have been taken care of emotionally and financially, but he said that is not the truth.
“It was a lot of words in the beginning, a lot of promises,” said Huseu.
Each family received a different amount of money depending on their situation.
Many tell us they got worker’s compensation from the state, life insurance for the death of their loved ones and donations from the United Way Fund.
United Way distributed the funds to each family on the amount of need. That money came from the community's generous donations, which the family members said they were extremely grateful for.
They said they're upset over what they call a lack of compensation, resources and support from the city.
Gayle-Leonard's brother, Matthew Gayle, said they grew up in Virginia Beach. They said their mom loved her community and the city and as children, they were always with her at her job. They were stunned and extremely disturbed by the way they said they were treated.
“We thought of the city as family and we trusted them," said Matthew. "And instead, they’re using my mom’s face to sell t-shirts and bumper stickers while we go into debt to pay for mental health care.”
The city of Virginia Beach provided News 3 with the following statement:
"The impact of the events of May 31 cannot be understated. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the organization who was not touched by this tragedy in some way, in addition to the loss and pain that the families of the victims have endured.
To that end, the City has engaged VB Strong Center to be a conduit for those who wish to seek counseling services. The City itself does not provide these services, however if anyone, especially those who were directly impacted by this event, have had difficulty accessing services through our partner, the City needs to hear about it so this can be addressed as appropriate from our end.
Regarding answers about what happened in Building 2 that day, the official reports from Hillard Heintze and the Virginia Beach Police Department are publicly available. The FBI noted that only the shooter knew the real reason why he committed this horrific act of violence which is understandably frustrating. However, the City remains committed to participating in investigative efforts that may provide more answers about what happened on May 31, 2019. Unfortunately, there is nothing additional to add beyond what has been publicly stated.
The City continues to reach out and connect with the families of all of the victims in an effort to ensure they are provided with information and resources for ongoing support. However we recognize that individuals grieve and heal at their own pace and will remain steadfast in our efforts to keep them informed about resources available to them and any new information that may become available about the tragedy."
News 3 recently sat down with leaders of the VB Strong Center, an organization created in the aftermath of the shooting that is a partnership between the city and Sentara. It's set up to help those impacted by the shooting by providing resources, support, and education.
Several family members of those killed told us the center has not been a helpful resource for them.
“For my family, they were absolutely useless,” said Huseu.
“They'll tell you some of their nightmare stories about VB Strong," said Fairfax. "How they've gone in there and tried to get psychological services. Some of them are absolutely at the end of their rope. They got there for help, and they basically get nothing, or get turned around, or turned away or referred to some, red tape Byzantine system where they don't actually get care."
He said the families have been tortured by the red tape and the difficulties getting mental health help.
Gayle-Leonard told us some counseling sessions were reimbursed in the first two years by the VB Strong Center, but that ended when she got an email just before the two-year anniversary of the mass shooting.
The email stated in part:
Unfortunately, the VB Strong Center has always been a short term, time limited endeavor as it is funded by a federal grand with very specific and limited timeframes. I am sorry if you were told or led to believe that the VB Strong Center and its funding was a permanent fixture.
My self and the VB Strong Center want to assist you in getting signed up with the Virginia Victims Fund as soon as possible, so that financial assistance for your counseling appointments can continue. Due to the federal grant that supports the VB Strong Center and controls how funds are spent, we can only assist with fees that are not covered by any other program, and that will only last as long as the Center is open. So please allow us to help you get connected quickly.
Gayle-Leonard said she was told she didn't qualify Virginia Victims Fund.
News 3 sat down with leaders from the center and presented the concerns, including the email that was sent to Leonard.
“My heart goes out to her. My heart goes out to all those who are affected, but I want them to know that even though the grant is short term, we are here for them," said Nedra Moncrief-Craig, the system director of Sentara Behavioral Health Services.
"We have other services that we can guide them at Sentara and in the community and we’re helping to build out services in the community to other providers. We’re going to be here long after the grant is gone. Sentara is working with other partners to fund services in the community."
Leaders say the center was created with a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. They say the grant has strict limitations on what they can and can't provide.
“I think that’s very important to understand [the grant] is time sensitive," said Glinda O’Neill, a leader with the VB Strong Center and a manager for Sentara Health Care. "It’s not a grant that goes on for an extended amount of time and it also works with a set amount, that amount is set by the DOJ, that amount is provided to the organization providing the services."
They say they’ve provided services to 600 people since October 2019, including first responders, and continue to support the community.
“It’s not a simple process in any regard and there are steps that have to be taken on the part of the patient,” she added.
News 3 asked what they would say to those that are still struggling right now.
“First and foremost, I would say that we are here and we are available to assist," O'Neill said. "Secondly, I would say from a mental health perspective, the navigators can provide resources and we will assist you with navigating those resources.”
She said, unfortunately, based on the grant and its parameters, they cannot provide individual psychotherapy, but they can help connect people to the right resources.
Leaders say they provide educational courses or classes that look at depression and anxiety and how to manage both grief and everyday activities. They say yoga, physical fitness and art therapy are offered to promote mental well-being.
"I attended the place a few times," said Huseu. "Tried to get the help that I needed. It appears they did not have the help that I need. They have an art class or something, you can pet the dog, they have a yoga, but at [this] time I don’t need a yoga class.".
Leaders say they want to speak to those who’ve had a bad experience with the center.
“Let’s sit down and let’s see if we can help with that going on and see if we could help you and guide you in the right direction,” said Moncrief-Craig.