- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - For years after the shooting, fire alarms at Union Butterfield were tested only on weekends, in a largely empty building.

“We had to do them on Saturdays, because when you do a sprinkler test, you have to test the alarms and you have them going off beforehand and they didn’t want to subject everybody to hearing all that again,” remembered Howard “Butch” Reece, who was in charge of building maintenance.

Two decades ago, Reece heard a loud bang as he and four others finished paperwork in the lunchroom of the south Asheville building. He looked up to see a man in the doorway, a semiautomatic rifle butted into his shoulder, the muzzle pointed steadily at the group.

Reece did not know the man, but he recognized the weapon as an M-1 Carbine. He had carried one himself during his Navy days.

“Don’t anybody move,” the man said calmly, and Reece realized that peculiar bang had been a gunshot, one that fatally wounded 52-year-old Gerald Allman.

On that May morning in 1995, Allman and two others died because former Union Butterfield employee James Floyd Davis, then 47, was furious that he’d lost his job on a Monday for fighting.

On Wednesday morning, he purchased the rifle, two magazines and ammunition at a pawn shop and headed to the building where he had worked for four years.

Mass shootings across the country have since become a staple of the evening news, with less “noteworthy” cases reduced to simple reports of death tolls, forgotten as soon as the next tragedy strikes.

But for dozens of people today, the pain of what happened at Union Butterfield in Asheville 20 years ago will linger for a lifetime.

The number of people who have died in mass shootings depends on who’s defining the data. A 2012 federal statute cited by the FBI defines a mass killing as three or more fatalities in a single incident.

Others use a more expansive standard that does not require death: at least three or four gunshot victims regardless of fatalities qualifies as a mass shooting.

Beyond the conflicting definitions, much of the existing data on mass shootings is flawed. The FBI data recorded 172 cases of mass killings between 2006 and 2011, but some crimes that should have been on the list were not included because local agencies failed to report them properly or at all, according to an investigation by USA Today.

Projects like Stanford University’s Mass Shootings in America began in 2012, and rely in part on media accounts to track mass shootings dating from 1966.

That project has gathered statistics on about 240 mass shootings, but Union Butterfield is not among them, though it fits their definition.

Under the FBI definition, the 1998 Drexel Heritage furniture plant shooting in Black Mountain, in which Mark Jaynes, 36, and Lee Harris, 25, were killed and another two were injured, would not be noted.

In the last decade, about 300,000 people have died in gun violence, including suicides, according to Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine.

“I have to remind myself that every one of those numbers is a person with a story and a life cut short and a tragedy in its own right,” he said. “We tend to become numb to these numbers. All of us, you and me, are about one degree of separation from the story of someone who died in gun violence.”

Inside Union Butterfield, as Reece realized Allman had been shot, Davis raised the carbine to Tony Balogh, a 42-year-old father of two. Balogh’s legs gave, and Reece knew the shot had been fatal.

As Reece ran, fragments splintered from something - likely plaster or sheet rock from the wall - and the pieces embedded in his arm.

The two other men in the room, who worked for a sprinkler company, escaped uninjured after Davis told them to “get the hell out of here.”

Reece worked for the neighboring business, Daniels Graphics, and ran there, telling a disbelieving secretary to call the police. A man was next door, shooting people.

In the confusion, the building’s fire alarm sounded, and Reece feared another emergency as he turned it off.

“I was trying to make sure everybody stayed inside instead of going outside,” Reece said from his east Asheville home. “I was afraid they were all going to gather around outside and (Davis would) start shooting people there.”

On the Union Butterfield side of the building, Davis moved to management offices. Manager Larry Cogdill saw the gunman and slammed the door shut. When the handle began turning, Cogdill leaned into the door as shots blasted through. He survived gunshots to the arm and leg.

Davis reloaded and moved on.

In another office, Frank Knox hid beneath a desk as Davis fired three times, one shot hitting him in the wrist and another fatally in the chest. Later, Davis would tell officers he did not know Knox, who worked for Union Butterfield’s parent company, Dormer Tools.

In the warehouse, Davis fired at another man, who escaped uninjured, and soon after officers arrived. Davis handed over a Lorcin .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol he also carried.

“I got fired. Damn it. I got set up. They drove me crazy out there,” he told investigators after his arrest.

When Phyllis Knox, 72, learned of the shooting from a telephone call, the thought that her husband died flashed through her head.

When she couldn’t find Frank Knox, 62, outside, she tried to duck under crime scene tape. An officer stopped her, told her she would have to wait.

“Finally, I asked a policeman, ‘I know you can’t tell me names, but if I tell you what Frank was wearing, would you be able to tell me if he was inside?’” she remembered, reached at her Connecticut home.

When the officer agreed, Knox told him of his green khakis and green plaid shirt.

“He went away, and when he came back, he had a chair told me to sit down and said he would sit with me,” Knox said.

And though the officer did not confirm her fears, with the small kindness of a chair, Phyllis Knox understood her husband would not come home from work; would not see their first grandchild, born just six days earlier in Texas; would not again take to the beloved Atlantic in the sailboat they left behind in Connecticut.

Hours later, she was officially told the thing she already knew. Still, she wanted to be with him, until Kate Dreher, then an assistant prosecutor for Buncombe County, emerged from the Union Butterfield building.

“I had this thing in my head where I just did not want him to be alone and Kate said: ‘You have to go home. Please go home. It’s going to be hours and hours to process this scene and when we finish, I will call you. I asked her, ‘Please, can I just stay with him?’”

“And she said, ‘Yes, I could do that, but it would contaminate the scene and it would hurt the prosecution, and it would be better to wait at home.’”

The prosecution against Davis continued through the autumn of 1996, when a jury sent him to death row where he remains, rejecting an argument that he was insane. A civil case resolved in 1999, with a jury awarding compensation to Knox and Linda Allman, the widow of Gerald Allman. Those decisions were appealed.

That jury declined to provide restitution to the sons of Tony Balogh and survivor Larry Cogdill, saying the men were managers aware of Davis’ potential for violence.

Then, as now, Knox said she would rather have her husband than a settlement, and with broadcasts of workplace and mass shootings, Knox thinks of those like herself, carrying a lifetime of tribulations brought on by an armed stranger’s rage.

“There’s a ripple effect that you just can’t imagine that goes on for years and years, that ripples down through friends and family. The children lost their father. Our grandchildren never knew their grandfather,” she said. “We are sailors, and I would have been sailing with him. We had all of these plans for our grandchildren. We’re big readers, and we were going to go to the library and walk through the woods and point out plants and where the fox slept last night. All those little things we anticipated doing are lost.”

She is thankful for a bonded family and close friends, and sometimes it seems the shooting is squarely two decades in the past - years that are marching their three grandchildren to young adulthood. But in other moments, it is as though she’s just gotten off a chair in a parking lot and a prosecutor is gently urging her to go home.

“He is still my first waking thought and he is last thing on my mind when I go to sleep at night,” she said.

Joyce Reece, 44 years married to Howard Reece, remembers also getting a call that day and getting into the car, and her eyes fill with tears at the memory of reaching for the radio.

“I turned it off,” she said. “I didn’t want to know. I can’t imagine losing him.”

The father of three, now grandfather of nine, retired last year after three decades with Daniels Graphics. The company took over the building on Sweeten Creek Road after Union Butterfield closed all operations in 2002.

Joyce Reece found her husband at the hospital, his injuries minor. Later at home, the kids whipped snappers onto the ground one day, with their father telling them to stop. He didn’t want to hear the jarring pops.

He became hyper-cautious, aware of odd behaviors, and when concealed carry permitting opened that year, he applied. He likely would have gotten the license anyway, but probably the Union Butterfield shooting hastened him, he said.

When he talks of looking at Davis with the rifle, his voice is tinged with the regret of not tackling him, though the men were separated by a pair of tables that he could not have maneuvered without taking a gunshot.

Like the rest of the county, he watches the broadcasts that distill lives into numbers. This year alone: nine dead in Charleston church, five dead in two military centers in Chattanooga, three dead at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, nine dead at Umpqua Community College in Oregon and 14 dead in San Bernardino, California.

And those are only the high-profile mass shootings.

Howard Reece wonders about the kind of people who latch onto those images, what violence it triggers in their minds, and if they are aiming for a twisted story of their own.

“Anybody should be able to go wherever they want to in safety, but the way the world is, it’s not that way anymore,” he said.

___

Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, https://www.citizen-times.com

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