When Stephanie Rudy went to the supermarket near her house in Boulder, Colorado, she filled her shopping cart high: yogurt, grapes, low-calorie fudge Popsicles, bone-in chicken thighs. Through the year of pandemic isolation, the 73-year-old had thought of the King Soopers on Table Mesa Drive as a lifeline — the friendly staff gave her a rare opportunity to connect with people other than her husband, and she relished it. 

So when Rudy heard helicopters in the sky and turned on the news one Monday in March, the footage she saw made her dizzy. Half a dozen police vehicles were parked in front of the sprawling shopping center, lights flashing. Officers with long guns were running toward the store. A man had entered the King Soopers with an assault-style rifle, which he used to kill 10 people, including a police officer, a repairman, three employees and five shoppers.

Rudy has volunteered as a victim advocate with the Boulder Police Department for more than 20 years. She spends several days each month on call, responding to tragedies that include suicides, fires, drug overdoses, and shootings. She helps survivors think through what they will do first, who they will call for support, and how they will get through the first days after an event that has changed their world.

On March 22, with police cars still blocking off the streets around the shopping center, Rudy was summoned to police headquarters. There, she greeted busloads of people coming from King Soopers. Most had been shopping when they heard gunfire, but it was the staffers whose faces were familiar. Among those coming off the buses were a woman she knew from the cheese department and a manager who had once let Rudy know her purse was hanging open. Rudy was used to supporting strangers when something terrible happened. She was not used to supporting people she knew.

Rudy and her husband moved to Boulder from Houston in 1997, drawn to its unpretentiousness, intimacy, and ever-changing weather. She had just left a job as the City of Houston’s director of personnel, overseeing employment logistics for 20,000 public workers. In Boulder, she planned to enjoy retirement and spend time volunteering. When she learned about the victims advocate program, she knew it was something she would love enough to do it for free — a way to forge profound connections in her new hometown. 

In Colorado, most police agencies have either staff or volunteers designated to assist crime victims, a consequence of a state victims’ rights bill passed about 30 years ago, said Susan Townley, Boulder’s victim services coordinator. Other regions across the country have programs managed by nonprofit agencies or by prosecutors’ offices — and some places don’t have victim advocates at all. In Boulder, volunteers do 40 hours of training, then work with a more experienced partner as they learn the job. 

Rudy found the work more difficult, and more rewarding, than she had expected. Her second assignment was responding after a baby died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Rudy had lost a great-nephew a few years earlier to SIDS, and as soon as she arrived at her assignment, the anguish of his death rushed back at her. “I knew I was going to have to see dead bodies, but I had never thought about seeing dead babies,” she said. She went into the ambulance with the baby’s mother, and sat with her while she said goodbye. Afterward, she called her sister, who had been her great-nephew’s grandmother, and wept. 

In 1999, when two high school seniors in Columbine, Colorado, shot and killed 12 people and injured 21 more, Rudy and a team of Boulder victim advocates were dispatched to the tragedy, two hours to the south. She was assigned to speak to children at a preschool just a couple of miles from Columbine High School. They sat outside in a circle and spoke about the terrible things they had seen and heard. “They were so scared,” Rudy remembers. “We talked with them about all the reasons they were safe — all the things their teachers were doing to protect them. I remember I could see them starting to feel better. They got up afterward and started to play. And I knew I had done something to help.” 

Over the years, Rudy has witnessed many shades of sadness and fear. She comforted a woman who had accidentally driven her car into the post office. She consoled someone who had moved to town with only her dog and left it in the car while she ran an errand, not understanding how quickly the sun can overheat a car, even on a cool day in the mountains. Rudy was there to meet a woman whose ex-husband held her hostage at gunpoint in the beauty salon where she worked. She helped a parent whose son had died by suicide decide what to do when she was scheduled to close on a house the same day. Everyone involved came to the woman’s home and signed the necessary documents standing on the lawn. 

“New advocates always want to know what they should say,” Rudy said. “But really, you don’t have to say anything. You just have to be there.” Over time, she’s seen people throw chairs across rooms in their fury, and others insist on serving her lunch. One thing she has found can put people at ease is reminding people to think about regular life while grappling with their grief. Once, she greeted two men who had come to Boulder to collect the body of their brother, who had died unexpectedly. When she found out the men were from Tyler, Texas — a town that Rudy knew — she asked, “Did you go to school with Earl Campbell?” They had gone to school with Campbell, a National Football League running back. “Were his thighs always that big?” Rudy asked. The men recounted memories of Campbell from high school. “The police came to the window and looked in,” Rudy remembered. “They couldn’t figure out why we were laughing.” 

“In those moments, if you can help people remember that there was a life before what happened, and there will be a life after, sometimes that helps,” she said. 

On the morning after the King Soopers shooting, police released the names of the 10 people who had been killed. One was Teri Leiker, an always-smiling 51-year-old woman who had bagged Rudy’s groceries for years. “I always looked for her and got in her line if I could,” Rudy said. “I knew she would brighten my day.” Rudy was assigned to work with the family of another shooting victim, but she declined to speak with The Trace in detail about them because their family has chosen not to interact with the media. But Rudy said that, in many ways, supporting victims after a mass shooting is just like supporting victims of any other tragedy. She makes sure they are not alone, she helps them contact loved ones, and guides them through the logistics. 

But this tragedy was also different in some ways. It felt particularly huge and sudden, for one, and it was impossible for the families to grieve privately. Media from around the country descended on the town, knocking on doors and asking to hear stories about the victims from families, friends, and neighbors. And unlike her work at Columbine, where the grief was large-scale but removed from her own life, this event was in her own community, affecting people she knew.

“I am used to the pain of a family, but this is magnified so many times,” she said. “And this felt different. These were my friends.”

Townley, the Boulder victim services coordinator, said the shooting was hard for many of her volunteers. In such a tight-knit community, in some respects they were all victims, experiencing vicarious trauma. 

The hardest day for Rudy was when police released the victims’ bodies and property to their next of kin. Rudy received two bags wrapped in evidence scene tape to return to the family she was working with. She knew that seeing personal items that belonged to someone who died often opens floodgates of grief for the people left behind. The woman’s cell phone was in the bag, and her car keys. There would be recent photos, and probably texts sent to her by people fearing the worst. When Rudy got to the woman’s home, she left the bags in her car. She wanted to give the family a moment to prepare.

She called again weeks later on Mother’s Day, which she knew would be a hard day for the woman’s children. In the months to come, she will continue to text them to check in, and deliver letters and cards when they are sent to the Police Department. “Not a day passes when I don’t think about them,” Rudy said. 

In the first days after the shooting, Rudy held her own grief in. She hadn’t known the victims well, after all, and she wanted to be strong for the people who had. Then one day, she opened her refrigerator and realized she needed groceries. She drove to a different Kings Soopers across town. As she pushed her cart down the aisles, none of the food was where she expected it to be. She kept telling herself, “You’re OK. You’re OK.” She couldn’t find the chicken thighs where they would have been at the other store, so she went to the butcher counter. “I started to ask the question, and I just started sobbing,” she said. “I must not have been the first one to do that because he just said, ‘That’s OK,’ and told me where to go.” 

Still, she plans to be the first one at the door when her old market reopens later this year. “I just want to tell them I’m sorry and thank you,” she said. “I know it will never be the same again. But I want it to be.”