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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

10 years later, a state trooper who responded to Sandy Hook looks back

Eric Mueller places a wooden angel for each victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in front of his home in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 16, 2012.

By Elizabeth Williamson

Bill Cario, who was among the first law enforcement officers to enter Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, is adamant that a story about the 10th anniversary of the shooting that killed 20 first graders and six educators should not focus on him.

He said it should be about Rick Thorne, the school janitor who heard gunfire and moved down hallways locking classrooms to protect those inside. Or about the unidentified officer who helped lead the hunt for the gunman while knowing his boy was somewhere in the school.

Or about Rachael Van Ness, the police detective who hand-laundered the clothing children wore that day and returned the items to their grieving parents, nestled in small trunks she decorated in each child’s favorite colors.

And most of all about the families themselves, who have honored their loved ones with countless acts of charity and public service.

There is no photograph of Cario in this article because he did not want one.

“I am telling you what everybody else did. I did nothing alone, and I still don’t,” Cario said over lunch at the Blue Colony diner in Newtown.

But many whom Cario credits say he personifies a response to Sandy Hook that began with duty and ended with love.

“He’s your typical soldier for good. He’s grounded us,” said Bill Lavin, a former New Jersey firefighter and founder of the Where Angels Play Foundation that built 26 playgrounds to commemorate the victims. “But it’s tough to get Bill to verbalize any of it.”

Cario was a Connecticut state police sergeant parked near Newtown when the call came in that day. Rushing into the school, he encountered Natalie Hammond, a wounded educator, sheltering in a conference room. He told her he would be back for her, and with a Newtown police officer ran on in pursuit of the gunman, whose body they found moments later.

Then, inside the classroom that held most of the young victims, he found Ben Wheeler, 6, still breathing but with wounds that left little hope for survival. It has haunted Cario and his fellow troopers that they could not save those who died that day. But they could protect their families by resolving never to discuss what they had seen with anyone but them.

Cario kept this code through post-traumatic stress, divorce, retirement and a new struggle with a life-threatening illness. By resisting the limelight, the troopers helped preserve the families’ ability to reckon with the massacre in their own time, David Wheeler, Ben’s father, said this week.

Though “a desire for information is always buzzing at the back of my head,” Wheeler said, he began to learn more about Ben’s last moments only recently, when he thought he had the strength to delve into the reports of the day. His research has deepened his appreciation for the officers’ deeds, and their silence since.

“Their default mechanism was not to assume that we want the information they have, to make sure that above and beyond anything else they were careful and protective,” Wheeler said in an interview.

“The more the world knows about Bill Cario, the better,” Wheeler added. “I feel that way about the entire team.”

A report, and silence

All that is publicly known about Cario’s experience after the shooting is in his official reports.

He described entering Classroom 8, which looked empty until he and another officer peered into the classroom’s bathroom. Fifteen children had attempted to hide in the roughly 4 1/2-foot-by-3 1/2-foot space.

“As I stared in disbelief, I recognized the face of a little boy,” Cario wrote, his anguish clear even in the written record.

“The face of the little boy is the only specific image I have in that room.”

The little boy was Ben Wheeler. The rules of triage required that Cario first tend to Hammond, to stanch her bleeding. Then he ran, carrying Ben, to a squad car near the school entrance, which transported them to a waiting ambulance. The child died minutes later, en route to a hospital. Hammond survived.

The choice forced upon Cario that day tormented him, but he did not speak publicly about it.

An encounter in the school

After the shooting, the state of Connecticut assigned a trooper to every family who desired one, to protect and guide them through the ensuing investigation. One of their duties was to escort family members who wanted to visit the school before it was demolished.

“I didn’t want to see, and I didn’t want to see, and one morning I woke up and I had to go,” David Wheeler said. His wife and Ben’s mother, Francine Wheeler, visited the school at a different time.

Wheeler arrived accompanied by Francine and Ben’s pastor, and was met by a small group of troopers including Cario, who stood quietly by. Work crews had removed everything touched by the carnage: tiles, carpet, drywall. The bathroom where Ben and his classmates had died was stripped to the studs.

Peering into the tiny space “was a really hard thing to do,” Wheeler recalled. The troopers said they would share any details he needed. “The only question I could think to ask was, ‘How many shell casings did they find on the floor here?’ And they said ‘80.’ It was devastating.”

There was another conversation, though, between Wheeler and Cario. Its details remain private, but they say it brought peace to them both.

“I’m so glad he was there,” Wheeler said. “There’s something more than meaningful in the fact that he took the time to say, ‘If David is going to the school, I should be there, too.’”

Last week Cario responded to a request for an interview by text message: “Interview depends on what direction you’re going in.” His meaning was that others should be the focus of an article, not him. “I was a spoke in the wheel of the state police and am grateful to have worn the uniform shared by so many amazing people,” he said.

“I have heartbreak about this, but anyone in America with a heart has that,” Cario said in a subsequent conversation. His own heartbreak centers on the fact that “I couldn’t do anything to change the outcome.”

Cario observes the date of the shooting in his own way, often by visiting the graves of the children. The quiet for him contrasts with the scene that day.

Visiting one of the burial places soon after the shooting, Cario encountered Roy, an older man who spent most days back then at the graves of his wife and a daughter who had died in the same year. The man, a World War II veteran, addressed Cario as “Sarge” when they met, and proposed that they “get through this together,” Cario recalled. They began meeting for coffee or a beer.

Roy asked his surviving daughter to check in with Cario by phone on days when ill health kept the older man home. A couple of years ago, Roy died, but he remains on the long list of people Cario wants to honor instead of himself.

“I don’t think these people, acts of kindness, or unexplained events, occur due to coincidence,” he said. “I think they are there to get us through, and to help us heal.”

Dec. 14 this year comes for Cario amid grueling treatment for pancreatic cancer. His illness is another subject Cario is reluctant to discuss. Wheeler did not know he was ill.

“There’s part of me that wishes I had worked harder to sort of force Bill Cario and the others to be part of my life, to let them know how important they are,” Wheeler said this week. “But I think maybe it didn’t happen because somehow, it wasn’t supposed to.”

Cario agreed. His conversation with Wheeler in the empty school a decade ago told him everything.

“His words to me did so much good,” Cario said. “He said that he understood.”

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