Thousands descend on downtown Oxford to honor shooting victims: 'We're Oxford strong'

Mark Hicks Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Oxford — There were no words needed Friday night for the peals that rang loud and haunting in the frosty air that cloaked a heartbroken downtown Oxford.

The bells tolled for four minutes, representing the four victims slain in a shooting Tuesday at Oxford High School: Hana St. Juliana, 14, Madisyn Baldwin, 17, Tate Myre, 16, and Justin Shilling, 17.

Thousands gathered and bowed their heads in prayer to honor their lives as well as the many others touched by a tragedy that struck a chord across the United States: the seven others injured, the hundreds of first responders, the roughly 1,800 students grappling with memories of an unfathomable scene.

Some who attended Friday's vigil saw it as one step in a long process for recovery.

"How do you heal a broken heart? How do you get that feeling of heaviness and darkness out from over your heart?" said U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, whose district includes northern Oakland County. "The answer is all around us."

More:How Oxford suspect's parents eluded authorities

Amid Christmas lights and a wintry chill enveloping the brick storefronts, she and others repeatedly stressed the importance of unifying to heal, pointing to the many vigils, fundraisers and kind acts shared throughout four trying days.

Students take part in a moment of silence during a candlelight vigil on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021 in downtown Oxford in memory of the four Oxford High School students who died in a school shooting earlier this week.

"We've lived through one of the worst weeks in Michigan's history," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told the crowd. "But this week, we’ve also seen some of the best in one another."

Speaking to an audience that police estimated at more than 5,000 people, local leaders and pastors gave little mention to the 15-year-old suspect and instead focused on uplifting messages for a community they called unwaveringly resilient and "Oxford strong."

Matt Schuler, lead pastor at Oxford’s Journey Lutheran Church, described the past week as the "beginning of a new rescue mission: following the brave lifesaving actions of our students, our teachers, our first responders."

Those who braved the cold and heavy traffic wanted to mark a turning point in a community known for its devotion to sports and family.

Logan Hollingsworth, 17, of Lapeer was pleased as large crowds turned out to honor his peers at Oxford High. He was a friend of Shilling, and they would go to football games together.

"He was the funniest dude, just a comedian," Hollingsworth said. "He was never not smiling."

Hollingworth's father, Ken, 56, pulled up a photo of his son and Shilling wearing a brilliant smile.

"This is a therapy session," said Ken Hollingsworth of the vigil. "Who else are these kids going to talk to except other kids who went through it? This helps."

The gathering replaced Oxford’s annual Soup & Sweet Stroll. Coordinators canceled the event that traditionally highlights local businesses and was planned for Friday evening, as well as an annual parade Saturday.

“I don’t think this can be a very joyous time, but I also thought it was important for us to gather as a community and come together and show support for the victims’ families and the first responders,” said Kelly Westbrook, executive director at the Oxford Downtown Development Authority. 

“This is a very close-knit community. Whether you knew someone that was injured or hurt or who passed or not, you still knew somebody that knew someone. The whole community is being completely affected by what happened,” Westbrook said.

A young student takes part in a candlelight vigil on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021 in downtown Oxford.

Nearby, Doreene Schaffer, 66, was fixing her hot chocolate Friday evening. A resident of Oxford for 30 years, she wanted to show her support to her community.

"We have children who went to the high school and grandchildren. Neighbors have kids at the school," she said. "There's been a lot of weepiness this week. You think you're OK and then it hits you again."

Lynette Cereghino, 57, and Jennifer Clark, 50, both of Oxford, were decked out in navy and yellow, standing in for their sons who couldn't attend the vigil.

Cereghino had two children who graduated from Oxford High. Her son who graduated last year was meeting with fellow graduates Friday night at Michigan State University.

"He knows these kids," she said. "He walked the school with them. We wanted to show our support."

Clark's son, a member of the class of 2016, is a part of the high school's Loft special needs program. Her son opted to go into work Friday evening: "I think that is a good sign for him," she said.

Some moments Friday night were tense. As Oakland County Executive David Coulter spoke about 7:15 p.m., shouting erupted as a crowd member passed out, causing a short moment of panic in the audience that was quickly calmed, though shortly after, calls for ambulances were made for two other people.

"Take a deep breath everyone. Someone passed out," Coulter said as some attendees started moving and running from the event. "We're OK. There's no harm there's no violence happening. Please be calm.

"We're on edge, we're scared, but we're Oxford strong."

Mateo Anderson, 19, of Oxford remembers speaking with Shilling before graduating in 2020. He also was a friend of Myre’s older brother.

"They were very nice," Anderson said, giving his sympathies to the family. 

His brother, James Anderson, who also attended Oxford High, drove from Grand Blanc for the vigil.

"I know the teacher who was wounded and some of the first responders," James Anderson, 26, said. "My heart shatters for them. I'm here for the community that raised me."

Their mother, Rita Anderson, 57, of Oxford said the vigil was a part of the healing process for the community.

"It's a time to come together," she said. "As a mom with two sons who attended Oxford, I'm saddened by this."

An "episode" by a member of the crowd caused the moment of panic, resulting in two people being knocked down, Oxford Fire Department Chief Peter Scholz said. "They're fine," he said. "We didn't have to transport anyone to the hospital."

Ethan Crumbley was charged Wednesday as an adult on 24 counts, including first-degree murder and terrorism. He is being held at the Oakland County Jail without bond.

Prosecutors allege the teen emerged from a school bathroom armed just before 1 p.m. Tuesday then "methodically and deliberately" walked down a hallway before shooting others at close range. He allegedly used a gun his father bought on Black Friday.

A day before the shooting, school officials spoke with Crumbley about "concerning" classroom behavior, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said earlier this week. 

The teen and his parents met with officials again hours before the shooting.

Authorities have alleged Crumbley recorded videos on his cellphone the night before the shootings and wrote of plans to shoot and kill students in a journal recovered in a backpack.

Tim Throne, the district’s superintendent, said Thursday the teen had no prior disciplinary record at the school. Throne declined to elaborate on the meeting before the shooting.

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald on Friday charged Crumbley's parents with involuntary manslaughter.

Supporters have coordinated multiple vigils and memorials since Tuesday as well as created fundraisers to aid the victims and their families.

Oxford Bank, Oxford Community Schools and the Oxford DDA have launched the "Oxford Community Memorial and Victims Fund" to accept donations. Genisys Credit Union also established another account.

Meanwhile, visitations have been scheduled for Myre, Baldwin and St. Juliana.

Throne said the high school would likely remain closed for weeks.

In his remarks Friday, Coulter said: "We’re going to deploy every resource at our disposal to give this community what it needs. Our normal has been shattered but we will learn to live in a new normal.

"...This community may be remembered for this tragedy, but it won't be defined by it, and your presence tonight, standing together is testament to that, so in the future, we'll hug our loved ones a little tighter," he added. "We'll look after each other a little more closely. And we will have a new appreciation for how fragile and precious each day is."