AURORA, Colo. – The Colorado theater where 12 people were killed and dozens injured in a shooting rampage almost six months ago reopened Thursday with a remembrance ceremony and a private screening of the fantasy film "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" for survivors – but for some Aurora victims, the pain is still too much, the idea too horrific.
Several families boycotted what they called a callous public relations ploy by the theater's owner, Cinemark. They claimed the Texas-based company didn't ask them what should happen to the theater. They said Cinemark emailed them an invitation to Thursday's reopening just two days after they struggled through Christmas without their loved ones.
"It was boilerplate Hollywood – 'Come to our movie screening,'" said Anita Busch, whose cousin, 23-year-old college student Micayla Medek, died at the theater.
But Pierce O'Farrill, who was wounded three times in the shooting, returned to the theater Thursday night and immediately walked to the back door where he remembers the gunman emerging.
"The last time I saw [the gunman] was right here," he said as he stood near the exit door. "It's important for me to come here and sit in the same seat that I was sitting in. It's all part of the healing process, I guess."
James Holmes, a former neuroscience Ph.D. student, is charged with 166 felony counts, mostly murder and attempted murder, in the July 20 shootings at the former Century 16 – now called the Century Aurora. A judge has ordered Holmes to stand trial, but he won't enter a plea until March.
Dozens of first responders to the massacre joined survivors at the multiplex for Thursday's ceremony.
"We as a community have not been defeated," Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said. "We are a community of survivors. We will not let this tragedy define us."
In addition to the "Hobbit" screening, theater placards featured "Trouble With the Curve," ''Cloud Atlas," and other films for the weekend.
Victims have filed at least three federal lawsuits against Cinemark Holdings Inc., alleging it should have provided security for the midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises," and that an exit door used by the gunman to get his weapons and re-enter should have had an alarm. In court papers, Cinemark says the tragedy was "unforeseeable and random."
"We certainly recognize all the different paths that people take to mourn, the different paths that people take to recover from unimaginable, incomprehensible loss," Hickenlooper said at the ceremony in a half-full theater.
"Some wanted this theater to reopen. Some didn't. Certainly both answers are correct," Hickenlooper said. He credited Cinemark CEO Tim Warner for flying to Colorado himself after hearing about the shooting to see what he could do.
Warner told attendees that the caring response by first responders, the community and the world to the tragedy was a testament that good triumphs over evil.
Vanessa Ayala is a cousin of Jonathan Blunk, a 26-year-old Navy veteran and father of two who was killed. Ayala said she believed the multiplex should have been torn down and, perhaps, turned into a park. At the very least, she said, the auditorium where the shooting occurred should be a memorial.
"It's not about letting the gunman win," Ayala said. "He's already lost. He's lost everything he's going to be. He's a moron."
The decision to reopen even divided at least one victim's family.
Tom Sullivan, whose son, Alex, was killed, had long planned to attend the event, stressing the importance of healing and of reclaiming the theater from tragedy.
"The community wants the theater back and by God, it's back," Sullivan said. "Nobody is going to stop us from living our lives the way that we lived our lives before. This is where I live."
Sullivan has said movies are a way for his family to come together, and that Alex was celebrating his 27th birthday when he was killed.
Alex's widow, Cassandra Sullivan, joined the boycott, however. So did Tom Teves, whose own son, Alex, also was killed.
"They can do whatever they want. I think it was pretty callous," Teves said.
Sandy Phillips, a San Antonio, Texas, businesswoman, lost her daughter, 24-year-old Jessica Ghawi, an aspiring sportscaster. She wasn't attending Thursday's ceremony.
Phillips said Thursday she understood the practicality of reopening the theater but wishes Cinemark had asked families about plans for the theater and how they would like their relatives to be honored.
"They could have avoided a lot of ill feeling," she said of the company.
Building plans called for turning theater nine, where Holmes allegedly opened fire, into an "extreme digital cinema." It wasn't known if there would be a memorial.
Cinemark reportedly spent $1 million on renovations. Before it did, it allowed survivors and families to visit theater nine. Jacqueline Keaumey Lader, a U.S. Marine and Iraq war veteran, did so.
"It does help significantly," she said. "It's taken the power away from the place."
Cinemark planned to temporarily open the theater to the public Friday and offer free movies through the weekend. It will permanently reopen Jan. 25.