Nov. 30, 2008: 12/5 We remember -
Published Friday, December 2, 2011 at 4:34 pm / Updated at 4:52 pm
Nov. 30, 2008: 12/5 We remember

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in The World-Herald on Nov. 30, 2008, nearly a year after the Von Maur shootings.

You remember the day, almost a year ago. Von Maur employees call it 12/5. You know the crime — the unspeakable horror we thought could never happen here. But the fuller story of those two deadly minutes, what led up to them and the aftermath has never been told. There's a villain. There are
victims. But there also are heroes — not only trained rescuers but also everyday people.

This is a story of heartbreak and senseless tragedy. It's also one of courage, love and the triumph of the human spirit. As the first anniversary approaches, beginning today ... 12/5.

When a sweet-voiced, elderly woman asked the salesclerk to box each of her purchases, the customers started to stack up in the girls department at Von Maur.

It was early afternoon on a workaday Wednesday in Omaha, but things were relatively bustling in the brightly lit department store. You didn't have to hear the tinkle of holiday music on the grand piano or see the ornate tree towering in the atrium to know Christmas was near—now less than three weeks away.

Lynette Manning had just picked out a bib for her infant daughter. The young mother now stood in line behind a pair of sisters, strangers with whom she would soon be hiding, holding hands and praying to God.

From another nearby sales counter, girls department manager Angie Schuster called over. “I've got more help on the way,” she said—among the last words of the tall, striking woman's life.

Indeed, help soon did arrive. Maggie Webb, the store's dynamic young manager, fatefully joined Schuster.

At the counter where Manning was standing, a new clerk arrived to open another register, and Manning moved to the front of that line.

Manning was just completing the big looping L of her first name on her credit card receipt when the festive air was rocked by gunfire.

By now, everyone knows what happened next on the third floor in Von Maur that cold December day.

Somehow, in one of Omaha's most elegant stores, at the most joyous time of year, came minutes of unspeakable horror.

Eight innocent lives would be violently cut short.

Dreams would die.

Scores would be terrorized.

A troubled killer would be revealed.

A city would be scarred.

The Omaha Mall Massacre, they called it on the national news -- one of the most painful episodes in the city's history.

But there would be more to this story.

Somehow, out of the senseless brutality would emerge stories of courage, caring and beauty.

A community would come together in a collective embrace.

Heroes would be revealed.

Faith in God and man would be renewed.

Friendships would be forged.

And in the irrepressible glow of the Christmas season, hope would be reborn.

* * *

Arriving at work just after noon, Jodi Longmeyer poked her head into the office of her boss, Maggie Webb, to say a quick hi.

There was no idle chitchat. No time for it -- it was Dec. 5, and the holiday crush was on.

Longmeyer, the personnel manager, would be closing the store that night. In addition to her regular duties of seeing to staffing needs, she helped out wherever needed, whether it was ringing up sales, troubleshooting in customer service, answering the phone or reshelving merchandise.

Things were no less crazy for Webb, the top manager, who had been running hard since early that morning.

Longmeyer really liked Webb. In less than two months at the Omaha store, Webb had already won over its 200 "associates" with her bright personality, big smile and the way she carried herself.

When delivery trucks arrived in the morning, she'd be right there in her business suit helping to unload merchandise.

That these women held the top two management jobs in the store was testament to the unique culture of the family-owned, Davenport, Iowabased Von Maur chain.

Webb, who grew up in the chain's backyard in Moline, Ill., was a fresh-faced 24-year-old. Longmeyer, a Council Bluffs native who had started at the Omaha store almost nine years earlier as a parttime sales associate, was only 28.

A management philosophy that recognizes and rewards young talent certainly isn't the only thing that sets Von Maur apart on Omaha's retail landscape.

There is the bright and tasteful decor, the store well-appointed with antiques and unique art. Comfortable chairs and lounges beckon many a mate worn out by his spouse's material pursuits.

The store features low-slung shelves and racks, wide aisles and an airy atrium with natural light.

Discerning shoppers come for the high-end, branded apparel and elegant gifts, the interest-free credit cards (the slogan: Our only interest is you) and the year-round, free gift-wrapping and shipping to anywhere in the country, on any purchase.

Soft music from a first-floor grand piano provides the soundtrack for a Von Maur shopping experience. The store features four full-time piano players, their distinctive sounds making the place feel like the lobby of a luxury hotel.

But more than any physical feature, what might most distinguish Von Maur is its customer service -- and that comes down to its people.

Von Maur employees don't wear name tags. The goal is to deliver such exceptional, personal service you'll feel you know them -- and then, of course, come back.

Many loyal customers would tell you the store becomes even more inviting at Christmas, when it is decked out in tasteful garlands of red, green and gold.

But on Dec. 5, all that ambiance was lost on Longmeyer as she settled into her office, right behind the customer service department on the third floor, and dug into her email.

Longmeyer had direct management oversight of the customer service department. And with gift-wrapping now in high demand, the department was abuzz. A half-dozen workers were staffing the front counter, while another dozen were wrapping in a room off to the side.

Supervising the customer service workers was the soft-spoken, bespectacled Fred Wilson, who started his daily shift shortly after Longmeyer.

During a former life as a teacher at Council Bluffs St. Albert High School, Wilson, 61, had taught Longmeyer. The kind, patient manner that made him a popular teacher also made him a natural in a job where the goal was making sure every customer left the store happy.

Longmeyer saw Wilson as she walked into customer service to seek out Dianne Trent.

Anyone in Von Maur would tell you that Trent, the 53-year-old head of the shipping department, was among the store's dearest, most beloved employees. She was so good with customers that Longmeyer and others would often tap her to help resolve customer service matters.

Trent was a little under the weather. The day before, a friend and co-worker had encouraged her to stay home today. But ever dedicated, here she was.

Before Longmeyer left to make some rounds, she greeted Beverly Flynn, also working the front desk of customer service.

Those who knew Flynn only as a real estate agent whose trademark was planting rose bushes in the yard of each new homeowner might have been surprised to see her there. But for the second straight year, the 47-year-old Omaha native was moonlighting at Von Maur, one of more than 60 seasonal giftwrappers.

Flynn loved Christmas and she loved people, so the job was a natural. Plus, the extra cash helped her make Christmas that much brighter for her three young daughters.

With a smart-alecky side, she enjoyed the camaraderie of the gift-wrapping room. The women kept up a light and lively banter as they snipped and folded the colorful papers, finishing them off with silky bows.

But Flynn also liked it when she was called out to the front desk to help with customers. That very morning, a fellow gift-wrapper had teasingly suggested Flynn didn't like to be with them.

"You know I'd love to be back here with you all," Flynn said. "But I just love being with the customers.''

It would be one of the day's cruel truths that seemingly inconsequential things like where you were working, the footsteps of your meandering shopping path or seconds spent waiting in line would mean the difference between life and death.

* * *

In the quiet, ordinary minutes before 1:42 p.m., several hundred customers and sales associates across the store were casually doing what they do.

In the third-floor gift department, Janet Jorgensen reached into a display case and got down a decorative plate one customer wanted to see.

If there was a prototypical sales associate in the customer-centered, personal Von Maur mold, the 66-year-old Jorgensen was it.

She had worked in the gift department from the day the store opened in 1995. Given her knowledge of both her fine merchandise and her clientele, she was enlisted by some loyal clients to be their personal shopper, entrusted to select and ship their gifts. There's a reason she was among the top sellers in the entire chain.

Lynette Manning, like many customers in the store, had rushed out over her lunch hour. Though Christmas was in the air, it was an upcoming birthday she was thinking about -- her daughter's first.

Even after the 35-year-old pulled into the parking lot, she looked at her watch and debated: Do I really have time to do this?

She finally decided to heck with it, jumped out and walked through the store's south doors. She stepped into the elevator, riding it to the third-floor children's department.

Carrie and Jeff Schaffart also were sneaking in some lunchtime shopping, in the girls department -- an outing that had come about, they would later recall with irony, because of Carrie's fear for her husband's safety.

Carrie, an insurance adjuster, had been at the city impound lot earlier in the day looking over a mangled car. The driver had been lucky to survive, and it shook her up.

She called Jeff, an attorney, at his law firm. She told him she loved him and reminded him to drive safely. It turned into a lunch/shopping date.

After a quick bite at Panera, the young couple headed to Von Maur. Their family Christmas photo was scheduled for the next day. They wanted a new dress for their 2-year-old, Maizie, adopted from China a year earlier.

Sisters Shelly Wright and Colleen Warner also were in children's, picking out gifts for young nieces and nephews.

The young Lincoln natives both worked as nurses in Omaha and often took advantage of their odd schedules to go on shopping excursions together. They considered shopping at Von Maur to be such a treat. Just being there made Colleen feel special.

John and Kathy McDonald of Council Bluffs were dropping off a package at customer service for wrapping.

John, 65, had retired a few years earlier from Northern Natural Gas. He now spent his days working with computers, going on long bike rides, playing the guitar, volunteering on Barack Obama's presidential campaign, visiting his grandchildren and traveling with his wife. He and Kathy had recently celebrated 40 years of marriage.

Once a month, he crossed the river to Omaha to have lunch with former co-workers. This time, Kathy had asked to tag along to get a start on the family's Christmas shopping.

He dropped her off at Von Maur and then after lunch returned to pick her up.

At the appointed time, she wasn't quite done. John gladly obliged when she asked him to help her pick out that one last gift.

Down on the first floor in cosmetics, Heidi Cvilikas was assisting a young woman looking for a men's cologne.

The woman, who was shopping with a girlfriend, asked Cvilikas what she recommended. Cvilikas immediately suggested a new fragrance from Armani, Attitude, that her husband had recently worn.

"Trust me," Cvilikas said, "this is the bomb."

After getting a whiff of the scent, both the woman and her friend decided to buy bottles, at $80 a pop. Cvilikas began to ring up the purchases, noting with satisfaction how genuinely excited the women seemed to be about buying their men the hot new fragrance.

It would have been in the middle of that transaction, just across the room, that Robert Hawkins walked in Von Maur's south doors.

Contact the writer: Henry J. Cordes    |   402-444-1130    |  

Henry's a general assignment reporter, so he could end up writing just about anything, though he usually focuses on public policy matters affecting the state, region or nation.

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