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Ami Strahan confronts life on her own after losing her husband to freak accident, then her son at the Freeman High School shooting

Mitch Ryals Dec 28, 2017 1:30 AM
Young Kwak
Ami Strahan is pulled in opposite directions — back toward the life she had, and into the new one she's forging.

Ami Strahan needed to escape. Of course she did. Half her family was taken from her in the span of three months. The text messages, phone calls and offerings of thoughts and prayers wouldn't stop. Reminders of her former life sat on every shelf and hung on every wall in her now-empty house in South Spokane.

She told only a few friends where she was going, packed a bag and flew nearly 3,000 miles to a tropical beach.

"My friends thought I was going to off myself," Ami Strahan, 47, tells the Inlander. "They were all very worried because I had a really rough few weeks. I just didn't want to live anymore, and they all heard me say that over and over."

Not only had Ami's son, Sam, been shot to death at Freeman High School on Sept. 13, but also her husband, Scott, had died in a freak accident three months earlier. And with her daughter off to college in Seattle, Ami suddenly found herself alone.

In escaping to the beach, Ami revisited spots she had gone with her family years before. She laid by the pool and watched football in a bar. At night, she sat alone on a wall along the beach, the very spot that she and Scott had sat years before and listened to the ocean.

She got a tattoo to remember 15-year-old Sam. It's the Bible verse John 15:13: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." It's on the inside of her right forearm, next to the one she got for Scott. The words "After all this time? Always" come from one of her favorite book series, Harry Potter, referencing a character's undying love.

After a week away, she returned to the house that used to be theirs. She also came back to an endless to-do list: selling her husband's motorcycle and their boat, boxing up her son's belongings, trying to figure out what comes next. Turns out, some questions can't be ignored. Many are mundane: How will she run Scott's rental business, or learn how to file taxes? Others are more fundamental: If she's not Scott's wife and Sam's mom anymore, who is Ami Strahan? And come tomorrow, having lost so much, how's she going to find the strength to get out of bed?

Young Kwak
Ami wears charms that hold the ashes of the men who were taken from her.

Scott Strahan is in the bathroom, watching Ami get ready for the day.

"You know I love you?" she recalls him asking. "You know I think you're beautiful?"

Ami makes him breakfast — fried eggs on top of cold pizza left over from the night before. He only wanted two eggs, but she made him three. It's Father's Day after all. The family is planning a camping trip next weekend, but Scott has to fix a few things on the motorhome first.

Ami is in the house folding socks a half-hour later when she hears a thud outside. The motorhome is rolling slowly down the driveway. Scott, who had crawled under it, squirms on his stomach, trying to back out. The massive machine comes to a rest on top of him.

"I don't know what to do," she screams.

Scott can't speak, but with a hand motions like he's turning a key. Ami climbs into the motorhome and turns the key again and again, but the damn thing just won't start.

"Holy shit, he's going to die under there," she thinks.

Sam calls 911. He's screaming and crying.

"Oh my God! Dad! Dad!"

Ami is looking under the motorhome. Scott's face is turning purple. What's taking so long? Where is the ambulance? She runs to get a jack from the garage, but it won't lift the RV high enough. Breathless, Scott hits his hand against the driveway.

When firefighters arrive, they're able to pull Scott out with one crank of the jack. Ami just hadn't been strong enough. Paramedics get a heartbeat before Scott is airlifted to Sacred Heart Medical Center.

He never regains consciousness. Ami holds his hand while he dies in a hospital bed. Sam doesn't want to be in the room. It doesn't seem real. The machines are off, and there is no sound. A doctor tells her he's gone.

"I just remember thinking 'How the f—- am I going to do this life by myself?'" Ami says now. "I said that a lot, 'I don't want to do life on my own.' 10:20 in the morning we were happy. At 3:57 he was dead."

Like any marriage, theirs had its share of ups and downs, but Ami always knew she loved him. She knew two weeks after they met that they would get married, and they made it work. Especially of late, they had been in a groove: Scott attended Alcoholics Anonymous and had almost nine years sober when he died.

"He became such a richer, deeper person," Ami says.

Now, the only place where she can hear his voice is in a video he recorded on Facebook that was so insignificant at the time. She scrolls through his timeline to find it. Past the picture of him in a "Feel the Bern" T-shirt, past the photo of them in her Volkswagon bug, past the status update he posted after an Elton John concert: "Elton John, what a rock-and-roll icon. He's been rockin' my world for all 49 years. Still awesome. Got to see him in person with my best girlfriend."

"That's me," Ami whispers.

Then she finds the video.

"You gotta watch it from the beginning because he's so funny. That's him. Look at his face," she says, beaming as the video plays.

A man with streaks of white and gray in his beard starts talking into his phone.

"OK, so I just saw this thing about Facebook Live, and it's just so hard to keep up with the technology," Scott says. "So I decided to put a little rant about this and try it. Because what the hell? Every time I think I got it figured out, it all changes, and it gets more advanced. Anyway, that's my blog, or whatever, my talk, my soap box. Ahhh! I don't even know what it is!"

At the very last line — "Ahhh! I don't even know what it is!" — Ami talks aloud along with him, laughing.

Then she turns the phone toward herself, starting the video again.

Strahan family photo
Sam Strahan (left), his dad Scott and sister Emily

It's Sept. 13, and Ami is wearing her dress with a subtle Minnie Mouse pattern. Things are finally settling down. She and Sam are preparing to move into a new house, a major step in starting their new lives. No longer is she the woman whose husband died. She's smiling again.

Ami is on the phone at work that morning when her co-workers interrupt. There's been a shooting at Sam's school, they say. Others come by with the same news. Is Sam OK?

Ami calls his cell phone. No answer.

At 10:43 she texts: "Are you ok???"

Then: "Sam?!"

"Sam! Please answer me."

No response.

She opens the Find My Friends app on her phone and sees Sam's phone is at the school. Sam probably just left it in his locker, co-workers assure her.

With two colleagues, she jumps into a car and heads to Freeman. It's slow going. Parents, police, paramedics and reporters flood the two-lane highway that cuts through rolling fields south of Spokane and runs right in front of the Freeman campus, which is also home to the elementary and middle schools.

Ami keeps an eye on her phone during the drive. Friends are texting her information: One student is dead, three students injured. The shooter is in custody. Parents can pick up their kids from the football field.

In the car, Ami stares at the Find My Friends app on her phone. Why isn't Sam's dot moving? Why isn't his location changing?

She texts again.

"Where are u?"

"Sam."

At 12:02: "Please respond."

With traffic backed up along the highway, parents abandon their cars on the side of the road and make their way on foot. Ami and one of her colleagues join the march toward Freeman. They walk by families who've been reunited. Everyone is on a cell phone. A quiet hum grows louder as they near the parking lot where a group of parents is huddled together.

"Those are the parents who've heard from their children," Ami recalls being told.

Ami stops a girl with big brown hair and asks about Sam.

The girl's face goes flat, as if she knows.

"You have to go ask over there," she tells Ami.

Ami then walks up to Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich.

"My son is Sam Strahan," she tells him.

The lawman silently reaches out his arm, but Ami falls to the ground. Her scream rises above the idling fire trucks and hushed conversations. She can't breathe. Her hands start to go numb.

"I just wanted to go in there and be by him," Ami recalls. "But they wouldn't let me for obvious reasons. I just didn't like the thought of him lying on the floor by himself."

Investigators would later give this account of what happened that morning: On his first day back from a suspension for threatening violence, a 15-year-old sophomore walks into Freeman High carrying a black golf bag with an AR-15 assault rifle and at least seven boxes of ammo. In his coat pocket is a .32-caliber pistol.

In a second-floor hallway, the boy takes the rifle from the bag. He tries to fire, but the rifle jams. Sam approaches the boy, whom he knew, and they exchange words. The boy takes the pistol from his pocket, shoots Sam once in the stomach and, with Sam now on his knees, the boy shoots him again in the head.

The boy continues to walk down the hallway, firing indiscriminately. He hits three other students, all of whom survive.

A few days after the shooting, Ami wants to see her son's body. She insists on it. Once she gets alone in a room with him, Ami apologizes to Sam. She wishes she was a better mom, she tells him. They had argued the evening before his death because he refused to take a shower. Her rules seem so silly now.

Then she checks him from head to toe, like she would when he was a little kid on the first day of school. His hair is combed nicely, his nails are trimmed and he has a little stubble on his chin. He's wearing a blue T-shirt, jeans and red Nike high tops that Scott bought him.

She hugs him, and his body is cold. She tells him she loves him.

Finally, Ami takes off her necklace that carries her husband's wedding band, and places it on Sam's chest.

Young Kwak
Ami Strahan with Sam's panda onesie, something he joked about wanting to wear to school, with the head, to see if anyone could recognize him.

It's a Wednesday in December, and Ami is sorting the remnants of a makeshift memorial that accumulated outside Freeman High School. She separates the stuffed animals, fake flowers and signs that say "Freeman Strong," from those that mention her son. The hashtag that's come to represent the community's resilience can feel like a betrayal. It's easy for them. She's the only one whose son isn't coming back.

Sam's memory now lives in the letters and notes from his friends.

"I love you, Sammie," someone wrote. "Thank you for your courage."

As she digs through the signs and letters, an alarm ringing on her phone yanks at her attention. It goes off every Wednesday, just after 10 am. Sam died at 10:08. She has an alarm set for Sunday afternoons, too, for Scott. Twice a week the alarms bring her back to her past life. For Sam, she thinks of the last time she saw him. They hugged by the front door before he left for school that day.

"I apologized to him because we fought the night before," she says. "I told him I was just trying to do my very best, and that I was sorry, and that I love him."

"I know," he said. "I love you, too."

All of it — that memory and the mementos from the memorial — feel both vital and fleeting. "This matters to me, but who is this going to matter to in the long run?" she asks. "Who is going to care about this in 10 years?"

That's why his mother is showing a reporter his room and his Batman and Deadpool onesies. His Wookiee onesie is downstairs in the laundry. X-Men and Call of Duty posters hang over his bed, and a Post-It note with the words "i love you" is stuck between the keys in his computer keyboard. Ami found it while she was cleaning. Sam's former girlfriend stuck it in his locker at school.

Sam was wicked smart, Ami says, maybe too smart for his own good. And he could solve a Rubik's Cube in about 30 seconds. Sam's friends say he was the guy they went to with their problems, an empathetic ear who was always willing to help.

The letters from the memorial venerate Sam. They call him a hero. One student even told Ami that he wouldn't be alive if Sam hadn't approached the shooter.

But then she thinks about commenters on the internet. People call Sam a bully. He doesn't deserve a hero's tribute, they say. (The shooter will later tell detectives that he'd been "picked on" by Sam in the past, but that he hadn't intended to shoot any specific person. Rather, he'll reveal his obsession with school shootings at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary.)

For Ami and Sam's family, it's a grave injustice that the boy who killed Sam can say whatever he wants, yet Sam isn't here to tell his side. They can never know what exactly happened that day — what Sam said, or why he approached a boy trying to load an assault rifle in a school hallway.

Ami later texts one of Sam's friends, asking if there's something she should know.

"[Sam] was never mean to him," the friend writes. "They didn't even talk."

Ami is shielded by friends and family from the wind and cold on the side of U.S. Highway 27. The group has gathered here on a snowy Saturday morning because the sign bearing his name will be unveiled: the "Sam D. Strahan Memorial Highway."

Ami previously spoke in front of the Washington State Transportation Commission in support of the dedication.

"I imagine that others have already moved on from this tragedy," Ami said. "Their lives are back to normal, and they're doing things. I can't do that. What he did that day is astonishing even to me, but I don't want him to be forgotten. I don't want that day to be forgotten. I want people to know who he was, and what he did for years to come because I believe what he did mattered."

Maybe people will drive the two-lane road and see his name, and they'll wonder why. Maybe they'll look it up, and they'll know what he did that day.

After the sign unveiling, Ami and a smaller group of close friends and family meet at her new house, itself a symbol of the life she had and the one she'll create. This is the same house where her family lived when they first moved to Spokane from California.

Now they're here to paint, rip up carpet and clean the place up. Then it will feel more like home — her home.

Ami's 6- and 8-year-old niece and nephew run around the house shouting and laughing. Ami's daughter, Emily, is in town and makes pizza for everyone.

The new carpet color that Ami picked out is called Silver Lining. Ironic. She doesn't see a light at the end, at least not yet.

Her sister, Wendy Adams, doesn't know what to say either. There's been death in the family before, but this is different. What can you say?

"There's no comfort to be given," Adams says. "I'm not one to sit there and say things take time. I can't do that. It's bullshit, and it sucks, and I don't know how your heart heals from this. I just know that she gets up every day and keeps going."

As the mother of someone killed in a school shooting, Ami is inevitably dragged into the gun safety debate. She signed a change.org petition in support of banning assault-style weapons and other measures.

"Guns can easily get in the wrong hands, as we know," she says. "And it's happened over and over and over again. I think if you look at the number of mass shootings and school shootings since Sam died — if people didn't have them in their houses — kids wouldn't have gotten them."

There have been at least 20 recorded incidents of a gun killing or injuring people in schools since the Freeman shooting. Ami knows it will happen again, but she doesn't have a solution.

As she struggles to make sense of the deaths of her son and husband, Ami is constantly pushing forward — to a new reality, a new identity. This new house will help, but until it's ready for her to move in, she'll return alone to the old one and to the emptiness and quiet.

And on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday mornings, her phone's alarm will sound, and she will remember. ♦


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: MITCH RYALS comes to the Inlander from St. Louis, Missouri. He covers criminal justice and has written about a teenage confidential informant, bounty hunters and a train hopper who lost his leg. Ryals' work has appeared in weekly papers across the country, including New York, Texas, Arizona and Missouri.


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