Ron Bateman was sitting in his office as the sheriff of Anne Arundel County on June 28, 2018. He was speaking to one of the K-9 officers when a tone came over the radio followed by a message — “Active shooter. 888 Bestgate.”
That alert came as Jarrod Ramos was terrorizing the Capital Gazette newsroom at 888 Bestgate Road in Annapolis. Ramos shot and killed five staff members that day — Gerald Fischman, Robert Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters — in the largest mass shooting of journalists in the nation’s history.
“Heroes of 888” is an upcoming documentary and Bateman’s brainchild. The film chronicles the events of that day, and the circumstances leading up to it, utilizing surveillance videos, police body-cam footage, crime scene photos, family photos, 911 calls and on-camera interviews with survivors, family members of those lost, first responders and public officials.
“What helped to allow all these interviews to take place is they knew my name, and they knew who I was, so there’s a built-in trust there,” said Bateman of the more than 40 interviews conducted for the film.
Tom Marquardt, former editor and publisher of the Capital Gazette who now resides in Naples, Florida, said it’s tough to see the images from the 2018 incident, but he applauded the respectful restraint Bateman and his crew displayed in selecting imagery for the film. He also said it’s important to let the public view them because they’ve only read about the details of what happened and how it impacted survivors and families.
“You can read about something and sort of create an image in your mind, but it’s something else when you actually see it,” said Marquardt, who retired from the Capital Gazette at the end of 2012. “When you see the gunman shoot through the door, when you see the police approach, when you see the people in the newsroom who survived trying to escape through a blockaded door, only then do you really feel and sense the impact of what happened on that day.”
Bateman served as sheriff for 12 years and has also spent time in his career in positions such as homicide detective, undercover narcotics detective and burglary detective. He’s since penned a trilogy of crime novels and a children’s book — knowledge that prompted a former detective that used to be under Bateman’s charge to suggest the retired sheriff write a book about the Capital Gazette shooting.
Bateman’s reaction to that advice surprised even himself. Despite having no experience in the filmmaking world, Bateman said he was going to produce a documentary about the events at 888 Bestgate. After he immersed himself into scouring police reports, reviewing camera footage, viewing documentaries and taking online MasterClass filmmaking courses, he held true to his word.
Bateman has dedicated his hours since January to completing “Heroes of 888” while serving as executive producer, a producer and narrator on the film.
Bateman had discussed one day doing a project with friend Jim Goetz, the founder of Anne Arundel First Alert. When Bateman pitched the documentary idea to Goetz, it was an easy decision for the man with his own extensive public safety background to hop aboard.
“We felt our team was the best to tell the story,” said Goetz, who directed “Heroes of 888” along with serving as a producer, editor and writer. “We know the inside story, and we want that inside story told.”
Bateman stressed the duo did not want to make the film political.
“We didn’t really have an angle on our documentary, except for this, and that was to bring out all the goodness and the heroes that emerged that day, and that was my angle,” he said.
In the documentary, viewers get insight into details such as Wendi Winters charging the gunman with a pair of small plastic trash cans, shouting something to him that a witness remembers as, “Now you stop this; you put that down.” A close-up image from crime scene photography shows Winters’ clenched fist with narration citing it as evidence of her selfless efforts to fight the attacker.
“Ken Burns really showed me the power of how you can bring a still picture to life, which he was a master of,” Bateman said.
Another segment shows just how close photographer Paul Gillespie came to losing his life with a frame-by-frame breakdown showing his head in the same sequence as shotgun pellets appearing in the wall at the same spot. A model of the newsroom used in the trial, which Bateman said was made by the FBI for the state attorney’s office to the tune of around $30,000, provides orientation to the cubicle-laced confines.
Maria Hiaasen, who was celebrating her birthday when her husband perished in the newsroom, spoke in the film about her struggle getting back into the water after the tragedy — swimming was always her summer go-to activity. She eventually got back into it and learned that she could cry underwater. She also learned that she could remember there.
John San Felice received a call at his Millersville home that 2018 day from his daughter, a survivor of the attack who was hiding from the gunman under a desk in the newsroom. She told him that a man was killing the editors and that she loved him.
“Can you imagine as a dad?” Bateman asked. “And then he turns the TV on, and he sees all hell breaking loose at her work, and then he doesn’t hear from her for like five hours. You have to assume your daughter is dead. That’s gut-wrenching.”
While most of the film is in chronological order, spanning the five years since the incident, the beginning of “Heroes of 888” takes viewers back to 2009, detailing online harassment conducted by Ramos. The behavior eventually reached a bizarre and criminal level and a Capital Gazette reporter, Eric Hartley, was in the courtroom during a hearing and penned an article detailing the harassment. That began a defamation lawsuit filed by Ramos against Hartley, Marquardt, the editor at the time, and the Capital Gazette. The case was dismissed and that led to a years-long festering of hate, plotting and online harassment by Ramos with references to Hartley and Marquardt suffering.
“What’s interesting about the case at the Capital Gazette is that the First Amendment that protects newspapers also protected the killer,” Marquardt said.
Marquardt, who started with The Capital in 1977 before departing in 2012, took concerns to the police.
“They came back and said, ‘He’s not a threat. He’s just ranting,’” Marquardt said. “We sort of let it go, and then he went silent for two years, and then, of course, he was plotting all that time. Only now do we realize that that was classic for mass killings.”
Marquardt and Hartley had both departed the Capital Gazette by 2018.
“He said to a psychiatrist that was hired by the state before his trial that his only regret is not killing me and Eric Hartley, so there’s no question had we been in the newsroom that day, we wouldn’t be here talking about this right now,” said Marquardt, who was named an honorary deputy sheriff when he retired from The Capital.
During the film, the gunman’s first name is shared only once — that is deliberate.
“Because the article was titled ‘Jarrod wants to be your friend,’ we already had the name Jarrod committed to the public, so we never said his last name, we didn’t show his face,” Bateman said about the decision of what not to include in the documentary, one he acknowledged also helped garner more support from survivors and families of the fallen.
Bateman said most of the reaction to the film’s trailer from those close to the victims has been positive.
Summerleigh Geimer, the daughter of Wendi Winters, was on board with the documentary because she didn’t want the events of that day, or the efforts of her mom to thwart the attack, to be forgotten. Geimer told Bateman she hopes the film will serve as a legacy for the heroes from that June day five years ago, along with the Guardians of the First Amendment memorial in Annapolis.
“With all the other shootings around the world, she feels like it’s just drowning and going away,” Bateman said.
Bateman said the 51-minute documentary is planned to be initially screened on WUNV, The CW Baltimore, with an air date pending.
“Even though Jim and I made this film, every single time we watched it from start to finish, we cried,” Bateman said. “Every single time.”
The trailer for “Heroes of 888” can be viewed at on YouTube.