On Saturday, August 3rd, Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, had a day off and a full schedule. She attended a Baptist pastor’s hooding ceremony, a public event for a Japanese sister city, and a luau held by a local nonprofit’s C.E.O. That night, she and her husband, Sam Braun, joined friends at a cookout. By eleven-thirty, she was home, knowing that she would spend Sunday in Cincinnati, celebrating her mother’s birthday. A few hours later, Whaley was sleeping deeply when her doorbell rang.
Whaley lives in Five Oaks, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Dayton, a metropolitan area of about eight hundred thousand people. She and Braun bought their historic, four-bedroom house in 2008, for less than seventy thousand dollars. Braun, who Whaley told me is “obsessed with the yard,” often chats with the children who walk or ride their bikes down the street. When a young boy once asked if it was true that the mayor lived there, and Braun confirmed the rumor, the boy didn’t believe it. He told Braun that he thought mayors lived in bigger houses.
Until last week, Whaley had no security detail. Neighbors and strangers often walked right up to her door, mostly to borrow something (the lawnmower) or sell something (religion). But no one ever rang the bell at four-thirty in the morning. Whaley nudged Braun and asked him to come downstairs with her. She grabbed her phone, in case of an emergency. When she discovered a member of the city’s legal staff on her porch, she knew the news was bad.
Dayton has experienced one troubling event after another since the spring. In late May, nine members of an Indiana group affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan held a rally at Courthouse Square—Whaley still isn’t sure why they chose Dayton. At least five hundred counter-protesters, some of them “heavily armed” with assault-style rifles, chains, bats, poles, and sticks, arrived to oppose them. Complicating the standoff were memories of the deadly white-supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, and Ohio’s longtime “open carry” laws, which allow gun owners to display their loaded weapons in public. The event proved nonviolent, but it unnerved everyone and reëxposed racial divisions in a city that Whaley declared “still too segregated and still too unequal.” Two days after the Klan rally, on Memorial Day, fifteen tornadoes struck the area, one narrowly missing Dayton Children’s Hospital. No one in the area died as a direct result of the storms, but, again, the community was left shaken.
Now, on her porch in the early hours of a Sunday morning, Whaley heard her colleague utter a phrase that she had long feared, and which was already familiar to hundreds of other American mayors: “mass shooting.”
Whaley hurried upstairs, intending to throw on yoga pants. Braun, who also works for the city, in the auditor’s office, suggested that she go ahead and dress in work clothes. Whaley pulled on salmon-colored slacks, a dark jacket, and flats. She and Braun drove across the Miami River to the convention center being used as emergency command, and then walked to the Oregon District, the historic core of downtown.
The neighborhood is filled with Victorian homes and apartments above storefronts. The main commercial corridor is Fifth Street, paved in red brick and lined, for several blocks, with locally owned boutiques, bars, and restaurants: Lucky’s, Tumbleweed Connection, Gem City Tattoo Club, the Drunken Waffle. Locals know that at the Dublin Pub you should get the beef stew, that Lily’s serves the best fried chicken, and that the Annex, a sex shop, is the quickest place to find a Dr. Pepper. They know that Ned Peppers, a bar, is named not for a real person but for an outlaw character in “True Grit.” They remember the bar next door, Hole in the Wall, from when it was an actual hole in the wall and so devoid of signage that it might as well have been a speakeasy. They don’t think of employees as “the bartender” or “the bouncer” but, rather, as Lindsey or Taylor—although, conversely, they’ve also known people for years without having ever learned their names. They know that when you want to dance or see d.j.s you go to Ned’s or Newcom’s, and that Heart Mercantile sells fun gifts, such as socks printed with an image of a stressed-out Jesus saying “I can’t even.” After the tornadoes, Heart made a batch of “Dayton Strong” T-shirts; in response to the Klan rally, it ordered some that read “Fuck Racism.” The Oregon District functions less like a city sector than a tight, weird, defiantly original little town. Which was what made it so unreal to learn that one of its own had perpetrated such abject madness.
Whaley was led past the whirring lights of the police who had swarmed the neighborhood, and past dozens of yellow evidence markers. The bodies of the dead had been taken away—there were ten, including the gunman and his younger sister. Blood darkened the sidewalks and street in enormous splotches and trailed drops, stains that may always be visible. Traumatic experiences imprint surreal images on the human brain, and, after surveying the devastation several times, Whaley registered various impressions: the sight of firefighters in hazmat suits, washing down surfaces with bleach; a deserted taco truck, its food waiting to be served.
The killer, Connor Betts, was a twenty-four-year-old community-college student who had worked at Chipotle. He fit the usual profile of a mass shooter in that he was young, white, and male, but otherwise there were contradictions. He had protested the Klan rally, and yet, while in high school, he had been suspended twice for assembling a “kill list” and a “rape list” of people he wanted to hurt. He reportedly held progressive views and yet performed in a “pornogrind” band, Menstrual Munchies, part of a music scene that had a “regional following in the Midwest and is known for sexually violent, death-obsessed lyrics and dehumanizing imagery depicting women,” according to Vice. Song titles included “Preteen Daughter Pu$$y Slaughter” and “6 Ways of Female Butchery.” (One band member, Jesse Creekbaum, told Vice that he’s removing the band’s albums from the Internet to avoid making Betts a “cult hero,” saying, “I don’t want any of this romanticized. I want people to erase him from history.”)
Betts lived with his parents, Stephen and Moira, in the affluent suburb of Bellbrook, a hilly town of about seven thousand, just southeast of Dayton. His parents had worked in software. Their business, Minethurn Technology, listed the family’s home address as company headquarters, and, according to archived pages of Minethurn’s Web site, its clients have included the Army Reserve and the Air Force Institute of Technology. Minethurn advertised itself as a “small, woman-owned business.”
Betts had a younger sister, Megan, who was twenty-two. She attended Wright State University, in Dayton, where she studied earth sciences and was expected to graduate next year. “He liked his sister. Why would he kill his sister?” an ex-girlfriend, Adelia Johnson, wrote in a statement that she provided to the Dayton Daily News. She added, “He didn’t like his parents. But that couldn’t have been the cause.”
Johnson wrote that she had met Betts in a college psychology class. Her recollections of his behavior filled out an unnerving portrait of a long-troubled young man. Former classmates described him as an “oddball” who gave off “dark energy” and made some people “feel threatened or uncomfortable.” Others remembered specific incidents that alarmed them enough to alert parents, school officials, and the police. In one, a former middle-school classmate said that Betts admitted to having fantasized about “tying her up and slitting her throat.” The former classmate, who spoke to the Dayton Daily News on the condition of anonymity, said that when she and her parents reported Betts’s “bizarre admission” to the Bellbrook Police Department they felt they weren’t “taken seriously.” Another female classmate, who was reportedly among the ten or so girls on Betts’s high-school “hit list,” told reporters that Betts would walk up to her and pretend “to cut her throat or stab her stomach.” Someone else said that Betts had talked recently about “shooting up” Timothy’s, a bar near the University of Dayton. “Even the shooter admitted he was scared of his thoughts,” the Daily News reported.
In college, Betts bonded with Johnson, the ex-girlfriend, over what she called “depression humor.” This past January, “when he started joking about his dark thoughts, I understood,” Johnson wrote. “Dark thoughts, for someone with a mental illness, are just a symptom that we have to learn how to manage.” On their first date, Betts had seemed “charming” to her, “with his big smile, baby blues, and intellect.” That night, at a bar, she found him “outgoing and electric” as they engaged in a “political debate with a Republican.”
Betts then “pulled out his phone” and delivered a “play by play” of footage involving the deadly Tree of Life synagogue shooting, in Pittsburgh. “Even then, I did realize that that was a weird thing for a first date,” Johnson wrote. But psychology students are often interested in what she calls “the horrors of humans.” Later in the relationship, when Betts confessed to having “uncontrollable urges,” Johnson dismissed it as the talk of “a sad, drunk man who was afflicted by unchecked symptoms of mental illness.”
One passage in Johnson’s missive stands out. “I have no idea what his motivation was,” she wrote. “This wasn’t a hate crime. He fought for equality. This wasn’t a crime of passion. He didn’t get passionate enough. This wasn’t very premeditated. He wasn’t a thorough planner.” Betts supposedly had considered suicide. Johnson wrote that “him getting shot is exactly what he wanted.”
Why, then, did he wear body armor? Why did he wear headphones as protection against the deafening gunfire? These were the questions now being asked of Whaley and Dayton’s police chief, Richard Biehl. A former Cincinnati cop who is regarded locally as a thoughtful, compassionate police chief, Biehl cautioned that investigators—who now include the F.B.I., because the shooter had articulated “violent ideologies”—will release details only after establishing a factual time line.
Betts apparently arrived in the Oregon District by car, wearing khaki shorts, black sneakers, and a dark T-shirt. His sister and their friend Chace Beard were with him. Betts, at some point, separated from the other two. His car was later found near Blind Bob’s, across the street from Ned’s. Somewhere, he put on the tactical vest, the headphones, and a black mask, and picked up what police later described as a pistol that had been augmented with a brace; the weapon held two drums of .223-calibre bullets, a particularly destructive type of ammunition, containing up to a hundred rounds. Betts walked up the alley beside Blind Bob’s, ignoring an easily accessible crowd on the patio, before crossing Fifth.
Dozens of people were outside, smoking and drinking. One couple was hugging as the shooting started. As it became clear what was happening, people fled down the tree-lined boulevard and into doorways and alleys. One man ran so hard that when he face-planted on the sidewalk he skidded, like a baseball player sliding into second.
At Ned Peppers, a long, cavernous bar with a tiki patio out back, a stout bouncer, Jeremy Ganger, ran out and herded people inside. Around two hundred people were in there, screaming and cowering. Cornelius Frolik, who covers City Hall for the Dayton Daily News and who had just gone home when the mayhem began, later told me that, if Betts “had made it into Ned Peppers, it would have been a shooting gallery. There’s nowhere to hide.”
The gunman was moving toward Ned’s when police officers, who maintain a strong presence in the Oregon District, sprinted from an adjacent alley where they often congregate, their service weapons drawn. In thirty seconds, the shooter had fired an estimated forty-one bullets; the police, advancing toward him, fired on him just as he turned and tried to run into Ned’s. The killer fell to the ground, and struggled to get up. He lurched, again, toward the bar door. Police continued firing until the gunman stopped moving, as they had been trained to do. (They reportedly fired sixty-five shots in all.) Ganger, the bouncer, bounded out of Ned’s to where the shooter lay face down in the doorway, and yanked the gun out of his hands. The responding police—Sergeant William Knight and the officers Jeremy Campbell, Vincent Carter, David Denlinger, Ryan Nabel, and Brian Rolfes—had “neutralized” the killer and saved scores of lives.
Nine bystanders were dead: Megan Betts, Monica Brickhouse, Nicholas Cumer, Derrick Fudge, Thomas McNichols, Lois Oglesby, Saeed Saleh, Logan Turner, and Beatrice Warren-Curtis. The shooter was dead, too, but officers cuffed him anyway, behind his back, as they are also trained to do. He lay with one leg askew. His belt appeared busted. A gash of red marked the flesh above his waistline. His T-shirt read “No heart to feel. No soul to steal.”
Immediately, Dayton crawled with media. Whaley, as mayor, stood at the center of it. She is forty-three, with thick blond hair, dimples, and an unpretentious manner. Before the shooting, she had experienced little demand to appear on national television, but now she was all over cable news, which she does not watch. The nation learned that she grew up in Indiana and graduated from the University of Dayton. A Democrat in a state governed by Republicans, she has been mayor for the past six years.
“Dayton’s personality is one that is very inclusive and open, which is strange for a city our size,” she told me last week, in Ohio. “I always say that I’m a good example of this.” She was talking about having become, at age twenty-nine, the youngest woman ever elected to the city commission. “I was unmarried and I rented a house, but everyone’s, like, ‘I’m gonna take a chance on this girl.’ That wouldn’t have happened in another community our size.” She said, “I think of Dayton as a gritty city. I fell in love with it because it’s very blue collar. It’s the quintessential ‘If you work hard and play by the rules, you should get ahead.’ What’s heartbreaking to me is that’s not enough anymore.”
Traditionally, Dayton’s city manager has overseen daily operations while the mayor functioned more as a figurehead. The current city manager, Shelley Dickstein, was paid $207,464 last year, while Whaley was paid $55,189. But Whaley, who was first elected in 2013, has never been a figurehead. “When I got in, I’d go to the meetings and they’d say, ‘You’re good! You’re smart!’ And I’d say, ‘I know! I show up on time and speak in complete sentences—what a miracle.’ ” After four years, she was reëlected, running unopposed in the first uncontested mayoral race in Dayton’s history. “That surprised me,” she told me. “It’s not like everybody loves me.” In 2017, Whaley briefly ran for governor. She’ll probably run again. Sherrod Brown, Ohio’s senior senator, and a Democrat, told me that Whaley and he have been friends since around 2005. “Nan came to her politics by sitting around the dinner table during the Reagan years, hearing her dad talk about how Reagan betrayed workers,” he said. “She’s always been a workers’-rights, civil-rights, women’s-rights Democrat.”
In the wake of the shooting, Daytonians did seem to love her, with the visible exception of one garrulous older man who stood on Fifth Street with a homemade sign that read “Fu*k Nan Whaley.” The night after the shooting, mourners cheered Whaley at a candlelight vigil and shouted at Governor Mike DeWine, chanting, “Do something! Do something!” Two days after the shooting, DeWine unveiled a seventeen-point proposal, which Whaley endorsed, to reduce gun violence. Under the plan, relatives and others who are concerned could take out a “safety-protection order” against anyone at risk of committing gun violence, and, after a court hearing, a judge could seize firearms from those deemed credible threats.
The Republican governor and the Democratic mayor explained the details of this new initiative to me last week, after they had lunch together, at Lily’s Bistro, in the Oregon District. Jon Husted, the lieutenant governor, had joined them, along with DeWine’s wife, Fran, who had put on a “Dayton Strong” T-shirt over her blue dress and pearls. Whaley listened closely as DeWine explained, “People said, ‘Do something.’ Now we’re saying, ‘You have the power to do something.’ ” She nodded when he added, “Every community has somebody who fits that category where everybody says, ‘Oh, God, someday something’s gonna happen.’ ”
Whaley told me that she appreciated being included in these conversations. “I always prefer folks that govern, not just advocate,” she said. “In governing, you’ve got to get it done.”
Makeshift memorials materialized at the scene of the shooting, as they always do. A recreational group plastered handwritten Post-its to shop windows: “You are braver than you think,” “Today is not the day to let fear win.” Heart Mercantile ran out of “Dayton Strong” T-shirts and ordered more. The neighborhood regulars, vaping and drinking, both hugged everybody obsessively and hated on posers who “never in a million years would’ve worn a ‘Dayton Strong’ T-shirt” but now couldn’t wait to get one.
Whaley had always believed that Donald Trump’s campaigning would never bring him to Dayton. She often told herself, “I’ll only have to deal with him if something bad happens.” Then it became clear that Trump planned to visit both El Paso and Dayton, whose mass shootings had happened hours apart, leaving thirty-two dead and at least fifty-two injured altogether. Whaley and her staff had “pretty healthy fights” about whether to receive him, she told me. Whaley neither likes nor respects Trump. On TV, she had said that “every politician has the power either to bring people together or to divide people.” Trump, she told me, was doing the latter. She did respect the office of the President, though. She decided that she would meet with Trump when he visited Dayton and use the opportunity to urge him to revive the nineteen-nineties ban on assault-style weapons. She told me, “Every mayor wants something good to happen out of something bad.”
On Wednesday morning, at around eleven, Air Force One landed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Trump descended the plane’s stairway in silence, with no audience of supporters to applaud him. A receiving line waited for him and his wife, Melania, following the hierarchy mandated by White House protocol: governor, First Lady, mayor, senior senator, junior senator, and so on. When Trump reached Whaley, he shook her hand, and she immediately brought up the reinstatement of the assault-weapons ban. Trump moved on to Brown, who had not planned to meet with Trump until Whaley asked him to stand with her. (“It was a zillion Republican operatives and White House staff and elected officials who don’t see the world the way Nan and I do,” Brown told me. "She and I were able to reinforce each other’s arguments with the President.”)
When the group prepared to leave for Miami Valley Hospital to visit survivors and first responders, Whaley was relegated to travelling with the press pool. Notified of the snub, the two senior Ohio Republicans, DeWine and Senator Robert Portman, and Brown sent a message: she’s the mayor, and she’s with us. At the hospital, Whaley and Brown found a second opportunity to press Trump on guns. Both told me that Brown advised Trump, “You could pass an assault ban—you could bring it back.”
Whaley said that Trump asked, “Why did it lapse?”
“Obama couldn’t get the votes,” Brown told him.
“That’s right, Mr. President,” Whaley told Trump. “You could do something that Obama couldn’t.”
After Trump met the six police officers who had stopped the shooter, Whaley heard him say, “They’re gonna come to the White House and I’m gonna give them a big award.” Brown told him, “The best way to honor these officers and police everywhere is to get these guns off the streets.” Whaley told me, “Trump kept saying he was gonna ‘do something,’ but I couldn’t tell whether he was talking about legislation or ‘very big awards.’ ”
Trump left for El Paso. Whaley and Brown appeared in a press conference at City Hall. A couple of the cable networks carried the presser live. Trump apparently watched. At 3:48 p.m. he tweeted that Whaley and Brown had “misrepresented” his visit to Dayton; he called the news conference “a fraud.” A Cincinnati Enquirer reporter recorded a video of Whaley seeing the President’s criticism and responding, “I’m really confused. We said he was treated, like, very well. . . . Oh, well, you know. He lives in his world of Twitter.”
Early the next morning, Whaley did a live interview with CNN in a back corner of the Legacy Pancake House, a Dayton icon. Afterward, she and I stayed at Legacy, for breakfast. The restaurant has been one of her favorites since college. You can get two eggs, toast, and jelly there for two dollars and seventy-five cents. The place draws truck drivers, light-and-power workers, and seniors, who get a discount. That morning, a tableful of F.B.I. SWAT operators were sitting nearby, dressed in fatigues, silently inhaling their food.
The mayor, who tends to wear pants, flats, and structured tops, had on a bell-sleeved, turquoise jacket over a white shirt. She ordered two poached eggs with hash browns, bacon, and cinnamon-raisin toast. It was “very dangerous to speculate about the mind of the President,” but she said that maybe Trump had lashed out at her because he disliked her pushing him on guns. It “shocked” her that the culture of celebrity that usually surrounds a President seemed “really heightened with this guy.” At the hospital, survivors and their families “were super excited to see him—that is absolutely true,” but, for her, the celebrity atmosphere was “scary for democracy.”
A waitress brought our food and refilled our coffees. At one point, Whaley looked down at her white shirt, plucked a Tide stain-remover pen from her bag, and erased a wayward speck of food.
She was remembering other details about Trump’s visit. It occurred to her, she told me, that the President seemingly had no compassion or emotion, no ability to read a room. He called Brown and her to the bedside of a patient and said, “These people used to be Democrats and now they’re Republicans.” Whaley told me, “This was a victim’s room. Sherrod and I were, like, ‘We hope you’re O.K.’ ”
Trump didn’t seem to understand that the people around him had been traumatized. Whaley said, “There’s a guy in a Rutgers shirt and the President’s, like, ‘Oh, did you go to Rutgers?’ The guy’s, like, ‘No.’ Then the woman next to him says, ‘I got shot in the arm, but the worst part is the emotional trauma.’ I thought it was very brave to say that. The President went back to the guy in the Rutgers shirt and said, ‘You’ll be O.K.—you’re a very tough guy.’ ” (Whaley, meanwhile, is so determined for Dayton to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental-health issues that, after her own therapy appointment, she tweeted, “I have a counselor who I just went and talked to about how hard this week has been. If you need to talk to someone—do it.”)
At the Pancake House, Whaley was drinking water from a tumbler branded with the logo of an ironworkers’ union. Her father was an ironworker, as was her grandfather, whose nickname was Dynamite. Her mother was the elected clerk-treasurer of Mooresville, Indiana. “The town was, like, five thousand people. Really conservative place,” Whaley told me. “My parents went to college, but neither of them graduated. They were all about my brother and I going to college.” Whaley studied chemistry (“First-generation college students have to do science, or get a business degree, so that you can get a job”) and ran her school’s chapter of College Democrats. “When I came to Dayton, Bill Clinton was running for reëlection,” she said. “My mother said, ‘Ohio decides the Presidency, so you’d better go help in the election.’ I took a bus down to Democratic headquarters, and that’s how I got involved.”
She worked on campaigns, and liked it, but she never thought she would run for office. When she was twenty-seven, Emily’s List called and asked her to run for Congress. “They flew in to see me and said all I’d have to do was raise a million dollars,” Whaley said. “I’m from a working-class family. They might as well have said, ‘You need to go to the moon.’ ”
Whaley declined to run for Congress, but realized that she was interested in public office. She ran for the city commission, the body that governs Dayton, the Montgomery County seat. “This county is the fourth-largest county in the country that flipped from Obama to Trump, population-wise,” she said. “In 2018, media would come here and say, ‘These white people used to vote for Democrats and now they don’t.’ They acted like it had just happened. It’s been happening since Reagan.”
America knows depressingly little about itself, she told me. Ignorant responses to the Dayton shooting had aggravated Whaley’s sense that people don’t “really think about the middle of the country much.” She said, “I mean, come on—the President said, ‘God bless Texas and Toledo,’ and Joe Biden said, ‘We’re really thinking about the people of Houston and Michigan.’ ” She added, “There are still more people in Ohio and across America living in small and midsize cities than there are living in big cities. These communities are interesting. It’s not ‘If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.’ ”
Dayton had now joined an unwelcome roster: two hundred and fifty-three U.S. cities have suffered a mass shooting this year alone. Across town, the coroner’s office was working on the autopsy reports of the Oregon District victims. Megan Betts had been shot in the right forearm and chest. Derrick Fudge had been shot multiple times in the torso. Lois Oglesby had been shot in the head. Each name on the list was followed with coding for race, gender, age: WF22, BF39, WM25, BM57.
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Whaley planned to attend as many of the funeral visitations as possible. For now, she had to go—her security detail was waiting at the door of the restaurant. She left to meet the governor at Dayton Children’s Hospital, where they announced a September summit on resilience.