Parents of Dayton shooter apologize for 'insensitive' obituary of their son

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After Connor Betts killed nine people, including his sister, in Dayton, Ohio, last week, acquaintances described the 24-year-old as a deeply troubled individual who was obsessed with guns, carried a "hit list" of classmates, and had a history of violently lashing out against women.

But an obituary published on behalf of his family this week painted a markedly different picture, describing the gunman as "a funny, articulate and intelligent man with striking blue eyes and a kind smile."

Betts, his grieving parents wrote, was a former Boy Scout and avid reader. He sang in a men's choral group, played the baritone horn in his high school's marching band, and worked at Chipotle Mexican Grill while attending community college. The obituary made no mention of the mass shooting, or the fact that Betts had died in a hail of police gunfire as he tried to enter a crowded bar. Instead, it highlighted his love of electronic dance music, Xbox and the Fox animated series "Bob's Burgers."

"Connor will be missed immensely by his friends, family, and especially his good dog Teddy," the notice concluded.

Publicly memorializing a mass killer was an unusual move, and it appears to have led to swift backlash. By Wednesday night, the obituary had been removed from the funeral home's website.

"Stephen and Moira Betts apologize that the wording of the obituary for their son Connor was insensitive in not acknowledging the terrible tragedy that he created," said a statement that stood in its place. "In their grief, they presented the son that they knew, which in no way reduces the horror of his last act. We are deeply sorry."

While mourning both their children, the couple had unwittingly stumbled into a dilemma that often confounds the families of mass shooters and other notorious killers: How do you grieve the person you've lost in a way that isn't disrespectful to their victims?

As The Washington Post's Sarah Kaplan reported in 2015, the parents of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had to grapple with this question after their sons killed 13 people during the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. Klebold's family had their 17-year-old son cremated, which eliminated the problem of finding a place to lay him to rest. But they still wanted to hold a funeral and organized a small, somber event, with mourners taking detours so they wouldn't attract attention. Despite these precautions, however, the pastor who conducted the ceremony lost his job amid widespread blowback. Harris's parents, meanwhile, have never said where their 18-year-old son is buried.

Neither have the surviving relatives of Adam Lanza, who killed 26 people, most of whom were children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, after murdering his mother. His father, Peter Lanza, spoke candidly about the 20-year-old gunman's troubled life and apparent mental health issues an interview with Britain's Daily Telegraph in 2014, the only interview that he has given to date. But he clammed up when asked what he had done for a funeral after claiming his son's body.

"No one knows that," the father firmly stated. "And no one ever will."

Many cemeteries refuse to accept the bodies of notorious killers, fearing the potential for outrage, the Miami Herald has reported. When families are able to find a burial plot, they typically keep its location a secret, and avoid putting up a marker or headstone. Otherwise, there's a risk that the site could become a target for vandals. Another potential danger is that the grave could attract a small subset of people who idolize the killer - a problem that's all too familiar to officials in Littleton, Colorado, who recently debated tearing down Columbine High School because it keeps attracting visitors with a "morbid fascination" with school shooters. (The proposal was dropped last month.)

For some, like Klebold's family, cremation is an easier alternative, and one that's unlikely to cause offense. But the practice is prohibited under Islamic law, which has led to complications in high-profile cases where the perpetrator is Muslim. After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, for instance, no cemeteries in Massachusetts were willing to take the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was accused of masterminding the attack. When protesters learned where the 26-year-old's body was being held, they gathered outside the funeral home with American flags and signs that read, "Do not bury him on U.S. soil," and, "It's a disgrace to our military." Tsarnaev's body ultimately ended up in an unmarked grave in Virginia.

Even in cases that don't involve mass shootings, it's unusual for murderers to be memorialized in obituaries that appear on funeral home websites and as paid notices in local newspapers. But one notable exception came in 2016, when Joshua Bishop, a Georgia man who had killed an acquaintance during a drug-fueled fight over car keys, received the death penalty.

"Just like when you lose any other friend, none of us wanted the news of the execution to be the last word about Josh," Sarah Gerwig-Moore, a Mercer University Law School professor who was part of Bishop's legal team, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time. "He was so much more than the worst thing he has ever done. He was more to us than someone who committed a horrible crime."

For Connor Betts's parents, such considerations were undoubtedly complicated by the fact that they had another obituary to write - this one honoring his sister, 22-year-old Megan Betts, whom they described as a talented writer and loyal friend fascinated by geology and space exploration. And after their son's obituary was removed and replaced by an apology, something surprising happened: Supportive comments started pouring in from strangers who offered prayers and well wishes, acknowledging that the family was facing unthinkable pain and grief.

"You have nothing to apologize for," one commenter wrote. "You knew and saw a side of your son that was precious to you. Hold onto those memories. God bless you."

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