Sandy Hook Father Becomes Reluctant But Compelling Spokesman For Gun Control

Neil Heslin holds a 2006 photograph of himself and his son, Jesse Lewis, who was killed in the Sandy Hook massacre. (MARK MIRKO)

Jesse Lewis, 6, and his father spent part of the evening on Dec. 13 at Stew Leonard's grocery in Danbury where they bought Christmas ornaments for one of Jesse's friends, family members and for his first-grade teacher, Victoria Soto.

To buy the gifts, Jesse spent money he had earned, which came to $37. He was industrious and always wanted to help his father with a job — setting tiles in a bathroom, fixing a tractor or demolishing a wall, said Jesse's father, Neil Heslin.

That night Jesse picked out an ornament that said "Mom" and a similar one that said "brother" for his only sibling, J.T. Lewis, Heslin said. He then picked out a star-shaped ornament that said "teacher" and an apple ornament, both for Soto.

Neither Jesse nor his teacher lived to see Christmas. They were among the 20 children and six women killed Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Since then, Heslin has become a reluctant but compelling spokesman for his son and other victims in the numerous hearings, committee meetings and forums centered on guns, school safety and mental illness. Wednesday, he'll be testifying before a Senate committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on whether assault weapons should be banned.

A few weeks ago, Heslin sat down with The Courant to share his feelings, his photos and his memories of the little boy he called "my best friend."

The night before he was shot to death by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, Jesse and his dad also went to Wal-Mart so Jesse could show his father what he wanted for Christmas.

"He wanted Nerf guns. He wanted some other action figures," Heslin said. "He loved soldiers. He loved the Army. Anything that looked like it had something to do with the Army, he wanted, or he was inquisitive about."

Jesse spent that night with his father at his home in Shelton. Heslin, 50, shared custody of his only child with Jesse's mother, Scarlett Lewis, who lives in the Sandy Hook hamlet of Newtown. The next morning, Heslin dropped off Jesse shortly after 9 a.m. at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The two hugged, Heslin remembers. They had plans to make gingerbread houses later that day in school with other students and parents.

Not much later that morning Heslin received an emergency notice on his Blackberry about a shooting at the school.

"You couldn't get to the school," Heslin said. "It was evident something very bad was going on … hundreds of police, law enforcement, helicopters … there was SWAT team in full combat gear."

Heslin made it to the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Co. firehouse, where police were sending parents and children evacuated from the school.

"It was very well organized under the circumstances," Heslin said.

There were signs for classrooms, but none for Soto's class. He asked people if they had seen Jesse. Nobody had.

"As the day went on, the hopes grew less and less," Heslin said. "You knew he wasn't coming back, or something had happened. You still hold the hope that he was at a hospital, or he was hiding, or he was injured in the woods, or something."

Standing Up For Change

About six weeks later, Heslin stepped up to a microphone at the state Capitol and onto the national stage. He was holding a framed portrait of himself and his son while seated at the front of a crowded hearing room made up largely of gun rights proponents. The crowd fell silent.

Heslin said he could not understand why anyone needed an assault style weapon or high capacity clips. After looking around, as if for a response, he added that "not one person can answer that question."

Hesitantly, audience members shouted out "Second Amendment" and "Second Amendment shall not be infringed." Heslin paused to look around at them and to say that he supported the Second Amendment, but not high capacity ammunition clips. He believes those magazines should be banned.

"Is it right that I have to lay my boy to rest with a bullet in his head? No," Heslin said.