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.
Heslin does not hesitate to describe his son's fatal injuries. Jesse was shot twice in the head. He was grazed on the side of the head, and he was shot in the forehead at the hairline.
"That wasn't just a killing …. It was a massacre," Heslin said. "He didn't just go in and shoot each victim one time, or to kill them … That's clear from the condition of the victims."
Heslin favors background checks for all gun purchases. He believes that background checks should include an inquiry about the mental status of the gun purchaser and other people in the gun purchaser's home.
He said he supports the Second Amendment, though it is difficult to reconcile his belief knowing that guns in the homes of law-abiding citizens can sometimes lead to deadly consequences. The gunman's mother, Nancy Lanza, apparently was a law-abiding gun owner.
Heslin also believes that schools would benefit from armed guards and bulletproof glass.
Heslin favors anything that would have saved his son and the others at Sandy Hook. He says he'd give anything.
A Hard Worker
One year, Heslin remembers, Jesse wanted to buy his mom a card.
"He said, 'I gotta earn some money,' and, of course, I would have given him the money, or whatever he wanted, I'd take him to get his mom a present," Heslin said.
Instead, Jesse asked a neighbor for work. He picked dandelions from a neighbor's yard for a penny a piece and earned "eight bucks or so," Heslin said.
Jesse's father remembers him as a boy with a strong work ethic, an inquisitive mind and a commitment to work until a job was complete. He wanted to work in construction like his father, who operates large machinery, including bulldozers, excavators and cranes. Heslin also is a residential contractor.
"He'd say, 'We're not leaving until the job is done, Dad.'"
In many cases, the job was half the fun, Heslin said, recalling that he and Jesse were in the process of restoring a 1948 Ford 8N tractor and had even managed to get the engine running.
Jesse also wanted to make his own money by saving bottles to return for the deposit, and even collecting scrap metal to be sold at a redemption center.
When he wasn't helping his father with a job, Jesse played soccer in a league, and he liked other sports, such as baseball and football. He loved dogs and riding horses, like the ones at his mother's small farm in Sandy Hook, Heslin said.
"Every year he used to raise chickens … and he'd give them to his mother for Mother's Day," Heslin said. "We incubate them and we'd get the chicks and he'd raise them. We had the lights set up."
Jesse also liked to fish, whether it was in a stream by his home, at Lake Zoar in Newtown or angling for bluefish off a dock in Long Island Sound. He collected shells found in the sand at Long Beach, a strip of barrier beach along the coast in Stratford.
Jesse was loud and fearless. His father has a photo of Jesse play-wrestling with a pit bull. It's one of hundreds that Heslin keeps on his Blackberry, along with videos of Jesse demolishing a plasterboard wall, riding a bicycle in circles in the driveway and swinging on a swing set.
"He wasn't afraid of anything," Heslin said. "He thought he could conquer the world."
Jesse died five years to the day after the death of his paternal grandmother. Heslin's mother, Joan Heslin, was 75 when she died Dec. 14, 2007.
So, on Dec. 13, when Jesse said he thought it was going to be the best Christmas ever, Heslin explained that he is always a little sad around the anniversary of his mother's death. Jesse asked about heaven. Heslin remembers reassuring him, saying: "When you die, I'll be there to come get you."
"We got into the true meaning of Christmas was giving and not receiving," said Heslin, who was raised Catholic and describes himself as spiritual, as well as a believer in heaven for children and an afterlife.
In the days after the shooting, Heslin said, the outpouring of gifts, letters and other signs of support from all over the world confirmed Jesse's belief.
"He was right. It was the best Christmas ever, because people were reaching out to help, and giving to people that needed," Heslin said. "So, he was right. He wasn't here to enjoy it, but, regardless, it was still the best Christmas ever, looking at it that way."