Trolley Shooting: Even to the girl he loved, Talovic a mystery to the end
AMARILLO, Texas - It was going to be the happiest day of Sulejman Talovic's life. On the night of Feb. 11, Talovic talked to his girlfriend, Monika, for hours on the phone. '' 'Something is going to happen tomorrow that you'll never be able to forgive me about,' '' the 17-year-old remembers Talovic saying. ''He said it was supposed to be the happiest day of his life and that it could only happen once in a lifetime.''
Monika pressed for details. "It involves everyone and everything," he said, except for her - he loved her too much. "I would never in the world want something like that to happen to you." At 10:44 p.m., Talovic hung up in Salt Lake City, telling Monika to sleep well. It would be the last time she heard the 18-year-old's voice. The two, both Bosnian refugees, had never met in person. On Feb. 13, around 2:30 p.m., an FBI agent calling numbers on Talovic's cell phone revealed the secret.
Talovic, the agent told Monika, had walked into Trolley Square mall the day before, carrying a shotgun, a .38-caliber pistol and a backpack full of ammunition. He had opened fire on nine people, killing five, before police killed him.
"I fell to the floor. I couldn't feel anything," Monika said. "I couldn't feel anything."
A month after the shooting, Suljo Talovic is no closer to understanding why the son he saw as shy and sweet boy became a murderer.
Two days after returning to Utah from the family's hometown of Talovici, Bosnia, where he laid his only son to rest, Suljo Talovic's unshaven face was pale and worn.
His wife, Sabira, is ill and has been in and out of emergency rooms. Saddened by any reminder of their son - his bedroom, his belongings - the Talovics have moved out of their west side home and are sleeping on the floor of a small, empty downtown apartment.
Their three daughters are having nightmares.
"We were best friends," said 14-year-old Medina, Talovic's oldest sister, as she hugged her knees and sobbed on the floor of her aunt Musa Smajlovic's apartment.
While federal and local investigators probe how Talovic obtained the .38-caliber revolver he used, Salt Lake City police are exploring how and why the shootings occurred for an eventual report to the community.
Chilling tapes of 911 calls released March 1 revealed the details of terrified shoppers and store employees hiding in kitchens, cramped closets, stairwells, storage rooms and freezers as Talovic walked through the mall, firing.
Left dead were Kirsten Hinckley, 15; Vanessa Quinn, 29; Teresa Ellis, 29; Brad Frantz, 24, and Jeffrey Walker, 52.
Carolyn Tuft, Hinckley's 44-year-old mother, and Walker's son, Alan "A.J." Walker, 16, were seriously injured. Survivor Stacy Hanson, 50, is paralyzed; Shawn Munns, 34, was left with scores of pellets in his body.
The Talovic family cannot comprehend why the rampage happened, Smajlovic said.
They pray for answers.
'It was easier to talk
Talovic first called Monika's small Amarillo home on Jan. 28. The teens, both Bosnian refugees who spent the early years of their childhood running from Serbian soldiers, were paired up by their uncles, longtime friends.
Monika's mother remembers the first time Talovic called.
''He's shy, he's talking slowly,'' she said. She offered to take his phone number. ''He says, 'No, no thank you ma'am, I call her back.' ''
Later that day, Monika and Talovic spoke for the first time. She says Talovic began to warm up to her and was happy, always cracking jokes. He called her ''Mimi.'' She called him ''Teddy Bear.''
By Feb. 11, the two had burned through nearly 1,700 cell phone minutes - more than 28 hours.
"It was way easier to talk to him than just some person," Monika said. "I don't understand why, but it was easier to talk to him than my Mom sometimes."
Both had dropped out of school, Talovic from Horizonte High School in Salt Lake City, Monika from Cap Rock High School in Amarillo. She is now being home schooled and expects to receive her diploma in November.
Talovic told Monika he had few friends - he spoke of two he met at the construction site where he once worked with his father, and one from a mosque. He rolled mats on an assembly line at Aramark Uniform Services. Monika works at Burger King, her paychecks supplementing her mother's minimum-wage income.
Monika's mother and father separated after fleeing to the United States, victims of the stress and depression caused by the war, the mother said.
'Take every day seriously'
Talovic's favorite color, Monika discovered, was turquoise; his favorite food, macaroni and cheese. He loved the outdoors and fishing with his father. He was listening to Korn, though which album, Monika isn't sure.
And then there were those things he didn't talk about: Guns. Politics. Religion. What he did at night after work.
Early in their conversations, Monika said, Talovic discussed death. He stressed the importance of living each day to its fullest. At the time, she didn't assign any meaning to it.
"I think of it as truth. Life is short. You never know when you're going to die," she said. "You should take every day seriously."
Talovic, police later discovered, had already legally purchased a 12-gauge shotgun in November at an area sporting goods store.
The teens daydreamed aloud about getting married. Talovic wanted to honeymoon in Tampa, Fla., Monika said; to someday settle down in Kentucky where he has relatives. Maybe have a son of his own. He hoped to someday buy a cabin in Bosnia, a place where he and his new wife could vacation.
They had shared their memories of Bosnia, Monika alone in her bedroom in Amarillo - in a remodeled garage - and Talovic alone in his basement bedroom in Salt Lake City.
Talovic was about 5 years old in the early 1990s, when Serbian forces overran Talovici.
Monika said Talovic described hiding in the woods over a period of three years, lying face down in the dirt to avoid watching as Serbs decapitated countrymen nearby. He told Monika of seeing people shot in the head or stomach. He did witness killings, his aunt said.
Talovic recalled his hunger pains, surviving on wild mushrooms and droplets of water that collected on leaves, Monika said.
"He was mad because when he didn't have a place of their own, they had to live in the forest. He used to be mad when he was a little kid, but said he got over that," she said.
Talovic once spoke of a clinic in their village where the wounded and dead were taken, Smajlovic said. He "remembered there was a little ambulance there," Smajlovic said. The aunt recalls hiding with the Talovic family in the woods. Eventually, the family left, walking hundreds of miles toward a free zone in Tuzla. On the way, they slept on the floor of schoolhouses without blankets. Talovic's grandfather was fatally shot. An infant brother and sister died.
"They didn't have food, they didn't have shelter, it was every man for his own," said Smajlovic. "It was horrible. They spent their time looking for food, a piece of bread. There was no time to talk about anything nice."
Talovic told Monika a story about an important revelation he had in Bosnia.
One evening, "as the sun was falling," Talovic heard a horse outside of his family's home in Bare, where they lived after they left Talovici. He walked out and, standing before him was a white horse "with two beautiful eyes," he told Monika.
''And he said, 'Look,' and his aunt [who was also outside] couldn't see it there,'' Monika said. It was at that moment she knew he was a "good-souled" person.
''He thought of it as only 'good-souled people' could see happiness and goodness,'' she said.
'He was very, very happy'
After the Talovics moved to Utah in September 1998, Talovic appreciated having nice clothing, a decent car, enough food to eat, his aunt remembers. "He was very, very happy. He had all of these opportunities here," Smajlovic said.
But he had nightmares, she added. And there were other signs.
Nasir Omerovic disputes family members' description of Talovic as a good child who rarely caused trouble. Omerovic was married to Talovic's aunt, Ajka Omerovic, and lived two houses down from the Talovic family on Edmonds Place for their first three years in Salt Lake City.
Omerovic said Talovic often tormented his son Safer, who was two years younger. Within the first few months of living on Edmonds Place, Omerovic said, Talovic grabbed Safer by the throat and choked him.
On another occasion, he said, Talovic packed a snowball with broken glass and threw it at Safer's head, drawing blood.
"For Sulejman, that was a game," said Omerovic, who no longer lives in Salt Lake City and separated from his wife in 2001. "All the trouble he was making, it was just a game."
Shortly after the family's arrival, Talovic pulled a knife on their landlord, Musto Redzovic. Redzovic felt Talovic may not have recognized him and may have been trying to protect his family.
In 1999, Talovic was referred to juvenile court for throwing rocks at a girl. He denied it, according to court documents, but a judge decided it was true. Omerovic said Talovic was sentenced to community service.
In 2001, Talovic was again referred to juvenile court for allegedly swiping a knife toward a girl. The girl's mother pulled her away before he could make contact, according to court documents.
Omerovic said the girl was Talovic's cousin, the daughter of his aunt, Hasija Cumurovic. Cumurovic, who now lives in Florida, declined to comment.
Often absent, then gone
Suljo Talovic was a kind father who was reluctant to acknowledge his son's problems, Omerovic said. "He never punished his boy for his troubles," he said. "Every time he blamed somebody else."
Sulejmen Talovic's father has declined to discuss the court cases in detail. The boy stayed clear of the court system after 2001.
Suljo Talovic said his son often moved between schools because the family moved three times in Salt Lake City. But Talovic often had a spotty attendance record.
Talovic attended eighth grade at Hillside Intermediate during the 2001-02 school year. Math teacher Virginia Lee said he seemed disinterested in class and was often absent. When she called his mother to ask why, she was told Talovic was sick, Lee said.
The next year, he entered an alternative program at Highland High School. Teacher Danny Schwam said he rarely attended class. When he did, Schwam said, his head was often on his desk. Talovic was released after fall 2002 due to poor attendance, Schwam said.
For a time, Talovic attended West High School. He started classes at Horizonte High School in fall 2004, and dropped out in November. His father has said two boys with knives at the school threatened to kill him.
All the schools have declined to release Talovic's records. Freed from classes, the teen went to work.
Talovic and Monika never saw photos of each other. But as they grew closer, their parents were delighted. Suljo and Sabira Talovic looked forward to their son becoming a husband and father. Suljo Talovic offered to buy Talovic a plane ticket, or drive him to Texas himself, so he could meet Monika in person.
Talovic told them, "I want to get married soon, I will tell you when we need to get started with the wedding," Suljo Talovic remembers. The father said he responded that when they got married, he would buy them a $1,000 gift, "something gold."
"I was hoping for a wedding, not this," he said.
On the morning of Feb. 12, Talovic reported to Aramark on time and left at 5 p.m., as usual. He went home, took a shower and left in his brown Mazda.
Shortly after 6:30 p.m., Talovic left the car in a Trolley Square parking deck and walked toward the mall's west entrance. Wearing a tan trench coat, Talovic walked through the mall and fired at random.
Six minutes later, Talovic died in a barrage of police gunfire.
Enes Kadic, who grew up near Talovic in "Little Bosnia" in Salt Lake City, was stunned.
"When I first heard it was him [who fired at Trolley Square], I kind of lost my breath," he said, as he sat eating cavopi at the Cafe on Main Street on a recent evening. "I wish I could wake him up and make him tell me [why he did it.]"
At least for now, police have not determined Talovic's motive, leaving friends and family to speculate.
"But probably we will never find out," said Sulejman Sulejmanovi, the imam for Talovici, who spoke at Talovic's funeral. "Only Sulejman and dear God know the reasons why. The real truth is buried with him."
Even Monika, perhaps the only person Talovic confided in toward the end of his life, is at loss.
''Why would anyone want to kill people?'' she asks. ''Why would you take someone else's life?''
At night, she still takes her phone to bed, wishing he could call.