Aurora cross maker returns from Florida in grief: ‘I love what I am doing, but it has taken its toll’

People wander among the crosses and stars of David on a mound in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Aurora’s Greg Zanis put up the memorials to honor the students and teachers killed in a shooting spree Feb. 14. (Charles Trainor Jr / AP)

Greg Zanis admits his heart is breaking. And he is as exhausted — both emotionally and physically — as I’ve ever seen him.

The morning of Feb. 14, the carpenter from Aurora placed a white wooden memorial at the site of Chicago Police Cmdr. Paul Bauer’s killing the day before and hugged weeping cops in bullet-proof vests still in shock.

In the afternoon he headed to DeKalb to attend the service for the 10th anniversary of the mass shooting at Northern Illinois University. And on his way home from NIU, he got word that 17 students in Florida had been gunned down.

All this, while still struggling with the sudden loss of his own daughter, who had been found dead in her bed two weeks earlier.

Still, the "Cross Man" from Illinois had miles to go before he could rest.

It wasn’t long after the latest mass shooting that calls began pouring in from Parkland, Florida, including from a grieving mother asking if he could make Stars of David in place of crosses for the five Jewish teenagers killed in this nation’s latest massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And so, Zanis went to Home Depot and bought more wood, adding the carved stars to the crosses piled in the bed of his new truck — a gift from a grateful Las Vegas community after October’s concert shooting that left 58 dead. But before heading south he had to make one more stop in Chicago — putting up 21 crosses for the 15th anniversary of those who died in the E2 nightclub stampede.

Only then, in the early hours of Feb. 17, did Zanis finally head south — in the dark, in silence, praying for guidance that he would say the right things to a stunned Broward County community.

As usual, his truck filled with crosses garnered plenty of attention on that long trek to Florida. Escorted into Parkland by school officials, Zanis arrived around noon on Sunday with his special delivery that’s become as much a part of America’s gun violence epidemic as police tape, television crews and the cries of anguished survivors asking their government to do something.

Only, this trip was different.

For one thing, Parkland survivors all live within a couple miles of the murder site, so it became impossible to meet anyone not personally affected by the shooting. And he was "so delighted to be able to work with another faith after all these years," Zanis told me. The warm embrace he received from a grateful Jewish community — some even helped put the finishing touches on their loved ones’ stars — "will stay with me forever."

As will their pain.

He too had just buried a child: Maria Susan Raibley, wife, AT&T sales rep, eldest of Greg and Sue Zanis’s five children whose birth 37 years ago "was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me," he says.

Family and friends described the pretty, outgoing and friendly woman as the kind of person everyone loved. She was also head-strong, her father notes, and "could be very hard on me at times." Yet despite their many differences over the years, "she became my best friend … we could talk about anything."

Which is why her death hit like a hammer to the heart.

Although the autopsy is not yet completed, Zanis says his daughter likely died of an overdose. Maria had struggled with heroin 15 years ago, and Zanis, who has made many crosses for victims of this scourge throughout the years, is well aware of the power opioids have over the people caught in that grip, especially those, like Maria, who had been clean for so long.

"Gun violence is an American cancer," he says, "but so is heroin. Maybe I should change my crusade to include opioids … it is something to think about."

Maria’s death seemed particularly cruel, as she had just stepped into the spotlight after the concert shooting last fall. That’s when a Las Vegas television station brought her into its studio as a surprise to her dad before gifting him with the new truck and thousands of dollars worth of power tools for his Crosses for Losses mission.

In the past, Maria did not understand her father’s obsession with these crosses, especially when he left for Aurora, Colorado, soon after the family had lost their home following the recession. But during that emotional Fox News interview in early November, Maria talked about how she now saw "the big picture," especially after getting a chance to walk by those 58 crosses on display and watching how the Las Vegas community reacted to them.

"Thank you for continuing to do the crosses," she told her dad, "even when we weren’t sure you should do it."

Later, Zanis, tells me, Maria had asked if she could have the "key to the city" that Vegas had presented him.

In the end, he placed it in her casket.

Zanis’s crusade has always been fueled by the trauma of finding his father-in-law’s dead body in a pool of blood. The cross, he insists, brought him back from the brink and he’s convinced it can help others do the same. And now, as a father who also buried a child, the bond he feels with these survivors is even stronger.

Pulling out a box filled with sympathy cards and letters — many from people he does not know — Zanis says the support his family received has been monumental and appreciated. But every day people come to their home at the corner of Church Road and Indian Trail — most from out of state — requesting a cross. After his daughter’s death, he placed a hand-printed sign on the door asking that they do not knock or ring as "we need to be with our family only."

Still, he knew Maria would have wanted him to go to Parkland.

"I am working my way of out of my own miseries," he says. "When I went to Florida I was such a mess. But I can’t allow myself to get consumed in my own grief. I’m offering these families hope. It helps me and it helps them. I know that for a fact because when I leave there, they are smiling."

As is he — only not for long.

"The hardest thing was trying to keep my composure," he says.

Which is why, after spending about four hours hugging those grieving and praying with them, Zanis took the back roads to avoid the media and slipped out of sight. But before he hit the expressway he stopped at a gas station, and for 10 minutes had a long, private cry.

Shrugging off invitations to sleep at some of the Parkland homes, there was little rest before he got back home.

Even then, "I’m scared of my own sleep … I went to bed last night just crying," Zanis admits. "I love what I am doing. But it has taken its toll."

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