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Aurora shooting victim's dad still visits theater looking for his son

"Here, I can relax and I know he's there, and I know we can sit there and enjoy something together," Tom Sullivan said.

AURORA, Colo. — It has been remodeled.

The façade looks different.

Movies still provide an escape from reality inside the Century Aurora movie theater, but you cannot escape the reality of what happened at the Century a decade ago.

"It's not the same theater to me that it is to others," said Tom Sullivan.

Sullivan's son Alex went to the midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" on July 20, 2012. He was celebrating his birthday with his work friends.

"Alex was in the 12th row, in the 12 seat," said Sullivan. "The whole Red Robin crew was all in the 12th row."


Alex was one of 12 killed during a mass shooting inside the theater.

"I'm still having a difficult time at the cemetery. I don't know how to talk to him at the cemetery," said Sullivan. "If I go to the cemetery, then I, kind of, have to come up with what I want to tell him, what I want to talk to him about."

Credit: AP
Tom Sullivan and his wife Terry hold hands as they visit the grave site of their son Alex Sullivan on Thursday, July 18, 2013, in Wheat Ridge, Colo. Alex was killed along with 11 others in the Aurora theater shooting last July on his 27th birthday. Saturday is the anniversary of the shooting. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

At the movies, though, talking is not required.

"Here, I can relax and I know he's there, and I know we can sit there and enjoy something together," said Sullivan.

The Century theater, where Sullivan lost his son, is the theater where he has gone to see movies for the last decade.

"This has changed twice, at least, since when it reopened. All you can do is get [in] the proximate area. I'm looking to get in the middle of the theater," said Sullivan. "He was in the middle of the row, so that's what I go for, is the middle part there."

One week before the 10-year mark, Sullivan went to see "Thor: Love and Thunder" in the same theater where his son went to see "The Dark Night Rises."

"It was the XD theater. So, it's the former Theater 9, which is now Theater J," said Sullivan. "I went up to row G, which basically kind of puts you in the middle. I was sitting in row G, seat 12. That would be where we always went. We always went to the middle of the theater."

He has never shied away from coming back to this location.

Credit: Family
Alex and Tom Sullivan

"I mean, it's not like hallowed ground. It's not where you shouldn't walk on that area. It's a new space for a whole new community. We have our space that's within there that we can remember that nobody else can," said Sullivan.

When he saw his first movies inside the theater after losing his son, he noticed new additions to the commercials before the previews -- new additions because of what happened.

"There's a portion at the beginnings [of movies] that they never used to do until 10 years ago, where they tell you, 'Look for exits,' 'Get outside,' all of that kind of stuff. That all started after the theater massacre," said Sullivan. "When I hear it in there, I'm always a little -- to see if you hear somebody say something because they might [say], 'Oh yeah, this is where….' But I'm not sure that they all know really what theater they're in or if it matters to them."

Going to the movies has changed in another way over the last 10 years, too. Instead of being able to show up and sit wherever is open, specific seats need to be picked in advance. That makes getting the right seat a bit easier for Sullivan, which wasn't always the case.

"It was when the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie came out. And so, I had come by myself, and it was afternoon, and I bought a ticket. And I walked in, and I came in and I looked, and there [are] three kids sitting in the 12th row. They're sitting right in those seats. And I just stopped, and I kind of looked, and I thought, 'Oh no. OK, what do I do?' And so, I stood there for a little while, and then it was like, 'OK.' So, I went up, and I went to the 11th row, and I went down the 11th row and I sat right there in front of them. I didn't look at them, I didn't say anything to them, I didn't do anything. I just said, 'OK, so I'll sit here.' So, I went and sat down. And we were there before the movie started. These guys were messing around and playing with their phones and all of this. And I'm sitting there for about five minutes, and all of a sudden, the three kids stood up out of their seats and walked down to the end of the row and sat down. And I sat there and went, 'Oh my.' And so it was, 'OK.' So, I got up and I moved, and I sat down. And to this -- what I know is that Alex was sitting there with them. And he was hanging out and doing whatever they were doing with them. And then all of a sudden, he looked up and he told them, 'You know, guys, my dad's here. You got to move.' And they did. And so, I sat there," said Sullivan.

Credit: 9NEWS
Tom Sullivan visiting the theater where his son, Alex, was killed. He sits in the row where his son sat that night to be close to him.

He does not try to convince other families to find solace in a place that brought so much pain.

"There's some that can't even come to Aurora," said Sullivan. "I can tell them that story, and it's like, if you want to be around them, you've got to go to where they are. And this is where he is from time to time."

Sullivan, now a Democratic state representative, is in politics because of what happened to his son.

"I'm losing focus and any understanding of who that guy was 10 years ago because I've become a completely different -- I look the same, basically. But I'm not that guy. I don't think that way," said Sullivan.

RELATED: GOP lawmaker suggests Colorado House colleague should 'let go' of son's murder at Aurora theater

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Thor was the most recent movie Sullivan saw at the theater, keeping a comic book character theme of movies he shared with Alex.

"He didn't know who they were. And then, because I read those comics when I was a kid, the Captain America ones, I would tell him, 'Well, that's who that is and that's who that is.' And I could help him, and then when, he would see it again with his friends, he could tell them, 'Hey, that's who that is because my dad told me,'" said Sullivan. "When they show the previews to other movies, [I wonder] would he be excited about that one? When they give the little Easter Eggs at the end about the next one that's coming, would that excite him?"

Credit: AP
Photographs of theater shooting victim Alex Sullivan are shown, Saturday, July 21, 2012, at a memorial near the movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Twelve people were killed and dozens were injured in the attack early Friday at the packed theater during a showing of the Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises." Police have identified the suspected shooter as James Holmes, 24. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Instead of leaving as soon as the movie ended, Sullivan used to play a game with Alex and with his daughter Megan, keeping them occupied until the theater cleared.

"We would look at all of the credits that are coming through and we would look for our names. And they go by really fast, but if you're only looking for a 'Tom' or an 'Alex' or a 'Megan,'" said Sullivan. "I still do that. I sit there and I look for 'Alexes' and I look for 'Megans.'"

July 20 is a day of remembering Alex for multiple reasons.

"I always think of it as Alex's birthday. I celebrate his birthday, I celebrate all the time that we had together," said Sullivan. "I'm appreciative of the fact that I do get to go in there and share our moment together and it doesn't bother anybody else."

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