COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The savory scent of beef tacos, sweet aroma of strawberry cupcakes and the poignant image of tears falling down grieving faces filled the parking lot outside Club Q on Saturday.
Raymond Green Vance’s mother and grandparents wanted to celebrate his 23rd birthday the same way they celebrated the first 22; with his grandmother’s infamous beef tacos, a Nutella cake and fresh-squeezed lemonade with simple syrup made from the lavender grown in his grandparents’ backyard.
But after a gunman claimed five lives at Club Q, an LGBTQ+ club in Colorado Springs, Vance’s birthday had to carry on without him, as he died during the shooting.
“Raymond’s birthday was always very special to us, because we knew the things he liked and he was so appreciative,” said Vance’s grandmother, Esthela Bell. “Everybody that came in contact with him said how much he had touched their lives because he was such a joy to be around.”
A typical Raymond Green Vance birthday celebration would’ve involved close family members, but Vance’s family chose to commemorate Green with the Club Q owners, survivors of the tragedy and family members of deceased victims. Bell still brought tacos and salsa for all to enjoy, but the family provided strawberry cupcakes from a local bakery rather than the Whole Foods cake.
Though she tried to make the most of it, living without Vance is his mother’s worst nightmare.
“I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t understand or process what they were telling me,” said Adriana Vance, Raymond’s mother. “I have a younger son and I just have to keep it going for him, but right now, I’m not in a place where I can say I’m healed.”
Adriana Vance cleaned dead flowers off of the memorial outside the club as she discussed her son with partygoers.
Vance wanted to join the U.S. Air Force. He played football in high school. He loved his dog, Draco, and his girlfriend, Cassie. Vance could be shy and quiet at home, but he loved playing video games and spending time with his friends. When he put a video game headset on, he transformed from a quiet, childlike guy to a military commander.
“He’d put on his headset and suddenly he was a battalion commander using vocabulary I didn’t know he had,” said Ron Bell, Vance’s grandfather and father figure.
When Vance reached an age where being with family was not considered “cool,” but his mother and grandparents said he still always showed soft spots for them.
Esthela, his grandmother, would keep the house stocked with pomegranate juice – Vance’s favorite. Esthela and Ron remember Vance walking through their door unannounced, asking what kinds of food they had in their pantry and refrigerator. Esthela would list off a menu of snacks, meals and desserts, and Vance would respond “yes,” signifying he wanted all of the listed items.
“He was always smiling. You would never see him angry, he was never angry, he was never upset,” Esthela said.
Saturday’s outdoor celebration was riddled with wind, snow and biting-cold temperatures, but Club Q survivors and Vance’s family members knew he would’ve wanted them to remember his legacy as one of happiness and laughter.
“He was a jokester. That was one of his most important personality traits,” said Wyatt Kent, a friend of Vance’s. “He was always trying to make people smile and always trying to lighten the mood.”
Kent, a gay man and drag performer who performed under the name “Potted Plant,” remembers Vance asking the Club Q DJ to play Bad Bunny just moments before the shooter ended his life.
Vance was heterosexual, but his LGBTQ+ friends said he always stood with and stood up for them, including in the moments before he was shot.
“He said ‘I’m really proud of who you’re becoming. You’re doing everything you said you were going to do,’” Kent recalled.
Kent went to school with Vance and was good friends with Vance’s girlfriend, Cassie. The three went to Sand Creek High School and graduated together in 2018.
Vance played football and was considered “popular,” while Kent was frequently picked on for his sexuality. But Vance wouldn’t stand for bullying of the LGBTQ+ community. When Kent was excluded, Vance was there to extend an invite.
“He was not only a friend to me but kind of an ally for me,” Kent said. “He was such a great supporter.”
Not long before the shooter fired a sea of bullets into the club, Vance exchanged a hug with Daniel Aston, Kent’s boyfriend and a bartender at the club. Kent remembers seeing the genuineness in Vance’s smile when he congratulated Kent on finding someone who brought so much happiness to his life.
The moments of love and new friendships were cut short after Kent heard a loud “pop,” which he believed to be a speaker blowing out. Kent, Vance and Kelly Loving, another victim, looked towards the door and saw a silhouette of a man with a gun. Immediately after, each fell to the floor, with Vance and Loving stacked on top of Kent. Kent walked away with just a scar on his finger, but Vance and Loving died at the scene. Kent assisted Loving in her 911 call and remembers her last words being the name of the club and “shooting.”
Kent was originally told Aston was in various hospitals receiving surgery, and nearly 12 hours after the shooting, Kent received a call from Aston’s father informing him that Aston died at the scene.
“It’s surreal,” Kent said. “It feels like a bad day that you can’t move on from.”
Alison Berg is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at email@example.com.