For grieving father, Dayton run exposes, helps heal wounds

By Matt Norlander | Staff Writer

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Shawn Gordley, left, with son Caleb in 2011. (All photos courtesy of Shawn Gordley)

At 2 p.m. last Wednesday afternoon, Shawn Gordley got in his car and drove the seven-and-a-half hours by himself, without a ticket, from Sterling, Va., to Buffalo, N.Y.

The Dayton Flyers were playing Ohio State in the first Thursday game of the Round of 64. Gordley was going to do his best to be inside First Niagara Center to watch UD, his alma mater. He was going to do this all by himself.

Sort of.

After getting set back by a speeding ticket about 30 minutes outside of Buffalo, Gordley eventually checked into his hotel shortly after 9 p.m. Less than an hour later he was sitting at the hotel bar, having ordered himself filet mignon and some wine, and began to thumb through Craigslist ticket possibilities on his iPhone.

There it was: A ticket for Dayton-Ohio State. Gordley negotiated a price with the seller, then asked the bartender to watch his meal and drink. He hopped in a cab and took a five-minute ride to a Holiday Inn, where he'd buy one ticket for two people.

Gordley was one of them. His son, Caleb -- killed by a gunshot almost exactly a year prior, when after a night of partying he mistakenly entered the wrong house -- was the other.

****

Dayton fans have a peculiar and passionate relationship with their basketball team. The city is known for its unending respect and appreciation for the college game; it's why the NCAA has used UD Arena for every First Four since the field expanded to 68 teams in 2011, and why for so many years prior it was host to the opening round game between two No. 16 seeds. That passion was one of the reasons Shawn Gordley opted to attend Dayton coming out of high school, even though he'd been accepted to Princeton. He knew he could get Flyers season tickets as an undergrad.

The city has supported Dayton hoops despite a lot of mediocrity over the past three decades. Gordley was not interested in taking part in the communal sense of woe and angst among the UD fanbase, so he wanted to be as alone as he could in that filled First Niagara Center on Thursday afternoon. Gordley's ticket wound up being in a Syracuse section. He went wearing a throwback-style Dayton shirt and donned a Dayton cap his son used to wear often, but kept to himself throughout the game, not telling anyone why he was there. Sitting in Row 1, Seat 4 of Section 203, he was surrounded by Orange fans who were there to watch the ensuing, inevitable beatdown of Western Michigan, yet to realize their team would also be clipped by the Flyers two nights later.

As Dayton grew closer to pulling the upset of the sixth-seeded Buckeyes, Gordley reached into his breast jacket pocket and pulled out a baggie. Locks of Caleb's hair were inside of it, hair Gordley had cut off during Caleb's viewing on March 19, 2013. He gripped the bag. He kissed it.

"I was ready for it and I was at peace with it," Gordley said. "It was the first time I remember feeling, at any Dayton game, I'm not going to be upset when this is over."

Then Vee Sanford hit a shot, and Aaron Craft did not, so Dayton won its first NCAA Tournament game in five years, only its second victory in the tournament since 1990.

"I'm not spiritual, I'm not superstitious, I just wanted it to be me and him," Gordley said. "When Craft missed the shot, I immediately started crying. I wasn't even happy. I just lost it."

Caleb Gordley in 2011, wearing his favorite Dayton hat.

Syracuse fans all around gave Gordley congratulatory high-fives and pats on the back. He began to sob. He eventually had to leave his seat and move into the concourse, just to be away from others. He pulled his hat further down his brow and let himself emote.

Even then, fans of other teams were trying to grab his attention for some felicitations. He was just trying to dodge contact and have a private moment with a lost son who never got to experience anything like this while he was alive.

Gordley then walked the seven blocks from the arena to the hotel, crying the whole way.

The situation was the definition of bittersweet. Caleb loved Dayton. It was his favorite team; he'd grown to love UD more than his father, who'd gotten used to too many letdown seasons and anguishing games. He was a typically soured fan of a perennially average Atlantic 10 program that never won games like the one it had just won. Not only had Dayton won a big game, but it was the NCAA Tournament -- against in-state big brother.

Gordley couldn't afford to stay two more nights and pay for another ticket. After the game was over, he drove the 400 miles back -- at first fighting biting wind and whipping snow -- to his home in Sterling, in the DC suburbs of Northern Virginia.

"It was real cathartic on the way up. I was alone with my thoughts," Gordley said. "The ride back was sad, almost unbearable."

On Saturday, Gordley watched Dayton upset Syracuse from the comfort of his son's favorite room, which is now something of a shrine to Caleb. Nobody in the house goes in the room much (Gordley lives with his 14-year-old daughter -- Caleb's sister, Eden -- as well as his fiancee; Caleb's parents divorced in 2005), and never to watch TV. This had to be the exception. And as Syracuse and Dayton tipped Saturday night in Buffalo, Gordley watched next to his son's ashes, Caleb's hat that dad had worn two days earlier now sitting atop his urn. Once again, Caleb's hair was in Gordley's pocket.

Another close game. Another game where Dayton normally loses. Just ask Flyers fans and they'll tell you: We do not win these games.

Again, they did. Again, the 39-year-old father cried. He sat there for more than 15 minutes after Dayton got to its first Sweet 16 in 30 years, holding the physical remains of his son.

"I was sitting there, crying, holding his urn. It was so tough," he said. "The moment the game was over, it just crushed me, because he wasn't there to witness it."

This unexpected run to the Sweet 16 was so powerful and personal, Gordley felt compelled to anonymously share his story in an online Dayton basketball forum, UDPride. Gordley said he's a lurker at the site, someone who's checked the boards for 14 years but rarely posts. The reaction to his story was powerful. One man in the comments below said it moved him to call his son, who he'd lost contact with in recent years.

"When I read that, it choked me up," Gordley said.

Gordley opted to post the story anonymously because he wasn't really interested in dredging up the killing, which had briefly become a national news story.

"A lot of strangers on the Internet have been cruel over what happened," he said, although he'd find nothing but support on this forum. No one at UDPride pressed for details on his son's death, and if they had, Shawn wouldn't have shared his real feelings on the tragedy.

Gordley believes to this day the killing was not an accident. Shawn Gordley believes his son was murdered by a man who lived two houses down the street.

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Shawn Gordley with a young Caleb and Dayton star Tony Stanley, back in 1998.

According to the police investigation, the catastrophe unfolded like this: Caleb, drunk, was coming home from a party with a friend. He'd done something 16-year-olds do, sneaking out of the house about two hours previously, and was trying to get back home without alerting his father. Caleb and his friend made their way back home via a back road, and likely because he was intoxicated and the houses looked very similar, he accidentally entered the wrong house. Caleb entered the home through a window.

Donald Wilder had an alarm system triggered in his home. Wilder was in bed with his girlfriend upstairs. He heard the alarm and grabbed his gun. He used that gun in what he said was self-defense. Upon seeing Caleb roaming the first floor below, Wilder fired a warning shot, according to the police report. This did not faze Caleb, and Gordley believes his son was trying to make his way up the stairs to what he thought was his room. In total, four shots left Wilder's gun. Only one hit Caleb, the bullet traveling through his back and into his lung before killing him, according to the autopsy report.

The night her brother was killed, Eden Gordley slept over at a friend's house nearby. It was Eden who woke up her father on March 17 -- she'd gotten a call about a shooting in the neighborhood.

Eden said one of her friend's fathers happened to know the shooter, who would turn out to to be Wilder. At that moment, the information was that a man had shot an intruder in the house in self-defense. And this was just down the street -- in fact, in the very same cul-de-sac where Gordley and his children lived.

As he was leaving to pick Eden up, Gordley said he noticed how quiet the house was.

"Caleb wasn't in his usual locations. Then I was immediately pissed. I thought: He snuck out this morning or last night."

Gordley texted one of Caleb's friends, who would turn out to be the same friend who'd dropped Caleb off in the early morning. Gordley asked where Caleb was, and the friend told him they'd gone to a party but got back home around 2 a.m.

"It all came together in that exact moment," Gordley said. "I couldn't talk, my mouth was so dry, I got on the phone with Caleb's mother. We were all screaming."

Local news cameras caught Gordley running to the front door of Wilder's house, where by now he knew his son had been shot and killed. Gordley had never met Wilder. So he didn't know the person who answered the door was an official working the crime scene, who told him he could not give him any information.

He did not get official confirmation of what he already knew until the next morning.

"His house is rigged up with tight security," Gordley said of the place his son died. "Motion lights, sensors. When the window opened and the alarm went off, police were on their way a minute later. He (Wilder) watched him (Caleb) walk right upstairs. The police were 30 seconds away when he shot him in the back."

The compelling story was featured in January on 20/20. Gordley maintains his belief Caleb was murdered. The details of the police report indicate, to him, that Wilder shot his son unnecessarily, evidenced by the fact Caleb was noticeably inebriated and disoriented, coupled with the fact that a shot to his back -- rendering him in a defenseless position -- ended his life.

There is no pending case. Gordley did not pursue a civil suit. With Virginia's laws regarding guns, he knows he'd have no chance at winning. So he'll go on without closure and is still angry to this day. He added, "It's not going to bring Caleb back. What's the point?"

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Caleb's room features notes of love and remembrance from friends and classmates.

On the ride to the game Thursday, Gordley listened to Caleb's music. Caleb had taken to making a lot of it in the two years before his life was taken. One of the the songs he cued up was the last song Caleb wrote. In fact, he finished it the day before he died: The song is called "Remember," and its lyrics are poignant and scarily foreboding.

That music was the thing that kept Gordley most connected to his son. Now, this Dayton run has fueled a bond as powerful as anything since his death. Caleb's bedroom remains virtually untouched, and the viewing den, where Caleb used to spend most of his time playing video games and writing music, remains a sanctuary. On Thursday night, he'll again take the urn into the room, place the hat on it, and watch Dayton play Stanford.

"I'm at complete peace watching Dayton now, and it was never like this before," Gordley said. "I don't have butterflies in my stomach. I'm just enjoying it. My heart doesn't pound. I've never experienced this with Dayton basketball."

He finally can. The game in Buffalo was the first time Gordley allowed himself to see a game in person since Caleb's death. He's held on to some regret, as the two of them were supposed to see the team play on March 9, 2013, at George Washington. Caleb was grounded. Shawn says now he almost reneged on the punishment.

Caleb died eight days later.

When Dayton beat Syracuse, one of Gordley's best friends -- a major Syracuse fan -- texted Gordley congratulations and told him something he'd forgotten about. Two Septembers ago, Caleb turned 16 years old.

This win, it was a Sweet 16. For Caleb.

.

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