The incredible bond between Kiwi woman Amelia Lyons and her Russian boyfriend Artemi Shilov has only grown stronger after they found themselves caught in the middle of a murderous rampage near their apartment.
The neighbourhood the young couple had come to call home was torn apart on May 23, when Elliot Rodger (22), son of Hollywood filmmaker Peter Rodger, went on a killing spree in the close-knit community of Isla Vista, Santa Barbara. He claimed he was seeking revenge against the sorority women who had rejected him and the popular fraternity boys who grabbed their attention.
After he stabbed three young men to death in his apartment, Rodger drove through Isla Vista, shooting at bystanders.
As well as injuring four people with his car, Rodger fatally shot two female students outside a sorority house and a male student inside a delicatessen – a place which Amelia and Artemi frequent. He then exchanged gunfire with police before crashing his BMW into a parked car, and taking his own life.
In an exclusive interview with the Weekly, Amelia, who grew up in Napier before moving to Santa Barbara in 2012 to study at the University of California, recalls how she became embroiled in the ordeal.
“I was walking home from work when a police officer came running by, telling everyone to get inside because there was a shooter on the loose,” the 22-year-old remembers. “Initially I didn’t realise how serious it was until I heard all the sirens and saw the police cars.”
Thoughts of that fateful day and the innocent lives lost still haunt Amelia. Moments before the shooting, she was standing outside and saw Artemi across the street, skating past with their dog. Now that she knew there was a killer on the loose, she feared for their safety.
“Elliot was driving around shooting at random people, so being in the wrong place at the wrong time could have spelled death.”
Separated from Amelia, Artemi was deeply concerned for her safety. “I heard all the gunshots. There were 20 shots in rapid succession. I thought it was fireworks,” he remembers.
“When I saw people running, I had a feeling in my stomach that this was serious.”
Artemi quickly searched for Amelia to ensure she was safe. “When I saw her, I sprinted over to her and grabbed her by the hand. We ran into our apartment and locked all the windows and the doors.”
While on lockdown, the pair searched the internet frantically for information. They later discovered a neighbour was caught in the crossfire – he was shot, but survived.
Just minutes before going on the killing spree, Rodger sent his family and friends a 141-page document titled My Twisted World, which detailed his anger and frustration towards society.
In what the media is calling his “manifesto”, Rodger wrote about his desire to torture the popular guys, describing how he wanted to “flay them alive, to strip the skins off their flesh and make them scream in agony in punishment for living a better life than me”.
He further mentioned how he “had to watch beautiful young people enjoying their lives together as I languished in loneliness and despair”.
On reading the document, Amelia and Artemi were shocked to discover just how closely connected they were to the killer. Rodger had mentioned a meeting with Artemi, which happened two years prior to the shootings.
“I don’t remember much about him,” admits Artemi, “but to think I made such an impression on him, and that he knew my name as well, is scary.”
Writing about Artemi, who Rodger met briefly when he first moved to Santa Barbara to study, he said, “I was introduced to two new housemates, who would be there for one week.
“One of them was named Artemi, a quiet Russian student. The other, whose name I don’t remember, was a tall, blond surfer-type boy. I was annoyed at how tall and attractive he was, though I didn’t show it.”
It was disturbing for Amelia, who met Artemi 18 months ago at an ice-hockey game, to know Rodger’s encounter with her boyfriend had such an impact.
“The fact he remembered those details is very creepy,” Amelia says. “Everything Elliot experienced in life motivated his actions. He didn’t have anyone to turn to or give him the help he so desperately needed, and that’s very sad.”
The aftermath has devastated the community, but attending vigils for the victims is helping Amelia and Artemi deal with their grief.
“It’s times like this that I miss New Zealand and being around my family,” Amelia says. “I am planning to return this summer for a holiday, which I’m looking forward to.”
It’s three weeks since the horrific tragedy and Amelia says the community is bonding together to help each other.
“Now that some time has passed, the spotlight is off us, which is good because it was hard to grieve. There’s a sense of unity, of solidarity now. We’re paying tribute to those who lost their lives and to the families who lost loved ones.”
Artemi, who hopes to visit Napier to meet Amelia’s family, says he is impressed with how she is coping.
“She’s not reserved, which makes her different from other girls in the US. That made me gravitate towards her,” he says.
“With Amelia’s strength, I’m learning to always respect and love life, and the people around me. Life can change at any second.”
How to get help: If you are suffering from depression or struggling to cope, help is at hand. Visit spinz.org.nz for info.