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Family asks mercy for professor in Colorado shooting joke

Seven people have been appointed to an advisory

Seven people have been appointed to an advisory board that will be examining instruction and management at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point. (Feb. 22, 2012) Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The family of a man killed last month in the Colorado movie theater shooting says a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy professor should not be fired for a joke he made about the incident in a class that included her son.

"It was a dumb mistake," Melisa Cowden told Newsday in an interview Tuesday. "I've made plenty of dumb mistakes in my life. This professor has suffered enough."

Professor Gregory F. Sullivan has been placed on paid administrative leave as the academy in Kings Point investigates the incident.

Melisa Cowden's former husband, Gordon Cowden, 51, was killed in the July 20 movie theater shooting in Aurora, their Colorado hometown. She and her children, including son, Weston, 20, a student at the academy, all agreed that Sullivan has been apologetic and his firing would only add to the pain and suffering related to the shooting.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation said the agency cannot discuss details of the incident. Sullivan could not be reached for comment.

Melisa Cowden said she spoke with Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the academy's superintendent, for about 20 minutes Tuesday and made her family's opinion "pretty clear."

"He listened to me, allowed me to express my thoughts and was very gracious," Cowden said of her conversation with Helis.

Helis told her the school would contact her once a decision has been made regarding the professor's future, she said, which could take up to a month.

Weston Cowden returned to school after his father's funeral and was in the classroom when Sullivan, about to show a documentary, reportedly said, "If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exit."

James Holmes, accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 others in the movie theater rampage, had dyed his hair bright orange before the attack.

Melisa Cowden said she has not spoken with Sullivan but that the professor was made aware right after the class that her son was in the room at the time of the remark.

"He went after my son immediately and apologized," Melisa Cowden said. "He was sorry and said the right things."

Two of the Cowdens' daughters, Brooke, 17, and Cierra, 16, were with their father, out to see the latest Batman movie, the night of the shootings. Neither was injured.

Brooke was first to suggest the family offer support for the professor, her mother said.

Melisa Cowden said her daughter texted her, "If this professor is fired by the USMMA, Holmes again succeeds in harming a life."

The academy has been supportive of her family during the tragedy, she said, sending 12 students to the funeral. The students, many of whom are her son's friends, helped arrange food for the funeral and provided tremendous moral support.

"At age 20, and at a time like that, to have support from his friends and classmates, that was really good for him," Melisa Cowden said.

She said she is scheduled to speak with academy officials in a telephone conference later on Tuesday and is hoping the academy listens to her family's plea.

"There's been enough suffering," she said.

With Joie Tyrrell and The Associated Press

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