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So much has happened in the five years since a sociopathic high roller opened fire on the crowd at the Route 91 Harvest Festival from his 32nd-floor sniper’s nest in Mandalay Bay, killing 58 people and causing the injuries of more than 850 others. Two more of the injured died later.Memorials have gone up and been taken down, though the Las Vegas Community Healing Garden, with a tree for each victim, remains a soothing sanctuary. Event promoters and venues canceled or moved shows, tightened security, and then continued business as usual. Law enforcement agencies completed investigations, issued reports, changed their crisis response tactics, and ultimately concluded that no one would ever know why the shooter did what he did.And, along with the rest of the world, Las Vegas has been swept up in the chaos of political turmoil, global pandemic, and economic recession.Through all this, carrying the colossal weight of acute trauma, survivors have kept on getting their kids to school, showing up for work, and putting food on the table.But now, they say, everything’s different. In the aftermath of 1 October, life is tinted by a purposeful hue — something deeper than the self-indulgent cliché of seizing the day. They’re moving through every moment with the intention of making it count, for their loved ones, for each other, and for those who didn’t make it out.Their existence is a triumph of resilience, a source of hope in a world that sorely needs it.

Ray Spencer

Photo of Ray Spencer standing in front of a tree looking pensively into the distance
Photo: Aaron Mayes
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No call from his wife or kids will ever go unanswered again, if this former Las Vegas Metro Police sergeant and Route 91 incident commander can help it

ay Spencer was working overtime at Route 91, something police officers commonly do to make extra money providing security at large public gatherings. Then a lieutenant, Spencer was supervising a team of 50 officers, and thus became the de facto incident commander once the shooting began.

Spencer’s wife of 12 years, Gena Spencer, had traveled that day with her mother to their hometown of Reno to visit another family member. Ray and Gena’s two sons were staying with Ray’s mother in Las Vegas. The family of four was scattered as the tragedy unfolded.

Ray remembers: “I stopped counting after 20 victims that I encountered at the main stage. And one of the things I remember about that is, people had cell phones in their pockets. And you could see the phones ringing — ‘Mom,’ ‘Dad,’ you know, their loved ones calling, looking for them. And they’re never coming home again … I’ll never forget that.”

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Meanwhile, Gena was processing a phone call of her own — with Ray: “I was getting ready for bed. And I had called him ... And he picked up his phone, and I could hear it’s like chaos … It didn’t seem really unusual, because I knew he was at a concert … And then I hear him yelling something, and I’m about to hang up. And then all he says is, ‘There’s an active shooter. Love you, bye,’ and just hangs up.”

That would be the last time Gena talked to Ray until early the following morning. She spent the night glued to her stepfather’s police scanner trying to hear her husband’s voice, scouring news reports for some sign that he was alive. When he was finally able to text her, she was overwhelmed with relief.

Ray and Gena have always been close. He describes her as his “best friend.” She says they simply love each other’s company, whether they’re on an Alaskan cruise (such as the one they took in August) or just hanging out at home. After the Route 91 shooting, though, that closeness took on a new dimension. Gena helped talk her husband through some of the most difficult moments, eventually prodding him into therapy. He became more present in their sons’ lives, making sure not to miss a single school event or personal milestone. He retired this May, after 20 years with Metro, so he could spend more time with his family.

“I could have stayed working several more years in the police department,” Ray says. “I loved my job. But I also love my wife. I love my kids. … And I told myself, I don’t want to miss my kids growing up, because you don’t get a take two, right?”

Hockey has also played a huge part in the family’s healing. Gena and Ray attended the Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural-season opener game along with other 1 October first responders that the NHL team invited as special guests. The couple knew so little about hockey that, before the game, Ray had a Metro sergeant on his team explain the rules to him.

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“We just fell in love with the whole thing,” Gena says. “With everything that was going on, just so many heavy emotions, to be able to be distracted was incredible. And hockey is so much fun!” Soon, they were attending games whenever they could, sometimes with their sons, who also took to it.

“And next thing you know,” Ray says, “here we are, almost five years later, and I’m on my third year of my kids playing travel hockey, and literally my life, five to six days a week, is hockey.”

The sport reflects the deeper dedication Ray found for his family, Gena says, giving this example: In the summer of 2021, their two sons were playing in two different Southern California tournaments, one in Valencia and the other in San Diego. So, they split up, each parent taking one son to respective tournaments. But during one long break in their older son’s schedule, Ray left him with fellow hockey parents and drove all the way to the other city to attend one of his younger son’s games.

“He’s just so dedicated and purposeful now,” Gena says. “He doesn’t want to miss anything.” Φ

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.