Carson City woman grieves fiance after IHOP shooting | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Carson City woman grieves fiance after IHOP shooting

Teri Vance
tvance@nevadaappeal.com

CARSON CITY, Nev. – Stacia Green, 33, knelt next to the casket of her fiance Christian Riege and prayed.

“I just kept praying for his strength to get through this,” she cried. “I need his strength.”

She remained by his side during the entire visitation at his funeral Sept. 17 in his home state of Nebraska.

After everyone had left, she remained. And when the staff came in to open the casket to place mementos inside, she begged them to let her stay.

They warned her she wouldn’t want to see him, but she swore she did.

“I just have to hold his hands,” she pleaded.

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When they lifted the lid, she saw the man she calls the love of her life dressed in his formal Army dress blues.

Though his head was wrapped in bandages, his lips were showing. She leaned in and gave him their customary three kisses. I. Love. You.

Then she grabbed on to his hands and couldn’t let go.

She knows what he would tell her if he could, “He would say, ‘Dry it up, Sweetie. I’m OK.'”

And she tries to follow that advice. But then she gives in to her longing to see him one more time and turns on a home video.

At first, there’s relief to see him laughing at Christmas and birthday parties.

“It’s wonderful to hear his voice, see his face,” she said, and smiles.

Then she collapses into reality.

“We were supposed to have so many more special occasions,” she sobs into her hands.

When the call came that Riege, 38, a master sergeant, was among the three National Guardsmen killed in the shooting spree at Carson City’s IHOP on Sept. 6, she threw her phone and sank to her knees.

As the community begins heal from that day when gunman Eduardo Sencion opened fire, killing four and injuring seven before killing himself, Green is still grappling with the grim truth.

“I don’t know how to sort through everything,” she said. “I’m so lost without him. I’m taking it minute by minute right now. Second by second. I get to the point of my emotions being too overwhelming.”

Their meeting was serendipitous, and their romance evolved quickly.

Stacia was working as a waitress in a small Indiana town near where Chris was stationed at Camp Atterbury for two weeks after returning from deployment in Afghanistan.

She heard the door to the restaurant open and looked up from the bar.

“This gorgeous man in uniform walks in,” she remembered. “And when he walked by, we shared a smile.”

They went on to share meals and life stories over the four days he had free before returning to Nevada.

She promised she would visit, but was surprised when he called her less than a week later saying he had bought her a one-way ticket, leaving it up to her when she would leave.

“What if I come out there and fall in love with you?” she remembers asking him.

“Then you’d make me the happiest man on Earth,” he replied.

“And we did. We fell in love, and we were so happy,” she said. “He used to say God was the ultimate chess player bringing us together.”

He helped her get a job running the Camo Cafe at the Joint Force Headquarters of the Nevada National Guard in Carson City where he also was working.

They spent weekends with his four children, eating ice cream and exploring the hills around their west Carson City home.

“His kids and me were his priority,” she said. “All he cared about was making the people around him happy.”

The morning of the shooting, she said, Chris hit the snooze button on the alarm. After 15 minutes, she urged him out of bed, knowing she needed to open the kitchen by 5:30 a.m. and he had to distribute weapons at 6.

Before going to the meeting at IHOP with other officers from his unit, he came into the kitchen at work to kiss her good-bye. As she returned to her duties, she heard, “psst,” and turned to see him across the counter.

He summoned her over for a kiss and to tell her he loved her once more.

“I was so blessed that he told me he loved me not just once, but twice,” she said. “The world was so blessed to have him in it.”

She returned to work two weeks ago, and found some comfort being among his fellow soldiers.

“We’re all going through the same thing, but their pain is different than mine,” she said. “They lost three brothers and sisters. I lost an amazing love.”

While at work, she can find a sense of normalcy. But when she goes to bed, she is swallowed up in nightmares.

Sometimes, she sees the horrific scene unfold inside the Carson City restaurant. Other times, she dreams it all away – he is there with her, strong and handsome – only to awake to the paralyzing pain that reality brings.

“Life still carries on around me,” she said, staring into nothing. “But he’s not here. I don’t understand the way it carries on.”

When she drives anywhere, she’s careful to avoid the now-shuttered restaurant where her fiance was killed, along with Lt. Col. Heath Kelly, Sgt. 1st Class Miranda McElhiney and civilian Florence Donovan-Gunderson.

Although officials are undecided about the fate of the building, Green is not.

“They need to tear it down,” she said.

Green wants to stay in Carson City, but may return to Indiana to be closer to her two children.

“I can’t make any decisions,” she said.

Of one thing, she is certain. Despite how it ended, she still would have come to Nevada 18 months ago.

“I would do it all over again,” she said. “Every minute.”

But then she reconsiders. She would change one thing.

“I would have convinced him to stay in bed that morning.”