COLUMBIA — For more than a year after her husband was gunned down in the line of duty, Kassy Alia couldn't even say the suspect's name.
She didn't look at his mugshot. Avoidance was her survival tactic.
Greg Alia, a Forest Acres police officer and her husband of three years, was shot while responding to a report of a suspicious person. He was training a new officer the morning of Sept. 30, 2015, when a complaint came in about a man in the parking lot of Richland Mall.
The officers approached. The suspect ran. Greg Alia chased him inside the Forest Acres mall. The two men wrestled to the ground. A stolen .40-caliber handgun delivered the fatal shot.
Greg Alia was one of three South Carolina officers killed in the line of duty in 2015. Marlboro County sheriff's Deputy Delton Daniels and Columbia Police Officer Stacy Case died in car crashes.
On the job, Greg Alia had a reputation for fairness and professionalism. He loved the hands-on interaction his patrol shifts afforded.
The 32-year-old was patient and self-assured. He was an attentive father to the couple's son, Sal, who turned 6 months old the day he was killed.
One day later, Kassy Alia stepped in front of a TV camera. She spoke through tears and held Sal while proudly wearing her husband's work shirt and his shoes. She started a nonprofit in his honor soon after.
While Alia focused on her husband's legacy, she couldn't avoid the court case. She sobbed at the possibility of a trial because she didn't know how she could face the killer and hold herself together as a mother.
"Every time it would come up, it would destroy me for a few days," Alia said. "I couldn't focus on anything."
Prosecutors asked her to help recommend a sentence for Jarvis Hall, the accused gunman. She thought about not getting involved, but what kind of example would that set for her son?
"I really struggled with how can I do this without letting hate in my heart," Alia said. "I was like, 'OK, how am I going to talk to Sal about this?'"
Suddenly Alia urgently wanted to know everything about Hall. What drove him to do this? What had he been like as a boy? Could she help prevent this from happening again?
Unanswered questions lingered as she penned a court statement centered around love. She said she hoped Hall would find redemption. Greg Alia's family also shared messages of forgiveness at the emotional hearing in May, during which Hall pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Hall, 36, was moved to apologize in court. His father hugged Alia, leaving her speechless.
"I had to think about Mr. Hall. It was not like I was just like, 'Oh, I want to have empathy for this man,'" she said. "It was painstaking, and it broke my heart, and it hurt. And it was through that that I was able to find peace."
As a single parent, 30-year-old Alia is accustomed to juggling a busy schedule. She balances work, finishing her Ph.D. in community psychology and spearheading Heroes in Blue, her nonprofit that highlights law enforcement officers' positive acts and helps bridge relationships between police and community members.
In the living room of her Richland County home, a canvas print shows Greg Alia kissing newborn Sal's cheek. He embraced fatherhood. While on paternity leave, he created a "baby beard blog," for which he grew out his facial hair and shared goofy pictures of himself with Sal.
Two of Greg Alia's cartoons are displayed nearby. The drawings look professional. He worked in film production in Los Angeles before returning home to join the police department.
Across the room, photos depicting Kassy Alia's life with Sal adorn the wall.
She struggled for a while to take new pictures after her husband's death. Her identity had been so closely intertwined with his.
She remembers her knees buckling at the funeral home and the conflicting urge to run to his casket and also stop at the same time.
For a bit, things did stop for Alia. Her life as she'd planned it was stolen from her. Some days she'd drop Sal off at school and spend the time alone crying, repeating to herself, "I will not break."
She forged ahead, her drive and strength impressing onlookers. Still, Alia wasn't experiencing true joy.
She's training herself to be happy and not feel guilty about it. She makes a point to take new pictures and to look at them often.
"These things come out in layers and you just have to move forward as much as you can," Alia said. "I've been working on it."
She's dating again. The relationship is helping Alia redefine herself.
A friend from childhood, Kara Allen, worried soon after the shooting that Alia wouldn't allow herself to fall in love again. Her husband had been her rock. Allen hoped Alia wouldn't wall herself off after the tragedy.
As a new mother, Alia couldn't afford to wallow for long.
"She maintains a perspective of what else is important to her," Allen said. "Her resilience comes from Sal and knowing she has to be a mom and how important Sal was to Greg."
Helping one another heal
Sal is a sweet and inquisitive 2-year-old. Like his dad, he likes "Star Wars" and superheroes and hot dogs. His silly songs make his mom laugh.
He recently started asking about his father.
Alia tells Sal about his dad whenever they drive past a police station, explaining that he was an officer and a hero.
Earlier this summer, Sal asked about him as they passed the Forest Acres intersection named after Greg. She told him about his dad's hobbies, how he was a movie buff. Sal wasn't satisfied. "But where is he?" he asked. Finally, Alia said he died.
They both went quiet, she recalled. Alia could tell Sal was processing what he'd heard. Then he changed the topic.
"He's figuring things out," Alia said.
The two have a support system of relatives and friends, many of whom play a role in helping raise Sal. After the shooting, members of the small Forest Acres Police Department grew close to the mother and son like family.
Sgt. Lori Tumlin trained Greg Alia as a new officer. She helped deliver the news of his death to Kassy Alia, who became a close friend.
Tumlin initially was nervous about Alia taking on the role of widow of a police officer. Her worries dissipated when she saw Alia approach her work with Heroes in Blue with grace.
"It's not just police. She’s trying to have compassion and empathy for everyone involved," Tumlin said. "She's very aware of both sides."
The murder case was Alia's catalyst for understanding the pain of dealing with the justice system. Events such as the Charleston Forum last spring, during which Alia participated in a panel discussion about criminal justice and policing, cause her to reflect about those who feel marginalized.
Alia understands that her calls for empathy can make people uncomfortable. Forgiving her husband's killer wasn't immediate or painless. That experience reinforces her desire to help others.
"I believe at the end of the day that people want to come together," she said. "They want healing, and we have to support one another in getting there."