Nearly three months after her 20-year-old son was killed and her husband wounded in a racially motivated assault, New Jersey Judge Esther Salas is opening up about that tragic night when everything changed instantly.
In an exclusive interview with “Good Morning America’s” Robin Roberts, Salas remembers her son, Daniel Anderl, and how the attack from Manhattan lawyer and self-described antifeminist Roy Den Hollander is pushing her to be a better judge.
“This man took the most important thing in my life. I can’t let him take anything else,” said Salas. “I love my job. I’m proud to be a United States district judge. I can’t let him take that from me.”
“Danny was the love of our life”
When Salas and her husband, Mark A. Anderl, married in 1995, Salas said they struggled to have a baby.
“I had four miscarriages,” shared Salas. “God graced us with Daniel in 2000. And from the moment that little boy came to this world, he was the center of our universe. He was the reason we existed.”
While many young adults usually want to spend less time with their parents, Salas said it was the opposite for her son, who loved being around her and her husband.
“I almost feel like he was so proud of Mark and I as his parents,” said Salas. “Danny loved being with us.”
The weekend of July 19, 2020, Daniel was celebrating his 20th birthday and invited his friends over for a weekend of socially-distanced festivities. That Sunday, Salas said she and Daniel were having a conversation in the basement when everything changed.
“Danny was downstairs, talkin’ to me -- as he always did. He said, ‘Keep talking to me, Mom. I love talkin’ to you,’” Salas said tearfully. “And it was at that exact second that the doorbell rang. Before I could tell him, ‘Let Dad handle it,’ he shot up the stairs. And the next thing I hear is boom. And then I hear, ‘No.’”
In that moment, Salas heard a series of bullets being fired, which she describes as “mini bombs.” She ran up the stairs and saw her son lying on the floor next to the door holding his chest. Her husband, on the porch, trying to catch a glimpse of the license plate of the vehicle of the suspected shooter who fled the scene.
“I just got on the floor and I just saw my son. I know at some point, Mark was screaming, ‘Call 911.’ I tried to do that. And I lifted his shirt, and I saw the bullet hole,” explained Salas. “Mark managed to crawl back and we were both just watching him fade away.”
Matter of life and death
The alleged shooter, who posed as a FedEx delivery driver in uniform and wore a face covering, was later identified as Den Hollander. He was found dead one day later with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
But the FBI discovered that Den Hollander had a detailed dossier on Salas and her family. Salas vaguely remembers the one time he appeared in her courtroom, which she says had been months before.
“He hated me because I was a woman. He hated me because I was a Latina. And that was the source of his hate,” said Salas.
Salas said before the shooting she and her husband had always been cautious of their surroundings, especially because of the high profile cases she’s dealt with in the past. But because of the pandemic and because she and her family were ordering packages everyday, it didn’t cross her mind to think twice about who was at the door.
“What I think happened is our defenses were lower with what was happening around us. I mean, I was ordering packages everyday,” she said. “If he didn’t do it that day -- he was going to do it.”
Two weeks after the shooting, with her husband still recovering at the hospital, Salas bravely spoke in a 9-minute video about the incident that changed her life forever. In it, she also demanded for protection for federal judges, which she said was “a matter of life and death.”
Some of the things she called for included eliminating personally identifiable information off the internet, increased home security systems and even giving United States marshals the resources they need to really protect judges.
“I have to protect and at least help to protect my brothers and sisters on the bench,” she said. “We do that by never letting anyone forget Daniel. Never letting anyone forget what he did for us. Never letting anyone forget the high price we all pay if indeed the right things aren’t done.”
Hate is heavy, love is light
Now, nearly three months after that night, Salas said she’s relied on her faith to move forward and even found the strength to forgive her son’s killer.
Salas said that every weekend since her husband’s release from the hospital, her church’s pastor, Father Robert Lynam, would visit Salas and pray with her. It was during one of his homilies that she remembers letting it all go.
“I bowed my head and I forgave him three times,” she said. “And from the moment I did that, I felt lighter. You know, hate is heavy. Love is light. And I honestly haven’t spent a moment thinking about him at all.”
With all that’s happened to her and her family, Salas is hoping her story and her experiences inspire others to find the strength to move forward too.
She’s also picking up the pieces and plans on returning to the bench where she strives to be a better judge.
“I’m gonna strive every morning to be the best person that I could be,” she said. “My son gave his life for his father and I. I have to look at that and say, ‘What a gift.’ I can’t squander it.”
Before Daniel’s murder, Salas started writing her thoughts in journals in the hopes of one day giving them to her son. “I wanted him, when I was no longer on this earth, to read how I felt at critical moments in his life,” she told “GMA.”
Salas shared her last journal entry to Daniel, which she wrote six days before his murder. Read her message to her son below.
Happy 20th birthday!!!
I apologize for not writing in your journal since February, but truth be told, I haven’t had the heart to write an entry. Why??? Well, because life as we knew it has dramatically changed since COVID-19. The unimaginable has occurred since the pandemic was declared on March 11, 2020. The virus’s impact on this world has been devastating, and with each passing day I keep thinking things are going to get better but they don’t. There is so much hatred in this world, we are more divided than ever before, and I have lost hope for humanity. As I write this entry, I am mindful that as your mother I should stress the positives and tease out the teachable moments. I should write an inspirational message that you can look to in the future for insight and guidance. I should be able to conjure up words of wisdom after deep reflection but I can’t. Instead, I will focus on the things that I pray will happen post this awful pandemic.
I pray that as human beings we will stop focusing on the things that divide us, and start cultivating those things that should unite us like God, protecting our planet, and loving one another. We should join forces in eradicating this virus, learning from our mistakes and sharing valuable resources to ensure that something like this never happens again.
I pray that people will open their hearts and minds to others with differing opinions. In order for us to better understand each other, we have to be willing to listen and respect others who see things differently. I pray that society truly embraces core principles like compassion, patience, tolerance, and kindness. Finally, I pray to God that we stop fighting. Everyday we spend fighting is another day lost for humanity. We need to start loving each other for who we are and remember that we are blessed to be alive.
Daniel, this has been one of the hardest entries to write. I am not sure if any of my prayers will be answered, but I will continue to pray that God helps us to heal. Father Bob says that God wants us to learn from all that is happening. God is sending us a message, but will we see it? Only time will tell, Daniel, and until then, our family will keep the faith.