February 2, 1996
Frontier Junior High School — Moses Lake, Washington
The trenchcoat cost $240. A woman purchased it for her son from Skeen’s Western Wear, an army surplus store in Moses Lake, a town like a tiny grain of sand scattered in the deserts of eastern Washington. It wasn’t even a “trenchcoat,” really: it was a duster, a long jacket like the cowboys used to wear. Everyone saw it as a trenchcoat, though — for some reason, the word just seemed to cast a certain aura in the adolescent mind.
Her son was fourteen years old. Two days after she gave him his trenchcoat, he went to his father’s gun safe (which was unlocked) and retrieved a .30-30 lever-action rifle — a hunting rifle, by any standards. He carried it back to his bedroom, and put a tape in his VCR: A Fistfull of Dollars. It was a Clint Eastwood western — a remake of the Japanese film Yojimbo — about a mysterious lone mercenary in a lawless town. Transformed into a cowboy story, the samurai swords all became guns, and the ronin became “the man with no name,” the iconic wandering badass of the Old West. Fearless, self-sufficient, and always quick on the draw.
The 14-year-old cut out one of the pockets on his new duster, and passed the rifle through the hole, so that he could have his finger on the trigger without taking the long gun out from under the trenchcoat. He then stepped into some black cowboy boots, topped off his costume with a black cowboy hat, and moseyed on down to Frontier Junior High School, where he was late for his 5th-period Algebra class.
Kids saw him in the hall, pausing at the doorway of Classroom 15. He looked silly in his getup, “like a mix between the Lone Ranger and Zorro.” Nobody took him seriously. Really, that was the whole point. He took a deep breath, and made his entrance.
The teacher’s lesson on binomials stopped, and everyone turned to look at the class nerd in his stupid costume. There wasn’t even time to laugh before he took two steps forward, turned to face the jock in the front row who had called him a “dork” and a “faggot” all semester, raised the rifle’s barrel, and fired. Later, the shooter would say that he only intended to hit the one target, but “I guess reflex took over sort of…” because he just kept on shooting. He even turned the gun on his teacher, a 49-year-old woman who had given him an A on his report card that term, wrote that the teen was “a pleasure to have in class.”
The rifle ran empty, and as the shooter reloaded, Act II began: the hostage crisis.
The terrified students in Classroom 15 would all remember the same thing about the way the shooter acted that afternoon, calmly ordering them around at gunpoint: his movements and words seemed “rehearsed,” like he was acting out a script in his head. Mirroring this, the shooter would later say of his having seized control of the classroom, “it’s like I pictured myself doing it or something.” In fact, there was a script inside the gunman that he was working from, a real-life power fantasy assembled from bits of fictional ones. From A Fistfull of Dollars he borrowed the aura of the Man With No Name, but the actual scenario he was going through the motions for was straight from a psychological horror novel, Rage. The book was written in 1977 by “Richard Bachman” — a name Stephen King used when he didn’t want to be seen publishing too many books in a given year — and tells the story of a teenage boy, Charlie, who brings a gun to school, shoots his math teacher, and then holds his classmates hostage while he recounts his life story. The book’s cover blurb calls out in red lettering: “His twisted mind turned a quiet classroom into a dangerous world of terror. The sly voices in his mind whispered their terrible warnings, telling Charlie exactly what he had to do…”
In Rage, when the school’s principal asks the gunman “Why? Why are you doing this?” Charlie responds, “I don’t know,” but adds “it sure beats panty raids.” In Moses Lake, the shooter joked as he was corralling his classmates “this sure beats algebra, doesn’t it?” He had a copy of Rage on his nightstand at home, right next to the cut-out pocket from his trenchcoat.
Act III would be the escape.
The Frontier High School shooter had once told a friend that it would be “cool” to kill someone, and that he’d like to travel the country killing people at random, getting away with it like the characters in his favorite film, Natural Born Killers. The bloody, R-rated Oliver Stone movie had barely been out on VHS for six months, but a video store in Moses Lake showed that someone in the shooter’s home had rented the video seven times. “It was the only movie he ever talked about,” said a friend, who remembered him quoting the movie’s heros, proclaiming “murder is pure. People make it unpure.”
The film distilled the shooter’s philosophy. Presented as satire, “NBK” depicts a world in which two psychopaths, Mickey and Mallory, are able to capture the American public’s attention through indiscriminate murder, like Bonnie and Clyde on steroids. When they are eventually caught, Mickey (played by Woody Harrelson) is granted a televised interview, broadcast from his jail cell, a sort of final address to his fans before execution. Based on what his friends remember him quoting, it was the Frontier shooter’s favorite scene; in the film, Mickey tells his interviewer about the supposed “purity” of murder. The tabloid journalist is incredulous, and asks Mickey to explain how he can justify taking another life, but the killer tells him he’ll never understand. “You and me, we’re not even the same species. I used to be you, then I evolved. From where you’re standing you’re a man. From where I’m standing? You’re an ape.”
The mass-murderer concludes the interview with a more focused answer:
Q. “Why this ‘purity’ that you feel about killing?”
A. “I guess, Wayne, you gotta hold that ‘ol shotgun in your hand, and it just becomes clear, like it did for me the first time. That’s when I realized my true calling in life.”
Q. “What’s that, Mickey?”
A. (grinning) “Shit, man… I’m a natural born killer.”
In the film, this appeal to savagery incites a full-scale prison riot, setting the stage for the heroes to escape: outnumbered and surrounded, they duct-tape the barrels of their shotguns to a guard’s head (creating a hostage that would be nigh impossible to rescue) and make him lead the way.
The shooter in Moses Lake had his ending: when a P.E. teacher stormed into Classroom 15 to investigate the shots, the shooter held him at gunpoint, and produced a plastic bag from his trenchcoat. Wrapping it around the barrel of his rifle, he said to the man “I’m going to put this gun in your mouth, and you’re the hostage.”
Then, in a flash, the boy’s bizarre and deadly performance came to an end; the P.E. teacher yanked the gun from the shooter’s hands, and wrestled him to the ground. Police stormed in, and arrested the gunman. One of the officers, noticing the boy in the trenchcoat was “shockingly calm” as they handcuffed him, grumbled “look at what you’ve done.” The shooter responded simply, “I know.”
That night, a message was raised on the flagpole at Frontier Junior High school, a single handwritten word rippling in a dark desert wind: WHY?
February 19, 1997
Bethel Regional High School — Bethel, Alaska
The next school year, it happened again. A 16-year-old boy took a shotgun from the unlocked cabinet of his foster home, and hid it under a black parka, tucking the barrel down the leg of some baggy black pants he had borrowed. He walked stiff-legged to the school bus that morning, and then into the commons of his high school. Strangely, several witnesses described his all-black getup as a “trenchcoat.” Maybe that’s what they were expecting to see, as they watched from the mezzanine overlooking the commons. He had told them to go up there, for a view of what he promised would be an “evil day.” One of them even brought a camera along, to snap a picture of the shooter in action.
They watched as the boy with the stiff leg approached his nemesis — a classmate with whom he had gotten in a fist-fight two years before — and saw him pull out the stolen shotgun, and fire at the boy. He wasn’t trying to hit anyone else at the table, but it was buckshot, and they got hit anyway. The shooter didn’t care. He then turned to stalk the halls, hunting the principal who was next on his list. He found him. Then the police showed up, and the gunman surrendered. Up in the audience, the kid with the camera was so amazed by all of what he had seen, he forgot to take the photo.
For some parents and teachers, the audience was even more troubling than what the lone criminal had done in the commons. It raised disturbing questions about the generation they were raising: if these kids were tipped off to an imminent man-made tragedy, would they be too concerned about missing the show to tell an adult?
October 1, 1997
Pearl High School — Pearl, Mississippi
Another school year came, and the violence returned, this time before the trees were even bare: another white boy in a black trenchcoat, shooting up the commons area of his high school with a gun he had stolen from a family member. He first targeted a girl, one who had dumped him recently, but it was about more than her, if it was about anything at all: he just kept shooting, and shooting, into the crowd of his classmates as they scrambled from their lunch tables. Then, he tried to make a getaway, but he didn’t get far; he drove his mother’s car into a tree, and then was subdued at gunpoint by the school’s Vice Principal, who had gone to the parking lot to retrieve his .45 pistol from his car.
The power fantasy that had first been launched into reality in Classroom 15 was building on its own momentum, incorporating new parts into itself as it passed through each angry, alienated teenage boy. As the phenomenon passed over Pearl, a particularly dark layer was picked up: when the authorities searched the shooter’s home, they found that on the morning of the attack he had stabbed his mother to death, in her bed. The shooter said he had no memory of doing it; he had closed his eyes, and obeyed a demon.
At a memorial in Pearl the day after the attack, another teenage boy in a black trenchcoat appeared, and he spoke like he was the shooter’s apostle. “He did it because society as a whole put down the thinkers and the true geniuses of the world,” he announced to the gathered prayer vigil, and then he handed out pieces of paper, each a photocopy of the note the shooter had given him on the morning of the attack:
“I am not insane, I am angry. I killed because people like me are mistreated every day. I did this to show society, push us and we will push back. … All throughout my life, I was ridiculed, always beaten, always hated. […] It was not a cry for attention, it was not a cry for help. It was a scream in sheer agony saying that if you can’t pry your eyes open, if I can’t do it through pacifism, if I can’t show you through the displaying of intelligence, then I will do it with a bullet.”
The note borrowed some of the language of Friedrich Nietzsche, specifically his 1887 book The Gay Science, containing the philosopher’s famous declaration: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
Like a stage direction, the note then instructed the apostle to recite more Nietzsche to the (presumably aghast) crowd. It ended with shout-out to another of their cohorts, the gunman publicly telling a third teenager “see you in the holding cell!” As it turned out, the shooting at Pearl High School was originally to be part of a larger “occult ritual,” intended to “cast a reign of terror” over the community in Pearl. It was never quite clear just how much of the plan was serious (obviously at least some of it was) but consistent details involved cutting the phone lines to the school, setting off a napalm bomb in the commons, and an escape route to Mexico. The shooter’s attack on Pearl High School was supposed to increase the cult’s powers through fear, and so the note, then, wasn’t so much a motive, as it was part of the act itself: propaganda.
While the Pearl High School shooting did make most front-page headlines, it did not linger there long. For some reason — maybe just chance, or maybe it was that the copycat plots inspired by Moses Lake all took about a year to hatch — the school year of 1997-1998 was when the school-shooter phenomenon spiraled out of control.
December 1, 1997
Heath High School — West Paducah, Kentucky
This time, it happened in the school’s lobby. Right at the front door. Every morning, thirty or so of Heath High School’s most devout Christian students would meet in the lobby and join hands, forming a prayer circle. At the other end of the lobby, another group of teenagers would be meeting to start the school day together: the goths. They all wore black, and some of them wore trenchcoats, but the kid carrying the cloth bundle that Monday morning never did. He was just a nerd. He had been bullied frequently — and publicly. In eighth grade, the middle school newspaper’s “Rumor Has It” column had openly speculated that he might be gay, and in a relationship with another male student (neither were true.) Heath High School had nothing to do with that public shaming, but the rumor and the stigma followed the boy there. Everyone heard him being called a “faggot” in the halls, and saw him getting pushed around.
He had acquired weapons the week before, on Thanksgiving evening. He snuck into his friends house, whose parents own a pistol and several rifles, brought the arsenal home, and hid it under his bed behind some legos. He needed them for a Monday morning that he hoped would change everything. He had already told the goths that “something big is going to happen,” and that that Monday was going to be a “day of reckoning.” He had brought most of the guns for them use, guessing the cooler kids would just join in once he got it started.
Just as the prayer circle at Heath was saying their “amens,” the boy made his approach. He put in earplugs, reached into his backpack, retrieved a .22 Ruger pistol, and opened fire.
The goths ran, just like nearly everyone else. The leader of the school’s prayer group stood his ground. He confronted the shooter, demanding an explanation, but the shooter instead dropped the gun, and begged “please, just shoot me!” The Christian took him to the principal’s office instead, and waited for the police to arrive.
Just down the hall from the crime scene, detectives found a copy of Rage in the shooter’s locker. That was enough for Stephen King; he called his publisher, and ask that they let the story go out of print.
Heath had joined the list of communities with injured souls, the latest, but not the last. The Paducah Sun registered the pain and confusion in a one-word headline the next morning, spelled out in all-caps over a photo of the school’s lobby: WHY?
March 24, 1998
Westside Middle School — Jonesboro, Arkansas
A sixth-grade boy was seen in the school hallway, smashing the glass cover of the fire alarm box, and pulling the switch. He ran out the fire exit, across the playground, and up the hill overlooking the school, where his partner, a seventh grader, was watching through a rifle’s scope. When their classmates and teachers came filing out the doors for roll call, the two boys opened fire from the hillside, raining bullets down onto the playground. They even shot at the construction workers laying shingles on a nearby rooftop. A few minutes later, the police caught the shooters as they emerged from the back of the woods, rifles in hand, trying to make their getaway.
Both boys had been taught how to use guns by their parents, and had even been given .22’s of their own, but the guns they used in the attack were all stolen earlier that morning, from the younger boy’s grandfather, who was a wildlife officer. While the man was away at work, the boys used a crowbar to get inside his house, where there was a wall covered with guns, each secured by a length of cable looped through its trigger guard. The boys found a pair of garden shears in the tool shed, snipped the cable, and had headed for the hillside with their nine new firearms.
President Clinton was on a trip through South Africa when he learned that the tragedy of the season had struck in his home state. From Johannesburg, he a recorded video address, to be played at the memorial in Jonesboro, in which he acknowledged that “like all of you, I do not understand what dark force could have driven young people to do this terrible thing.” The president urged prayers for the people of Arkansas, including the families of the perpetrators — “for their suffering, too, must be grievous” — and he shared the comfort he found in scripture: “Saint Paul reminds us that we all see things in this life through a dark glass, that we only partly understand what is happening to us. But one day, face to face with God, we will see all things, even as He sees us.”
May 20, 1998
Thurston High School— Springfield, Oregon
The freshman boy lived in a house way out in the woods, a subdevelopment so peaceful and remote they called it “Shangri-La.” He was 15 years old, and he had just been expelled from Thurston High School. He was pacing in his bedroom, trying to figure out what he was going to do. He had a gun in his hand.
On the wall, he had printed out and framed the lyrics to his favorite Marilyn Manson song, “The Reflecting God”:
….I went to god just to see,
and I was looking at me
Saw heaven and hell were lies
When I’m god everyone dies…
His parents had been concerned about him. He was getting in fights at school, and at home, he was acting more and more secretive. He had trouble sleeping, and acted nervous. The year before, he and his friends got busted trying to order copies of The Anarchist Cookbook through the school’s computer lab, and his parents took him to a counselor, telling the man about their son’s “extreme interest in explosives and knives,” his gloomy mindset, and his violent temper. The counselor diagnosed the teenager with Major Depressive Disorder, and along with regular visits, prescribed him some Prozac.
Over the next few months, everyone thought the freshman was getting better — so much better that they let him stop taking the pills, and bought him the gun he was always begging for, a 9mm Glock 19. He continued to improve after that, and so they bought him a Ruger 10/22 semiautomatic rifle. The gun’s name came from its standard magazine, holding 10 rounds of .22 ammo, but at some point, the freshman had switched it out for one that held 50.
He bought a third gun himself, a pistol from a friend at school, but it turned out the gun was stolen. The cops found out, and that was how he got expelled. His father had just picked him up from the police station, and taken him for the long, silent ride back to Shangri-La.
His parents had been following the news. They knew about the “zero-tolerance” policies that had become commonplace lately, in the season of the school shooter. This arrest was going to completely alter the course of their son’s life, and probably their reputation along with it.
The freshman had been watching the news, too. A friend remembers being in his company when he heard about the Jonesboro shooting, and how they both agreed that it was “pretty cool”…. except, the boy from Shangri-La had some ideas on how to “improve” it. He wanted to make the formula more lethal: just two weeks before being caught with the gun, he had told another friend that he “wanted to lock the doors except for one, put a bomb in the cafeteria, and then pick people off one-by-one after the bomb exploded and they tried to escape.” He had a surprise exit strategy, too: he would save the last bullet for himself.
Pacing in his bedroom, the freshman could hear his dad downstairs, in the kitchen, talking on the phone about his “out of control” delinquent son. Possibly sending him to military school. Upstairs, the freshman made a choice. When he came down the steps, his father had finished his phone call, and was reading the newspaper, facing away. The freshman shot him in the back of the head, then dragged his body to the bathroom, covered it with a bed sheet, and shut the door.
The phone rang. It was the high school’s English teacher, a man who was also friends with the freshman’s dad. The teacher started to ask questions about the expulsion. The boy said that having the gun at school was a mistake, and that his dad wasn’t home at the moment. He hung up.
The phone rang again. This time, it was the shooter’s friends from school. They also wanted to know what happened, if he was able to talk. The shooter told them the coast was clear; his dad had gone “out to a bar.”
They conference-called another classmate, and the three talked about the stolen gun, and the shooter’s expulsion. The boy didn’t mention anything that had happened since then, he just kept worrying out loud over what everyone would think, and how much of an embarrassment he was, repeating “it’s over, everything’s over.” He was watching the driveway from his upstairs window, and toward the end of the conversation, his friends heard him wondering aloud “when is my mom getting home?”
As her car pulled into the garage, her son was waiting in the shadows. When she reached to take a bag of groceries from her car, the freshman said “I love you, mom,” and shot her in the back of the head. She fell to the ground, and he shot her some more, then dragged her to a corner of the basement, and covered her with a white bed sheet. The shooter wiped his tears, and loaded his weapons. He waited for the sun to rise, and for the last day of his life to begin.
The school’s security cameras captured him crossing the parking lot: a trenchcoated figure walking with purpose, a “Nine Inch Nails” hat on his head. When he got to the commons, the trenchcoat swung open, the rifle came out, and he charged the crowd, emptying his 50-round magazine. Panic erupted, with high schoolers running and screaming every which way. In the mayhem, Jacob Ryker, a varsity wrestler already hit with a chest wound, suddenly tackled the shooter. The rifle fell.
The shooter reached for the Glock in his belt, but so did Jacob, swatting the pistol out of his grasp. It discharged a single shot, through the wrestler’s finger. That would be the last bullet of the day. A half-dozen more students jumped into the fray, and as police and teachers arrived, they could hear the shooter screaming from the bottom of the pile “I just want to die!” One student took the opportunity to punch him in the face.
For the second day in a row, the shooter was taken from Thurston High School in handcuffs, and brought to the police station. In the interview room the day before, he had acted frightened, but the detectives now saw him transformed, like a captive animal. He sobbed hysterically and screamed about how he had “no other choice” but to do it. When they tried to calm him down, the boy (whose hands were cuffed in front) reached down and pulled a knife he had taped to his ankle that morning, one the police had missed in their search, and he charged at them with the blade pointed out. Stunned, the cops lunged back, out of the room, as the shooter screamed “kill me, shoot me!”
They got the door between them and the rampaging freshman, and pushed back him. He immediately gave up, and started to turn the knife on himself. The police charged back in, spraying mace, and subdued the shooter again. They tore off his trenchcoat, looking for any more surprise weapons, and found he had taped two “X” shapes onto his chest: each held a single round in place for one of his guns. He hadn’t planned on leaving the commons alive. The detectives were still trying to get him to calm down, so they changed the subject: “how’s your dad?”
Flashing emergency lights lit up the forest as the police raced toward Shangri-La. They could hear classical music, growing louder as they drew near: Wagner’s Liebestod from the opera Tristan und Isolde, which the shooter had left in the stereo on repeat, the volume turned up full-blast.
The house was dark. One officer peered in the window, and clicked on her flashlight: the living room carpet was covered with loose .22 rounds the shooter had left behind, glittering in the passing beam. On the coffee table, the search team would find a note, written by the shooter shortly after he ambushed his parents:
“I destroy everything I touch. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I didn’t deserve them. They were wonderful people. It’s not their fault or the fault of any person, organization, or television show. My head just doesn’t work right. God damn these VOICES inside my head. I want to die. I want to be gone. But I have to kill people. I don’t know why. I am so sorry!”
It was an apology for an act not yet done, as if the writer were caught up in the terrible gravity of a passing force. But to most, his plotting would suggest will, not fate.
In the days after the shooting, the town’s movie theater would arrange the letters on their marquee to illuminate a message of comfort to the rest of the townspeople:
WE HAVE DONE NOTHING WRONG
The New York Times ran a photo of the message, next to a gallery of portraits showing each the school shooters since Moses Lake, all of them smiling white boys. Seen around the country, the marquee’s message was to be interpreted differently:
THIS COULD HAPPEN IN YOUR TOWN
“Where Rampages Begin” — New York Times, June 14, 1998 http://www.nytimes.com/1998/06/14/us/where-rampages-begin-special-report-adolescent-angst-shooting-up-schools.html?pagewanted=all
Scarred By Killings, Moses Lake Asks: ”What Has This Town Become?” — Seattle Times, March 22 1997
“‘How Many … Were Shot?’ Boy’s Murder Confession Played At Emotional Evidence Hearing” — Spokesman-Review, Spokane WA Apr 18 1996 http://www.spokesman.com/stories/1996/apr/18/how-many-were-shot-boys-murder-confession-played/
“Witnesses Say Loukaitis Vowed To Kill Prosecution Tries To Show Premeditation In Rampage” Spokesman-Review http://www.spokesman.com/stories/1996/apr/17/witnesses-say-loukaitis-vowed-to-kill-prosecution/
“Students Recall School Gunfire As Akin To Horror Movie Scene” — Chicago Tribune June 11, 1998 http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1998-06-11/news/9806110260_1_school-shootings-christina-menefee-lydia-dew
United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Jackson Division. Luke WOODHAM, Petitioner v. Michael WILSON and Jim Hood, Respondents. Civil Action No. 3:04cv48-HTW-JCS. Nov. 3, 2006
“Grim details emerge in teen age slaying case” — New York Times, October 15, 1997 http://www.nytimes.com/1997/10/15/us/grim-details-emerge-in-teen-age-slaying-case.html
“MISSISSIPPI GOTHIC” — Time Magazine, June 2001 —http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,136736,00.html
RAMPAGE: The Social Roots of School Shootings – 2004 – Dr. Katherine Newman
“No Exit: Mental Illness, Marginality, and School Violence in West Paducah, Kentucky” — David Harding, Jal Mehta, and Katherine Newman — National Academies Press 2003 http://www.nap.edu/read/10370/chapter/8
“A boy killer speaks” Arkansas Times December 4 2008 http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/a-boy-killer-speaks/Content?oid=934386&showFullText=true
“PUBLIC PAPERS OF THE PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES” — Government Publishing Office – 1996-1998
State of Oregon’s Sentencing Recommendation for Kinkel – FRONTLINE http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/kinkel/trial/state.html
“Of Arms And The Boy” — John Cloud/Springfield – TIME Magazine June 24, 2001 http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,139492,00.html