1. The Shooter
January 17th, 1989: Cleveland Elementary School — Stockton, California
A young man parked his car behind the elementary school, next to the playground. As he got out, the sound of 300+ children running and playing on the fenced-in pavement filled the air, classes having just been let out for recess. Teachers watched from the chalked sidelines, vigilant against the skinned knees and hurt feelings that were the hazards they had been prepared to deal with. None of them noticed the thin, white man approaching from the south.
He was dressed as if he was in the army, but he hadn’t been a soldier a day in his life. The rifle in his hands looked like something taken from a battlefield, but it wasn’t. Not exactly.
The thin man emerged from behind a set of portable classrooms, stepped to the tree-line facing the playground, aimed the rifle, and opened fire. The targets he saw in his crosshairs were the same age he had been, when he himself had attended the same school, seventeen years before. He squeezed the trigger as fast as he could.
The wannabe-soldier’s rifle had an abnormally generous ammunition magazine attached to it — a cylindrical “drum mag” that held 75 rounds. He kept up his assault until that ran dry, and then he ducked back behind the portables to reload, switching to 30-round “box” magazine. Over his shoulder, his parked station wagon exploded into flames, the detonation of a pipe bomb that he had left burning on the passenger seat, certain that he would never drive the car again.
He then resumed his assault on the schoolyard, emptying the second clip. He went to reload once again, but this time, during the pause in gunfire, and over his earplugs, he heard it: the sound of police sirens. They were getting louder, closing in fast. Time for the next phase of his plan.
The shooter immediately dropped the rifle on the pavement, drew a 9mm pistol from his waistband, and took his own life. The Cleveland Elementary School shooting was over.
The police later estimated the assault to have lasted only two minutes, possibly less. During that time, the thin man fired 106 shots, including the one that he used on himself. They also found a black cloth pouch tied to his belt. Inside were three more 30-round magazines for his rifle, each fully loaded. The attack would likely have continued for some time longer, if not for their arrival.
The first officers on the scene found the gunman twitching on the pavement, and kicked the rifle away from his reach. The weapon that skidded across the pavement, with a wooden stock and distinctive profile, would soon become an object of debate all over the nation. It looked like an AK-47, and was widely reported to be a Kalashnikov, but that was a military weapon, capable of fully automatic fire: bullets would spew from the barrel at a constant, high rate of fire, as long as the shooter held the trigger down — and there was ammo in the magazine.
Automatic weapons like that had been tightly regulated in the United States since the prohibition era, and then all but outlawed in 1986. They were quite difficult to obtain, even for someone willing to break the law. This gun was not an AK-47, no matter what the news reports said. In truth, the gun used at the Stockton schoolyard was a Norinco 56S: a cheap knockoff of the AK, manufactured in China. It was a semi-automatic rifle, and so for each round that the shooter fired at the schoolyard that afternoon, he had to pull and release the trigger once.
The Norinco was perfectly legal for civilians to own. And the Trading Post Store in Sandy, Oregon was in full compliance with federal and state laws when they put the gun on display in their store, bearing a price tag of $349.95. When the shooter walked through the door, four months before his attack, they had no way of knowing what he was going to do, much less that he was on probation, or that he had a criminal record; all of his crimes — of which there were many, from drugs to prostitution to vandalism — were misdemeanors. And even if they had been felonies, they happened in the state of California. They wouldn’t have shown up on Oregon’s radar.
He bought the Norinco “over the counter,” and left with his new mass-murder weapon that same day. Then he drifted south again, back home. There was no waiting period.
Later, in California, the shooter’s probation status still did not prevented him from purchasing a 9mm pistol: he bought it from Hunter Loan & Jewelry in Stockton in December of 1988, and that store was across the county line from where the arrest associated with his probation occurred. “As the California criminal justice system now works,” the state Attorney General’s Office would write in their final report on the Stockton shooting, “there was no way that any person outside of El Dorado County could have known that the shooter was prohibited from acquiring or possessing firearms.”
For the pistol, California had a 15-day waiting period, and that applied to everyone. If the shooter really wanted that gun, he would have no choice but to wait it out.
During those two weeks, the shooter was spotted at the Cleveland Elementary School playground at least once: sitting in his car, parked in the same spot where he would soon torch it. Staking out his target. Employees at the local middle school and high school would swear they saw him lurking around their campuses, too.
Then, on January 3rd, with ten days to go on his waiting period, witnesses saw the shooter drinking beers at a tavern in Stockton. The bartender there would tell police that the thin man had strolled in wearing a camo-green army jacket, and after a few drinks, he started bragging about an AK-47 rifle he owned. One with a huge magazine.
When the bartender tried to burst the shooter’s bubble by explaining that the AK “wouldn’t be much good” for hunting deer, the shooter brushed that off, expressing that he had no intention of going hunting. He went on running his mouth, boasting about how quickly he could spray bullets in a wide arc. Then, mysteriously, he told the bartender: “you’re going to read about me in the papers.”
As the strange, thin man spun from his barstool, heading for the exit, the bartender caught a clearer view of his army jacket: there was black lettering written all over it in permanent marker, words that seemed to have crossed over from a different version of reality, one in which the man wearing the jacket was some sort of elite commando, pitted against forces that were vague and ever-shifting: “Libya”, “PLO”, “Death to the Great Satan” (misspelled “satin”) and “Earthman.” On his flak vest he had written a single word, echoing down its front:
The waiting period ended on a Friday, and the shooter immediately picked up his brand new semi-auto, a 9mm Taurus. He had purchased it to fire one shot, and one shot only. He then drove back to his hotel room, and carved “VICTORY” into the new pistol’s wooden grip.
He would spend that weekend cleaning, oiling, and loading his weapons. He launched his attack on the playground on the next school day.
When it was over, the police would trace the shooter’s path, from the burning station wagon back to this rented room. Inside, even more ammunition, plus another pistol. And then, they noticed the army men; in every section of the shooter’s hotel room, on just about every surface, including perches atop the shower rod and in the freezer, he had arranged a collection of little, green, plastic army men toys.
The California authorities began constructing a history of the shooter’s life. What he had done was inexplicable, forever unjustifiable — but if it had happened once, it could happen again. So, if there was any specific event in the shooter’s life that could have predicted that a tragedy was coming, or any set of circumstances that had set him on this path, the investigators had a responsibility to bring that to light.
The shooter had been a 25-year-old man, and a transient for most of his life, never holding down a job for longer than a month or two. When homeless, he resorted to petty crime, and sometimes prostitution. His father had been a diagnosed schizophrenic, who frequently beat the shooter’s mother. The couple separated, and then the shooter, in his early teens, ping-ponged back and forth between their custodies. That came to an end one night, when his father had been walking barefoot on the side of the road, apparently disoriented, and a passing car struck and killed him.
From then on, the shooter’s mother controlled her ex-husband death benefits, a fact that her teenage son resented with extreme intensity. He grew more and more disobedient, and soon the woman was informing her local authorities that she could not control her son anymore at all. She had kicked him out on the street.
At age twenty, the shooter qualified for disability payments of his own; the Social Security Administration determined that he had a “substance-induced personality disorder,” and that he would have “difficulty relating to employers and employees, difficulty in following even simple, repetitive tasks, and difficulty in handling the stresses of any ordinary job.”
SSA benefits meant that the shooter had to check in periodically with the state, so that his disability could be verified. These records, from his visits over the years, document a troubled mind in the steady process of collapse: in 1984, the shooter told California that he “never fit in with everyone else,” and that he “does not feel comfortable around people.” Three years later, he would indicate that he “can’t handle people at all,” and “doesn’t have any friends.” He confirmed, voluntarily, that he was “getting worse as time goes by.”
One night in 1986, two years and three months before his assault on the Stockton schoolyard, the shooter had sought treatment at Sacramento Mental Health Center. He told the staff “I’m not thinking the way I should be thinking,” and made reference to a high-profile incident that had unfolded several weeks before, in Oklahoma, where a postal employee had shot a number of co-workers and then took his own life. The Stockton shooter admitted that he “strongly identified” with this gunman, and then said that he was hearing voices telling him “to do things,” and admitted to experiencing both homicidal and suicidal thoughts in the past. Documenting the shooter’s visit, the staff wrote that he was “struggling to resist actions on thoughts which are destructive in nature,” and diagnosed the young man as having “an antisocial personality.” Then, they turned him away; beds at the mental health center were very scarce, and his condition did not warrant in-patient care.
This was just one of at least eight instances in the shooter’s life when his mental state had been assessed. As the years passed, the doctors examining him would change, and so would the shooter’s diagnosis: from “Drug Dependency Disorder, borderline intellectual functioning and a Mixed Personality Disorder” diagnosed by a Dr. Adams in 1984, to “emotionally and sexually immature and suffering from depression” as diagnosed by a Dr. Clement in 1988. At times, he was prescribed tranquilizers (Thorazine) or antidepressants (Amitriptyline), neither of which he took for very long. His toxicology report would show that the only active substances in his bloodstream, at the time of the shooting, were small amounts of caffeine and nicotine.
Of all the shooter’s contacts with law enforcement over the years, only one ever involved a gun, and it was the same incident that had earned him probation. He was arrested for firing a pistol in a prohibited area — El Dorado National Forest — near Lake Tahoe, in a scene that apparently amounted to a drunken session of target practice. The gunplay was treated as a misdemeanor rather than a felony, because “there was no indication that his actions were directly endangering anybody.” He was also intoxicated in public, another misdemeanor. These were relatively light transgressions, except that when the sheriff’s deputy arrived on the scene, the shooter refused to identify himself, and quickly became belligerent.
The deputy handcuffed the thin man, and was placing him in the back seat of his cruiser, when suddenly his prisoner stopped cooperating, and declared his “duty as a citizen to resist.” He tried to kick and bite the deputy, until the lawman managed to get the door shut. THen, during the ride to the jail, the shooter was thrashing and ranting that he would “kill anyone who pushed him around,” and he managed to kick out the cruiser’s side window. Beyond his obvious intoxication, there was concern for his mental state: arriving at the jail, he whimpered that he was “hearing his mother’s voice yelling his name,” and once put in his cell, he cut his wrists using his fingernails, wrote on the walls with his blood, and was found trying to hang himself with his t-shirt.
The shooter was taken to Placerville Psychiatric Health Facility on a 72-hour detention hold, where his intake form recorded that he was “suicidal and homicidal,” and had “thoughts of killing himself and others with a gun/bomb.” After interviewing the shooter, another counselor wrote that they “would consider him a risk, albeit ambiguous, to harm himself. He does however appear to be a greater risk to others. That is, he would probably hurt someone else before he hurt himself.”
However, the shooter had not actually hurt anyone else, and so the charges were not enough to keep him in jail for long; California sheriff’s deputies brought in “drunk and disorderlies” all the time, and frequently the arrestee made threats, or struggled ineptly, like the shooter had. The jails were not big enough to hold all of them for lengthy terms. The shooter was deemed competent to stand trial, accepted a reduced sentence, paid a $84.88 fine for the broken window, and was released from jail after serving 45 days.
One year later, the shooter called his SSA office to inform them he had been fired from another welding job. He was drunk, and depressed. His case worker called the Stockton Police Department to his hotel room for a wellness check, and the officers determined that the thin man was “able to care for himself.”
Two days later, the fire department was called to the same hotel room, where the shooter had locked himself in the bathroom, and was refusing to come out. The firemen broke down the door, and narrowly saved him from committing suicide.
None of this information — not his misdemeanor arrests, his diagnosis, his drug history, nor his expressed desire to harm himself or others — would ever have turned up on a background check for a firearms purchase. There are, however, signs that the shooter may have believed otherwise; five days before his arrest in the woods, the mental health center in Stockton documented a phone call they received from the shooter, writing on their log sheet that the caller was “concerned about the content of his previous records,” and specifically those at the center in Sacramento, where he had talked about the mass shooting at the post office. Then, less than a year before his assault on the elementary school, the shooter arrived at the center for a scheduled appointment, when he suddenly snatched away the folder containing his patient records, ran out to the parking lot, and began tearing the pages to shreds, with the staff running after him, pleading for him to stop. He then fled the scene.
The staff tried to piece the files back together from the remaining fragments. Some were damaged beyond repair, but one scrap documented his saying that he “preferred living under bridges, eating off of garbage dumpsters, and prostituting myself to living with the slave driver mother dearest,” whom he described as a “bitch, liar, thief, asshole, witch, cruel, torturer,” and on, and on. None of it made any real sense, and as far as anyone could tell from the damaged file, he had never spoken a word about what he was planning.
The shooter did not leave a note, beyond the non-sequitur mantras he scribbled on his jacket, and carved into his guns. While some knew that he was likely to hurt or kill others, he never said anything about attacking a school. The closest anyone could come up with for a motive was derived from his last known words, spoken to another hotel patron on the morning of the shooting, as they were both checking out. The other man was complaining of the early check-out time enforced by the hotel’s owner, when the shooter, referring to the owner’s Indian heritage, replied “the damn Hindus and boat people own everything.” While they talked, the witness noticed that the shooter was loading several cloth-wrapped bundles into his car, but he didn’t ask what they were. Then, the shooter got in his car, and drove off to Cleveland Elementary School.
The California State Department of Justice appointed a doctor specializing in forensic psychiatry to put together a “best guess” as to why the shooter had done what he did, and what factors contributed to the event. This doctor observed that Stockton had one of the highest proportions of immigrants from Southeast Asian of any city in California, and that (due to the school district’s need to concentrate bilingual resources) the Cleveland School that the shooter had attended as a child in the early 1970’s had since shifted demographically to an enrollment that was over 70 percent Southeast Asian. As an adult, the shooter had complained that all non-white races — but especially Southeast Asians — had an unfair advantage in the unskilled labor market, and that they “took” an unfair proportion of government assistance: in both instances, drawing from the same stream of support that he counted on to survive. Furthermore, one former friend recalled that the shooter had told him that “the rich kids in school used to tease him; the Asian kids had good clothes and he didn’t.”
The state’s doctor postulated that these facts, combined with the shooter’s racist comment about “boat people” just before his attack, suggested that he chose his old school because it was, from his perspective, more territory that he had since lost to immigrants. “It is likely that some final straw acted as a triggering mechanism for an event which had already been planned,” the psychiatrist wrote in his forensic evaluation, adding “perhaps, and this is only speculation, seeing a group of happy children at play in the schoolyard of a school he had attended during a difficult period in his life may have provided such a trigger.”
Turning to the capacity for violence, the doctor wrote that the shooter had been “a man isolated by mental and social disabilities from his own society,” and both warped by this isolation and resentful of it, he coped by becoming “preoccupied with fantasies that promoted a powerful, vengeful, and self important image, and then played these out against an identifiable target.” However, the doctor stressed, these were ultimately just theories, due to the “less than optimal” documentation of the shooter’s life, and because he was not alive to be interviewed.
The Attorney General of California, on the other hand, speculated that the shooter had simply targeted children because he was weak, and they were the most vulnerable targets he could attack. He was an evil person that had done an evil thing; what was there to learn?
The local cops had even fewer answers. “Obviously, he had a military hangup,” said Stockton PD’s Captain of Investigations at a press conference; spread out on the table in front of him were the shooter’s make-believe army men, alongside his very real guns. The pieces of the puzzle, unsolved, and unveiled for all to see. Pausing for flashbulbs, Captain Perry held aloft a scrap of the shooter’s camouflage jacket, upon which “FREEDOM” was scrawled in black. He tried to temper expectations. “We’ll never know everything because he didn’t leave us a message or a note. In a way, he beat us, because we’ll never know why.”
That left California very little to apply toward prevention. In his recommendations, the forensic psychiatrist lamented the budget cuts that had gutted the state’s preventative mental health care, twenty years before — measures that had still not been restored. He also expressed frustration at the restrictions blocking involuntary commitment, noting that while the infamous “bedlam” abuses of the national mental health care system seen in the 1940s and 50s were not something anyone wanted to repeat, “the pendulum may have swung too far in a direction that has left society bereft of sufficient means to protect both itself and patients who are out of control.”
Finally, the doctor suggested that the Kalashnikov-inspired murder weapon, itself, could have played a role in the shooter’s decision, arguing that “such weapons afford their users a sense of power and, in fact, enhance the dangerousness of such persons,” and that “providing him with access to such weapons was totally inappropriate.”
The police would agree with both conclusions, arguing that “it appears certain that once [the shooter] had decided to die and to take as many others as possible with him, only major restrictions on the firepower he could bring to bear on his intended victims would have made a difference in the outcome.” The police endorsed gun control measures that were then pending in the California legislature, but they were careful to point out that the Norinco had been purchased out-of-state, beyond their grasp. The city of Stockton was blunt in their recommendations, soberly concluding that “national bans should be enacted on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.”
The magnitude of the Stockton tragedy caused a shockwave, its ripples expanding outward from the playground of Cleveland Elementary School, and soon to be felt all over the country. After all, it was a purely man-made disaster — the sort of thing that just wasn’t supposed to happen — and so it was inescapable that somehow, somewhere, some fundamental piece of civilization had fallen loose. The shocking spectacle gave rise to questions about the society in which it occurred: How could anyone reach a point in their lives where they would choose to do something like this? Why didn’t anyone stop them? And most urgent of all: how on earth could they have let someone so dangerous get their hands on that gun?
- State of California: A Report to Attorney General John K. Van de Kamp on Patrick Purdy and the Cleveland School Killings OCTOBER 1989 (prepared by Nelson Jempsky, Chief Deputy Attorney General, et al)
- “After Shooting, Horror But Few Answers” — The New York Times ; Reinhold, Robert 01/19/1989 http://www.nytimes.com/1989/01/19/us/after-shooting-horror-but-few-answers.html
- “Escalating Hate Reportedly Consumed Gunman” — Los Angeles Times DAN MORAIN and LOUIS SAHAGUN 01/19/1989 http://articles.latimes.com/1989-01-20/news/mn-952_1_cleveland-elementary-school
- “A Military hang-up” — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Jan 19, 1989