January 17, 1989
Cleveland Elementary School — Stockton, California
The 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 rose over the chain-link fence, classes having just been let out for afternoon recess. Teachers were watching over them from the chalked sidelines, alert for any skinned knees or hurt feelings. The sort of hazards they were 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. And 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 a more common 30-round “box” mag. 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. Then he resumed his assault on the playground, emptying the second clip.
He went to reload again — but this time, during the lull of gunfire, he heard it: the sound of police sirens, approaching fast. It was time for the next phase of his plan.
The shooter dropped the rifle, drew a 9mm pistol from the waistband of his jeans, and took his own life. The Cleveland Elementary School shooting was over.
* * *
The police said the assault lasted only two minutes. Maybe less. But during that time, the thin man had fired 106 rounds, including the one that he used on himself. And then there was the black cloth pouch they found tied to his belt: inside, there 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. It could have been worse.
The first officers on the scene found the gunman sprawled out on the pavement, twitching, and kicked his weapon away from his reach. Doing so, they noticed that the rifle skidding across the pavement had a wooden stock, and a distinctive profile; soon, it would become an object of debate all over the nation. The gun looked just like an AK-47 — and was widely reported to be one — but a real Kalashnikov was a military weapon, capable of fully-automatic fire: bullets would rapidly spew from its barrel for as long as the shooter held the trigger down, and there was ammo in the magazine. Weapons like that had been tightly regulated in the United States since the prohibition era — and then in 1986, all but outlawed entirely. They were quite difficult to obtain, even for someone already willing to break the law.
In truth, the gun that rained terror down on the playground in Stockton was just a Norinco 56S: a cheap knockoff of the AK, manufactured in China. And it was semi-automatic: for each round that the shooter fired at the schoolyard, he had to pull and the release the trigger.
The Norinco was perfectly legal for civilians to own. And when the Trading Post Store in Sandy, Oregon put it on display with a price tag of $349.95, they were in full compliance with the law. They sold it to a thin white man, who walked in and bought it over-the-counter, four months before he would turn it on the playground; they couldn’t have known what he was planning, just as they couldn’t have known about his criminal record, or that he was on probation. All of his crimes — of which there were many, from drug possession, to prostitution, to vandalism — happened in California. They would never have shown up on Oregon’s radar.
The shooter had drifted south after picking up his Norinco, back home to California, and even there his probation status did not prevent him from obtaining a 9mm pistol: he bought it from Hunter Loan & Jewelry in Stockton, a store just across the county line from where he had earned his probation. “As the California criminal justice system now works,” the state Attorney General’s office would write in their 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.”
Still, for the pistol, the shooter knew that California had a 15-day waiting period. And there was no going around that. So he waited.
During the next two weeks, the shooter was spotted near the Cleveland Elementary School playground at least once: sitting in his car, parked in the same spot where he would soon torch it. Watching the playground. Employees at the local middle school and high school would swear they saw him lurking around their campuses, too.
On January 3rd, with ten days to go on his waiting period, witnesses had seen the shooter drinking beers at a tavern in Stockton. The bartender there would tell police that the thin man came in wearing a camo-green army jacket, and (after a few drinks) had gotten to bragging about an AK-47 rifle he owned. One with a huge magazine.
The bartender had tried to burst the shooter’s bubble, explaining that the AK would be no good for hunting deer, but the shooter brushed that off. He had no intention of going deer hunting. And he could spray bullets with that thing fast. Paying his bill, he told the bartender mysteriously, “You’re going to read about me in the papers.”
As the strange, thin man spun from his bar stool and headed for the exit, the bartender caught a clearer view of his army jacket: there was black lettering written all over it, words that seemed to have crossed over from a different version of reality. One in which the man wearing the jacket was actually 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.” Down the front of his flak vest he wrote a single word, repeating:
The waiting period ended on a Friday. The shooter immediately came to pick up his brand new semi-auto 9mm, a Taurus. He had purchased it to fire one shot, and one shot only. Then he drove it 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 the very next school day.
After it was all over, the police would trace the shooter’s path, from the burning station wagon back to his rented room. Inside, he had left behind even more ammunition, and more guns. 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 inside the freezer, he had arranged his collection of little, green, plastic army men toys.
* * *
The California authorities started piecing together a history of the shooter’s life; what he had done was inexplicable to them, and forever unjustifiable… but if it had happened once, it could happen again. So if there had been any specific event in the shooter’s life that could have predicted the oncoming tragedy, or any set of circumstances that had set him on this path, they had a responsibility to find what it was, and bring it to light.
The shooter was a 25-year-old man. He had been a transient for most of his adult life, never holding down a job longer than a month or two. When homeless, he resorted to petty crime. Sometimes, prostitution.
His father had been a diagnosed schizophrenic, and frequently beat the shooter’s mother. His parents separated by the time he was in his early teens, and after that he ping-ponged back and forth between their custodies for a few years. That came to an end one night, when his father had apparently been walking barefoot on the side of the road, disoriented, and a passing car struck and killed him.
The shooter’s mother controlled her ex-husbands death benefits, a fact that her son would resent with extreme intensity. He grew more and more disobedient, and soon the woman was informing the local authorities that she could not control her son at all anymore. She kicked him out on the street.
At age twenty, the shooter qualified for state benefits of his own, in the form of disability; 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, routine tasks, and difficulty in handling the stresses of any ordinary job.”
SSA benefits meant that he had to check in periodically with the state; the records from his visits over the years document a troubled mind, collapsing in slow-motion. In 1984, he told California that he “never fit in with everyone else,” and that he “does not feel comfortable around people.” Three years later, he reported 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 schoolyard — the shooter sought treatment at Sacramento Mental Health Center. He told the staff there, “I’m not thinking the way I should be thinking,” and he made reference to a high-profile incident that had unfolded in Oklahoma that year, where a postal employee had shot a number of co-workers before taking his own life. The Stockton patient said that he “strongly identified” with this gunman, and revealed that he had been hearing voices telling him “to do things.” He admitted to experiencing both homicidal and suicidal thoughts in the past.
Documenting the shooter’s visit, the Sacramento staff wrote that he was “struggling to resist actions on thoughts which are destructive in nature,” and they diagnosed him as having “an antisocial personality.” Then they turned him away; beds at the mental hospital were quite scarce, and his condition didn’t warrant in-patient care.
That visit had been just one of eight instances in the shooter’s life when his mental state was assessed. Each time was a new doctor, with a new diagnosis: from “Drug Dependency Disorder, borderline intellectual functioning and a Mixed Personality Disorder” in 1984, to “emotionally and sexually immature and suffering from depression” in 1988. He had been prescribed tranquilizers (Thorazine) and antidepressants (Amitriptyline), neither of which he took for very long — his toxicology report would show that at the time of the shooting, the only active substances in his bloodstream were small amounts of caffeine and nicotine.
* * *
The shooter had crossed paths with law enforcement just as often as with the mental health system, but only one of his arrests had ever involved a gun. And it was the same one that was supposed to prevent him from getting his hands on any more guns: he had been arrested for firing a pistol in a prohibited area — El Dorado National Forest, near Lake Tahoe — in what seems to have amounted to a drunken session of target practice. When the sheriff’s deputy arrived on scene, they treated it as a misdemeanor rather than a felony — “There was no indication that his actions were directly endangering anybody” — but the shooter was visibly intoxicated. And when the deputy handcuffed the thin man and tried to place him in the back seat of his cruiser, his prisoner suddenly stopped cooperating. He started kicking and biting, declared his “duty as a citizen to resist.” And during the ride to the jail, the shooter thrashed and ranted that he would “kill anyone who pushed him around.” He even kicked out the side window of the moving car.
Beyond the prisoner’s obvious intoxication, there was concern for his mental state: as they arrived at the jail, he was whimpering that he was “hearing his mother’s voice yelling his name.” Once they got him in his cell, he cut his wrists with his fingernails, wrote on the walls with his blood, and was found trying to hang himself with his t-shirt.
They took the shooter to Placerville Psychiatric 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.” Another counselor interviewed him, and wrote that they “would consider him a risk, albeit ambiguous, to harm himself,” then adding, “He does however appear to be a greater risk to others. That is, he would probably hurt someone else before he hurt himself.”
But their patient had not done any real harm, and so the charges were not enough to keep him in jail for long; sheriff’s deputies in California brought in “drunk and disorderlies” all the time, and it wasn’t rare for the arrestee to make threats, or to struggle ineptly like the thin man had. The jails were not big enough to hold all of them. He was deemed competent to stand trial, accepted a reduced sentence, paid a $84.88 fine for the broken window, and was released after serving 45 days in jail.
None of these events — not the misdemeanor arrests, the mental diagnoses, the history of drug abuse, nor the explicit desire to harm himself or others — would have ever turned up on a background check when he tried to buy a gun. But there are signs that he may have believed otherwise; five days before he was arrested in the national park, he had placed a call to the community mental health center in Stockton. The representative who answered the phone wrote that the caller was “concerned about the content of his previous records,” especially those stored at the center in Sacramento — the place where he had spoken of the connection he felt with the shooter from the post office. Not long after his phone call, the thin man came to the center in Sacramento for a scheduled appointment, when he suddenly snatched away the folder that contained his patient records, and ran out to the parking lot, tearing the pages to shreds as the staff followed and begged him to stop.
After he fled, they tried to piece the fragments back together; one scrap documented an interview in which he said 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.
* * *
After the shooting, as the police wrapped up their search of the gunman’s hotel room, they were disappointed to find that he had not left a note. There was nothing to explain what he had done, beyond the non-sequitur mantras he scribbled on his jacket, and carved into his guns. 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 turning in their room keys. The other man was complaining of the early check-out time, when the shooter, referring to the motel owner’s Indian heritage, replied, “The damn Hindus and boat people own everything.” Those were probably his last words; the witness noticed that the thin man was loading several cloth-wrapped bundles into his station wagon as they talked. Then, the thin man got in his car, and drove off, toward Cleveland Elementary School.
It didn’t seem like much. So the California 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.
The doctor observed that the city of Stockton had one of the highest proportions of immigrants from Southeast Asia 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; witnesses said that as an adult, the shooter had frequently complained that all non-white races — and 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, they were drawing from the same stream of support that he counted on to survive. Furthermore, one former friend of the shooter recalled what he had told him over the years: “The rich kids in school used to tease him; the Asian kids had good clothes and he didn’t.”
The state’s doctor theorized that these facts, combined with the shooter’s racist comment about “boat people” just before his attack, indicated 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, 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 being 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 had a simpler explanation: the shooter 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. That was all.
The local cops had even fewer answers. “Obviously, he had a military hangup,” the Captain of the Stockton Police Department said 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, the captain 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.”
As the initial shock faded, California turned to prevention — but the shooter had left them with precious little to work with. The forensic psychiatrist lamented in his report that budget cuts had gutted the state’s preventative mental health care system twenty years before, and 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 something no one 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. “Such weapons afford their users a sense of power and, in fact, enhance the dangerousness of such persons,” he wrote. “Providing him with access to such weapons was totally inappropriate.”
The Stockton police would agree with both conclusions, arguing, “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 officers endorsed gun control measures that were then already pending in the California legislature — but they were careful to point out that the Norinco had been purchased out-of-state, beyond their grasp. Soberly, they concluded, “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, what had occurred 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 grotesque spectacle gave rise to questions about the society in which it had 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?