31. Nightmare

March 21, 2005

Red Lake High School — Red Lake, Minnesota

Derrick Brun became a tribal police officer right after graduating from Red Lake High School. But at 28 years old, he had already put down that badge; now, he was just a security guard, manning the metal detectors at the entrance to his old high school.

Next to him at the security checkpoint was his partner, Leann, sitting at her desk. Above them, a security camera recorded everything. With this setup, the school was well-equipped to catch anyone trying to sneak a gun inside.

It was a frigid Monday afternoon, and the bell was about to ring, marking the end of the school day. Looking out the front entrance, expecting school buses any minute, Derrick instead saw something else; suddenly he stood, and nudged his partner.

Leann looked up and saw it too: a Red Lake Tribal Police SUV, approaching through the parking lot. Normally, this would not, by itself, be a cause for a concern — except that the big Chevy Tahoe had kept going, rolling right over the school’s front curb, and now it was coasting, gradually, straight toward them.

The driver’s door opened and a large figure jumped out, landing on his feet. He was tall, with black hair, and was now “marching, not walking” swiftly in their direction. When he drew closer, they saw that he wasn’t a cop — he was a teenage boy, dressed in a black trench coat. Still, the Kevlar vest underneath was police-issue, just like the gun-belt around his waist, and the .40 caliber Glock 23 pistol in the holster, and the Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun that he fired into the air, twice, just before reaching to open the school’s front door.

Through the security glass, Leann locked eyes with the shooter, and immediately recognized him: he was a student at Red Lake High School, known for getting in trouble. He had been suspended earlier that month.

She wasn’t armed, and neither was Derrick. (The most common reason they’d heard for not being allowed to carry a firearm on duty was that the tribe could not afford the increased insurance rates it would bring for the school.) Over their shoulders, they could hear students coming out of their classrooms, curious as to the source of all the noise.

The front door started to open. Snapping out of her shock, Leann suddenly darted from her desk, quickly ushering a group of students down the hall with her, and yelling for her partner to follow. “Derrick, run! He’s got a gun!”

The school’s security camera recorded that Derrick did not run. He stood tall, and took four brave steps forward, confronting the trench-coated figure as he entered the school.

Around the corner, Leann was running as fast as she could, going door-to-door shouting for classrooms to go into lockdown — when she heard the shots echoing from behind her. Then, she realized what they meant: Derrick’s sacrifice had bought her a few seconds, and probably saved her life… but the shooter was now inside the school.

A second later, the shooter came around the corner, firing at everyone he saw. Leann ran for the exit. Down the hall, the shooter saw his old teacher, and followed her, instead; the woman ducked into the nearest classroom — a Math study hall — and locked the door behind her.

Crouching at the base of the classroom door, the math teacher could hear the gunfire getting closer out in the hall — and then the impact of bullets striking the door’s lock, just over her head. She saw the door handle shake, as the gunman tried to open it from the other side. But the lock held.

Then, she saw the shooter’s face, as he peered through the panel of glass set into the door, and saw all of them hiding inside. A moment later, a shotgun blast punched through the door’s window. The shooter reached inside, and turned the lock.

From the neighboring classrooms, students and staff could hear what transpired next. The shotgun blasts were steady, and moved gradually along the length of the classroom. Several witnesses heard the shooter repeatedly ask, “Do you believe in god?,” followed shortly by another shot. Finally, there was a “CLICK!”

Back inside the math classroom, the shooter was loading more shells into the Remington when one of the students hiding under their desk, a 15-year-old boy named Jeff May, suddenly lunged out and stabbed the shooter in the abdomen with a sharp pencil. The shooter dropped the shotgun, and went for his sidearm. Jeff saw it, and the two began wrestling for control of the Glock.

Jeff May was on the school’s football and basketball teams. He was big. But so was the shooter — who soon regained control of the pistol, and shot Jeff in the mouth, a wound the brave teenager would barely survive.

The shooter then left the classroom, in search of more targets.

Moments later, the real police arrived. And they would not be setting up a perimeter; they knew they were dealing with an active shooter, and they followed the protocol. At 2:57pm, about eight minutes since the first shots were fired at Red Lake, four armed tribal police officers were moving down the school’s main hallway in a diamond formation, when they encountered the shooter coming around the corner. A brief gun battle ensued; the teenager in the black trench coat missed every shot, while an officer with a rifle hit him twice, in the hip and calf.

At that, the shooter suddenly retreated, ducking back into the study hall classroom, where Jeff May and several more survivors still laid injured. One of them, from the floor, saw the shooter’s boots as he limped back in, and picked up the shotgun he had discarded during his struggle with the football player. She watched as the gunman sat against the far wall, put the shotgun to his own head, and pull the trigger. Seconds later, she saw the police enter the classroom, and one of the officers handcuff the dead shooter’s wrists with a plastic zip-tie.

Technically, the “active shooter” protocol had worked about as well as it could that day: the police were on the scene in minutes, engaged with the shooter directly, and there were no more victims after they arrived. And yet, Red Lake had still been a nightmare.

* * *

The Red Lake Indian Reservation is a small, isolated community. Members of the tribe live on a pocket of territory, shrunken from the vast land their ancestors had roamed. By 2005, most families had been on the reservation for generations — everyone knew each other. So, when the police arrived at Red Lake High School and started evacuating students, there were plenty who said they saw the shooter, and they were able to identify him.

The officers knew the boy, too.

His father had died eight years before: there was an armed standoff with the tribal police at his home, that went on for days. Then he shot himself. (It’s not clear if his son was home with him when that all happened; he would have been eight years old.)

Two years later, the shooter’s mother was involved in a very serious car accident. She suffered brain damage, and was never able to care for her son again. He would live with relatives instead, after that, usually at his favorite aunt’s place. But lately, he had been staying at his grandfather’s.

His grandfather was a tribal police officer. When the standoff happened back in 1997, the man was there at the barricades. He tried to talk the shooter’s father — his own son — out of it, to get him to put the gun down… and then he heard the shot.

He had tried to move on after that, and now was known all over town as the cop in the SUV, who gave a friendly wave to every driver he passed on the reservation’s lonely roads. The same vehicle was, just then, being surrounded by backup officers, found abandoned just outside the entrance of Red Lake High School.

* * *

Officers swarmed to the grandfather’s house, sprinted up the empty driveway, and kicked down the door. Inside, in the master bedroom, they found their colleague’s body; his wounds were from a .22 pistol, which the detectives determined had come into the shooter’s possession “about a year” before the attack. (If they ever found out where he got it, the tribal police decided to keep that to themselves.)

Scouring the crime scene, the forensics team would determine that, sometime on the morning or early afternoon of March 21, 2005, the shooter had gone upstairs into his grandfather’s bedroom, where the man was sleeping, and shot him multiple times in the head. Then the shooter stole his keys, his Glock, the Remington shotgun, and body armor. Sometime after this — but before the shooter had departed — his grandfather’s girlfriend came home. She was apparently carrying a load of laundry up the stairs, oblivious, when the shooter ambushed her with the Glock. Then, he got in his grandfather’s SUV, and drove to Red Lake High School.

* * *

There are conflicting reasons cited for why the shooter had been suspended from school. The principal even said he hadn’t been suspended at all, but was simply placed in a “homebound” instruction program, because the school had “recognized behavioral problems.” He declined to elaborate.

Virtually everyone who knew the shooter knew that he was obsessed with violence. “He looked like a cool guy — and then I went and talked to him a few times,” one classmate said. “He talked about nothing but guns and shooting people.”

It was reflected in his artwork, too; one of the school’s administrators told the Washington Post, “He just sat there and drew pictures of army people with guns. He was a talented artist, but he drew terrible, terrible scenes.”

One student, who had the same English period as the shooter, recalled a sketch that the kid in the trenchcoat had produced. It was hanging on the wall of the classroom not a month before the shooting: a skeleton strumming a guitar, with the caption underneath, “March to the death song ‘til your boots fill with blood.”

* * *

The same dark signals could be detected online. He was always on his computer. In a writing community, where teams of strangers were collaborating on horror stories, he contributed pages and pages about zombie attacks, obsessing over the weapons and their gory effect.

One of the scenes he produced begins at a high school, with the protagonist passing through a security checkpoint, when the “ape like” security guard takes him aside for a pat-down. “Even for a small town the security was tight,” the shooter wrote. “After the school shooting’s [sic] like Columbine, they had stepped up the security at the front door.”

Later, the main character is in class when he hears gunfire, and the resulting scene demonstrates that the writer was from the “lockdown drill” generation; “If someone entered the building with a gun,” the shooter wrote, “teachers were supposed to lock their classroom doors and move all students to the back of the room,” as then happens in the story.

Listening to the sounds of combat in the halls, not yet aware of the source, the protagonist wonders if the apparent school-shooter is one of his friends, and thinks, “The school had it coming.”

* * *

A little more than one year before he launched his attack, the shooter registered an account on a discussion forum dedicated to conspiracy theories and the paranormal. It seemed to become his favorite destination online; in February of 2004, he asked the forum for some advice. “Last night, or yesterday evening, something very weird happened,” he wrote, explaining that although it was the middle of the day, “I was so depressed I felt like sleeping… So I went to bed at 1 PM and slept till 6.” Waking up then, still lying in bed, it happened:

I could see my alarm clock across the room, it’s red numbers, and the yellowish glow the light on the extension cord gives. I could see this black figure. It was really well defined against the darkness, sort of darker then dark (I know that sounds weird but thats how it was), about 3 ft tall… For some reason, I reached for it (I was in the dreamy state — but I could tell I WASN’T dreaming), and touched it. When I was reaching for it… I felt really fatigued and weak, like I could barely move my arm… I was sort of scared, but it was then (after touching it) I fell right back into a deep sleep…

He claimed that the aura he felt was not so much “evil” as it was “like when you walk into a room and can automatically feel like somethings amiss.”

Most commenters on the site said he was probably just half-awake, half-dreaming. He wasn’t sure either. “It may or may not have been a dream there are other instances where this kind of thing has happened that I have not posted, because I don’t believe everything I see or hear is real.”

* * *

April 20, 2004 was the fifth anniversary of the Columbine shooting. Online, the shooter later shared what he experienced at Red Lake High School on that day:

Apparently someone was supposed to shoot up the school on 4/20, and there was alot of buzz around me, and for good reasons I guess. I wear combat boots (with my pant legs tucked into them), wear a trench coat, and at the last basketball game my friend (who happens to wear a black trench coat like mine) did a ‘Sieg Heil’ during the national anthem (for shock value), so they had us pegged as “Trench Coat Mafia.” My other “friend” even said that I fit the profile of a school shooter that she saw on 60 minutes. […] So it’s not hard to label a school shooter.

I happen to be “not so popular,” Gothic (in the sense that I wear nothing but black, spike my hair in “devil” horns, and happen to be an emotionally disturbed person) if you could call me that. So it’s really no problem slapping a label on someone because they fit the stereotype. And no, I wasn’t the one who did the threat. On “Game day” (4/20) the Feds were all around the place, watching, cop cars on nearly every corner around the school… So they WERE prepared for something to happen.

Red Lake High School had received a number of bomb threats in that April of 2004, and there had been rumors, widely-heard, that a school shooting was being planned for the Columbine anniversary. Police had indeed been ready. But the threat didn’t materialize.

Later that month, the shooter attempted suicide. In June, he tried again. He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, willingly, and was discharged a few weeks later. He went to several visits with a therapist after that, his grandmother recalls, but the sessions were “sporadic.”

As summer wound down and the new school year approached, a doctor prescribed the shooter some Prozac: 20 milligrams a day. Then, the dosage was bumped up to 40 mg, and finally to 60 mg. “He was a lot more quiet,” remembered his aunt. “I wouldn’t say any better.”

* * *

Near the end of summer break, the shooter registered an account on a website that hosted content for amateur Flash animators. In his profile, he listed his favorite films, which included Elephant and Zero Day — both depicting school shootings that are loosely based on the Columbine massacre. Elephant, in particular, seemed to be one that he was interested in; just weeks before his attack, the shooter watched the Gus Van Sant film with some friends, who recall him fast-forwarding through the non-violent majority of its running time in order to get to the scenes where the shootings were being plotted, or the shooting itself.

In October, the shooter uploaded a short animated clip that he had produced. Entitled “Target Practice,” the 22-second black-and-white Flash sequence depicts a man with a rifle, shooting random people in a park. Then a police car arrives on the scene, and the gunman tosses a grenade, blowing up the vehicle. The animated gunman then puts the gun in his own mouth, and fires.

Once, on another site, when he was looking for advice on interpreting his dreams, another user had left an insulting comment. He wrote a reply back: “Would you please try to be a little bit more considerate? I had went through alot of things in my life that had driven me to a darker path than most choose to take.” He talked about his suicide attempt, and said “I am now on Anti-depressants, and just because you’ve probably never been through anything Like I have doesn’t give you the write to say what you have. I am trying to turn my life around, I’m trying really hard, the attitudes of people like you are what set me back.”

The other user apologized. He was just trying to be funny. “Eh…no problem,” the shooter wrote back. “I would try to be a little bit more easy about it all, except it’s hard to be humorous about the things I’ve been through. No worries though man, water under the bridge.”

* * *

He started a Livejournal in December 2004. It was unremarkable teenager stuff at first. But within a month, things went bad. “There isn’t an open sky or endless field to be found where I reside, nor is there light or salvation to be discovered,” he typed. “Right about now I feel as low as I ever have. So fucking naive man, so fucking naive. Always expecting change when I know nothing ever changes… I sacrifice no more for others, part of me has fucking died and I hate this shit. I’m living every mans nightmare and that single fact alone is kicking my ass.”

Two months later, he updated his public MSN profile. Under “Interests,” he selected from the list “Military,” “High Schools,” and “Death & Dying.” Prompted to describe himself, he wrote “16 years of accumulated rage supressed by nothing more than brief glimpses of hope, which have all but faded to black. I can feel the urges within slipping through the cracks, the leash I can no longer hold.”

Under the heading “Favorite Things”, the shooter had typed three:

* moments where control becomes completely unattainable

* times when maddened psycho paths briefly open the gates to hell, and let chaos flood through

* those few individuals who care enough to reclaim their place.

His MSN profile’s main picture was a still image from Elephant: the two teenage gunmen viewed from behind as they march into their high school, dressed in black, carrying their shotguns and duffel bags.

* * *

Five days later, the shooter donned his grandfather’s police equipment, and drove to Red Lake High School.

Along the way, he would have passed Red Lake’s juvenile detention facility, still unnamed. This building was brand new, built with grants from the Bureau of Indian Affairs; the bureau had promised to fund its daily operations as well — but when the day came, they balked. Red Lake’s self-governing Chippewa tribe wanted to run the place as “a treatment facility for the youth to get services for behavioral health, mental health and chemical dependency.” The BIA would only pay for it if it was a jail. So it never opened.

The tribe had almost secured a second source of federal funding for it earlier that year, in the form of a $3 million “Safe Schools/Healthy Students” grant. This program had started as a collaboration between the Department of Education and the Department of Justice in 1999, “in response to a series of deadly school shootings in the late 1990s,” and was intended to “promote mental health among students and create safe and secure schools.” But there was a problem: the grant application had been filled out by the county, which contained Red Lake’s school district along with several others, and one of these other districts had failed to sign some of their paperwork. So, the Department of Education rejected the application. As a result, when the shooter drove the stolen police SUV to his school, the brand-new mental health facility he passed was still vacant — never housing a patient, nor prisoner.

* * *

On the afternoon of the 21st, when the first shots were fired at the school’s entrance, a male student in the library down the hall suddenly jumped to his feet. He could not possibly have seen who the shooter was, yet, but he blurted out a name — and it turned to be correct. Some assumed he guessed based on the shooter’s reputation around the school, but when police searched the shooter’s email history, they found out the real reason.

For the entire two years leading up to the shooting at Red Lake High School, the shooter had been trying to recruit other boys to join him in the attack. He discussed the details freely, and said how “funny” it was going to be. Authorities ultimately identified no less than 39 students who “knew in varying degrees” that the shooter was planning to attack the school the year before, but the big plan fizzled when none of them were able to procure weapons as he had requested. (Meanwhile, around the same time, a series of anonymous bomb threats had caused the security at the school to spike. Someone probably leaked.)

The cops found a homemade map of Red Lake High School in the shooter’s bedroom, and based on its markings, determined that he originally wanted to begin his assault in the school’s gymnasium, during a crowded event, and that he wanted to station his accomplices at the gym’s exits. This map, and its implications, mirror a scene in Elephant, from the same sections of the film that the shooter’s friends recall him fast-forwarding to: “There should be kids flushing out in all directions,” the fictionalized shooters say, standing over their map. “And we’ll be able to pick them off, one by one.” This became, the investigators learned from the shooter’s chat logs, his plan to top Columbine.

But one aspect of the Red Lake shooting that investigators were never able to resolve was the timing — why March 21st? They suspected that something had had transpired between the shooter and his grandfather the day before the attack, something that caused the teen to initiate his newest plan prematurely. Until then, the date he had in mind was still a few weeks out: April 20, 2005.

March 25, 2005

Prairie Chapel Ranch — Crawford, Texas

President Bush stepped into the study at his ranch home in Central Texas, on a clear Friday morning. On the desk, a microphone waited for his weekly radio address.

It had been a tense week in the United States. On television, all anyone could talk about was a woman who had fallen down in her apartment in Florida some fifteen years before, after suffering a “severe anoxic brain injury.” Terri Schiavo had lapsed into a persistent vegetative state, and she left no will behind, so when her husband decided in 2002 that her feeding tube should be removed, it seemed his right — but instead, it set off a series of escalating legal battles and public debates (roughly resembling the “pro-life” vs “pro-choice” abortion-rights controversy, and with the same forces opposing each other.)

The “Palm Sunday” bill was supposed to end all that, mandating that the case be moved from Florida to the federal courtrooms. President Bush flew to Washington to sign the act at 1:00am the next morning, the 21st; and so it was in the wake of this massive ongoing controversy that news of the Red Lake shooting first broke on Monday afternoon.

It was the worst school shooting since Columbine. But President Bush did not make any public comment.

Tuesday went by, and then Wednesday. By Thursday, the president still hadn’t made any statement; soon, that neglect itself became the story. “Native Americans Criticize Bush’s Silence” read the Washington Post headline on Friday morning — “Response to School Shooting Is Contrasted With President’s Intervention in Schiavo Case”:

“From all over the world we are getting letters of condolence, the Red Cross has come, but the so-called Great White Father in Washington hasn’t said or done a thing,” said Clyde Bellecourt, a Chippewa Indian who is the founder and national director of the American Indian Movement here. “When people’s children are murdered and others are in the hospital hanging on to life, he should be the first one to offer his condolences… If this was a white community, I don’t think he’d have any problem doing that.”

With this atmosphere in mind, from his ranch, the president took a deep breath, and pressed record.

Good morning. This weekend, millions of Americans celebrate the joyous holiday of Easter. Easter is the most important event of the Christian faith, when people around the world join together with family and friends to celebrate the power of love conquering death.”

He said a prayer for the military, and the soldiers lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rest of the message, he dedicated to the community in Red Lake. He singled out Derrick Brun, speaking of the fallen security guard with the same respect as he had the soldiers: “Derrick’s bravery cost him his life, and all Americans honor him.” Searching for words to soothe the grief of the native people, the president turned again to his faith, signing off, “In this season of renewal, we remember that hope leads us closer to truth, and that in the end, even death, itself, will be defeated.”

As the sun set on the 25th of March, President Bush picked up the phone, and placed a call to the Chairman of the Red Lake Band of the Chippewa. He assured the tribal leader, “We are doing everything we can to meet the needs of the community at this tragic time.”

Littleton, Colorado

Many former students from Columbine High School recognized the pain that Red Lake felt, and some decided to send a special token of sympathy. When the tribe in Red Lake unwrapped the dreamcatcher, they would find the gift’s original recipients had added their own dedication along its frame:

In the Circle of Life, we will all be together again. This healing dreamcatcher came to Jefferson County, Colorado after the Columbine tragedy. In the spirit of healing, we pass it to the Red Lake Nation Indian Education Program. May it never travel again!