The Secret Service had seen it as soon as they laid out the data for their Safe School Initiative, clear as day: Columbine was not where the phenomenon started. Even Frontier Middle School, in Moses Lake, where the trenchcoat first appeared, wasn’t where it started. That had only marked the beginning of the then-latest wave of school violence. Other waves had preceded it.
Going back through the years, the investigators saw that the last time the data had shown a rise was in 1988, and that time, it started at Hubbard Woods Elementary School, in Winnetka, Illinois. The shooter was a 30-year-old woman known for having severe OCD, and emotional problems. On the morning of May 20th, she made a number of unannounced deliveries to families she had babysat for over the last year, surprising them with homemade Rice Krispy treats and juice — secretly laced with arsenic (which thankfully proved too weak to cause serious harm.) At her last stop, she knocked on the door, concocted a story to get the family inside to lead her down into their basement, then locked the door behind them, and set the house on fire. (Fortunately, the captives all managed to escape.)
A few minutes later, she arrived at the elementary school, one she had no known connection to. She shot several students, but then a teacher tackled her, and she ran from the scene. She broke into a home near the school, shot the owner, went upstairs into a child’s empty bedroom, and shot herself.
When the next month’s issue of People magazine hit the newsstands, her face was on the cover, under the headline “MURDER OF INNOCENCE.”
A vortex started to form.
Four months later, just after the start of the new school year, it happened again: September 26, 1988, in Greenwood, South Carolina. He was a 19-year-old “jobless recluse,” who had been in a mental institution until recently. (He was discharged when he no longer qualified for his father’s health insurance.) That morning, he drove to his grandmother’s house, stole her .22 LR revolver, loaded it with hollow point bullets, and drove to nearby Oakland Elementary School — an institution he had no connection to at all. He walked into the cafeteria where the children were eating, took out the gun, and opened fire. He reloaded, and made his way to the nearest classroom. But when a teacher confronted him as he was trying to open the classroom door, he surrendered.
The Greenwood gunman was almost incoherent when police took him in, muttering something about how he “thought some of the students in the school were after [him].” But when investigators searched his bedroom, they found a more pedestrian explanation: a copy of the People magazine article, about the Illinois school shooter. The Greenwood gunman said he had “clipped out the article and read it every day for several months before the shootings.” He was a copycat.
Five months later, a thin man in California raised a Norinco to his shoulder, and rained bullets down on the playground of Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton. At the time the shooter purchased his rifle, the Kansas attacker’s face was all over the newsstands (and, he had already been sympathizing with the “postal” shooters for years). But once a specimen as grotesque as the thin man washed up on the shore, people tended to forget the wave that brought him in. His attack seemed unprecedented, all over again.
* * *
But the Secret Service found there had been at least one more wave, even before Winnetka; this one could be traced back to its origin in 1974, in the small town of Olean, New York, about an hour south of Buffalo.
It was December 30, and Olean High School was closed for holiday break. But around 3:00pm, the fire department got word that an alarm had been pulled on the third floor of the school. When firefighters arrived on the scene, they heard gunfire — someone was up on the third floor of the school, shooting at everyone down on the street that came near: a meter reader from the gas company, a woman who just happened to be driving by with her kids, and now, the first responders. The sniper held them at bay for almost two hours, until the sun went down. By then, around 50 police had surrounded the school. Finally, a National Guard armored personnel carrier arrived on the scene, to provide a shield for the entry team as gunfire cracked overhead.
When they got inside and rushed up to the third floor, they found that the doors to the student council office there were tied shut, from the inside. In the hallway were a series of homemade fire bombs — “chemistry beakers with rags stuffed in them” — that had apparently triggered the alarm before fizzling out. And then there was the body of a janitor, whom the gunman had shot on his way in.
The police blasted out the glass pane in the office door with a shotgun, tossed in a tear gas grenade, and waited as the gunfire came to a halt. Then they stormed in, to confront the mysterious sniper: they found him lying unconscious on the floor, next to at least three high powered rifles. (The young man was wearing a gas mask, but it apparently was defective.) “We got him!” the team shouted down to the street.
A district security officer was standing guard outside the school when the entry team came down the stairs, carrying the unconscious gunman on a stretcher: he was wearing a t-shirt and “combat fatigues camouflaged for jungle warfare.” Then they took his gas mask off; the guard was stunned to see that he recognized the young man: “My God, that’s my nephew! He’s an ‘A’ student! Why would he do it? Why would he do it?!”
Indeed, the 17-year-old, a senior at the school, was ranked 8th in his class of 292. He was a member of the National Honor Society, and just the week before, had been awarded a college scholarship. He was a “brain” who played chess, and he had never been in any sort of trouble in his whole life. Nobody in the school, in the town, could believe it. His English teacher gave an interview to the New York Times the next day. “All night long I kept asking myself was there something in his behavior I missed,” she said. “And the answer kept coming back — nothing, nothing, nothing… a perfect student, kind and considerate. An altar boy.”
Even the mayor of Olean agreed. “The boy is not an outsider. He’s one of our own and his family are very reputable people. In a small town everyone knows everyone else.”
The teen had been “more of a loner than not” — everyone said he was quiet, and kept to himself. He was never known to have a girlfriend. He was the head of the school’s rifle team, though. “A real good shot,” the principal remembered; indeed, several of the plaques in the school’s trophy case bore the gunman’s name. And he did have at least one friend in the neighborhood, a boy who would tell reporters that he had been in the gunman’s bedroom, and saw there were guns displayed prominently. In fact, whenever his friend struck up a conversation with him, it was usually about shooting, or hunting. “Guns were his life.”
But although he was the first “school shooter” the Secret Service found, the Olean gunman was likely inspired by still another shooting — just not one that happened at a high school. The year before his attack, in January, there was a high-profile news story about a sniper in New Orleans, a black revolutionary who shot at police from the roof of a hotel. He held the whole city in terror, and society’s forces at bay, for more than ten hours before being shot by police. Later that year at Olean High School, the eventual shooter mentioned to his friend “how funny it must feel to be a sniper holding off people.”
The wave rose from Olean, and spread north, just across the Canadian border, to the town of Brampton, Ontario. On May 28, 1975, a “quiet” 16-year-old boy brought two rifles to Brampton Centennial Secondary School, and while a copycat of Olean, he added to the emerging “school shooting” scenario, pushing it further into the realm of nightmare: he attacked while school was in session, and targeted his classmates, in the halls. Then he turned the rifle on himself. And while his yearbook photo would show a grinning teenage boy with long hair, in the weeks just before the attack, “he had shaved his head, become uncommunicative, and started dressing in military fatigues.” He would be wearing them during the rampage.
Five months later, the wave passed over Ottawa, and St. Pius X High School. The 18-year-old gunman — who had won the “Briefcase of the Year” award for being one of the “really studious types” — brought a shotgun to class. He shot his classmates, then himself.
That same day, back in New York, the Olean sniper who first started the wave was just going on trial. Two psychiatrists had assessed his mental state, and found him to be competent to stand accused. But he would plead “innocent by reason of insanity,” with his defense counsel saying in opening arguments that their client was “suffering from a serious, deep-rooted mental illness that precluded his conviction.”
Countering this, the prosecutor promised the jury he would “offer as evidence in the trial a diary in which [the defendant] had detailed plans for a shooting spree at the school.”
The next weekend, during a morning headcount, prison guards found the Olean shooter in his cell, hanging from a bed sheet that was knotted tightly around his neck. He had left behind three notes, all in a similar vein; they revealed that the attack itself had just been an attempt at suicide-by-cop, all along.
I wanted to die, but I couldn’t do it, so I had to get someone to do it for me. It didn’t work out… Someone might think it selfish or cowardly to take one’s own life. Maybe so, but it’s the only free choice I have… The way I figure, I lose either way. If I’m found not guilty, I won’t survive the pain I’ve caused — my guilt. If I’m convicted, I won’t survive the mental and physical punishment of my life in prison.
…Some will always ask, ‘Why?’ I don’t know — no one will. What has been, can’t be changed. I’m sorry… I regret the foods I’ll never taste, the music I’ll never hear, the sites I’ll never see, the accomplishments I’ll never accomplish. In other words, I regret my life.
The wave curled back stateside the next year. July 2, 1976, at California State University, Fullerton. This time it was the college’s 37-year-old custodian, armed with a rifle he bought at K-Mart (and although the “Black Panther” law had been passed by then, which banned open-carry of firearms in state buildings, this of course did nothing to stop the determined shooter.) He was a diagnosed schizophrenic, who said he believed his co-workers were forcing his wife to perform in pornographic films. He was arrested, and eventually confined to a mental institution.
Two and a half years later, still in California, the end of the wave came crashing down. On Monday, January 29, 1979, a 16-year-old girl who lived across the street from Grover Cleveland Elementary School, in San Diego, pointed her father’s hunting rifle out the window, and started shooting. Another sniper. She shot at the principal, the custodian, and then the students. She surrendered when police showed up, famously telling them, when they asked why she did it, “I don’t like Mondays.”
* * *
The phenomenon of shootings at schools seems to have split off from a greater nexus of violence: the mass shooter. A being outside the Secret Service’s data set. Most often, this tradition of indiscriminate mass violence in America is traced back to August 1, 1966, and the observation tower high over the University of Austin. That was where the vortex first appeared.
It was thirty stories to the top of the tower. An elevator took the shooter up 27 of those flights, but then he had to haul his gear the rest of the way up on a dolly: “4 rifles, 3 pistols, enough ammunition for an extended siege, and supplies to sustain himself for several days,” as a CBS newsman reported when it was all over.
When he got to the top, he barricaded the door behind him, and started laying out his weapons.
He had reached some level of national prominence once already, at age 12, when he became the youngest Boy Scout ever to have reached the rank of Eagle Scout. He had earned many marksmanship badges on his path to that title… but he really learned to shoot in the United States Marine Corp.
He first opened fire on the students just below him — thus technically, the first widely-known mass shooting actually started as the first school shooting — but then he turned the rifle, with its powerful scope, out onto the surrounding town, shooting at pedestrians and bicyclists, and even a customer at a barber shop, in mid-haircut. The siege finally ended when police stormed the barricade at the top of the stairs, and gunned him down as he turned to them, with his shotgun almost at the ready.
But shortly after they identified the shooter, the death toll increased again: the police found he had killed his wife in her sleep, back home. He left a note nearby, in his typewriter:
I don’t quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks.
In March when my parents made a physical break I noted a great deal of stress. I consulted a Dr. Cochrum at the University Health Center and asked him to recommend someone that I could consult with about some psychiatric disorders I felt I had. I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt some overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.
After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any physical disorder. I have had some tremendous headaches in the past and have consumed two large bottles of Excedrin the past three months.
He left for the tower the next day. First, he made a detour to his mother’s home, and killed her too.
The tower sniper had indeed visited a doctor, as he claimed. During that session, he had made what the doctor’s notes show was a “vivid reference” to “thinking about going up on the tower with a deer rifle and shooting people.” The doctor had determined that he was “not dangerous enough for involuntary commitment,” and instead prescribed him some Valium, telling him to come back for weekly visits. The gunman didn’t follow through, on either.
The state did an autopsy on the shooter, as he had requested. The medical examiner found that he actually had brain cancer — but concluded that “the relationship between the brain tumor and [the shooter’s] actions on the last day of his life cannot be established with clarity.” The gunman had also been taking amphetamines to aid in long study sessions, and was under “significant personal stress” over his finances. But most observers would look to the explanation he outlined in his final letter, just after killing his mother: “I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this…the prominent reason in my mind is that I truly do not consider this world worth living in, and am prepared to die…”
* * *
The Austin attack was a massive news story. In 1966, such a thing truly seemed unprecedented. And in many ways, it was.
But the year before, there was an event in California with characteristics that seemed to foreshadow what was coming: on April 25, 1965, a 16-year-old in Long Beach took his father’s hunting rifle, stole the family car, and for some reason drove 200 miles north on US Highway 101, to the town of Orcutt. He pulled off to the shoulder, and walked up the long, sloping hill looking down on the highway. He started sniping at the cars passing by. When a motorist stopped to help the injured, he shot them too. The police arrived, and he shot at them. It went on for two hours. Finally, as dozens of officers closed in on his position on the hillside, he stood up, shouted something unintelligible at them, and then turned the rifle on himself.
The teenage gunman from Long Beach was known by his teachers as “such a quiet fellow…. he never caused trouble, and he had perfect attendance. An A student and real fine boy.” The New York Times story on the event reads just like the school-shooter stories that would follow in the 1970s: an unassuming young man suddenly shooting people at random, with no intention of getting away, and no clear motive. It just wasn’t in a school — yet.
When some of the victims tried to sue the highway shooter’s parents, noting that they had failed to keep their hunting rifle out of his hands, a judge dismissed the case. “Is this tragic event of such a nature that one could say it was probably the result of negligence of the parents in bringing up the child?”, the judge posed the question. “Appellants argue that human experience and common knowledge suggest that this sort of tragedy does not customarily occur if a child is carefully observed and managed by its parents. But such tragedies do not customarily occur at all.” And at the time, way back in 1965, that was true; statistically, it’s still true. It’s the impact that has changed.
* * *
If it all indeed started on a hillside in California, a fundamental mystery still remained: where did the will to be a shooter come from? What made them able to kill, and often die, for a title that should bring them only infamy? What made them evil?
Dr. Park Dietz, the forensic psychologist whom Reagan’s would-be assassin mouthed curses at from his defense table, gave an interview in 2003 in which he talked about a notorious case from 1957, in Nebraska — the teenage gunman who went on multi-state killing spree with his girlfriend, shooting people at random. Dietz offered an explanation for why they did it… and perhaps, why they all do it. “When somebody has so little to lose, so that it all seems meaningless to them, then they’re likely to consider revenge as having considerable value,” he observed. “They may think of suicide as an escape from it all… That’s a terrible combination, being suicidal and wanting revenge. That’s at the heart of most of the workplace and school mass murders of the last 20 years.”
The interviewer asked if this meant there was a “universal lethality” in people.
“I think people are born with the inherent ability to be cruel and harmful and destructive and selfish and acquisitive,” the doctor replied. “It’s the function of many of the institutions of society to train us out of that.”
* * *
As for what awakened the savagery then, in America, in 1965, one likely contributor was that the country’s military involvement in Vietnam, simmering for years, was just starting to boil over into all-out (but never declared) war. Draft notices were being printed by the thousands, and suddenly young men all over the country were confronted with the reality that they, too, could die in combat, or could find themselves having to take the lives of total strangers, over little more than a powerful man’s whim.
Meanwhile, they all knew, even on some subconscious level, that the man who was potentially sending them off to the battlefield, President Johnson, was only in the Oval Office because of some nobody in Dallas who had a cheap rifle, and a telescopic sight. One sniper was all it took; the illusion that anyone was truly in control of their society, and the sense that anything they did had meaning, was never weaker.