February 2, 1996
Frontier Junior High School — Moses Lake, Washington
The trenchcoat was black. A woman purchased it for $240 from Skeen’s Western Wear, an army surplus store in the small town of Moses Lake, out in the eastern deserts of Washington State. She said she was buying it for her teenage son.
It wasn’t even a “trench coat,” really: it was a duster, a long jacket like the cowboys used to wear. But for some reason, everyone would call it a trench coat.
Her son was fourteen years old. Two days after she gave him the trench coat, he went to his father’s gun safe (which was unlocked) and retrieved a .30-30 lever-action rifle — a hunting rifle, by any modern standards — and carried it back to his bedroom. He put on a movie: A Fistful of Dollars. It was a Clint Eastwood classic, featuring 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 from his new duster, and passed the rifle through the resulting hole, so that he could have his finger on the trigger of the long gun while still keeping the weapon hidden within his new jacket. 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, working the lever and pulling the trigger. He even turned the gun on his teacher (a woman who had given him an A on his report card that term, and wrote that the teen was “a pleasure to have in class”).
The rifle ran empty, and the shooter reloaded. Act II of his plan had arrived: the hostage crisis.
The terrified students in Classroom 15 would all remember the same thing about the way the shooter acted that afternoon, as he ordered them around at gunpoint: his movements and words seemed “rehearsed,” like he was calmly acting out a script from 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 Fistful of Dollars he borrowed the aura of the gunslinger, but some of his actual behavior at the school appeared straight from a 1977 psychological horror novel, Rage. The book was written by “Richard Bachman” (a name Stephen King would use 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 holds his classmates hostage. “His twisted mind turned a quiet classroom into a dangerous world of terror,” the cover reads. “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 “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 trench coat.
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,” his friend said, remembering how the aspiring gunman would quote the movie’s heroes: “Murder is pure. People make it unpure.”
Presented as satire, Natural Born Killers 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 — and based on what the friends of the Frontier shooter remember him quoting, this scene was what captured his attention; in the film, Mickey has told 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.”
When his interviewer is still unsatisfied, the mass-murderer concludes the chat 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 is broadcast live all over the prison, and it soon incites a full-scale 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 out.
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 trench coat. 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 bizarre scene 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 how the boy in the black trench coat was “shockingly calm” as they handcuffed him, grumbled, “Look at what you’ve done.”
The shooter responded simply, “I know.”
* * *
That night, a handwritten message was raised on the flagpole at Frontier Junior High school, a single 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 his 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 “trench coat”; 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 with two years before — and saw him pull out the stolen shotgun, and fire. He wasn’t trying to hit anyone else at the table, but it was buckshot, so 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.
The police showed up just then, and the gunman surrendered; up on the mezzanine, the kid with the camera was so amazed by all of what he had seen, he had forgotten to even take the photo.
For some parents and teachers, the fact there was a willing 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 tragedy, would they be too concerned about missing the show to tell an adult?
October 1, 1997
Pearl High School — Pearl, Mississippi
The next school year came, and the violence returned with it, this time before the tree branches were even bare: another white boy in a black trench coat, shooting up the commons 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 the shooter 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 rushed out to the parking lot to retrieve his own .45 pistol from his car.
The power fantasy that had first been launched into reality from Classroom 15 in Moses Lake was building on its own momentum now, incorporating new parts into itself as it passed through each angry, alienated teenage boy. And as the phenomenon passed over Pearl, a particularly dark layer was absorbed: when the authorities searched the shooter’s home, they found that on the morning of the attack, his first victim had been his own mother. The boy had stabbed her to death, in her bed. He would tell police he had no memory of doing it; he had closed his eyes, and obeyed a demon.
The next day, at a memorial in Pearl, another teenage boy in a black trench coat appeared, speaking to the grieving townspeople there 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 proselytized, while handing out photocopies of a 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.
His note borrowed some of its language from Friedrich Nietzsche, specifically from the his 1887 book The Gay Science, containing the philosopher’s famous declaration: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
Curiously, the shooter’s note ended with shout-out to a third cohort: “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 a precursor to all this, meant to increase the cult’s powers through fear — and so what the note really represented was not so much his motive, but part of the act itself: propaganda.
While the Pearl High School shooting did make 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 seemed to spiral out of control.
December 1, 1997
Heath High School — West Paducah, Kentucky
Every morning, thirty or so of Heath High School’s most devout Christian students would meet in the school’s front lobby and join hands, forming a prayer circle. At the same time, at the far end of the lobby, another group of teenagers would be meeting, also to start the school day together: the goths. They all wore black, and some of them wore trench coats. They didn’t like the christian kids.
But the kid carrying the cloth bundle that Monday was from neither clique. 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, for however much it mattered.) He and his classmates weren’t middle schoolers anymore, but the rumor and the stigma followed him to high school. Everyone at Heath High had heard him being called a “faggot” in the halls, and saw him getting pushed around.
Most of the guns he had brought were for the goths to use. He figured the cooler kids would just join in, once he got it started.
He had acquired everything the week before, on Thanksgiving evening. He snuck into the house of a boy who was out of town with his family, and whose parents owned a pistol and several rifles, and he brought the arsenal home and hid it under his bed, behind some Legos. He needed the guns for a Monday morning that he hoped would change everything: a “day of reckoning.”
Just as the prayer circle at Heath was saying “amen,” 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. But the leader of the school’s prayer group stood his ground: he confronted the shooter, demanding an explanation. Instead the shooter 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 asked that they let the story go out of print.
March 24, 1998
Westside Middle School — Jonesboro, Arkansas
The 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 some construction workers who happened to be laying shingles on a nearby rooftop. A few minutes later, the police arrested 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.
* * *
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 recorded a 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.” He 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 sub-development 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. The year before, he and his friends were busted trying to order copies of The Anarchist Cookbook through the school’s computer lab, and his parents took him to a counselor, telling them about their son’s “extreme interest in explosives and knives,” as well as his gloomy mindset, and violent temper. The counselor diagnosed the teenager with Major Depressive Disorder, and along with regular visits, prescribed him some Prozac.
Over the months that followed, 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 another, a Ruger 10/22 semiautomatic rifle. (Its name came from its standard magazine, holding 10 rounds of .22 ammo; at some point, the freshman had switched it out for one that held 50.)
He bought a third gun himself, just the day before; a pistol, from a friend at school. But the gun was stolen, and the cops found out. That was how he got expelled. Just that evening, his father had picked him up from the police station, and taken him for the long, silent ride back to Shangri-La. The freshman’s world, suddenly, was shit.
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.
He had been watching the news himself. A friend remembers being in his company when they 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” on 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 [all] 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.
Back upstairs, the freshman made a choice.
Coming down to the kitchen, he saw 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. He started to ask questions about the expulsion. The boy mumbled something about how having the gun at school was a mistake, and that his dad wasn’t home at the moment. He hung up.
A few minutes later, the phone rang again. It was the shooter’s friend from school, also wanting to know what happened, if he was able to talk. The shooter said the coast was clear; his dad had gone “out to a bar.”
They conference-called another friend, and the three talked about the stolen gun, and the shooter’s expulsion. The boy from Shangri-La 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 the trunk, 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 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 trench-coated figure walking with purpose, a “Nine Inch Nails” hat on his head.
When he got to the commons, the trench coat 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 classmate 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 drew a knife he had taped to his ankle that morning, one the police had missed searching him, and he charged at them with the blade pointed out, screaming, “Kill me, shoot me!”
Stunned, the cops lunged back, out of the room. They got the door between themselves and the rampaging freshman, and held him back.
So he gave up, and started to turn the knife on himself. The police charged back in, spraying mace, and subdued the shooter once again. They tore off his trench coat, looking for any more surprise weapons, and found he had taped two “X” shapes onto his chest: each held in place a single round for one of his guns. He hadn’t planned on leaving the commons alive.
The detectives were still trying to get their prisoner to calm down, so they changed the subject: “How’s your dad?”
* * *
Colored lights illuminated the forest as the police raced toward Shangri-La. They could hear classical music as they approached the address: Wagner’s Liebestod from the opera Tristan und Isolde, recorded for the Romeo + Juliet film soundtrack, which the shooter had left on repeat in the stereo, turned up to full-blast.
The house was dark. One officer peered in the front 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 some passing force. But to most observers, his plotting would suggest will — not fate.
* * *
In the days after the shooting, the movie theater down the street from Shangri-La arranged the letters on their marquee to illuminate a message of comfort for their community:
WE HAVE DONE NOTHING WRONG
The New York Times ran a photo of the message, next to a gallery of portraits showing each of 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