After Newtown

01.12.13

California School Shooter Had a ‘Hit List’

A 16-year-old in California this week allegedly targeted kids who had bullied him. The local sheriff talks about the investigation, gun control, and why he thinks the media played a role.

In the sad aftermath of another school shooting, police in California have served search warrants on the home of a 16-year-old high school student looking for evidence of a “hit list.” Armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, the boy opened fire on 28 classmates on Thursday, critically injuring one and grazing his teacher.

“We heard about the hit list from several people in the community and threats of killing early on,” Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood told The Daily Beast. “And in an interrogation with the suspect, we believe those things might exist.”

Youngblood said detectives are also looking at social-media websites such as Facebook to see if he had posted any online threats, and if he had any prior run-ins with the law.

The early morning shooting at Taft Union High School, near Bakersfield, is just the latest attack to occur at a school in the U.S. In December, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, armed with an assault rifle, killed 20 elementary school children and seven adults, including his mother, in Newtown, Connecticut—one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.

Thursday’s shooting occurred on the same day that Vice President Joe Biden met with gun groups to talk about closing a loophole that allows gun buyers to forgo background checks and a bill to limit the size of ammunition magazines to 10 bullets. It was also the same day that a Colorado judge, after a three-day preliminary hearing,  ruled that there was enough evidence for alleged mass shooter James Holmes to stand trial for killing 12 people and injuring 58 others at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises on July 20.

In California, Sheriff Youngblood saw a clear connection to his community’s tragedy. “This seems to be a national trend, and the seed is planted in some of these kids’ heads,” he said. “We have to change that. School shootings bring national attention and some of these shooters are aware of it. How many of these kids knew about Columbine and Newtown? They all know. I think that plays a part in this. If you go back 20 years we had the same weapons and the same kids and we didn’t have school shootings. What happened? What changed? We can’t stop everything, but we need to make some corrections in our schools.”

“He went to bed knowing what he was going to do the next day.”

Arizona forensic psychiatrist Dr. Steven Pitt says that for some people already on the edge the media coverage can be the “proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

But, he added, “each case has to be looked at on its own with consideration to the victimology, the physical evidence, and the motivation of the offender. Only after that information is gathered are you then able to see what role if any the media coverage played in pushing that person over the edge.”

Pitt was the director of the Columbine Psychiatric Autopsy Project, which studied the factors that caused shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to murder 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School before killing themselves in April of 1999.

“One of our findings was that Klebold and Harris predicted with stunning accuracy how their actions would be portrayed by the media and copied by others down the road,” said Pitt. “They knew that they had set the bar high and it would only be a matter of time before others followed suit.”

According to police reports, a neighbor saw the Taft suspect walking to school with the shotgun on Thursday and called 911. The student entered the school from a side door around 9 a.m. Once he entered, he walked into his classroom on the second floor of the school’s physical sciences building. He spoke to a student, and fired a number of times at him, but struck him just once in the chest area. He turned toward another student, called him by name, and fired, but missed. He then began randomly firing at other students who were running out of the classroom or towards a storage closet.

Police say the carnage could have been worse if not for the quick thinking of Ryan Heber, a science teacher, and campus supervisor Kim Fields, who ran to the classroom after the first shots were fired. The pair was able to convince the shooter to put his gun down before he shot anyone else.

“[The suspect] needed to talk to someone and at the end of the day he talked to a counselor who stopped him from doing more damage,” said Youngblood. “If you can get him to talk to you, you’re halfway there. They obviously care what you have to say. That is half the battle. They were able to talk to this young man and he talked back and at the end of the day it minimized the damage.”

It certainly helped, he said, that the suspect was a bad shot. “We think he is just a poor shot with a shotgun.”

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, NRA executive Wayne LaPierre drew criticism for suggesting that posting armed guards in schools could help prevent future shootings. Taft Union High School does employ an armed officer on campus, but he was snowed in on Thursday and did not make it to work.

In another ironic twist, the shooting happened just a few hours after the school held a staff meeting to talk about how to deal with shootings like the one in Newtown.

Youngblood said that the shooter, an eleventh-grade student, had his sights on two students who allegedly bullied him in the past. “I do know from [the suspect’s] standpoint that he felt like he was being bullied for some time in his mind and this is the way he would fix it,” he said. “He went to bed knowing what he was going to do the next day.”

Police arrived after the suspect handed the weapon over to his teacher. Once he was apprehended, police found 20 extra rounds of ammunition in his pocket.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the suspected shooter had allegedly threatened to kill other students last year while on a bus during a field trip to Universal Studios. A female student complained to the vice principal about the boy, and he was suspended for a few days. When the boy returned, the student’s mother called the school demanding to know why the young man wasn’t expelled. The principal declined to discuss the issue, citing privacy concerns, the paper wrote.

Youngblood responds: “There are kids out there making threats that are not real threats. That is what kids do. You have to look at a pattern. He could have been expelled and it wouldn’t have made a difference.”

Meanwhile, the shot student, who was badly injured, is expected to recover. Heber, who was struck by a pellet round to his head, was not seriously injured. Classes at the high school have been canceled for the rest of the week.

The shooting, following so closely the tragedy in Newtown, is bound to become part of the ongoing debate about gun control and mental-health issues in the nation’s schools. On Friday, the White House said that President Barack Obama was still committed to persuading Congress to reinstate an automatic-weapons ban.

“We can have all the gun control in the world but he was going to take [the gun] to school,” said Youngblood about the suspect. “It is an issue of mental health more than it is gun control. It is not normal to get a shotgun, walk into class, and shoot someone. That is not a normal reaction of someone who thinks he is being picked on.”