[Originally published in The Stranger, February 27, 2003]
One of the nation's first school shootings took place at Seattle's Garfield High. Two students were shot after a Martin Luther King Day assembly. How come no one remembers?
The guy who shot two people inside my high school is on the phone.
I have tracked him down because I want to hear his story. I want him to explain what happened that day. I want to know what has become of him since he got out of juvie. The day was January 12, 1995. He was 15, a freshman at Seattle's Garfield High School: short, smooth-cheeked, black, and on that particular morning selling weed in the school gym as students gathered there for the Martin Luther King Day assembly. I was 17, a Garfield senior, an overachiever, white, editor of the student newspaper, wearer of outsized round glasses. Like the rest of the kids, I filed orderly into the gym, listened dutifully, applauded on cue.
While I was doing this, the freshman was getting "jacked." Another black student, a junior named Hassan Coaxum, was teasing him and, according to police reports, stealing his weed. To the 5'4" freshman, Hassan and the other tough guys surrounding him seemed too much to take on alone.
So the freshman gave up--for the moment. He left the assembly feeling humiliated and angry, and as the speakers talked of Dr. King's legacy of nonviolence and black liberation, he headed home, grabbed a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun he had stolen from his grandfather, and headed back to Garfield to shoot a black man.
The shooter's recollections of that day are occasionally interrupted by shouts from a female voice outside his door. The woman wants to know what he's doing. He tells her not to worry, which is a relief. I have already had to tangle with another obstructionist female voice, that of the shooter's mother, whom I called first when trying to find him. His mother wanted money for access. "It's an unbelievable story," she told me, trying to pitch her son's tale of redemption for cash. I told her it would be unethical for a journalist to pay for information. She told me that's what all the other journalists said. I got the message: I was about to be refused an interview just like them.
Searching for a personal connection that might trump money, I reminded her that I went to school with her son. She seemed unmoved, remained vague about whether she would actually tell him I called.
But now here he is on the phone, a few days after I spoke to his mother, willing to tell his story on the condition that I not reveal his name. (Because he was convicted as a juvenile, the shooter's name was never released, and he wants to keep it that way.) It's about 10:30 p.m. on a Wednesday. He too asks if there's any money in this. I tell him no. He starts talking anyway.
In 1995, the guy who's now on the phone with me seemed a frightening aberration, a kid who had crossed one of society's invisible lines and violated the safe haven of public education--with gunshots. It was the first time there had ever been a shooting inside a Seattle public school. It was also one of the first school shootings in the nation to get lots of media attention, though the media attention it got was almost exclusively local.
Neither of the two students shot at Garfield that day were killed, but in Seattle there followed weeks of handwringing about America's gun culture, talk of metal detectors at school entrances, and regret over missed warning signs. In many ways, it was a prelude to the emotions and debates that would surround the series of suburban school shootings soon to come--in Moses Lake, Washington, in 1996; in West Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997; in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 1998; at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999; in Lake Worth, Florida, in 2000; in Santee, California, in 2001--shootings that, unlike the one at Garfield, captured the attention of the national press in a big way.
I've always assumed the shooting at Garfield failed to cause any great gnashing of the national teeth because it happened at an inner-city (read: black) school. It stemmed from an argument between two black students, and was therefore seen by many as not surprising--just a typical example of urban black-on-black violence.
But strip away the racial and urban components of what happened that day at Garfield and what you find is a script identical to those of the later, better-known school shootings: A young, troubled boy, small in stature, victim of humiliation at the hands of bigger boys, gets hold of a family gun and comes to school to teach everyone a lesson. And when you ask the Garfield shooter what he was thinking that day, it turns out that his motivation was the same as the motivation ascribed to many of the suburban school shooters: He wanted to send a message, a warning against picking on him.
"This was my plan," he says, describing his intentions as he headed back to Garfield with the gun in his hand. "My plan was to get him to come with me, like to a bathroom. Do some TV shit like put [the gun] in his mouth and make him strip down. Get my stuff back, take any money he had on him, then leave him buck naked inside the boys' bathroom as an example to everybody else: 'Don't fuck with me.' And then it would be cool."
Listen to what Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Stone described as the Columbine shooters' motivation, quoting from the diary of one of the boys: "We want to be different, we want to be strange and we don't want jocks or other people putting (us) down.... We're going to punish you."
The distance between suburban Columbine and inner-city Garfield suddenly seems a lot shorter. And in the end, were they really very far apart? Is there much difference between the basic social dynamic of an urban high-school gang and a suburban high-school clique? Between a street thug and a school bully? Between the traditional high-school imperative "Be popular or be picked on," and the urban imperative "Be tough or be a victim"?
But it was only when school shootings suddenly began happening in places where they weren't "supposed to happen" that the national press began paying close attention.
In February 1996--a year after the Garfield shooting--a trench-coat-wearing 14-year-old in the Eastern Washington town of Moses Lake brought a hunting rifle to his junior high school and killed two students and a teacher. In February 1997, a 16-year-old boy in Bethel, Alaska, brought a shotgun to school and killed the principal and a student. Eight months later, a 16-year-old in Pearl, Mississippi, shot two students to death and wounded seven others after stabbing his mother to death.
By this time the press was beginning to see a "pattern," and thanks to the media attention that followed school shootings thereafter, you are probably familiar with many of the next big incidents: West Paducah, Kentucky (December 1997, 14-year-old kills three and wounds five); Jonesboro, Arkansas (March 1998, two boys, 11 and 13, kill four girl students and a teacher); Fayetteville, Tennessee (May 1998, 18-year-old honor student kills one); Springfield, Oregon (May 1998, 15-year-old kills two students and wounds 20).
Then, in April 1999, Columbine. Twelve students and a teacher dead, 23 wounded.
After that, the federal government finally took notice. The Secret Service was asked to conduct an exhaustive study of school shootings and then create a profile of the typical shooter using the same profiling techniques the agency uses to thwart attacks on the president.
The report, released last May with little fanfare and almost no media attention, studied 37 incidents of "targeted school violence" dating back to 1974. It defined "targeted school violence" as "any incident where (1) a current student or recent former student attacked someone at his or her school with lethal means (e.g., a gun or knife); and (2) where the student attacker purposefully chose his or her school as the location of the attack."
Though the Garfield shooting clearly meets the criteria, it didn't make the Secret Service list. Perhaps this was because of another study guideline--a guideline that is basically code for leaving "urban" school shootings out of the study: "Incidents that were solely related to gang or drug trade activity or to a violent interaction between individuals that just happened to occur at the school were not included."
Apparently the Secret Service, like most of the rest of the country, saw the shooting at Garfield as being primarily about drugs and gangs and random black-on-black crime, and therefore not worth including in a study aimed at keeping America's schools (read: suburban America's schools) safe. Interestingly, the study found that while there was no single profile that fit all school shooters, two common threads among all shooters were that they felt "bullied, persecuted or injured by others prior to the attack" and had access to weapons--both qualities that describe the Garfield shooter.
To get the Garfield shooter on the phone, I call his mother's house, which sits on a wooded Madrona slope abutting the Central District.
"Thank you for calling," the answering machine says. "At the beep leave your name and number and we'll get back in touch with you just as soon as we can. And we hope that you're having a good day, and if you're not, ask Jesus to make it better, 'cause he's the only one who can. Love ya. Bye-bye."
When the shooter eventually calls me back, the God-fearing voice on the machine and the comfortable surroundings of his mother's Madrona home stand in stark contrast to the world he describes growing up in.
"The reason why I could get to the point where I could be violent like that is, I was starting to fall into my environment," he says. "Stuff was a little more traumatic in my neighborhood when I was growing up than what it is now.... When I grew up, it was pretty fucked up in Seattle, man, as far as gangwise."
The shooter says he began selling weed at the age of 12, going up to the Ave in the University District to buy large quantities, then breaking it down into smaller bags or joints that he sold for a profit in the Central District. By the time he was 15 he'd already witnessed two other shootings.
He says one reason he brought a gun to school that day is that he believed Hassan, the guy who stole his weed, was in a gang, and at the time there was one thing you needed to know about gang members: "They got guns," he says. "And back in that day they was sprayin' people up. You don't remember this? Where did you grow up?"
I grew up not far from the home of the shooter's mother, on another hill that rises out of the Central District. And I do remember when the area seemed more violent, a time in the late '80s and early '90s when the kids on my middle-school bus wore gang colors and the bus monitor one day brought funeral announcements for the red-rag-wearing tough kid who hadn't been on the bus for a while. He'd been shot to death in a Seattle park.
It was this environment, the shooter says, that led him to get his hands on a gun in the first place.
"The gun, I stole that like a year before [the Garfield shooting]," he says. "I had that for a long time. Took it from a family member because my nephew had got jumped a couple of months before.... So I got the gun 'cause I just thought it was important to have one. So I would be safe myself."
The irony of bringing a gun to school on the day of an assembly honoring Martin Luther King doesn't occur to him.
"To be honest with you, I don't really have no deep patriotic feeling for that [Martin Luther King Day]. If you were to ask me for anybody who I thought was a good African American leader, I'd probably lean more to Malcolm X. But that's really irrelevant. I was just really pissed off that day. It could have been my mom's birthday, man."
Noon, Garfield High School, January 12, 1995. The entire student body--1,500 students--is taking its lunch break. Kids are milling about the lunchroom, the hallways, the wide lawns and cement sidewalks that lead to nearby Central District eateries such as Ezell's.
I'm hanging out on the second floor with my senior friends, having backed out on a promise to drive my little brother, a freshman at the time, somewhere cool and off-campus for lunch.
On the first floor, pictures from the recent Winter Ball are being distributed in the front hallway. There, amid the crowds of students, a 15-year-old freshman named Rachel Thompson is sitting on the floor with friends, looking over her dance pictures.
Hassan Coaxum is in the nearby first-floor lunchroom.
That's where the armed freshman finds him.
"Him and his homeboys is at the table," the Garfield shooter recalls. "[Hassan] tells me to sit down. He greets me like he's cool and stuff, there ain't no problem. So I lean back listening to what he's saying and he sees the gun in my waistband. I wanted to try and talk him into coming with me [to the bathroom], like I was saying."
But Hassan, seeing that the freshman has a gun, starts shouting about it, which starts everyone else in the room screaming.
"And then [Hassan] lunged at me. And then we started fighting and then he knocked the gun out of my hand and it went under the table." The Garfield shooter says he regained control of the gun and started pistol-whipping Hassan, a claim that is verified by the police report, which adds that the shooter shouted at Hassan, "Don't you ever try to jack me! It don't go down like that!"
Then, according to both the police report and the shooter, he tried to fire the gun at Hassan from point-blank range.
According to the shooter, the gun jammed. Hassan dashed out of the cafeteria, the shooter chasing him. As they ran, the shooter fired 14 shots at Hassan. Their chase led through the school's crowded hallways, onto an outside walkway, and then back into the school's front hallway--the hallway where Winter Ball pictures were being distributed.
That's when Rachel Thompson remembers hearing a sound she couldn't place.
"I thought maybe garbage cans were clashing together," she recalls. "I had no idea. I had never heard that sound before. And then all of a sudden everything went into slow motion and somebody was yelling, 'He's got a gun!'"
My little brother, having been left to find lunch on his own, was also in the front hallway at that moment. He ducked into a phone booth.
Rachel's first instinct was to get out of there: "All I could see were the front doors. I saw the doors and just started running. And then all of a sudden I thought someone kicked me."
What she was feeling was a ricocheting bullet that had hit her in the left knee.
Nearby, Hassan was also hit--in the butt. He wouldn't talk to me for this story, but what happened to him is well documented. Hassan fell to the ground in the front hallway while Rachel, not yet realizing what had happened to her, continued running out of the building. The shooter ran out of the building too.
The rest of the people in the hallway ran everywhere. On the floor above, I remember a wave of terrified students running up the stairs, washing over me, shouting about a gun.
For some reason, my instinct was not to follow the wave, but to head down the stairs. Through a window in the door to the auditorium I saw Hassan lying face down, paramedics preparing to take him away. I saw pale-faced teachers trying to keep composure and order. Then I wandered.
I didn't feel anything, didn't remember anything or anyone until a friend brought my shaken brother to me. Then I felt what had happened, felt the horror and the violation. I hugged my brother and then wrapped my arm around him and walked him out of the school to take him home. Outside, other grim-faced seniors doing the same thing for their younger siblings.
By this time the shooter had been arrested on a sports field near Garfield. Also by this time Rachel had noticed the blood beginning to stain her jeans, had realized what that pain in her knee was, had started screaming.
Her mom got a frantic call: "Your daughter's been in an accident. Go to Garfield."
Her father got a frantic call: "Your daughter's been shot. Go to Harborview."
Rachel has a TV news clip of her distraught dad arriving at the emergency room. He is berating the police officers escorting him, shouting, "Why do they let kids get these guns?"
"Thank God that was the first time I'd ever fired a pistol in my life," the shooter now says. "My aim was bad. My mom, she said angels were carrying them bullets, 'cause I emptied the whole clip. I only had one bullet left out of 15."
The King County Prosecutor's Office is less mystical about the day's events.
"It was just because he was a lousy shot... that we didn't have multiple homicides," says Dan Satterberg, chief of staff for Norm Maleng's office. "Had someone died, I doubt that the court would have been so lenient to him either."
"The court" was King County Superior Court Judge Mary Brucker, who decided a few months after the shooting that the freshman would be tried as a juvenile. Maleng had wanted the shooter tried as an adult.
"Witnesses had said that the boy had been sheltered by his deeply religious mother and had reversed parenting roles with his schizophrenic father," the Seattle Times reported in April 1995. "Ostracized by peers and neglected at home, according to witnesses, the boy harbored a 'deep rage.'
"But because he was so willing to talk about what hurt him most and made connections with counselors while he was at juvenile jail, two psychologists predicted he is likely to be rehabilitated."
Satterberg still feels Maleng's office was right in asking Judge Brucker to try the Garfield shooter as an adult.
"I think our position was a responsible position given the seriousness of the crime and given the limits of juvenile court," he says. "I still think anybody who in a premeditated fashion goes home and gets a gun and fires indiscriminately into a crowd in most cases is going to get a sentence longer than the one he did, and probably should."
Rachel, who is now 23 and living in Seattle, also wishes the courts had been tougher on the shooter.
"It did anger me that he only got sent to prison until he was 21," she says. "He should have to deal with the consequences of the actions he took.... I don't think he should be able to live a normal life. There's not a day in the last eight years that I haven't seen the scars or felt the tendonitis."
The bullet entered Rachel's knee just below her kneecap on one side of her leg, and exited just below her kneecap on the other. The damage was minimal, relative to what it could have been. "I'm lucky it wasn't a centimeter off and my kneecap wasn't shot off," she says, speaking with the hurt and angry tone that she seems to have perfected in her new life as a gun-control activist.
Like my brother, Rachel never thought of leaving Garfield because of the shooting ("It wasn't Garfield that got me shot"). Instead, she returned to school soon after the shooting and founded the Garfield chapter of SAVE, Students Against Violence Everywhere. She graduated from Garfield in 1999 and went off to the University of Hawaii. Like my brother, she graduated from college last year, and is now in many ways the typical postgrad: trying to figure out what to do with her life, riding the bus around town, looking for work. But in other ways she is not. Because of her continuing gun-control activism, she's also a 23-year-old who has given tons of interviews, lobbied Congress, and met Bill Clinton when he was president.
Rachel also sees a common root cause for both the Garfield shooting and the later suburban school shootings.
"Now that I'm older and I've become more educated about it, it's bullying, honestly," she says. "I heard that [the Garfield shooter] was picked on his whole life and he just snapped. Kids being able to bully and get away with it, in combination with the access to guns, is an extremely deadly mixture. A picked-on kid is going to snap one day, and if he has a gun in his hand he's going to kill people. That's a pattern in all the shootings."
In the end, the only differences between the Garfield shooter and the other shooters may simply be that he was black, he did not succeed in killing anyone, and he was sentenced as a juvenile. This last difference means that unlike almost all of the other famous school shooters in the country, he is now alive and out of jail.
"Guaranteed, if this happened after any of the other school shootings, he would have gotten life," Rachel says.
Remember Kip Kinkel, the Springfield shooter? He got 112 years. The Moses Lake shooter, Barry Loukaitis, got two life sentences. Evan Ramsey, the shooter in Bethel, Alaska, got 210 years. The Jonesboro boys got sentenced as juveniles but won't be out for at least four years. The kid from Pearl, Mississippi, is currently serving the extremely daunting sentence of three life terms plus 140 years.
The Garfield shooter, on the other hand, served about five years in the King County juvenile detention system after pleading guilty to charges of first-degree attempted murder and first-degree assault. The attempted murder charge was for shooting Hassan, the assault charge was for shooting Rachel.
The Garfield shooter got out by his 21st birthday and is now 23. He says he has kids and works in sales and lives in the region. Public records show he hasn't been in trouble with the law since his release.
The shooter tells me he's sorry for what happened, especially for shooting Rachel, who, unlike Hassan, he considers "innocent."
"I had to admit when I was locked up--they got it out of me, finally--I have anger problems," he says. "If somebody does something to me I just get vindictive. Now, because of anger management, because of family and just time and dealing with the consequences and stuff, I learned how to deal with my anger."
But even though he feels sorry for shooting Rachel, he still sees it as something of an unlucky accident.
"That was a ricochet bullet from hell, dude," he says. "That bounced up some wall, went up some steps--it didn't even shoot straight up in her knee. That was a straight accident. It was a stray. I really never intended to shoot anyone else besides [Hassan]. I just want that to be on the record. I felt very, very bad about the Rachel Thompson incident."
When I read these quotes to Rachel her voice becomes incredulous and she says, "That makes me angry. That he can say that kind of stuff (a) without ever saying that to me personally, and (b)--who the hell thinks that when they shoot someone in school they're only going to shoot one person?"
Last month, at Garfield's annual Martin Luther King Day assembly, student members of the SAVE chapter that Rachel founded spoke about gun violence. "Martin Luther King was an avid supporter of peaceful communications and methods," the students told the school. Then they told the audience that every day, nine American youths under the age of 18 die from gun violence.
But they didn't mention the 1995 Garfield shooting.
Student Body President Spencer Bruning, 17, said after the assembly that he had heard a few things about the shooting that took place at his school eight years ago. But he was sketchy on the details.
Same with Ebony Thompson, 15, a freshman who, when I asked her what she knew about the shooting, said, "Someone had a gun... everyone was running.... That's all I know."
That's the prevailing state of institutional knowledge at Garfield when it comes to the 1995 shooting. Rachel worries that at the school her story is morphing into something closer to urban legend than known history.
It's easy to see why. Students generally don't stay there for more than four years, and since 1995, Garfield has been a revolving door for principals. In addition, most of the staff who were there eight years ago have left.
"There's not many people around here that remember it anymore," said Clarence Acox, who has been at the school for 30 years and is director of its award-winning jazz band. "The students definitely don't remember it. I think it has been pretty much forgotten."
And even among the people who remember, no one seems to have known much about the shooter himself, or thought much about him since.
It's getting close to midnight, and though the Garfield shooter seems eager to keep talking, I suggest we meet the next day to speak in person. I want to look into the face I never knew when I was at Garfield, a face of somebody who, in his 1995 yearbook picture, looks too young and too innocent to think of shooting a gun.
Also, knowing how small the shooter was back then and knowing where his mother lives now, I wonder about what he's been telling me. I wonder if he was really as hard a street kid as he's made himself out to be. This is a guy who tells me he is still 5'4"--as short as he was in 1995--and then says, "I used to fight [gang members] all the time by myself...."
I'm thinking that by sitting across from him I may get a better sense of which parts of his story are revisionist braggadocio and which are genuine.
We decide to meet at 1:00 p.m. He says he can pick me up and drive us somewhere. I agree and then get nervous. This is the guy who shot up my high school, after all. I say I'd rather just meet him in a public place.
"It's cool," he says. "I'm not a predator."
I apologize for being so obvious. He says not to worry about it. I ask him if he still wants to meet me, and he says yes. But this is the last time I will ever speak to him. Tomorrow I will stand in a parking lot on Capitol Hill waiting for a man who never comes.
One of the last things he says to me is this:
"When you called me, guess what I was thinking about you?"
"What?" I ask.
"I was thinking that you was one of [Hassan's] homeboys trying to come find me. That's the kind of life that I live now."