Authorities were today trying to determine what caused a teenager to gun down his grandfather, put on the man’s police-issue belt and bullet-proof vest, and drive his marked squad car to a high school, where he began shooting his classmates at will.
Jeff Weise, 16, killed nine people and wounded seven on Monday before trading gunfire with a police officer and apparently shooting himself. His motive still wasn’t clear yesterday, but the FBI said the shootings appeared to have been planned in advance.
It was the nation’s worst school shooting since the Columbine massacre in April 1999 that ended with the deaths of 12 students, a teacher and the two teenage gunmen.
The killings on the northern Minnesota Indian reservation of Red Lake began at the home of Weise’s grandfather, Daryl Lussier, 58, who was shot to death with a .22-calibre gun, according to Michael Tabman, the FBI’s special agent in charge for Minneapolis. Also killed was Lussier’s companion, Michelle Sigana.
Lussier had worked as a tribal police officer for decades. Weise then drove the older man’s squad car to the school, where he gunned down security guard Derrick Brun at the door and spent about 10 minutes inside, targeting people at random.
Hearing the shots, students and adults barricaded themselves into offices and classrooms and crouched under desks, authorities said. A teacher and five students were shot to death, and two 15-year-olds remained in critical condition at a Fargo, North Dakota, hospital with gunshot wounds to the face.
“Right now we are in utter disbelief and shock,” said Floyd Jourdain, chairman of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa.
Authorities were investigating whether Weise may have posted messages on a neo-Nazi Web site expressing admiration for Adolf Hitler.
Using the handle Todesengel – German for Angel of Death – the writer identified himself as Jeff Weise of the Red Lake Reservation. In April 2004, he referenced being accused of “a threat on the school I attend,” though it says he was later cleared.
Tabman said yesterday he couldn’t confirm whether Weise was the person who made the postings.
School board member Kathryn Beaulieu said Weise had been placed in the school’s Homebound program for a policy violation. She did not elaborate.
Relatives told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Weise was a loner who was often teased by others.
They said his father committed suicide eight years ago and his mother was living in a Minneapolis nursing home because she suffered brain injuries in a car accident.
The Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported that the boy’s father, Daryl Lussier Jr., killed himself in July 1997 after a day-long stand-off with police. The grandfather who was killed, Daryl Lussier, tried to negotiate a peaceful resolution, the newspaper said.
Residents at the home where Weise was believed to have lived with his grandmother declined to comment yesterday. School was cancelled for the day as investigators scoured the building for clues.
High school principal Chris Dunshee said Weise “would not be what I would call an habitual troublemaker”, and that he wasn’t aware of a lot of teasing.
“I didn’t really, I guess, feel that he was teased to the point where something like this would happen,” he said.
At the Capitol in St Paul, several hundred people attended a prayer ceremony for victims of the shooting where religious leaders joined Indians in drumming and chanting.
“Once again our people have been hit … but our people are strong,” said Ona Kingbird, a Red Lake tribal member. “We’ll come out of it.”
Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty expressed his condolences for the families of the victims and said it appeared the school had “very rigorous security”.
“It looks like you had a very disturbed individual who was able to overcome a lot of precautions to do a lot of damage,” the governor said.
But a school secretary and a cousin of the killed security guard said that Brun and a female security guard who fled from Weise did not carry guns. Brun’s cousin, Nancy Richards, said Brun also did not wear a bullet-proof vest.
It was the second fatal school shooting in Minnesota in 18 months. Two students were killed at Rocori High School in Cold Spring in September 2003. Student John Jason McLaughlin, who was 15 at the time, awaits trial in the case.
Red Lake High School has about 300 students, according to its website.
The reservation is about 240 miles north of the Twin Cities. It is home to the Red Lake Chippewa Tribe, one of the poorest in the state. According to the 2000 census, 5,162 people lived on the reservation, and all but 91 were Indians.