The story of one of America's first school shooters, a brilliant loner, and what he has become in the 23 years since. It's also a story of what we. have become.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN,
Times Senior Correspondent

Illustrations by Times artist
ROSSIE NEWSON

photo


[Times art uses Roger Needham and Bill Draher yearbook photos; locker photo by Susan Taylor Martin; Lansing State Journal article]

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001

St. Petersurg Times: Special Report
Murder at Locker 02-069

He lives alone in the big city.

Weekday mornings, between 9 and 9:30, he steps out of Apt. 3A and rides the elevator down to the lobby. Walks across the black marble floor, buffed to a gleam. Nods to the doorman.

"Good morning, sir," the doorman says.

He is tall and thin, looks to be in his late 30s. Though he has lived here for more than two years, the doorman doesn't know much about him. Just that he's a good tipper, never asks for anything, has few if any visitors.

"Heard he's in the computer field," the doorman says.

As the man ventures out, he slips on dark glasses and moves so softly he's almost tiptoeing. The doorman has never seen him get in a car, hail a cab, catch a bus. He heads west on foot and disappears into the urban maw.

Thus begins another day in the quiet, anonymous life of a quiet, brilliant man . . . one of the first people in America to bring a gun to his school and open fire.

* * *

At Everett High School in Lansing, Mich., you can still see the bullet hole above Locker 02-069.

On the afternoon of Feb. 22, 1978, one student was killed and another wounded. It was an archetypal American crime, destined to be repeated with sickening regularity over the coming years: A smart but troubled loner, picked on by classmates, takes out his revenge in that supposedly safe and sacred bastion of childhood, the public school.

But if there are parallels between then and now, they go no further than the general makeup of the killers themselves. In the late 1970s, long before "school" had become an adjective for "shooting," the Lansing case was treated far differently from how it would be today.

The story was front-page news in the Lansing State Journal. But the Free Press in Detroit, only 90 miles away, carried just a short item inside. Most other U.S. newspapers ignored the shootings altogether. CNN did not exist.

Classes resumed the very next day. If there was any special counseling for students, no one remembers it.

The people at the high school showed so little empathy for the wounded boy that he dropped out, never to return.

The family of the dead boy talked of forgiveness, not lawsuits.

But most unusual was what happened to the killer. Had he come along today, after the shootings at Columbine and Jonesboro and so many other American schools, he almost certainly would have been prosecuted as an adult and punished to the fullest extent of the law.

In 1978, though, even prosecutors had a hard time seeing a 15-year-old killer as anything but a horribly mixed-up kid. They didn't know if he could be salvaged by the juvenile justice system, but they felt they had to try.

Would four years be enough to turn a life around?

* * *

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