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
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001
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 shooting 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?
* * *
The 2 p.m. bell signaled the end of the sixth and final period.
With 1,600 students, Everett was the biggest high school in Lansing and a microcosm of the diversity that made the Michigan capital more cosmopolitan than the typical midsized Midwestern city. The offspring of state employees and college professors shared classes with the children of the South, many of them black, whose families moved north after World War II for jobs in the big auto factories and stamping plants.
Everett High had one major claim to fame -- it produced Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Just one year earlier, in 1977, Johnson had led the Everett Vikings to the state basketball championship.
As the final bell rang that Wednesday afternoon, three sophomores -- Kevin Jones, Bill Draher and Roger Needham -- left their American literature class and joined the flood of students eddying toward the second-floor lockers.
Jones and Draher had been close friends since junior high. They lived near each other, in an older part of town with big trees and small, steep-roofed houses designed to shed the prodigious amounts of snow that buried Lansing each winter. Both boys came from blue-collar backgrounds -- Jones' father was a pipe fitter, and Draher's parents worked for a company that hauled new cars for Oldsmobile.
A straight-A student, Draher was fascinated by the marine world and talked of becoming an oceanographer. He was well-liked and never caused trouble. At 15, red-haired and skinny, there was still a bit of the nerdy kid about him.
At 16, Jones was older, bigger, tougher. He collected guns and sometimes hung out with a rough, leather-jacket crowd. He was smart, but he often cut classes. He and Draher played a lot of chess together.
Neither knew Roger Needham well. No one really did.
After a brief time on the track team, Needham had not participated in any extracurricular activities. Other kids walked home in groups; Needham went by himself.
In Bruce Schulert's science class, he sat alone in the back row, always dressed the same: jeans, olive drab jacket, wire-rimmed glasses. He fidgeted a lot, not enough to cause trouble, just enough to be a distraction.
A lawyer's son, Needham struck Schulert as a classic underachiever: exceptionally bright but bored with school. He easily could have handled Schulert's physics class but instead settled for a less demanding course in physical science.
While Needham's teachers found him a disappointment academically, classmates found him an out-and-out weirdo. There were rumors around campus that he talked about building atomic weapons, burning down houses and throwing bombs in school.
Needham seemed to have it in for Draher, picking on him whenever he got the chance. In turn, Draher and Jones would make fun of the pin Needham always wore.
It was a Nazi pin.
As the three boys stood near Draher's locker that day, Jones razzed Needham, as he had razzed him many times before.
"Only a punk would wear something like that," Jones said, gesturing at the Nazi pin.
"What are you going to do about it?" Needham replied.
Jones had hoped he might goad Needham into a fight. Instead, Needham reached into his pocket, as if to pull something out. Jones figured it was a knife.
"You don't scare me," he said. "You can bring it out any time."
Needham withdrew his hand. He was holding what looked like a German Luger. Jones couldn't believe it. A gun?
The bullet grazed Jones' scalp, so close he could feel the gunpowder sting his face. He ducked as Needham fired again, this time at Draher. Hit in the jaw, Draher went down.
Jones backed against the locker, then ran when Needham walked over to Draher, aimed down at his head and fired a third time.
"He's got a gun! He'll kill you!" Jones screamed, shoving his way through the crowded hallway.
Students laughed. They thought he was kidding. So did the faculty. This was 1978 -- Saturday Night Fever, disco mania and all that -- and who had ever heard of a kid shooting a real gun in school?
Then Sam Davis, a social studies teacher, saw the body on the floor and a dazed-looking Needham walking in his direction. "I'm tired of being pushed around," Davis heard him say. "Now I'm even."
Needham approached another teacher, bilingual specialist Aldo Martinez, and handed him the gun, a knife and a box of ammunition.
"Here," Needham said. "I give up."
It was over. Except for the pandemonium.
Fleeing students nearly knocked Martinez down. Members of the Vikings football team blocked doors and closed off the second floor. Tom Wilson, a Lansing police officer who had been speaking to an American history class, ran upstairs and radioed for assistance.
Jones, bleeding from his scalp wound, made it to the first-floor administrative offices, where he jumped over the counter and yelled for help. School nurse Carolyn Cheadle raced upstairs.
She and paramedics spent nearly 30 minutes trying to revive Draher. Blood had soaked his red hair and spread across the floor.
Her son Jeff, an Everett student, noticed something else.
Feathers. Lots of feathers.
A bullet had torn through Draher's down jacket. Every time anyone moved, little rushes of air would send the feathers floating up and down, around and around.
* * *
Roger A. Needham, a professor at Cooley Law School in downtown Lansing, was teaching his course in civil procedure that Wednesday afternoon when a woman slipped in and whispered something in his ear. Despite his considerable bulk, the 46-year-old professor ran out of the room.
"Class dismissed," the woman said.
Needham had been among the first to join the faculty of Cooley, Michigan's newest law school. His appointment was a coup -- he was considered one of the nation's top experts in federal constitutional law. But even the school's founder, a former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, considered Needham "a very odd duck."
A single parent trying to raise three kids, Needham had few social contacts beyond sitting on the law school steps or in a corner of the cafeteria, puffing on his pipe and waiting for students to come visit. Apart from the law, his passions were guns, World War II and Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime.
It would soon become apparent that Needham's oldest son shared his interests.
Within an hour of the shootings, Lansing police Detective Paul Wiegman arrived at Everett High. He found 15-year-old Roger Needham sitting quietly in the principal's office. To Wiegman, he looked like a lost little kid.
The elder Needham showed up, too. He had another lawyer with him and acted blustery and arrogant, the detective thought.
Wiegman wanted to take a statement. The elder Needham wouldn't allow it. But at 6 p.m., four hours after the shootings, both Needhams signed a "consent to search" form allowing police to search the boy's bedroom for the following:
"Nazi literature, Nazi armbands and items of uniform and written evidence of plans, schemes or design relative to the intent to commit homicide and any writing by Roger Eric Needham relative to attitudinal disposition or hostile nature."
It was dark and starting to snow as the little group -- Wiegman, the elder Needham, prosecutors and defense lawyers -- drove up to the Needhams' modest home on Luwanna Street, a dirt road about a mile and a half east of the high school. They started in the basement, in Roger's locked bedroom.
It was full of Nazi paraphernalia. There was a huge Nazi flag on the wall, along with swastikas and excerpts from Mein Kampf and other Hitler writings. There was an elaborate diagram of a Nazi extermination camp, complete with gas chambers.
The detective was stunned by what they found -- stunned, too, by the reaction of Roger's father.
It was obvious the elder Needham had no idea of what his kid was doing or what he had become. It had been a year, the professor said, since he had last been in his son's bedroom.
* * *
By the time Kevin Jones came home from the hospital that evening, his house was crowded with people waiting for him. He brushed past everyone and hurried upstairs to his bedroom. He wanted to talk to his younger brother Tony.
Tony noticed blood dripping down Kevin's forehead and the dried blood matted in his hair. He had refused to let the doctors shave his head or even stitch and bandage the crease the bullet had made in his scalp.
Kevin wasn't crying or angry; he already had tired of people asking about the shootings. As soon as their mother let them, the brothers headed to Burger King. As they left, Mrs. Jones reassured them that Bill would be okay.
Kevin didn't buy it.
"I know Bill is dead," he said.
They had been best friends. Bill Draher, who dreamed of exploring caves and doing research on dolphin intelligence. Kevin Jones, the rough-edged rebel who read everything from Tolstoy to Travis McGee and hoped to become a writer.
Two boys, both smart, neither part of the "in" crowd. More like Needham than they knew.
Classes resumed the day after the shootings. Kevin stayed home, but his mother took him back to Everett the next week.
The school didn't want him.
Despite his high IQ, Kevin had never been a model student. If he didn't like a class, he didn't go. Although he never used drugs, scorned them in fact, rumors quickly got around town that the shootings had been drug-related.
Given all that had happened, school administrators told his mother, Kevin's presence might be distracting to the other students. Maybe it would be better if he looked into some kind of alternative education.
Jessie Jones, fiercely supportive of her sons, would always regret that she didn't push harder that day to get Kevin back into Everett. Instead, they turned around and quietly walked out.
It was the last time Kevin Jones ever went to school.
* * *
For nearly three months, as the harsh Michigan winter softened into spring, Roger Needham waited in the Ingham County Juvenile Home while prosecutors debated what to do.
The state had the legal right to try him as an adult. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
The uncertainty about what might happen in a trial bothered Ingham County prosecutor Peter Houk and his chief assistant, Daniel McLellan. They worried that Needham would be found not guilty by reason of insanity and set free.
It was a frightening prospect, for there was little doubt Needham was a very sick, if brilliant, young man.
Tests conducted after the shooting put his IQ in the genius range. "He is highly intelligent, hostile, intensely angry at everyone," psychiatrist Ames Robey wrote in a report to prosecutors.
Needham had a rare form of mental illness -- there were only a few cases in the entire country -- and was a "true paranoiac," the psychiatrist concluded. Sufferers have strong feelings of superiority yet are convinced other people are constantly plotting against them. The conflicting emotions of superiority and victimization sometimes lead them to kill.
There were other factors to consider.
McLellan had seen the boy's bedroom and, like Detective Wiegman, was aghast at the abundance of Nazi material. He found the entire house, not just Roger's room, an emotionally cold and scary place.
Geez I'd hate to live here, McLellan thought to himself. How could a parent not see how alienated his kid had become?
To McLellan, there was no question: At least some of Needham's problems stemmed from a lack of parental guidance.
Roger had just turned 5 when his parents divorced, shortly before Christmas 1967. The judge found truth to allegations that the elder Needham had been "guilty of extreme and repeated cruelty" toward his wife. She was awarded custody of Roger and his younger sister and brother. Their father was ordered to pay $75 a week in support.
Five years later, under an agreement between the parents, the judge transferred custody of all three children to Needham. Then, as now, it was unusual for a father to have sole custody of minor children.
Needham moved his family to Lansing, where he became the first full-time faculty member at Cooley Law School. Jean Needham resettled in the Pacific Northwest. After her son was charged with murder, she did not return. Instead, her ex-husband related, she said she was communicating with the boy by ESP.
Given all this, the prosecutors agonized over how to proceed. Needham had committed an adult-style crime that warranted severe punishment. Then again, McLellan found it difficult to think of a 15-year-old who had never been in trouble as a hard-core criminal beyond redemption. He was still a kid, who had a difficult adolescence aggravated by a messed-up family life.
If Needham were kept in the juvenile justice system, the state would have custody of him until he turned 19 -- four years to get him treatment.
The prosecutors finally came to a decision: Needham was not so far gone he couldn't be helped. They would treat him as a juvenile, not an adult.
And pray they were right.
* * *
On Monday, May 8, 1978, a small crowd gathered in the courtroom of Ingham County Probate Judge Donald Owens.
They were there to watch Roger Needham enter a plea. But first they had to hear some disturbing things.
"While I in no way forgive my enemies, I will refrain from killing them for the moment. A few days ago I brought dad's .38 special to school, with the direct intention of murder. Luckily it took nearly two hours for me to walk home and back to get the gun so consequently I cooled off. But I still carry a knife. . . ."
The words, read by prosecutors, came from Needham's black clothbound diary. It was titled "My Struggle" -- after Hitler's Mein Kampf. Police found it in his room, in a box that held parts for a model of a Russian tank.
There was more.
"I almost abandoned Hitler last night -- out of being pushed too far by my classmates," Needham had written on Feb. 20, two days before the shootings. "I almost went to school without my Nazi party pin on my jacket. But luckily again I had a burst of courage and never again will I think about abandoning mein fuhrer and Nazism."
While prosecutors presented their case, 15-year-old Tony Jones watched Needham, dressed in jeans and a striped polo shirt, gazing around the courtroom as if soaking it all in. Needham would have seen William and Marion Draher, whose son he had slain. And the Jones family, whose middle child, Kevin, he had almost killed.
Just being in the courtroom made Tony Jones so nervous he shook. He was proud of how his brother, with typical ramrod posture, strode past Needham, took the witness stand and calmly recounted what had happened.
Kevin Jones was followed by two other witnesses, a fellow student and Aldo Martinez, the teacher to whom Needham had surrendered.
"I am expecting to wake up from a dream any time. I can't believe I did it," Needham had told Martinez as they walked to the school office. Needham had not shed a tear or shown any remorse.
Nor did he show any emotion in court, the Lansing State Journal reported. He conferred with his lawyer, but he never looked at or spoke to his father. His mother was not present.
To the charge of first-degree murder in the killing of Bill Draher, Needham pleaded no contest. Prosecutors dropped the second charge, assault with a deadly weapon, for shooting at Kevin Jones.
Throughout it all, Tony Jones found himself more and more impressed by the Drahers, who sat through the hearing with the same remarkable grace and composure others had noticed.
Three months earlier, as she waited at the hospital while neurosurgeons tried to save her son, Mrs. Draher had told a school psychologist about the strange feeling she had had all that week.
She had been afraid something bad would happen. She had talked about other family tragedies: their younger son, Mike, who nearly lost an eye in an accident; their daughter's husband, who died of a heart attack. Even when word came that Bill was dead, she took the news with surprising calm.
Now, devastated by their most recent loss, the Drahers still managed to show empathy for the boy who had murdered their son.
"I hope the period of time the lad has to spend in an institution will help him to become a person better able to handle his problems," William Draher, a mechanic, said as they left the courtroom.
"It has been like a dream. I think the dream is over now."
* * *
The judge ordered Roger Needham to undergo psychiatric treatment in a secure facility. The problem was finding a place.
Two days after the hearing, prosecutor McLellan said he doubted that there was anywhere in Michigan that could handle a teenage killer who is "terribly dangerous to both society and himself." The state's juvenile facilities were designed to be secure, or therapeutic, but not both.
As McLellan and others discovered, the lack of suitable facilities was not confined to Michigan. Social workers contacted 33 juvenile homes across the nation, from Edgemeade in Maryland to Mineral Wells in Texas, and not one would take him.
In October 1978 -- eight months after the shootings, a month before his 16th birthday -- Needham was still in the county juvenile home, still getting only limited treatment. Time was slipping away.
Finally, to no one's satisfaction, the search ended just 60 miles from where it began. Concluding that something had to be done and that Michigan was the only place to do it, Judge Owens ordered Needham sent to Green Oaks, the maximum security wing of the W.J. Maxey Boys Training School near Ann Arbor.
Green Oaks was for the baddest of the bad. It was secure, yes, but offered only minimal psychiatric care.
"It's an absolute tragedy the state of Michigan has to throw up its hands and say, "We don't have anything appropriate to assist this young man,' " Needham's lawyer complained in court.
But Green Oaks would be a turning point in Roger Needham's life.
The center hired a University of Michigan psychiatrist to meet with him several hours a week. And some of Green Oaks' staff, struck by his exceptional intelligence, took a special interest.
Scraggly hair, unbecoming glasses, clothes hanging off his tall, skinny frame -- what a mess, reading teacher Lee Craft thought the first time he saw Needham. For several months, he sneered "yeah" or "why?" and acted superior with the mostly African-American staff.
Teach me if you can, he seemed to be challenging them. Show me something I don't know.
He tried to get other kids in trouble, talking to them during quiet times, goading them into fights. For that, he was locked in his room.
He tried to get out of the exercises everyone was required to do before breakfast.
But wrestling and weightlifting helped bulk up his frame and seemed to give him a better feeling about himself. With better grooming, he turned out to be a good-looking kid.
He burned through all of Green Oaks' books, so Lee Craft starting bringing in extras from home. He had never dealt with a kid as smart as Needham; it was hard keeping up with him during their long discussions about philosophy and literature and life.
Needham never became what the staff considered warm. But he loosened up enough to occasionally crack "a little funny," as youth specialist Ken Willis put it.
Needham also proved to be a good tutor, especially in mathematics. He stopped taunting other kids: He had finally found a constructive way to use his superior intellect in dealing with people his age.
Craft wasn't surprised that Needham was starting to turn around. Most kids did, if for no other reason than that the staff was helping them develop the first positive relationships they had ever had.
To Willis, it was a matter of reaching the "scared little kid" inside every youthful offender, no matter how tough the exterior.
"I don't care what they've done," Willis would say, "when you appeal to that scared little kid, they come to their knees."
* * *
On Dec. 16, 1980, less than three weeks after his 18th birthday, Needham earned his high school equivalency diploma.
Under close supervision, he began taking classes at the University of Michigan. He had decided to major in math.
By now, Needham struck most people as polite and cooperative, if not talkative. He got along well with the Green Oaks staff. He rarely, if ever, mentioned his mother, but his father visited regularly. Their relationship seemed cordial.
A big question remained: Would Roger Needham explode again someday?
The staff tried to provoke him by making comments, trying to pick fights. Needham sometimes became irate, but he never lost control. The shootings had happened during the difficult adolescent years, when almost anything might spark a violent response from a mixed-up kid. Now Needham was growing up, and the staff concluded that the chances he would ever react the same way were almost zero.
In 1981, shortly before Needham's 19th birthday, representatives from the state, the training center and the court system met to determine whether he should be released. There was some concern he had never shown remorse, and there were doubts he ever would. But the reports were positive. After an initially rocky period, Needham had been a model inmate. The experts agreed: It was time to let him go.
Four years after committing murder, Roger Needham was free.
From now on, most evidence of his crime and his tormented teenage years would be filed away in confidential juvenile records. He slipped into anonymity, continuing his studies at the University of Michigan, one of 36,000 students.
In August 1984, he was awarded a bachelor of science degree "with highest distinction." Four months later, he earned his master's degree in mathematics.
He rented an apartment in Ann Arbor. Ken Willis, one of his counselors at the training school, ran into him one day on the street.
"Hey, how you doing?" Willis asked, glad to see him again.
They had the briefest of conversations. Needham mentioned only that he was in school and said nothing about Green Oaks.
That's a secret he wants to keep, Willis thought to himself.
By 1990, Needham was in his late 20s, the school shooting a dozen years earlier a dim memory even for people in Lansing. In Ann Arbor, an hour's drive away, it was as though it had never happened.
Donald Higman, a professor in the University of Michigan's highly rated math department, knew nothing of Needham's background when he began working with him on his doctoral thesis.
What he did know was that Needham was gentle and likable, with a good sense of humor. He was not like some mathematicians, so inwardly focused as to be almost autistic.
Still, Needham was a private sort, an intellectual, delving into areas the professor found different and original. His interest lay in a highly theoretical form of mathematics that took ideas from computer science. To the lay person, it was nearly incomprehensible, but it would have important applications with the growing need for security on the Internet.
Needham and his adviser met at least once a week. In some cases, the adviser must push the doctoral candidate to develop ideas or theories original enough to warrant a Ph.D. In Needham's case, the original concepts were there; the challenge was getting him to express them clearly.
All in all, Higman considered Needham an unusual student. He had novel ideas and was willing to fight for them.
On May 2, 1992, the 29-year-old was awarded his Ph.D.
He was now Dr. Roger E. Needham.
* * *
Kevin Jones could never forget the bullet groove in his head. It itched whenever the clouds closed in over Lansing.
"It's going to rain," Jones would say.
Life was not turning out well for Needham's surviving victim.
After the shootings, administrators at Everett High suggested that Jones pursue some kind of alternative education. But Jones, who had a genius-level IQ, thought such programs carried a stigma. They're for stupid kids and burnouts, he told his brother Tony. At age 16 he dropped out.
He worked in maintenance for the Detroit Free Press in Lansing. Then he took a job with a company that treated steel. Finally, like so many other blue-collar workers in Michigan, he went with an outfit that made accessories for the auto industry. He joined the Teamsters and became active in the union.
For a year or two after the shootings, Kevin, Tony and their closest friends would hang out in Kevin's bedroom and plot revenge. They all hated Needham, the Nazi punk who had murdered Kevin's best friend and nearly killed Kevin himself.
Tony knew that his brother would never actually do anything to hurt Needham. But he knew, too, that Kevin could never forgive him, especially after hearing through the grapevine that Needham had enrolled at the University of Michigan.
"That's great," Kevin would say. "The bastard kills my friend and shoots me and he gets to go to college, and I can't even finish high school."
* * *
After Needham got his Ph.D., he landed a teaching job in the math department of St. Louis University, a private Catholic school in Missouri.
The rehabilitation of Roger Needham was complete. His past a well-kept secret, a man who had once shot students was now being paid to teach them.
Needham stayed in St. Louis for the 1992-93 academic year. The department's secretary found him friendly and outgoing, liked by all.
The following year, Needham jumped to the academic big time: He became a visiting professor in the mathematics department of City College of New York.
The flagship of the 21 schools that make up the city's public university system, CCNY is known as the "Harvard of the Proletariat." It has produced more Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners than Harvard itself; alumni include Secretary of State Colin Powell, Dr. Jonas Salk and Ira Gershwin.
Needham joined the faculty on a temporary basis for $35,742 a year, with no benefits, perks or time counted toward tenure. Still, it was an honor just to be hired by a school that had once rejected the great British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell.
During the 1993-94 school year, Needham taught classes and worked on a research project supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The project involved writing software for "infinity groups," an endeavor that wed Needham's interests in mathematics and computer sciences.
Noted City College mathematician Gilbert Baumslag and other colleagues liked Needham and found him extremely hard-working. That made it all the more perplexing when, out of the blue, he quit.
Baumslag and others heard he had joined a computer company, perhaps in the financial services field. From time to time they talked about him, but nobody in the math department heard from him again.
* * *
Since 1997, students and guns have become a horrifying leitmotif of latter-day America.
October 1997. A 16-year-old in Pearl, Miss., killed his mother, then went to his high school and shot nine students, two fatally. He was sentenced to life in prison.
December 1997. A 14-year-old killed three students and wounded five at a high school in West Paducah, Ky. He pleaded guilty but mentally ill to murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
March 1998. Two boys, 11 and 13, killed five and wounded 10 during a false fire alarm at a middle school in Jonesboro, Ark. Both boys were convicted of murder and can be held until they are 21.
Over the next 13 months, there would be at least three more outbreaks of violence, culminating in the massacre at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999. Two students killed 12 people and wounded 23. Then they committed suicide.
With the carnage have come demands for ever-harsher punishment.
Last year, a 16-year-old boy in Conyers, Ga., wounded six classmates. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
In Florida, a 13-year-old who shot a teacher last spring is scheduled for trial in April. He could get life in prison.
Daniel McLellan, the man who prosecuted Roger Needham, is now general counsel for the Michigan Department of Civil Service. He still has strong feelings about the way society deals with its youngest criminals.
"I think the problem with the whole justice system is that "Lock 'em up and throw away the key' is the whole mentality now. While I'm in favor of protecting citizens, just putting people in prison under terrible circumstances can't ordinarily be good, and if it's not good for a 30-year-old armed robber, it really can't be good for a 15-year-old murderer.
"It's very, very difficult because in large measure, we don't have the resources nor, I think, the will to work on rehabilitation. We have really swung in the direction of punitive incarceration, and while sometimes it's necessary, I don't think it's necessary for very many."
McLellan remembers how he and his boss agonized over what to do with Needham. He can't imagine any prosecutor in today's political climate deciding, as they finally did, to treat a 15-year-old killer as a juvenile.
"Almost certainly if this happened tomorrow he'd be prosecuted as an adult, convicted of first-degree murder and spend the rest of his life in prison.
"The whole milieu has changed. In those days we didn't think of 15-year-olds as evil, hard-nosed criminals for whom there is no possibility of getting better. We still thought of kids as kids. My view has always been that just growing up solves a lot of problems. You'd be surprised at how growing up can ameliorate bad behavior."
McLellan lost track of Needham years ago. He was happy to hear that he had gone on to college, gotten a Ph.D. and returned to the classroom as a teacher.
Says the ex-prosecutor: "Wish him well for me."
* * *
Ken Willis is still at the Maxey Boys Training School, still trying to reach "that scared little kid" inside tough young criminals.
The center, surrounded by a 15-foot-high fence, is even more secure than when Needham went there in 1978. It is more specialized, with separate areas for sex offenders and substance abusers. Kids stay longer too: In the late '80s, as the nation's attitude became more punitive, Michigan raised the age to which juvenile offenders can be held from 19 to 21.
Of the thousands of youths who have passed through Maxey in the past 23 years, one continues to stand out because of his exceptional intelligence and his unusual crime. Only a tiny percentage of juvenile offenders are killers -- just seven of Maxey's 392 current inmates -- and few have an IQ in the genius range. Needham was surely one of the center's greatest success stories, and Willis remembers him well:
How Needham acted superior to black staffers, then came to respect them. How he balked at physical exercise, then took pride not just in his mind, but in his body. How he stopped laughing at other kids when he began to help them with their schoolwork.
Yes, Willis thinks the training center did Roger Needham a lot of good.
"Tell him to come back and give some advice," Willis says. "These kids could use it."
* * *
Kevin Jones often talked of revenge. But he would never get the chance to confront the man he hated.
Juvenile diabetes took its toll. He lost a leg and nearly went blind. He quit work, went on disability and moved back home with his widowed mother.
Kevin Jones died on May 25, 1999. He was 37.
Viewed from a narrow perspective, Jones never amounted to much in the 21 years after he was shot. But to his younger brother, Tony, who became an engineer, he was an amazing man.
The shooting was one of the many events in his life, Tony Jones wrote. It was just one of the tragedies that he dealt with.
His life went on. Jobs, girlfriends, friends and hundreds of stories and adventures. Enough to write a hundred great stories about life.
He loved to teach young people.
He loved to tell stories.
He loved to be in the woods with a .22 rifle (although he never killed anything).
He loved to be with his best friends John and Steve. (Steve died in a car crash in 1988 running from the police. John is a police officer.)
He loved to listen to Jimmy Buffett and classical music.
He loved to read books.
He taught himself Russian and some Vietnamese.
He loved to work on guns. From muzzle loaders to AK-47s.
He love to argue about politics. He hated Bill Clinton.
He loved a girl named Carol.
I guess I don't really know what angle your story will have, but I wanted you to know a little bit about Kevin. You really cannot understand what kind of person he was if you never had met him. Anyone that knew him would agree. He was unique.
He was the greatest influence in my life.
* * *
William Draher, who had shown so much forgiveness for his son's killer, died two years ago. His widow, Marion, still lives in the same small house as they did in 1978. Even today, she finds it too painful to talk about what happened.
Her other son, Mike, sits in the living room of his own small home nearby watching NASCAR races on a Saturday afternoon. He is 36, single, a dispatcher at a garage.
He used to wonder what had become of Roger Needham. No longer.
"Time has gone by and it's pointless to dwell on something you have no control over. Father took it hard, real hard, but he said he forgave him. Nowadays everybody wants the death penalty, but you cannot get justice. There is no way you can ever make up for a crime like that.
"All that is left is either letting it go and getting past it, or carrying it with you and hating somebody for the rest of your life."
* * *
And what about Roger Eric Needham?
What does he think when he hears of the latest school shooting?
How does he feel about a society more bent on punishing than helping youthful offenders?
What would he say to troubled young criminals?
And the Drahers and the Joneses -- does he ever think about them?
The questions lead to an apartment building in New York City.
For the past two years, Needham has lived alone in a high-rise in Sutton Place, one of the city's finest and most expensive neighborhoods. The doorman says Needham is polite but keeps to himself.
Needham's father, the law school professor, died in 1999. His brother and sister are in other parts of the country.
Since he left City College of New York in the mid '90s, the trail of Needham's employment history has turned cold, at least in public records.
Still, at 38, he seems to be doing well.
"My client has achieved much success in his profession, and is on the verge of reaping significant rewards because of his hard work over the years and his contributions to his company," James R. De Furio, a Tampa lawyer retained by Needham, wrote to the St. Petersburg Times.
". . . Identifying my client with events occurring in Michigan over twenty years ago are not newsworthy in any contemporary context for readers on the West Coast of Florida. There must be local examples of persons who have encountered the juvenile justice system, have gone on to lead successful lives, and would be willing to speak with you and have their story told. Please write about them instead of my client."
Would Needham perhaps reconsider?
"Mr. Needham, there's a person here to see you," the doorman said one morning last summer, buzzing his apartment and giving the name. "Shall I send her up?"
Whatever Roger Needham thinks about kids and shootings and a vengeful America would remain behind the door of Apt. 3A.
* * *
With each new school tragedy, reporters in Lansing head to Everett, still the city's biggest high school, to get the local reaction. But few reporters ever ask about the 1978 Everett shootings, and few teachers ever mention them.
That doesn't mean no one remembers.
Science teacher Bruce Schulert's classroom is just down the hall from Locker 02-069 with the round bullet hole above the door. Schulert often finds his mind wandering back to that frigid February day.
"It was 1978, and the biggest thing I'd ever seen in teaching was a kid with a knife. It was a shock. I couldn't believe it. I had never even thought of anything like that."
Jeff Cheadle, a sophomore at the time, remembers watching his mother, the school nurse, trying to revive Bill Draher. More than two decades later, he can still picture the feathers from Draher's down jacket floating through the hallway.
Today Cheadle is a special-education teacher at Everett. He shudders whenever he hears one kid taunt another, as Kevin Jones taunted Roger Needham that day.
"When kids are teasing other kids," Cheadle says, "they just don't know what they're doing."
Like many high schools, Everett has gone to great lengths to avoid violence. There are scanners and metal detectors. An in-house security force led by an ex-police chief. Programs to help teachers deal with student bullying and intimidation.
"You never relax," says principal Dale Glynn. "Even on a calm day, you're alert."
As Glynn describes what it takes to keep Everett safe, he works his way toward the auditorium. Several hundred sophomores are there to watch fellow students put on a play called Bang! Bang! You're Dead.
Written by a parent in Washington state in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre, it's about Josh, a high school student who kills his parents and five classmates. Schools can download it for free from the Internet. Glynn is proud that Everett is among the first schools in Michigan to stage it.
The play is set in Josh's jail cell the night after the shootings. His victims appear before him like ghosts of Christmases past.
"Why did you kill me?" Michael asks. "I never hurt you."
"It was more fun than droppin' dudes in a video game," comes the sneering reply.
"Why me, Josh?" Katie joins in. "Why'd you have to kill me?"
"Felt like it, okay? Happy now?"
As the play begins, the audience fidgets. But a choked-up silence falls as the play draws to a close and the victims tell the shooter:
"It's just the beginning for you. . . . You'll have us in your head until you are dead."
The students, some brushing away tears, file out of the auditorium and head back to classes. Without giving it a thought or glance, hundreds walk past the plaque showing a bespectacled boy in a plaid shirt. It reads:
- In memoriam
- Bill Draher
- Class of 1980
Times researchers Kitty Bennett, Barbara Oliver and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
* * *
Times researchers Kitty Bennett, Barbara Oliver and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.