A Look At The Thurston School Shooting 20th Anniversary

May 21, 2018

The Thurston Memorial outside Thurston High School in Springfield.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Thurston High School Shooting in Springfield. On May 21, 1998, freshman Kip Kinkel fatally shot two classmates, and wounded two dozen more. After Kinkel was taken into custody, police also discovered the bodies of Bill and Faith Kinkel in their rural home. Both had been shot by their son.

Joining me now is KLCC’s Brian Bull, who’s been reporting on this story through a three-part series and documentary that airs tonight. Good morning, Brian.

BB:  Good morning, Love.

LC: Brian, 20 years after the tragic events, do people seem to understand better why Kinkel committed these acts of violence?

Kip Kinkel after being taken into custody May21, 1998, still clad in his trench coat.
Credit Springfield Police Dept.

BB:  Even to this day…it’s pretty nebulous. In the months ahead of the shooting, Kip Kinkel would make references to voices in his head. The day before the shooting he was taken off of the campus by police because he had a .32 caliber handgun in his locker. And it’s felt that Kip, as the son of very prominent educators in Springfield, felt deep shame and regret and embarrassment about his pending expulsion.  Between that and what seems to be a mental disorder, perhaps schizophrenia or depression, or a combination, this may have compelled him to act, starting with the shooting of his parents, before he opened fire at Thurston High.  The bottom line is only Kip Kinkel fully fathoms his motivations for that incident. 

But one of his close friends, Tony McCown says that for all the associations that they put on Kip, such as his fascination with gun culture, and explosives, and the shock-rock that he listened to – Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson - he says there are many other kids in his day and today even, who have very similar interests and backgrounds, who aren’t school shooters.

LC: This was one of the earliest school shootings in modern history. Does it seem overshadowed by some of the more high-profile incidents, like Columbine which happened a year later?

BB: In the 20 years since Thurston, there have been roughly 200 recorded school and college shootings of various impacts in the United States. Not all are large scale, not all have fatalities. But among the worst cases through the years, there seems to be a morbid one-upmanship if you will, in trying to increase the carnage. The year after Thurston, there was the Columbine Shooting, where 12 students were killed.  Sandy Hook would see 20 children killed. And Virginia Tech has 32. 

So there is a scale issue here that I think pushes Thurston into the background…when you look at these more destructive school shootings. One thing that’s kinda come out of it though, is that even though Thurston has become overshadowed, it’s kind of come to the forefront again, because it is one of the earliest school shootings.

The aftermath of the shooting inside the Thurston High School cafeteria quickly became a crime scene, sectioned off by investigators.
Credit Springfield Police Dept.

Two, there are now people who were affected by Thurston, who have become activists in the March for Our Lives movement, including Betina Lynn, who I’ve interviewed. She’s had an opportunity to speak out at some of these events. She’s inspired some current students, including Thurston High junior Rio Samaniego, who was another source for my story. And so there seems to be kind of a coming full circle here.

LC: Kip Kinkel is spending nearly 112 years behind bars after pleading guilty to four counts of murder and 26 counts of attempted murder. But there’s some recent developments that his attorney hopes to seize on, to reduce his sentence, correct?

BB: That’s correct, Love. In the last decade, there have been some rulings made by the U.S Supreme Court that essentially say sentences that amount to a lifetime behind bars for juvenile offenders – even the more violent offenders -- are unconstitutional. They consider it a violation of the 8th Amendment, protection against cruel and unusual punishment. 

Now recently, in our own Supreme Court here in Oregon, the justices affirmed the ruling of two previous courts, regarding Kip Kinkel’s 112-year sentence. The ruling disappointed Kip Kinkels’ attorney, but they’re looking at a federal habeas corpus case that can be addressed now, because it was put on pause during this latest review.  And if they need to, they are prepared to take this to the U.S. Supreme Court itself. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we may see Kinkel vs. Oregon reach the nation’s highest court soon.

LC: What happens on the anniversary?

BB:  One survivor I talked to says she’s simply going to go out and have coffee with another survivor.  Another one is going to celebrate his second chance at life with the medical staff at Sacred Heart Hospital who helped revive him and get him off the operating table. That’s Tony Case who is now a prominent astrophysicist designing space equipment. One of them’s going to be the Parker Solar Probe that gets sent into the sun this July.  So he does a group email with his former doctors, nurses, and his parents to celebrate the fact survived that incident.  And others are going to go to Thurston High School today to reflect on the tragedy.  And I understand that there will also be a candlelight vigil in the evening.

LC: Brian, thank you for your time.

BB: You’re welcome, Love.

LC: KLCC’s Brian Bull, who’s been covering the 20th anniversary of the Thurston School Shooting.  You can find his series and documentary on KLCC.org.

Copyright 2018, KLCC.