The Thurston School Shooting, 20 Years Later: Profiles Of Tragedy And Triumph

May 16, 2018

 

20 years ago this Monday, 15-year-old Kipland "Kip" Kinkel peppered the Thurston High School cafeteria with bullets, after wounding two students in a breezeway moments before. When he paused to reload, a group of classmates tackled him to the ground, holding him until authorities arrived.  Police later found Kinkel's parents, Bill and Faith, dead in their rural Springfield home. In all, four people were killed and more than two dozen wounded from what has come to be called the Thurston School Shooting. 

 

The following stories revisit the lives of those who survived the bloody events of May 21, 1998.  There's also a glimpse into the life of convicted gunman Kipland Kinkel, who's currently living out a nearly 112-year sentence in prison.

A student walks away from the Thurston High School campus after the violence of May 21, 1998.
Credit AP

Thurston Shooting Survivor Tony Case Looks Beyond Tragedy, And Towards the Stars

When Tony Case was wheeled into an operating room at Sacred Heart Hospital 20 years ago, his prognosis was shaky at best.  The teen had three bullets in his abdomen, and one in his leg. His lungs and intestines had holes and he was bleeding profusely.

Tony Case, today. He works at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
Credit Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Fast forward twenty years later, and Case is preparing to have his latest research catapulted into the sun. 

He's far from the tree-studded buttes of Springfield now, employed at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge. His work has involved developing instruments for some remarkable missions, including the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Deep Space Climate Observatory.

Conceptual rendering of the Parker Solar Probe, which is being launched into the sun later this summer.
Credit Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Recently, Case and his teammates have been finalizing production of the Parker Solar Probe…a groundbreaking scientific marvel that’s being launched into the sun July 31st.  The mission’s primary goals are to trace how energy and heat move through the solar corona, and to explore what accelerates the solar wind as well as solar energetic particles.

Tony Case with some of the instruments he helped develop for the DSCOVR project that launched in February 2015.
Credit Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

“Think of it as big as Mars Rovers are to planet scientists, and as big as the Hubble Space Telescope is to astrophysicists,” says Case.

“This mission is that important for those of us that we call heliophysicsts that study the solar system, and all of the plasma that’s contained within that.”

Case has actually seen much of his work fired off into space from Cape Canaveral, something that never gets old for someone who was nearly written off as dead by doctors after he arrived from Thurston High School, May 21st, 1998.

In retrospect, Case was lucky to have even got the care he did on the scene.  As he and two dozen other classmates lay wounded in the aftermath of Kip Kinkel’s attack that morning, Case almost didn’t get the crucial and immediate attention warranted in a life-and-death crisis.

“In fact, when first responders got there…they were trying to assess me and understand what was wrong,” muses Case.

“At first they were like, ‘Okay, were you shot? And then they found one bullet hole in the back of my t-shirt and then another bullet hole in my belt, and another bullet hole in my lower back, and then another bullet hole in my leg.

Tony Case outside his Sudbury, MA home.
Credit Esteban Bustillos, WGBH

“Because of that lack of outward sign of injury, it was a little bit hard for me and others to comprehend really how serious it had been.”

Case can laugh about it now.  But back then, it was a serious moment. Doctors not only worked to patch up his internal organs, but also debated whether his leg could be saved or not.

“Thankfully, my surgeon was on the side of ‘Let’s not amputate, and see how it goes.” 

Within a year, Case was back to playing baseball, and today enjoys running, biking, and skiing.

“I walk with a little bit of a limp here and there, but most of the time it’s not even noticeable.”

As to Kip Kinkel’s motives and the Thurston shooting itself, Case says he gives little thought to it. He largely chooses to focus on his work. 

Living in Sudbury, Massachusetts now, Case still touches base with family back in the Springfield area.  This includes the surgeon and anesthesiologist who gave him a second chance at life.  While Case doesn’t have plans to specifically mark the 20th anniversary of the Thurston tragedy, he tells KLCC he observes an annual tradition.

“Every May 21st we at least send around an email between my parents, me, my doctors, all of us just sort of saying ‘Thank you’ to the doctors mostly, for giving me a second chance of life.”

And despite his grievous injuries sustained at the hands of a gunman, Case enjoys using firearms for hunting and target shooting.  Case says people can responsibly own and use guns, but adds he’s not a member of the NRA.  He feels the lobbying organization has too much power and influence.

“I think the recent increase in public awareness about the flaws in our current gun laws is going to lead to some stronger guns laws,” he says.

But at the same time he doesn’t think changes will be immediate or radical. 

“Like, we’re not going to get rid of all guns. But I’m hoping there will be meaningful change in that maybe we get rid of some different types of assault weapons, large-capacity magazines, and enforce better background checks.

“I think those will happen.”

In a still from a video, Betina Lynn talks to a crowd of thousands during the March for Our Lives event in Eugene, Oregon this year.
Credit March for Our Lives Eugene

Betina Lynn: An Active Voice Against Further Tragedy

38-year-old Betina Lynn struggles still with the physical and emotional trauma of the Thurston Shooting.  One of Kip Kinkel’s .22 bullets narrowly missed her spine by less than half an inch. It instead hit her pelvic bone, causing the small projectile to fragment into shrapnel.

The second bullet hit her foot. 

“It actually blew in pieces of my sock and shoe into the wound,” she says.  The wound required several surgeries, which also turned into a staph infection.

“That kept the hole open for five months.  That sucked,” she says, with a grimace. “I wasn’t allowed to go swimming, wasn’t allowed to take baths, wasn’t allowed to do a lot of things over the course of the summer (of 1998).”

To this day, that wound inflicted a lot of nerve damage to Lynn’s foot, and so there’s many things the university administrator can’t feel, putting her at risk for accidents. Yet it’s not so much the physical damage from Kinkel’s rampage that troubles Lynn to this day.

38-year-old Betina Lynn with her companion and therapy animal, Bacardi.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“It’s the aftermath," she says, with a heavy sigh.   "The doctor’s visits, the fear, the anxiety, the PTSD, the (Kinkel) trial, the kind of forgetfulness of society as they move on. 

“The aftermath became in many ways more traumatic than the incident itself.”

Were Lynn to retreat entirely from the shooting and never speak of it again, people would understand. And some, Lynn says, would be happier.  The self-described introvert says while many people showed support and sympathy in the weeks after the Thurston shooting, it began to wane after she and her fellow survivors returned to the school.

“Very quickly there’s a push for us to get back to normal, to get back to taking those classes and doing those extracurricular activities, or working that part-time job,” says Lynn, cradling a corgi-beagle mix named Bacardi. 

“And for myself, I was reeling. Everything about my life had suddenly changed very dramatically.

“You want me to study for my SATs? Really? I don’t know which direction is up.”

Betina Lynn at Thurston High School.
Credit Betina Lynn

Lynn says walking through the halls of Thurston High became an alienating experience. Groups of classmates would stop talking and stare at her as she walked by. She and other survivors began getting reprimands for seeing a grief counselor.  When she thought she heard gunfire popping somewhere outside during her American History class, she left and cried in a quiet hallway.  The principal would try to assure her she heard a car backfire, a gesture she found dismissive.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“That was it for me,” she says. The exasperated senior promptly transferred out of Thurston and into an alternative high school program. 

“It definitely had a bad reputation at that point, sort of where you send the losers,” laughs Lynn. “But…I needed to get done with high school, get done quickly, and move on.”

Today, Lynn works as the Executive Senate Coordinator for the University of Oregon.  She appreciates being allowed to keep her companion and therapy animal Bacardi with her in the office (even the dog’s snores are comforting, she says). 

Lynn also now lives in Eugene, and is happy with the city.  She moved out of Springfield with the intention of putting some distance between Thurston High School and her identity as a shooting survivor.

To some degree.

At least 5,000 people turned out for the March for Our Lives rally in Eugene, Oregon on March 24th.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“These Parkland survivors are strong, articulate, brave, and wonderfully powerful.  But they can’t do this without our help, and we shouldn’t ask them to!” Lynn recently said at the March for Our Lives rally in Eugene last March. 

Clad in a bright orange sweatshirt, Lynn gave her voice – and her account of May 21, 1998 – before a fired-up crowd of at least 5,000 activists.

For Lynn, it wasn’t comfortable - being an introvert contending with PTSD - speaking out before the immense crowd about the Thurston tragedy.  So she let her passion take hold, helping overcome that reluctance.

Student activists march through downtown Eugene as part of a nationally-coordinated event with March for Our Lives, March 24th, 2018.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“What drives me is very simple,” she says, firmly. “I don’t want to see this happen to anybody else.”

Technology is spreading the message faster and broader than Lynn and her fellow survivors could, back in the day.  In the 1990s, the majority of phones were landlines.  The available mobile phones were just that, something to talk to people with. Social media was unheard of, as were texts and viral videos.

Lynn says at best, she and others could talk to newspapers and elected officials. But the scope and impact were limited, and Lynn says many times she needed a break from the advocacy.

Today, March for Our Lives has the momentum and reach gun control advocates could only dream about 20 years ago. With its Facebook page, Twitter hashtags, websites, and ability to communicate with a vast swath of supporters, the movement appears to have gained attention that’s unrivaled. With several nationwide commemorative marches accomplished this year, organizers are now pushing for tougher laws designed to restrict access to high-capacity magazines and assault weapons, as well as establish universal background checks.  

Lynn says passing stronger gun laws won’t solve the whole problem. But she says to ignore the weapon is naïve. She says making guns less accessible allows communities the space to really delve into the deeper issues, including mental health and intervening in cases of troubled youth.

“Let’s look at what’s driving these young folks to commit these horrendous acts.  Let’s look at the kids who are torturing animals and developing early on, these propensities for violence.”

Kip Kinkel - spattered with blood and still wearing his trenchcoat - after being taken into custody by police on May 21, 1998.
Credit Springfield Police Department

Which leads to her feelings about Thurston gunman Kip Kinkel, who is serving a nearly 112-year sentence.  Lynn says she saw Kinkel bullied at school, and feared he struggled with anger issues. But as far as where he is now, she’s comfortable with his imprisonment.

“Mostly because he has proven himself a danger to himself and others," says Lynn.

"He’s proven that he cannot be trusted in regular society.  He cannot be trusted among other humans.  He has proven that he is violent and dangerous.”

Lynn says if there are lessons to be learned from the tragedy of May 21, 1998, it’s that survivors need time, support, and compassion.  And further action must be taken to end the chain of school violence.

A memorial unveiled in 2003 for Thurston victims and survivors pleased her initially, but in the years since, she’s felt disillusioned.

“In the years since, I don’t think it did what I wanted it to do.  Because the only thing that I see different over the last 20 years are the frequency of shootings and higher body counts.”

Survivor Passes On Media Career, Finds Joy Through The Lens

Previous to the bloody violence that hit Thurston High two decades ago, Jolene Leu (then Jolene Cosby) imagined becoming a journalist. 

Then came the satellite trucks and media crush hitting her community, right on the heels of the Thurston shooting. Reporters and TV crews from across the U.S. – and beyond – lined the streets, capturing every development and event as Springfield residents struggled to make sense of the tragedy.

Jolene Leu today.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

“Reporters will literally walk up to you, camera-in-face and everything, and start talking to you instead of asking if you want to be talked to,” Leu says. “That was very off-putting.”

The journalists themselves were doing their job – capturing moments of the Thurston Shooting and aftermath that riveted audiences at a time when school violence was a relatively new phenomenon. 

But some reporters pushed a bit too far for Leu.

“About a year later, I was set up by my boyfriend’s mom to help another out-of-town reporter cover the (Kinkel) jury and trial," she tells KLCC. 

"And he wanted me to cold-call survivors, and introduce him before handing him the phone rather than asking them if they wanted to be interviewed.

“I was not okay with that.”

Leu was already struggling with feelings of survivor’s guilt. When Kip Kinkel opened fire in the THS cafeteria, many people at Leu’s table were hit…except her.  She says of the two dozen wounded that morning, she personally knew half of them.

Jolene Leu's yearbook photo from Thurston High School.

“It’s a hard situation when a lot of your close friends have been injured in a shooting. They have the scars or pains from their injuries. They get mentioned in the news quite a bit, and it creates a distance between those who just witnessed it and those who’ve actually gone through it.”

Leu tells KLCC that even though she was caught in the hailstorm of gunfire, she didn’t feel that she deserved the title of ‘survivor’ because she wasn’t actually shot. 

“And I felt that way for a really long time, until I realized that even though I didn’t have any physical scars, I was emotionally scarred.”

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can affect anyone who’s experienced an intensely upsetting and often violent incident.  For Leu, she has worked to overcome her anxiety whenever fireworks are set off, such as during Fourth of July events.  She still can’t stand popping balloons, though.

“I just kinda brace myself and go, ‘It’s gonna pop, it’s gonna make some noise, you’ll be okay,” she laughs.

Leu can now laugh about the timing of her first pregnancy too, though in 2003 it was a jarring event once doctors told her the infant’s due date: May 21st, 2003. 

That was the fifth anniversary of the Thurston Shooting.

“I was not happy about that,” she says, shaking her head.

Visitors at the "Thurston Fence" in the days following the shooting, 1998.
Credit AP/Register Guard

Eventually, her daughter was born on May 23rd. Leu says in hindsight, having her first child born on the 21st might’ve brought a little more joy and peace to the day.

But Leu has found an outlet that gives her a satisfying release from the incident.  Five years ago she began her own photography business in Springfield. Jolene Leu Photography specializes in capturing celebrations and moments of joy, from weddings to family gatherings.

“My favorite part of weddings are always the toasts, because they’re always the most emotional or the most funny,” says Leu. “And you get the best natural reactions during the toast.”

Leu is now 37, married, and enjoys watching her own children – ages 15, 11, and 7 – grow up, develop their own personalities and ideas, and become “strong, independent, people.”

And while she says she’s largely gotten over the events of 20 years ago,  there are reminders that the era of gun violence in schools is far from over. On her daughter’s first day of kindergarten, a shooting happened down the street, putting the school into lockdown. This repeated when her daughter started her week of high school.

“And every time it drives me insane because I usually hear it way after the fact,” says Leu. Her two oldest have phones, to keep in touch should the unthinkable happen to them.

Leu still has concerns with how the media treats events like school shootings too. She feels that such incidents are too readily sensationalized and that could inspire prospective shooters (Leu also concedes that she chose not to pursue journalism because she feels she’s too emotional and passionate about her beliefs to ever be objective.)

“But the main issue is that the cycle keeps repeating," says Leu.  "People need to be aware of the mental health problems and the gun problems, and the societal problems. And start looking around for answers rather than blaming the other side.”

Kip Kinkel, in 1998 (left) and 2018 (right).
Credit Springfield Police/OSCI

As for Kinkel’s 112-year sentence, Leu is sympathetic to a degree.  While many area residents think the gunman deserves to spend the rest of his life behind bars, Leu says she doesn’t care for the word, “deserves”.

“Because I don’t believe that he ever is in his right mind to understand the repercussions of what he did because of his mental health issue. Do I think he can rehabilitate? No. But I think there needs to be a facility where he can still grow as a human being without being punished.

"He needs to learn from it.”

Leu says come the 20th anniversary of the Thurston Shooting, she’ll observe her annual ritual as usual. She gets together with another survivor (whose identity she keeps secret) and the two have coffee together.

“Otherwise, I’m not going to sensationalize it at all.  I’m just going to try to go on with my day.”

Kip Kinkel (far left) with other volunteers of the chapel at the Oregon State Correctional Institution. Their faces have been obscured to protect their identity.

Friends Say Kip Kinkel Lives A Quiet But Balanced Existence Behind Bars

Convicted gunman Kipland Kinkel remains a figure of speculation and curiosity. Now 35, Kinkel has never granted any media interviews.  Sources close to the inmate say that’ll likely be the case until his defense has exhausted all avenues for a reduced sentence. 

A few others suggest that even were Kinkel to indulge a reporter about the events of May 20-21, 1998, details would be sparse….whether recorded or written.

“He doesn’t want to hurt anybody,” says Tony McCown, a Thurston High alum and one of Kinkel’s closest friends. “He’s cognizant that written words could hurt people.  So he’s very brief and concise in his letters.”

Kip Kinkel is transferred to the Oregon State Correctional Institution on June 20, 2007.
Credit AP

McCown says after Kinkel was sentenced, he visited his friend regularly at the MacLarenYouth Correctional Facility in Woodburn. When Kinkel was transferred to the Oregon State Correctional Institution in 2007, those check-ins tapered off. He’s only started seeing him again recently this past year. 

But McCown says Kinkel still wrestles with the shooting.

“He struggles with it every day, he has to make a conscious decision to at least function, let alone be productive.”

Kip Kinkel holds a photo of a cat he and several other inmates proposed adopted as a therapy animal for the OSCI chapel.

To that end, Kinkel has been very productive. Following work in the facility’s library, he’s landed a prominent position as the prison electrician. He also volunteers in the chapel. 

Kinkel has also embraced Eastern philosophical teachings in addition to aspects of Christianity, and teaches yoga  in the mental health ward.  His reading list includes James Joyce’s Ulysses and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

A former inmate – also a violent juvenile offender in Oregon – says he spent six years with Kinkel at OSCI and stays in touch.  To protect his identity, we’ll call him “David” in this article.

“He is a voracious reader,” says David, adding Ulysses was the first book he and Kinkel connected with while in the correctional facility.

“He reads a lot of poetry, he reads a lot of literature...not just to educate himself but to increase understanding of broader humanity.”

Like McCown, David says Kinkel is careful not to share accounts of the Thurston Shooting, adding that whenever Kinkel hears of a school shooting through the news, he’s immediately grief-stricken.

“You have a lot of other men that could really care less of the harm they caused,” David tells KLCC. “I think for Kip, he doesn’t engage war stories. It’s something that deeply, deeply affects him. You’d have men come up to him and say, ‘Hey, tell me this or tell me that,’ and (Kip) will reply, “No, that’s not appropriate.”

David recalls when Kinkel was first transferred to the OSCI, there was a lot of buzz because of his history. Other inmates – especially gang members – saw Kinkel as a target.

“They’ll attack you pretty quickly,” says David. “They’ll see it as an opportunity to score points in their gangs.”

Within Kinkel’s first month, another inmate came up behind him in the prison yard, and struck him several times.

“He handled himself well, he didn’t strike back,” says David. “Which is really the rule of the prison.  You let the guards handle that. He just withdrew quickly as possible, didn’t engage.”

As to early perceptions of Kinkel, Tony McCown disputes accounts that his friend was an awkward and angry loner warped by shock rock, video games, and gun culture. He does recall a classmate who played with explosives and listened to Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails.  But McCown says Kinkel was also smart and sociable.

At the same time, McCown concedes Kinkel struggled with mental health issues which included paranoid delusions.  Since being incarcerated, he’s seeing his friend contend with those demons.

“Whether it’s education, faith, meditation, and yoga, he’s taken a lot of steps to make sure he can function. I think that living with those demons made it really hard to function for years.”

Kip Kinkel (kneeling, left) with other members of a prison basketball team. Kinkel's friends say he keeps fit as a way to maintain a sense of balance and stress relief.

Meanwhile, Kinkel’s defense continues to press for a reduced sentence.  They’ve cited recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have said lifetime imprisonment without parole for juvenile offenders amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the 8th Amendment. 

These efforts recently were setback when the Oregon Supreme Court upheld Kinkel’s 112-year-sentence.  Now Portland attorney Andy Simrin says a federal habeas corpus case can now resume that had been paused while the state justices reviewed the most recent appeal. 

And Simrin says there’s another option: a Writ of Certiorari.

“It’s like an application to get the case directly into the U.S. Supreme Court,” he tells KLCC. “If you’ve got a good federal issue that they haven’t written on before, then this is some chance they may be interested.

Kip Kinkel's attorney, Andy Simrin of Portland.

Whether Kinkel v. Oregon ever becomes a matter for the nation’s highest court or not will depend on Simrin finding that particular issue. One dissenting state justice, James Egan, sided with Simrin and added that while Kinkel’s crimes were horrific, they were committed by a youth suffering from a treatable mental disorder.

And while there remains deliberation aplenty about whether Kinkel may see a reduced sentence some day, there is also debate as to what kind of life Kinkel may have beyond prison walls. 

Obviously, shooting survivors and victims’ families feel strongly that Kinkel is best left where he currently is, and wonder if he’d pose any danger should he be freed.

Conversely, friends of the convicted gunman express concerns that given the pain and damage Kinkel inflicted on the morning of May 21, 1998, that he’d be at risk, too.

“There’s safety on both sides you have to consider,” says Kinkel’s longtime friend, McCown. “And then as a country, we have to consider how incarcerated people can contribute anyway, and in a way I think Kip’s demonstrated that you can. I think he’s having an impact inside prison in a way that most people don’t.”

Kinkel’s former fellow inmate, David, says any fear or resentment stirred up by his release would be reasonable.

“Kip isn’t dismissive of it, he understands the level of harm that he’s caused to the community and people. “

However, David adds that he’s never had the conversation with Kinkel about life outside.

“Just because I don’t think as long as that’s not a reality, there’s just not a lot of wishful thinking going on.  That’s just not his thing.

“That said, I think that he would do exactly as he’s demonstrated through his incarceration.  He would behave maturely, he’d find employment if possible, he would try to do as good as he could in whatever community he went to.”   

Administrator Who Removed Kinkel From Campus Wants To See Gunman Again

In 1998, Don Stone got a tip that one of Thurston High’s students – and a member of his football team – had brought a handgun to school.  The coach and vice principal alerted authorities, and went with a campus monitor to search Kip Kinkel’s locker.

Don Stone, a former vice-principal and football coach at Thurston High School.

Inside was a .32 Beretta semi-automatic pistol. Kip had bought it from a classmate who’d stolen it from another friend’s father.  Stone had Kinkel immediately taken out of class.

“And as we walked back to my office…Kip threw something in a garbage can as we walked back,” recalls Stone.  

“So I stopped him, searched the garbage can, and he’d thrown a switchblade knife into the garbage can, obviously trying to get rid of something else that was going to get him into trouble.”

Springfield Police arrived, handcuffed the 15-year-old, and prepared to lead him away. The boy was placed on indefinite suspension, which by the administrator’s estimate would lead to expulsion. Stone recalls his last exchange with Kinkel.

“I can remember him looking up at me, with…I just couldn’t see anything in his eyes,” Stone tells KLCC. “But nonetheless he said, ‘Coach, what’s going to happen?’ And I said, ‘Well Kip, we don’t have any tolerance for guns on campus.  I’m not sure you’re going to be with us anymore.”

Stone says he thought that would be the last time he’d see Kinkel.  But he would be proven wrong less than a day later. 

What Stone didn’t realize was that police would release Kinkel into the custody of his father that same afternoon.  Once home, it’s believed that Bill Kinkel began making calls to see if his son could be put into military school or a program for troubled youth through the National Guard.  His son retrieved a .22 rifle and went down to the kitchen.  Once his father hung up the phone and took a swig of coffee, Kip shot him in the back of the head. 

A similar fate met Faith Kinkel when she came home a few hours later.  Kip helped her with the groceries, told her he loved her, then shot her to death.  The boy then collected a small arsenal, and planned his return to Thurston High the next morning.

Bill and Faith Kinkel (back row) with their children, Kristin and Kip, at an Oregon Ducks game (undated).

Just shy of 8am on May 21st, 1998, Kinkel drove himself to campus. He trotted over to the cafeteria. He had the .22 semiautomatic rifle, as well as two pistols and a knife.

In the breezeway, he wounded classmates Ryan Atteberry and Ben Walker.  He then entered the cafeteria and let loose with the remainder of a 50-round clip and managed a shot with a 9mm Glock handgun.

A group of students rushed Kip as he paused to reload, punching him and wrestling him into submission.

Across the hall, Stone was wrapping up a senior honor breakfast in the library.  He’d emceed the event and was putting away tablecloths when he heard the popping sounds from the cafeteria. 

“As I ran in, it was strangely quiet,” remembers Stone. He saw one of his players on the floor, shot in the leg.

“He was spurtin’ blood. I grabbed his hand, and slapped it down on his leg, and said ‘Keep pressure on that.” 

Outside he found another one of his players attempting CPR on Ben Walker. Stone saw that the student had taken a “massive” wound to the back of the head.  He waited with Walker until a paramedic arrived, then raced down the halls, pushing kids into classrooms as it was yet unknown if the threat had passed. He would also direct traffic on 58th Street, the main road outside Thurston High.

Thurston High School shooting victims Mikael Nickolauson (left) and Ben Walker (right)

Stone would learn later that 16-year-old Ben Walker died that night.  17-year-old Mikael Nicklolauson was also dead, suffering a shot fired point blank into his head by Kinkel. 

The school grounds were quickly filled with panicked parents, police, paramedics, and eventually news crews.

When Stone had finished directing traffic, he made his way back to one of the school gates, where he saw a fireman, crying.

“I said, ‘Sir, what can I do? What’s going on?’”  The fireman told Stone that his daughter went to Thurston, and he wasn’t sure she was safe.  He hadn’t heard from her.

“I immediately went in, obviously we had kids sequestered all over the building,” Stone says. “But I did have a list of kids who were wounded as well as those who passed. And immediately went back and took that list to him. He was relieved to see that his daughter was not on the list.”

Stone also witnessed one of the school fences turned into a shrine, as people gathered to leave flowers, photos, stuffed animals, and mementos honoring the shooting victims.

President Bill Clinton would also arrive a few weeks later, sharing his sympathies and concern for the students and Springfield community.

Mementos and flowers adorn a photo of slain student Mikael Nickolauson.
Credit AP

“He was warmly received, he said some amazing things to the kids,” says Stone. “I can remember saying to him, ‘It’s amazing that you’re here,’ and he said, ‘I’m not amazing. Your kids are.”

It was a bright spot in an otherwise dark period in Springfield history. Police would continue to investigate, families would mourn, and reporters would file updates as many locals – and Thurston staff – struggled to comprehend the carnage that came to their school. 

Adding to Stone’s emotional burden was his wife’s death from cancer a couple years later.

Now retired, Stone says he still relives the terror and dread whenever another school shooting makes headlines.  He’s received counseling for PTSD and grief, and wrestles with nightmares and flashbacks.  He’s written opinions in the Register Guard and The Oregonian, decrying the dozens more school shootings that’ve occurred in the last twenty years after Thurston, calling for stricter background checks and restrictions on assault weapons.  He’s also become active with Moms Against Gun Violence, Every Town For Gun Safety, and Gabby Gifford’s organization.

Don Stone, former administrator and coach at Thurston High School.

“It’s important that I speak up.  That’s part of my treatment.”

Stone also says there needs to be more done to address mental health issues, and bullying. When he looks back at Kip Kinkel, he sees a young man struggling with depression and schizophrenia, whose parents enabled his condition just months before the shooting by allowing him to quit medications.

Now as the 20th anniversary of the bloodiest school shooting in the community nears, Stone finds himself contemplating a reunion with the gunman.

“I’m struggling with this, but I would like to visit him in prison,” Stone tells KLCC. “And feel for myself if in fact, he is remorseful in terms of what happened that morning.”

Stone has not yet initiated that contact, but he has been in touch with friends of Bill and Faith Kinkel, who’ve checked on Kip and provided updates.  He’s heard that Kip is focused on working out and has turned to his Christian beliefs. But in terms of what the now 35-year-old inmate is thinking, “I have not heard too much.”

In the short term, Stone has an appointment with a Thurston Shooting survivor, whose name he’s kept anonymous.  But he says she’s asked him to meet her in the very cafeteria on the Thurston campus later this spring, to reflect on the tragedy.

“I do run into a lot of these students and staff, and it’s…heartwarming,” he says. “We have those emotions together. And we know we all care for each other.”

Tony McCown, at the Thurston Memorial just off of the school's campus in Springfield, Oregon.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

Kip’s Close Friend Sees Book Project As Cathartic

Tony McCown dismisses characterizations of Kip Kinkel as an angry, bullied teen who was fueled by shock rock, gaming, and guns.  McCown chooses instead to largely remember his best friend as a joking, smart, and somewhat underperforming student who was working under the shadow of two well-known and popular teachers in town.

“I think he struggled a lot with his father, specifically his expectations of him,” says McCown. “But you know, cute girls liked him, and he was on our football team.

Kip Kinkel, in an undated photo from high school.

“And as far as bullying goes, he was very typical, it’s way too common. Do I feel that he was bullied or was a bully? No.  Where there incidents where he picked on somebody or got picked on? Yeah, just like all of us.”

In short, McCown feels his friend Kip was very average.  Not always a model student, but no less average than many other Thurston kids. 

But McCown admits he often revisits May 20th, 1998, the day before Kinkel peppered the Thurston High School cafeteria with bullets, fatally wounding two classmates and injuring two dozen more.  He says often he feels there’s a resentment again him, for not foreseeing Kip’s shooting rampage and doing something to prevent it.

“And I’ve never really gotten confirmation that it’s any more than my own insecurities,” says McCown, sitting outside the Thurston Memorial just on the far edge of campus.

“But I still feel that I can trigger certain people and so when I come to events I’m very much in the background.  I don’t want to inflict pain simply by my presence.”

Now McCown hopes to relieve some of that pain through a book project that he’s doing with another Thurston alum.   He says it’ll be a non-fiction novel from 40-45 perspectives.

“A while back I put out a request for any content, old journal entries, and received – at one point – 57,000 words of content from a wide array of people.  Folks didn’t really realize the emotional process they’d go through in capturing that.”

McCown says many witnesses and survivors didn’t take the opportunity to sit down and write about their experiences with the Thurston Shooting. 

“And I think simply doing so has allowed people to wrap their minds around the tragedy and the instance as an adult.  And really help them on their journey, and with healing.”

McCown says he’d like to finish the manuscript by year’s end.  If there are any lessons he’d like others to take from the violent tragedy from 20 years back, it’d be to be more aware of gun safety and access. But he also thinks there needs to be greater acceptance of mental health issues.  He said Kinkel struggled with demons privately, afraid of the stigma that could follow should he openly discuss his struggles.

“Hopefully the thing we learn the most is that we should not – as a society – stigmatize mental health issues as much. We should create environments where you and adults alike can talk.”

McCown says weapons gave Kinkel a sense of security, namely from his delusions. He says in reviewing his friend’s psychological history, he expressed fears of a local man who once threatened the boy for kicking and breaking a reflective triangle that he put into the street while fixing a flat tire.  Kip also talked of a pending Chinese invasion of the United States.

McCown has talked about the Thurston Shooting and related issues with his children, ages 10 and 12. His research has often piled up in the house, which includes studies on shooters and how most are young boys. He knows there are shooter drills at schools now, and laments research that reveals nearly half of students K-12 fear directly experiencing a school shooting.

For now, McCown and his co-author are working to finalize their interview schedule, to decide who will be included in the final draft of their book. He looks forward to advancing dialogue on mental health, guns, and how the justice system handles violent, juvenile offenders.

“And those are big social conversations that we’re going to have to have,” says McCown. “Unfortunately, we’ve not had them to the depth we need to.  We have to have this conversation and make progress.”

Financial Aid Program Named In Honor of Kinkels Endangered

Bill and Faith Kinkel, in an undated photo outside their rustic house in rural Springfield.
Credit Joe Leong / Findagrave.com

Within a year of the Thurston Shooting, educators had managed to create a scholarship honoring Bill and Faith Kinkel, the first victims of their son’s rampage…one way to wrest some good out of a horrific tragedy.

Found shot to death in their remote, sylvan home, the couple were regarded as passionate teachers who loved exploring foreign cultures. The Kinkels lived abroad in Spain for a year, and inspired students to think globally.

“The goal was to have four scholarships for students that study a second language,” says Gladys Campbell, a retired Spanish teacher who taught for 27 years in the Springfield School District.

“It was in their name, and their daughter, Kristin, was on the original committee.”

“The scholarships committee put on an auction held in the Springfield Senior Center to earn the first funding we had,” explains Rae LaMarche, another retired teacher who also used to work for the district. “In addition, there was some payroll deduction offered to staff.”

Rae LaMarche and Gladys Campbells, both former foreign language teachers for the Springfield School District, and friends of Bill and Faith Kinkel.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

20 years later, many of those staff members have retired, leaving the future of the Bill and Faith Kinkel Scholarship in doubt.  To date, nearly 70 have been awarded, totaling roughly $35,000.  

“If enough gets raised it could become an endowment and support itself,” says Campbell.

She and LaMarche encourage anyone who wishes to support the scholarship to make a donation to the Springfield School District under Bill and Faith’s name.

Special thanks to Alec Cowan and Deonna Anderson, for their assistance in transcribing interviews for this project. Thanks as well to KLCC's Ronnel Curry for her assistance in connecting me with several key sources.  And more thanks to KLCC's News Director Rachael McDonald, and KLCC's Program Director, Terry Gildea, for their input and editorial guidance.  - BB

Copyright 2018, KLCC.