Oregon town grapples with question of blame What drove student to acts of violence?

May 24, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SPRINGFIELD, Ore. -- It's the Police Department's fault for releasing a teen-ager caught with a gun in his high school locker. It's the teacher's fault for not noticing a troubled charge. It's the students' fault for dismissing talk of murder as youthful swagger. It's the parents' fault for not controlling their child.

Theories in this logging town are as common as the blue mourning ribbons wrapped around fir trees. People are trying to explain how 15-year-old Kipland Phillip Kinkel could have killed his parents, then calmly sprayed his school cafeteria with automatic gunfire Thursday, wounding 21 classmates and killing two at Thurston High.

With the slightly built freshman arraigned as an adult on four counts of aggravated murder, this small city nestled in the Willamette Valley is trying to puzzle out what went wrong. It is as if residents hope they can attribute the killings to a mistake or neglect and thereby find a way to prevent other tragedies.

But in trying to understand, not everyone has overlooked the suspect himself.

"This is not about student safety or Thurston," the school principal, Larry Bentz, told hundreds of citizens at a City Hall vigil Friday night. "It is about a tortured soul of a young man. It's not about youth. It's about Kip Kinkel."

The principal, in a booming, angry voice, said he was proud of his school, his community, his police and the system. "We might as well stop asking why. We will never know."

The day of the shooting, Springfield's school superintendent called Kinkel "a typical kid." And in court Friday, head bowed, Kinkel showed no emotion.

But police officers said Kinkel, now on suicide watch in a juvenile facility, had been combative while in custody.

Shortly after his arrest Thursday, officers said, Kinkel slipped his cuffed hands from behind his back to his front and lunged at an officer with a Buck pocket knife he had taped to an ankle. The officer used pepper spray to subdue him.

The son of highly regarded Spanish teachers who reportedly were concerned about their son's temper, Kinkel was jokingly voted "Most Likely to Start World War III" by his middle school classmates. Students said he bragged about torturing animals and making pipe bombs.

The Kinkels reportedly sent their son to a psychiatrist and took him out of school for a time to teach him at home.

According to the New York Times, he recently told classmates that he idolized the Unabomber and "the guys who did the Oklahoma City bombing."

"He always said it would be funny if someone blew up the school and went on a rampage," said Dale Coon, 16, a sophomore at Thurston, who often rode the bus with Kip, the Times reported.

Friday night, the bodies of Kinkel's parents, Faith and William, were finally carried out of their secluded, upscale home. Before police could move the bodies, investigators had to dispose of five bombs, some of them hidden in crawl spaces.

The last bomb, police said yesterday, went off. But officers would not say whether it exploded in the house or outside.

Guns and ammunition found

The police also discovered a collection of weapons, ammunition and bomb-making literature pulled from the Internet.

Funerals were being planned for Kinkel's parents and the slain students, Mikael Nickolauson, 17, a math whiz, and Ben Walker, 16. Worried parents sat at bedsides in two hospitals.

Jacob Ryker, 17, the school wrestler who knocked Kinkel to the ground when he paused to reload, remained in serious condition with a chest wound.

Thirteen of the 21 students wounded by gunfire remained hospitalized, two still in critical condition yesterday -- including the daughter of a local sheriff's deputy. The most seriously wounded student was Tony Case, who had gunshot wounds to his chest, abdomen and leg.

Some residents in Springfield -- in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains, in the heart of the Pacific Northwest -- were beginning to return to their old routines yesterday as a cold, drizzly rain fell from a gloomy sky.

Trucks stacked high with hefty logs rumbled down Main Street. White smoke from bustling sawmills billowed against a green mountain backdrop. The Thurston High track team won a league championship.

But there was no escaping the crime that put this city of 51,000 on the nation's front pages. Track team members hung their jersey numbers on the high school's chain-link fence, which has become a 200-foot-long memorial to the dead and wounded.

Thursday morning's rampage was the latest in a series of shootings by students at schools across the nation. And fitting the pattern, it happened in the most unassuming of places.

Springfield is a bedroom town bordering Eugene, Oregon's second largest city. Ninety miles south of Portland, Springfield was settled in the mid-1800s by lumberjacks. Lumber mills still dominate the city, but the decline of the forestry industry here has forced Springfield to improvise by turning high-tech.

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