The Devil In Red Lake

  • Ashley Lajeunesse was doing math homework in study hall when she heard the first shotgun blast. She thought it was a student dropping a stack of textbooks. Then came another bang. Then another. The other students in the room looked up in sudden, knowing panic. No one could speak. The teacher in charge, Neva Rogers, walked to the door, turned the lock and shut off the lights. She too sensed what was happening.

    A gunman was in the school, and he was heading their way.

    Rogers ordered the students to the back of the room and told them to hide wherever they could. Freshman Felicia Hanks, 14, stuck her head inside a bookshelf as the shooting grew deafeningly near. Lajeunesse crouched near her friend Chase Lussier. "Chase shoved me down and told me to stay behind him," says Lajeunesse, 15. The door handle jiggled. A gunshot exploded the glass panel beside it and then, through the opening, a hand reached in to open the door. In strolled a hulking figure, more than 6 ft. tall, with a 12-gauge shotgun held with both hands. He wore a black hooded trench coat, a black bandanna and black pants. His black military boots crunched the broken glass.

    Lajeunesse peeked over Lussier to look at the gunman. "His face was a mixture of anger and fear," she recalls. Their eyes met. He raised his gun and fired. Lajeunesse ducked. She felt something warm and wet coating her jeans. It was Lussier's blood. "I thought I was going to die," Lajeunesse says, but her friend had taken the fatal blow.

    "Chase saved my life."

    The teacher spoke up. "God be with us," said Rogers. Provoked, the gunman shot her. He then aimed at another student, Chon'gai'la Morris, and asked, "Do you believe in God?"

    "No," came the answer. The gunman turned away and found other targets, shooting and killing Dewayne Lewis, Thurlene Stillday, Chanelle Rosebear and Alicia White as they huddled on the floor. He left the room and exchanged fire with police officers, who were advancing down the hallway. Retreating into Rogers' classroom, he yelled, "I have hostages!" Then he turned a gun on himself and pulled the trigger. Silent throughout the ordeal, the surviving students began to scream.

    The massacre at Red Lake, with 10 dead, was the worst school shooting since 15 died at Columbine on April 20, 1999. There are clear parallels with the Colorado incident: merciless gunfire, the black trench coat, the life-or-death question. But Red Lake has its disturbing distinctions. Instead of an affluent community, the setting this time was an impoverished reservation of the proud Ojibwa Nation in Minnesota. The terrifying revelation of Columbine was that caring parents could overlook signs of trouble in their offspring; the trouble in Red Lake centered on a clearly confused young man who had no parent to turn to for counsel or support, who used box cutters to slit his wrists in abortive suicide attempts even as he experimented with identities in the shadows of cyberspace.

    Jeff Weise, 16, didn't really grow up in Red Lake; he just ended up there. His earlier years were spent in Minneapolis, about 250 miles to the south. His family moved often between the city's suburbs, and for a year they lived in a rented mobile home behind a pickle factory. "He seemed like a normal kid to me, except that he liked to be alone," says Patrick Tahahwah, a family member who lived two doors down from Weise when the boy was 7. In 1997, his father committed suicide. In 1999, his mother was in a car accident that led to major brain damage. Weise was then sent to live with his relatives on the Red Lake reservation. "There wasn't anywhere else for him to go," Tahahwah says. The main town on the reservation is made up of mobile homes and factory-built houses. Its roads have no street signs. "This place is crap," says Cory Desjarlait, 27, the son of the Red Lake school's superintendent.

    At school in Red Lake, Weise became known as a goth, dressing almost exclusively in black and sculpting his hair into spikes and horns.

    Many classmates saw his drawings of guns, Nazi soldiers, and people being shot and hanged. "I'd go over and talk to him, ask him how he was doing," says Cody Thunder, 15, whom Weise later shot in the hip during the school rampage. "He always talked about guns."

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