"The Kids Got In The Way"

  • He always paid the rent and never bothered anybody. His friends and neighbors say Buford O. ("Neal") Furrow loved children. He was a good pal to his stepson. A co-worker even insists that Furrow's kindness and reliability overshadowed the fact that he was a proud white supremacist. That's not unusual in the corridor that runs from the coast through the wilds of Washington State to neighboring Idaho, where tolerance and intolerance share a fragile coexistence. Nor should it have mattered that Neal Furrow had a familiarity with guns in a region where hunting is a pastime, if not a rite of passage. His parents live next door to Olympic Arms, a mom-and-pop manufacturer of gun parts, in the rural Nisqually Valley. Indeed, the thump-thump of artillery is a part of the audible landscape, thanks to a howitzer-firing range at nearby Fort Lewis.

    Yet those who know Furrow well had been worried about him for months. Jailed after brandishing a knife at a psychiatric hospital, the heavyset mechanic had been on medication and living at his parents' home since his release on probation last May. His parents confided in neighbors Clint and Bernice Merrill that they feared Furrow would crack. Loni Merrill, who has known Furrow and his family since the two went to junior high school together, recalls her mother saying just a few months ago, "I really hope Neal doesn't get a gun." He had seemed fine for a while, tending his parents' mobile home and staying there with his mother, who is suffering from the onset of Alzheimer's, whenever his father was away. But then on Saturday, Aug. 7, Furrow up and left. "I have to get out for a while," he told his parents. "I've been here too long."

    Furrow headed for Los Angeles, carrying an AR-15 rifle, an Israeli-made Uzi, several handguns and stockpiles of ammunition accumulated over the years. He had apparently cased three Jewish institutions in the city--the Skirball Cultural Center, the University of Judaism and the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance--before deciding their security was too tight. Then, three days after leaving Washington, he pulled off the freeway into the Granada Hills area of Los Angeles and saw his target. Police say he walked into the lobby of the North Valley Jewish Community Center carrying the Uzi and opened fire, spraying bullets in a sweeping motion from right to left, leaving a room filled with acrid smoke and more than 70 shells scattered on the floor. By the time he ran out the door moments later, a 68-year-old receptionist, a 16-year-old camp counselor at the day-care center and three children were wounded. "Just shooting like a maniac," says Victor Ruelas, 19, a maintenance worker who carried the most seriously wounded of the children, Benjamin Kadish, 5, to safety. When told of the extent of the boy's injuries, Ruelas hung his head. "I didn't know he was shot in the back too."

    After hijacking a green Toyota Camry, Furrow drove to the sparsely populated residential area of Chatsworth and spotted Joseph Ileto, 39, a Filipino-American postman making his midday rounds. Furrow got out and asked Ileto to mail a letter, then started firing a Glock 9-mm pistol he had drawn from his back pocket. Hit by two shots, Ileto struggled to run away, but Furrow opened fire again, killing him.

    Almost 24 hours later, after a 275-mile trip and an $800 cab fare to Las Vegas, Furrow calmly turned himself in to federal authorities and allegedly heralded his shooting spree as "a wake-up call to America to kill Jews." In a year in which mass killings have ravaged every place from high schools to stock-trading floors, Furrow exposed a new area of vulnerability: day-care centers. Furthermore, he refocused attention on America's geography of violent intolerance, one that emerged from the shadows after the attack on Oklahoma City and this time came out of the woods of Washington and Idaho, where a religion of hatred lurks.

    Experts who track that shadowy faith warn that anxiety over the approaching millennium, the power of the Internet and a new emphasis on independent action rather than group effort may contribute to a kind of domestic terrorism that is harder to track and impossible to anticipate. At its heart are an unknown cohort of largely disgruntled white males, many of whom, like Furrow, have failed so many times that they've given up trying to succeed in the mainstream of American life. Spurred on by the rhetoric of a handful of racist high priests, they are turning increasingly to violence. Says Danny Coulson, the 31-year FBI veteran who arrested Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh: "They are basically a bunch of losers who have to find someone they hate more than themselves."

    That about sums up Furrow. Acquaintances recall the son of a career Air Force enlisted man as a bookish, nerdy, chubby kid with few friends and a first name that drew plenty of scorn. "He would not be called Buford," says neighbor and classmate Merrill, who says Furrow preferred the name Neal. At Timberline High School in Lacey, Wash., she adds, "he was kind of like a shadow. He didn't make an impression." Still, by Merrill's account, Furrow was curious and bright enough to go on to community college after an aborted stint in the Army (he was honorably discharged because of a bad knee). He studied engineering and then landed a series of solid jobs, including a stint at a Northrop Grumman plant near Rosamond, Calif., 40 miles from Granada Hills, where the shooting was to take place.

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