When Gun Violence Arrived in Our Town
On January 10, 2001, a gunman attacked two locations in Nevada City, California. He killed three people, injuring two others. At the time, I taught second grade. We did not have protocols in place for active shooters (we had safety plans but not the extensive binders and drills that are in place today). We did plan extensively after this event, including drills. It never got any easier to hold children through the drills or actual Lockdowns. This day changed the conversations about “if an active shooter,” or “if the school is under threat.” Instead, we said “when an active shooter…” or “when the school is under threat.” The cloud of anxiety and preparedness covered the sky of childhood and never went away.
I wrote this in the aftermath of that Wednesday. Names of students, teachers, and staff are changed (even though none of the people in this memoir work at the school today). Names of the victims are true. They are remembered.
“Big storm,” he said.
“That’s hard to believe,” I answered.
“Trust me. It might snow.”
“Sure. I better go. I don’t want to be late for school.”
I drove past the ponds and cattails and black oaks. The clouds overhead arced white with gray underbellies. Sunlight caressed the golden hillsides, shone on the dark leaves still wet from yesterday’s rain. This was clearing weather. Still, he had access to satellite images. I could only see the sky.
Around 10am, the sky darkened. Clouds rolled in with tangled winds that tossed tree limbs. The kids played outside even though they complained about the cold. “Wear a coat,” we answered. After lunch, they settled down with knitting and finger weaving while I read the final chapters of The Trumpet of the Swan. Louis the Swan found his true love and raised a family on a remote Canadian lake. We celebrated the happiness of dreams realized. We drew pictures and wrote about our favorite scene, which was hard to choose. Was it the night spent in the Ritz hotel? Or finding his love? Or the young swan pulling the little boy’s shoelace? I hurried to the art room for more paper.
“Have you heard?” The art teacher said in the hall, a hint of frenzy in her voice. “A gunman is loose in town. He’s killed three people and they haven’t caught him.”
“He won’t find us here,” The principal reassured us. “Our maintenance man is down by the road and he’s not letting any cars up. We’re fine.”
I returned to class after knitting together my own panic thoughts into a sense of calm. Students sense energy. My calm had to be calmer than deep lakes and summer skies. My second graders drew swans, fretting about the shape of the neck and the angle of wings, while adults whispered patchy information away from students. “We could be here until 5:00,” our principal cautioned. “Plan some activities.”
We told students that there was an emergency in town without any details about the emergency. Which was easy to believe as the rain pounded outside and the trees shook in the wind. “Everyone need us here,” I said when they noticed school should have ended ten minutes ago. "They need to make sure we’re safe. And we’ll go once they’ve taken care of things.”
But we let the kids’ parents pick up as usual, and it was with shock that I turned on the radio after the kids left, their resplendent drawings in a neat stack with sentences about trust and hope and family, to learn that the gunman was still loose. Not only that, he had attacked two locations, the Health and Human Services building and Lyon’s restaurant. Three people were dead. Two others were in critical condition.
Lyon’s restuarant. Lyon’s with the orange green carpeting, the Formica wood tables and cushy bench seats where my fiancé, Giovanni, and I ordered breakfast at midnight after bowling last Saturday. I lost the bowling game so I had to buy breakfast. And the host seated us in a booth near the kitchen. He was a young man with bright eyes and a dark goatee and mustache. I’m getting old, I thought, seeing his the button down shirt, meaning he was in charge, and looking so young. Our waitress was full of energy, smiling and teasing the cooks. Off duty employees sat at the counter and waitresses joked with them. Our waitress yelled from the kitchen, through the pass through window, “I’m cooking your breakfast!”
“Right on!” We laughed.
She served us plates of pancakes and eggs. “I’m off now,” she announced. “I’m on vacation.” And she took off her apron, sitting at the counter, ordering a shot of tequila for herself and another off-duty waitress.
“I cooked their breakfast,” she commented to the manager as he sat down with them.
“Is it good?” he asked us.
“Very good,” we answered.
She drank her shot of tequila, sucking on a lime afterwards. “You could be his mother, you know,” she said to her waitress-friend.
“Really?” She asked. “How old are you?”
“He’s 24,” she said. “Can you believe he’s only 24?”
The other waitress said, “I have a son that’s 28.”
“See? You could easily be his mother!”
He shrugged and smiled.
“I can’t believe you’re only 24.”
And he had four days to live.
The kids left, running through the drenching rain with their parents. Headlights in the gloomy storm headed up the hill and away from school.
“Go home,” our principal advised. “Everyone just go home and be safe.”
On the radio, the sheriff and doctors talked about surgeries and the state of the victims. I had errands to run, appointments to meet, but the world crystallized. All the small stuff turned to dust and fell to the floor as the great importance of everyday connections became solid. The junk no longer mattered when the very balance of life and death, whole and broken, together and apart, hovered in uncertain space. And I drove home.
I watched for a blue mini-van, which was reported to be the gunman’s vehicle. I flicked on the television at hom. The TV brought images to the stories, visions of policeman and Lyon’s with the blinds all drawn. And pictures of victims and, sure enough, there was the young manager, his face clean-shaven, but still the same warm eyes. They posted the shooter’s description:
A man in his 40s-50s, with dishwater blonde hair parted down the middle and a beard and mustache, about 6ft tall, heavyset, and wearing a tan and black flannel jacket.
Giovanni and I mused that the description matched about half of the male population in rural Grass Valley and Nevada City. We locked the door for the first time in a year. The phone started ringing as people across the state saw the news and called us to see that we were okay.
“Still could snow,” Giovanni mused as evening shaded trees. Rain pounded on the roof and the news covered outages, floods, and huge waves washing over the embarcadero in San Francisco. Trees leaned with the wind.
“What do you mean, they haven’t caught him?” My mom asked on the phone.
“Well, it’s not like LA where he has to go somewhere where people will see him. Here, he can drive into the woods and disappear into a shack or whatever for as long as he wants. It’s easy to disappear around here.”
But he didn’t disappear. He called his brother in Sacramento, a policeman. “I shot those people in Nevada City today,” he said. And his brother called the local authorities. The shooter was arrested seven hours after the shootings.
“At last, it’s over,” we said.
But it wasn’t over. Snow coated the ground the next morning, decorating trees and giving the world a hushed beauty. At school, the kids gathered in uneasy groups. Kyra pulled Joe through the hall and when I asked what they were doing she said, “Arresting him. You know, like with the guy last night.”
“He shot 7 people,” they said in close clusters. “No, six,” another answered. “One jumped out of a second story window to get away.”
And I stopped the games and rumors, cautioning them to remember that this was real and best discussed with family, not at school. In morning circle, we shared feelings. Every second grade student had a connection. “My mom works in that building so I’m glad she’s okay.” “One of the people who died was my neighbor and I didn’t know her real well but it still makes me sad.”
All day, emotions ran high and fear skated under the surface of reading and math and recess. At dismissal, I found a group hanging back in the entry, far from the doors. “Come on,” I said, heading for the parking lot.
“No,” they answered. “He’s out there.”
“Who’s out there?”
“We saw a blue mini-van and he drove a blue mini-van. It could be him.”
“He’s in jail. He’s not going anywhere. They have him locked up.”
“But he could get out.”
“No, he can’t. They have a lot of guards and he’s behind bars.”
“Like in a cage?”
“Yes, kind of like that.”
“Did they take his gun away?”
“Of course. They took everything away. They took away the gun and his wallet and his clothes.”
They laughed. “So he’s naked?”
“No, they gave him new clothes. Bright orange ones, I think.”
“I thought they wore black and white.”
“Not anymore. Come on, your parents are waiting to pick you up.”
They wondered if he wore black and white clothes like a zebra as they followed me into the wet world outside. Their images of jail were scarce, not having known violence like this before in our community. They laughed. “Dustin's dad drives a blue mini-van,” they said with relief.
“We’re safe,” I assured them as we approached the cars. I hoped that they believed me.
He shot 19-year-old Laura Wilcox, on break from college and helping fill in at the Health Department. He shot her through the glass at the reception desk. And 68 year old Pearle was a loving woman who had brought her husband that morning for an appointment. She was waiting in the reception area for her husband to be finished. Others were wounded. One woman jumped from a window, breaking her leg and injuring her hip.
And then he drove to Lyon’s, marching into the kitchen area and demanding to see the manager, who came from an office in the back, only to be shot repeatedly. The killer insisted that the restaurant had tried to poison him.
“The manager was dead before he hit the ground,” the cook said.
Mike Markle was 24 years old, a father with two young children, who had worked at Lyon’s for an entire week.
The two cooks scrambled through the kitchen’s pass through area as the gunman turned his attention towards them, a few feet from where we ate breakfast Saturday night, each cook running for a different door, one through the front and the other through the back. The one in the back had no idea that he had been followed and, as he dialed 911 on his cell phone, he was shot three times through the truck door.
The CHP passed the gunman as he drove away. Racing towards the mental health building, they turned around as frantic calls came in from Lyon’s restaurant.
With his arrest, we’d get some answers. But the answers didn’t help much. His name is Scott Thorpe. They showed him on TV along with pictures of the victims, He’d been unhappy with Mental Health Services. Eight years ago he was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and agoraphobia, the fear of public places. His only run in with the police had been in 1988 for a drunk driving incident. He felt that Lyon’s was poisoning him. The rest of his files were locked away in a crime scene where no one was permitted. The District Attorney would seek the death penalty. He stood at his arraignment with bulletproof armor and a distance in his eyes.
The community left flowers at Lyon’s, left at the Health building. We visited the makeshift memorial by this restaurant that meant so little, really, another diner with wild carpeting and mediocre food, where flowers now piled up around the sign with poetry and balloons. Another couple left flowers and a note. She cried, shaking in the cold damp air. Amidst all of these endings, we would never truly end the pain from that Wednesday, from the casual connections in a small town, to the bonds of family and friends, the difficult realization that even here we were not immune, especially here we were not immune, because these were not strangers. This was our backyard, our roots and our home
And standing there, as cars rushed past on wet streets, the snow all melted now and a full moon rising into a vast dark sky, I knew there would be no answers. This was a story without an ending and all we could do was keep that vision that the devastation brought, that clear understanding of what really matters.
Fight to keep the suffering from touching any other community ever again.
Following the terrible events of this day, Laura’s Law was passed in California. Laura’s Law allows for court-ordered assistant outpatient treatment. The Mental Health building where she died closed shortly after the attack. A new building housing the Children’s Behavioral Health and Children’s Protective Services is named the Laura L. Wilcox Building. I drive past it almost every day. And I remember.
These massacres devastate families and change communities forever. Every single time. Time for change. Now.
We don't need names on buildings. We need safe communities. Today.
The local paper’s account of that Wednesday is here: https://www.theunion.com/news/local-news/15-years-ago-three-slain-by-gunman-in-nevada-county/
My response as a teacher to the shootings at Sandy Hook is here. An entire generation of children has grown up under this cloud of Active Shooter Scenarios. Enough is enough..