On Friday, February 2, 1996, Barry Loukaitis, an eighth grader at Frontier Junior High School in Moses Lake, Washington, arms himself with a rifle and two handguns, walks into his fifth-period Algebra class and shoots to death Manuel Vela Jr., 14; Arnie Fritz, 14; and teacher Leona Caires, a 49-year-old mother of four. Loukaitis, 14, then holds the class hostage at gunpoint before he is subdued by gym teacher Jonathan Lane. Loukaitis, 16 when his trial ends, is tried as an adult, convicted of murder and kidnapping, and sentenced to two life terms plus 205 years, with no chance of parole. On April 19, 2017, he is resentenced to 189 years in prison.
It was so cold in Moses Lake on February 2, 1996 that classes at Frontier Junior High School started two hours late to allow students to arrange for rides rather than have to wait for school buses in frigid temperatures. The late start gave Barry Loukaitis lots of time alone at home. His father, Terry Loukaitis, had left early that morning for the sandwich shop he owned in Ellensburg, 60 miles away. Barry's mother, JoAnn Phillips, left later to open the restaurant they owned in Moses Lake.
His parents' marriage was the second for both, and although they still lived under the same roof, they were in the middle of an acrimonious divorce. Loukaitis had stepbrothers and sisters, but he was the only child living at home with two angry adults. He spent much of his time reading. Police would find 28 books by Stephen King in his bedroom; on his nightstand was Rage, a novel about a high school senior who has a confrontation with his principal, retrieves a gun from his locker, and shoots his Algebra teacher.
Testimony at Loukaitis' trial would reveal that he was teased at Frontier Junior High about his turbulent home life, his big feet, his gangly build, his studiousness, and the cowboy clothes he liked to wear. Friends would describe him as smart and nerdy, but with a dark side. He had started to make references to death and killing. He seemed more detached.
Testimony also would show that Loukaitis was familiar with Pearl Jam's music video, Jeremy, inspired by the true account of a teenager killing himself in front of his English class in Richardson, Texas in 1991. In the video, a bored, miserable boy is depicted as unloved by his parents, who fight in front of him. He is an outcast at school, taunted by students. According to Terry Loukaitis, one of his son's favorite movies was Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, a satire in which mass murderers are glorified by the media. Phillips had rented the movie for her son, who watched it over and over. They never returned it to the store (Terry Loukaitis interview with author).
Terry Loukaitis owned three guns. As the son of an Iowa farmer, he had grown up with firearms and got his first rifle as a Christmas gift when he was 12. He taught Barry to shoot, as his father had taught him. Terry Loukaitis said he kept the guns locked in the trunk of his car because he was worried about JoAnn Phillips' emotional state. She found them and began carrying one of the handguns in the pocket of her jacket. Then the other guns disappeared from Terry Loukaitis' car. He said he called the Moses Lake police twice to report that he was worried about his soon-to-be ex-wife taking and hiding guns. He said police never followed up (Terry Loukaitis interview).
It didn't occur to Terry Loukaitis to worry about his son. "I didn't see anything," he said years later. "Out of all my kids, I thought he was the most normal. He was the quietest, the smartest" (Terry Loukaitis interview). Terry said he didn't know about the teasing, that Barry had been called a "faggot" by classmate Manuel Vela Jr. in the days before the shooting, and that he was writing dark stories in English class. He didn't know that for seven days leading up to the shooting, his son was trapped in what a psychiatrist would describe as a "psychotic delusion" ("Loukaitis Delusional …").
Horror at Frontier Junior High
After his parents left for work, Loukaitis armed himself. His mother had hidden her husband's rifle and two handguns in the kitchen cupboards; Loukaitis took them out and loaded them. A couple of weeks earlier, he had persuaded his mother to let him spend more than $200 from his savings on a cowboy duster, like the coat Clint Eastwood wore in High Plains Drifter. He cut out one of the pockets so he could carry the Winchester .30-30 under the coat and close to his side. He put 78 rounds of ammunition in his pockets.
In the early afternoon, Loukaitis walked the mile and a half to school in the bitter cold. It was 2 p.m. and fifth period had just started. He entered Frontier Junior High through a backdoor, walked through the empty cafeteria, and turned left. His Algebra classroom was through the first door on the right.
The teacher, 49-year old Leona Caires, a mother of four, was giving an example at the blackboard. Loukaitis entered the room, pulled out the rifle, and shot Manuel Vela Jr., who was sitting in the front row. He would claim he hadn't planned to hurt other students, but the spray of bullets also killed Arnie Fritz, who was sitting behind Vela Jr., and blasted through the right arm of 13-year old Natalie Hintz, who was nearby. Then he shot Caires in the back. She fell to the floor still clutching the chalk and eraser in her hand.
"This sure beats Algebra," Loukaitis said to the horrified class, adapting a line, "This sure beats panty raids," from Rage ("Scarred By Killings …").
Two doors down, gym coach Jonathan Lane was teaching a math class. "I heard something that I knew was not right, popping," he said. "I left the classroom. As soon as I was in the hallway, I smelled gun smoke" (Jonathan Lane interview with author). Lane opened the door to the Algebra class, saw the bodies of three students and the teacher on the floor and Loukaitis holding a rifle, and dived behind the teacher's desk. He was inches from Leona Caires' body. "Get up, Mr. Lane," Loukaitis asked politely. "No, Barry," the teacher said. "I'm afraid" (Lane interview).
Stephen Caires, Frontier's assistant principal and the husband of Leona Caires, opened the door slightly, enough to see his wife on the floor. "How is Leona?" he cried out. Lane was in too much shock to pretend things weren't serious. "I think she's dead," he told her husband. Caires closed the door and went for help (Lane interview).
Over the next few minutes Loukaitis ordered the rest of the class to line up against a back wall. Lane rose to try to check the condition of the students who had been shot. He could see that at least one or more of the students on the floor were dead. A girl in the class with diabetes was ill. He asked Loukaitis if he could take her out to the hallway and he said yes. Lane carried her out, and then with the shooter's permission he carried Natalie Hintz out of the room. When Lane told Loukaitis that it looked like Arnie Fritz was hurt and might die, Loukaitis said, "So let him die" (Lane interview).
Loukaitis decided to take Lane hostage and indicated he was going to put the end of the rifle into the teacher's mouth. By now, police were in the hallway and trying to communicate with Loukaitis. Then, during a split second when he was holding the rifle pointed at the ceiling, Lane charged him. The gym teacher, who had been a champion wrestler when he was young, pinned Loukaitis and his gun against a wall. Some 10 minutes after it began, the horror was over.
Jury Rejects Insanity Defense
About two hours after the shooting, Loukaitis was questioned at the Moses Lake Police Department. The first to interrogate him was Sgt. Dave Ruffin, who coaxed the 14-year-old to explain the incident.
Ruffin: How did you hold the weapon at the time, 'cause isn't this a lever action, one you have to pump back and forth with the lever?
Loukaitis: Well, I had loaded it and then cocked it, so …
Ruffin: OK, so it was already charged?
Loukaitis: Yeah, so the hammer was down and so when I walked in, well, I pulled the hammer back, then I opened the door, walked in …
Ruffin: And shot … shot … you aimed at Manuel?
Loukaitis: (Response inaudible)
Ruffin: OK, now the other people that got hit, were those accidentals or were you trying to hit them or just … that was just kinda crazy then?
Loukaitis: That was kinda crazy. It might have been deliberate, and it might have been …
Ruffin: So … so …
Ruffin: The only two deliberate ones woulda been …
Loukaitis: I believe it was deliberate.
Ruffin: The only two positively deliberate ones would be Mrs. Caires and Manuel?
Loukaitis: The only positive, deliberate one was Manuel ("How Many … Were Shot?").
Up until the eve of his trial, including during the critical hearing in Ephrata to determine whether he would be tried as a juvenile or as an adult, Loukaitis was represented by a Grant County public defender who was later declared incompetent and disbarred. Other lawyers quickly stepped in. Loukaitis was tried as an adult and pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. Because finding an impartial jury in Grant County was deemed unlikely, his trial was moved to Seattle. Jury selection began on August 18, 1997.
During the trial, Loukaitis' attorneys introduced evidence of five generations of depression in his family. Dr. Julia Moore, a psychiatrist who saw Loukaitis more than a dozen times between his arrest and trial, testified that he had been psychotic and in a "robot-like" trance when he opened fire. She said his mother, who was bipolar, had committed "emotional incest" with her son ("Loukaitis Delusional …"), becoming dependent on him as her marriage deteriorated. Phillips testified that she turned to her son for companionship early on; when he was in kindergarten, she would keep him out of school so the two could be together. "He would cry at school because he missed me, and I missed him … so I let him stay home," she told the jury ("Loukaitis Delusional …").
Phillips and Terry Loukaitis had filed for divorce less than a month before the shooting. Phillips testified that she told her son of a plan to tie up Terry Loukaitis and his supposed lover on Valentine's Day and tell them at gunpoint how miserable their affair had made her. Then, she would surprise them by turning the gun on herself. She said she encouraged her son to commit suicide with her, but that Barry Loukaitis pleaded with her not to go through with it, even suggesting that she write about her plan instead. Phillips said she gave no thought to the effect her behavior had on her son. "I was so depressed and consumed about how I was feeling, I didn't pay much attention to whether it bothered Barry or how he was feeling" ("Loukaitis' Mother Says …").
Loukaitis watched from the defense table as his mother testified. Her eyes never met his. The jury rejected his insanity defense and found him guilty of murder and kidnapping. Sixteen years old at the end of his trial, he was sentenced to serve two life sentences and an additional 205 years without the possibility of parole.
Moses Lake Grieves, Begins to Heal
The town of Moses Lake moved on as best it could. At a community meeting called to discuss the shooting, Terry Loukaitis spoke, apologized for his son's actions, and was met with unusual sympathy and no outward hatred. The students of Frontier Junior High wanted to take back their classroom, which they did as soon as it was cleaned up. After the shooting, messages appeared on the signs of Moses Lake buildings. A reader board at Taco Time said: Pray for Our Children. Another said: Our Children Need Us. One just said: Why?
The Moses Lake shooting foretold a horrible trend. Three years later, two teenagers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado stunned the country by murdering 12 students, one teacher, and wounding 21 other people before killing themselves. They wore long, western-style coats. They wrote angry missives and journal entries. In quick succession after Moses Lake came mass shootings in Springfield, Oregon; at Columbine; Virginia Tech; Newtown, Connecticut, and numerous other schools and colleges.
Because he subdued Loukaitis by pinning the boy and his rifle against a wall, Jonathan Lane became the hero of the Moses Lake school shooting. He was the subject of a television show about heroes. The pilot episode, with Lane, was shown but the concept never became a series. Lane left Moses Lake for a while to be a principal in another town. But he eventually moved back, returned to teaching at Frontier, served on the city council, and was elected mayor. He said he saw a mental health counselor in Seattle just once, but mourned every time America had another shooting.
Mostly, he wanted to help bring about change. Not long after the Moses Lake shooting, Lane went to Washington, D.C. and testified before a House committee and met with the Secret Service, which was preparing a report on school shootings. Published in 2002, the report concluded that schools were placing false hope in physical security -- such as metal detectors or arming teachers -- when they should be paying more attention to the pre-attack behaviors of students. As for the influence of video games and books, "maybe they don't cause" school shootings, Lane said later, "but they contribute." He faulted low church attendance in the U.S. and out-of-touch parents. "Schools have become the parents to children," he said. "Families need to pull together. Barry had no adult he could talk to" (Lane interview).
Today Moses Lake profits from high-tech companies that have built large data storage facilities nearby, and from the manufacturing of materials used in solar panels and semiconductors, but in 1996 it was a town of just 13,000 people, many of them farmers, factory workers, and owners of tourist shops lining the shores of the 18-mile lake. Until the shooting, the town was mostly known as the place Robert Craig Knievel owned a Honda motorcycle dealership in the 1960s, before he became the daredevil Evel Knievel.
Many of the students in Mrs. Caires' fifth-period Algebra class had emotional problems after the shooting. Some got into trouble with the law. Ten months after the tragedy, a 15-year-old cousin of Arnie Fritz's, Aaron Moore, apparently distraught by his cousin's death, shot and killed his mother, his stepsister, and himself. A few years later, Arnie's father, Phil Fritz, killed himself while visiting his son's grave. Natalie Hintz was one of the more resilient ones. She had numerous surgeries for her arm but remained upbeat, quipping that she "used to be right-handed."
Terry Loukaitis stayed in Moses Lake for a few years, and then moved to the Tacoma area. He was married and divorced for a third time. In an interview with a Spokane television station after the Virginia Tech shooting in April 2007, he said it brought back horrifying memories. He said, for the perpetrator's family, the first few days are "like you're living in a nightmare and you hope you're going to wake up and it will stop." But it doesn't. "You don't forget anything. You learn to live with it" He said he owned a .22 single-shot rifle and was not in touch with Barry's mother. He said families need to be more aware of a young person's loneliness and depression, and that he had not known that his son was writing angry and violent things at school.
'Weak and Evil and Senseless'
The years passed. Terry Loukaitis visited his son in prison about once a month, and they emailed between visits. When he was a young inmate, Loukaitis mostly kept to himself. Early on, he worked making blue jeans and furniture. He finished high school and earned a college degree in business. As of 2019, he was inmate #771782 at Clallam Bay Corrections Center in Clallam Bay. The medium- and maximum-security prison sits on a peninsula across from British Columbia on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, about as far northwest as one can drive in Washington.
After the shooting deaths of 20 children and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012, Barry Loukaitis considered speaking out for the first time. He wanted to encourage young people to open up to their parents. He had advice for parents, too. But the attorneys who represented Loukaitis at his 1997 trial wanted him to keep a low profile. In 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life terms without the possibility of parole violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. His attorneys were uneasy about how the victims' families might react to the new development. More than 2,000 juveniles serving life without parole might get new sentences. Loukaitis was one of them.
On April 19, 2017, Loukaitis was resentenced. A few days prior, he sent a handwritten letter to Judge Michael Cooper. It was the first apology for his crimes. "I've never apologized for what I've done," he wrote. "I didn't because I feared that trying to apologize after doing something so terrible would only add insult to injury. If that feeling was wrong, I'm sorry for not speaking before" ("Barry Loukaitis, Moses Lake School …"). Loukaitis described himself in the letter as a hostile and rude 14-year-old. He apologized for not pleading guilty after the shootings. "None of this should have happened in the first place," he wrote. "But it did. I could … at least have had the decency to have pled guilty instead of trying to escape justice. I put you and the entire community through an agonizing, senseless and expensive process in an attempt to flee from justice" ("Barry Loukaitis, Moses Lake School …").
Cooper was the original judge in the case and came out of retirement to handle the resentencing. Loukaitis faced the judge and those he had wounded, physically and emotionally. "I am sorry for what I did. What I did was weak and evil and senseless," he said ("Moses Lake School Shooter …"). He said that at age 14, he didn't have the tools to deal with his anger and hatred toward others.
Natalie Hintz spoke of how her childhood had ended that day. She remembered lying next to a dead classmate and watching Loukaitis shoot their Algebra teacher. The father of Manuel Vela Jr. wondered aloud what his son would have been like as an adult. "We'll never know," he said. Alice Fritz, whose son Arnold died that day, told of talking to her son's body and touching his cold hand. Alice Fritz had visited Loukaitis in prison and said she believed his apologies were genuine. Victoria Kimble, the daughter of teacher Leona Caires, told Loukaitis she felt a deep hatred for him. Her mother, who loved teaching math, "died with a piece of chalk in one hand and an eraser in the other" ("Moses Lake School Shooter …").
Cooper resentenced Loukaitis to 189 years in prison. Loukaitis did not contest the new sentence and waived his right to future appeals.