In 1986, a 14 y.o. freshman at the Fergus County High School in Lewistown, Montana, took a loaded handgun from his step-father’s unlocked vehicle and went after the French teacher who’d told him he was failing her class. She wasn’t in her classroom — she was also the cheerleader advisor, and was in the gym with the cheer squad for the state Class A girls’ basketball tournament, which had started that afternoon. (I grew up in another Montana town, and played BB in that gym a few years earlier.) So–he shot and killed the substitute.
And then he started down the hall, where he encountered the assistant vice principal, John Moffatt. Shot him three times, then turned and left the building. Moffatt lived — probably, according to a recent in-depth interview with Vince Devlin of the Missoulian, because a military medic home on leave happened to be visiting in the school’s art classroom.
What strikes me most — and what I want to share with you — in Moffatt’s interview is the continuing impact on him and on his family. His three children were young. They had nightmares, of course. But every time another school shooting happens — or any mass shooting — the nightmare begins again. No doubt everyone who was in the building, or even in the town, has the same reaction — 26 years later. Moffatt says he hears from former students when another incident occurs. Moffatt’s daughter was working at a Denver area hospital in July 2012 when the Aurora movie theater shooting occurred, and took calls from family members looking for victims.
The boy was convicted in adult court and is serving two life sentences. He is now 40. Devlin reports that he comes up for parole periodically; it’s never been granted. He and Moffatt met a few years after the shooting, as part of an ABC show on gun violence.
Every crime novel has its victims–the ones who die or are shot. But there are indirect victims–the survivors, the families, the shooter’s own family, and more. As writers, we need to be aware of their reactions. The impact reverberates long after the gunfire fades.