Voices of the Victims — a Montana school shooting

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.

9 thoughts on “Voices of the Victims — a Montana school shooting

  1. Leslie, this is so timely, again, unfortunately. Thank you for reminding us that the impact remains for everyone touched. As writers we need to remember and understand how that will affect our characters especially any recurring characters.

    • After the shootings in CT, some mystery writers questioned whether we contribute to the problem of violence by writing about it. I think the answer is no, because we’re not giving anyone violent tendencies they didn’t already have or causing them to act. And of course, in most mysteries and crime novels, the killers are caught! But what novelists — incl mystery writers — do best is to explore crime, violence, justice from various angles.

      • Agreed!! Especially if we show the fall-out of violence to everyone, then at least we are not glorifying it. Might not stop anyone so inclined – wish we could – but we are teaching/discussing consequences. People need to learn the ramifications of their actions. Thanks again Leslie!!

  2. Humans have a violent component and have been killing each other as far back in history as we can research. Therefore, I don’t think mystery writers glorify/promote violence. But, Leslie, as you wisely pointed out, one service that mystery writers do for their readers is to catch the killer and render justice, at least fictionally. So often in real life, there is no justice. In books, we can at least hope for the possibility.

  3. I was going to say Cain and Abel that was the first murder. The Bible is full of it. So I agree we don’t promote. We show the consequences. Good post with a lot of thought.

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