REDBY, Minn. (AP) — The suspect in the worst U.S. school shooting since Columbine smiled and waved as he gunned down five students, a teacher and a guard, asking one of his victims whether he believed in God, witnesses said. The teen’s grandfather and his grandfather’s wife also were found dead, and the boy killed himself.
Some of the victims were shot at close range, medical officials said.
Reggie Graves, a student at Red Lake High School, said he was watching a movie about Shakespeare in class Monday when he heard the gunman blast his way past the metal detector at the school’s entrance, where an unarmed guard was killed.
Then, in a nearby classroom, he heard the gunman say something to his friend Ryan. “He asked Ryan if he believed in God,” Graves said. “And then he shot him.”
The death toll at the Red Lake Indian Reservation in far northern Minnesota made it the nation’s worst school shooting since the rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in April 1999 that ended with the deaths of 12 students, a teacher and the two teen gunmen.
The victims included the gunman’s grandfather; the grandfather’s wife; a school security guard; a teacher; and five other students. At least 14 others were wounded, and two of them remained in critical condition yesterday at MeritCare in Fargo, N.D., officials said.
At least three of the victims were shot in the head at close range, said officials at North Country Regional Hospital in nearby Bemidji. One of those victims died and the other two were transferred to the Fargo hospital. Three victims remained at North Country Regional in noncritical condition.
“I think there was an intent to kill,” Tim Hall, the hospital’s emergency nursing director, said at a morning news conference.
“There’s not a soul that will go untouched by the tragic loss that we’ve experienced here,” Floyd Jourdain Jr., chairman of the Red Lake Chippewa Tribe, told WCCO-TV of Minneapolis yesterday.
Police said the gunman killed himself after exchanging fire with officers. Red Lake Fire Director Roman Stately said the gunman had two handguns and a shotgun.
“We ask Minnesotans to help comfort the families and friends of the victims who are suffering unimaginable pain by extending prayers and expressions of support,” Gov. Tim Pawlenty said.
The shooter was Jeff Weise, a 17-year-old student who had been placed in the school’s Homebound program for some violation of policy, said school board member Kathryn Beaulieu. Students in that program stay at home and are tutored by a traveling teacher. Beaulieu said she didn’t know what Weise’s violation was, and would not be allowed to reveal it if she did.
There was no immediate indication of Weise’s motive. Several students said he held anti-social beliefs, and he may have posted messages on a neo-Nazi website expressing admiration for Adolf Hitler.
A writer who identified himself as Jeff Weise of the Red Lake Reservation posted the messages under the nickname “Todesengel” — German for “angel of death.” An April 2004 posting by him referred to being accused of “a threat on the school I attend,” though the writer later said he was cleared.
Relatives told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Weise was a loner who usually wore black and was teased by other kids. Relatives told the newspaper his father committed suicide four years ago, and that his mother was living in a Minneapolis nursing home because she suffered brain injuries in a car accident.
The governor said it appeared the school had “very rigorous security.”
“It looks like you had a very disturbed individual who was able to overcome a lot of precautions to do a lot of damage,” Pawlenty said.
Beaulieu said school was canceled yesterday, but plans hadn’t been made for the rest of the week.
During the rampage, teachers herded students from one room to another, trying to move away from the sound of the shooting, said Graves, 14. He said some students crouched under desks.
Some pleaded with the gunman to stop. “You could hear a girl saying, ‘No, Jeff, quit, quit. Leave me alone. What are you doing?’” Sondra Hegstrom told The Pioneer of Bemidji.
Student Ashley Morrison said she heard shots, then saw the gunman’s face peering though a door window of a classroom where she was hiding with several other students. After banging at the door, the shooter walked away and she heard more shots, she said.
“I can’t even count how many gunshots you heard, there was over 20. … There were people screaming, and they made us get behind the desk,” she said.
FBI spokesman Paul McCabe said the gunman exchanged gunfire with Red Lake police in a hallway, then retreated to a classroom, where he was believed to have shot himself.
The reservation, about 240 miles north of the Twin Cities, is home to the Red Lake Chippewa Tribe, one of the poorest in the state. According to the 2000 census, 5,162 people lived on the reservation, and all but 91 were Indians.
Red Lake High School has about 300 students, according to its Web site.