Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I don't like Mondays - Brenda Spencer, the first school shooter.

The silicon chip inside her head,
Gets switched to overload.

Brenda Spencer lived with her father after her parents divorced.  It would be a massive understatement to say it was not a normal relationship.  Not many 16 year old girls sleep in the same bed as their father.
She had been depressed for quite some time, but her father refused the doctor’s advice to admit her to a psychiatric facility.  She asked for a new radio for Christmas, instead he gave her a gun.
Brenda had already been in trouble for shooting her BB gun out of her front window at the school across the road, shooting out the windows.  Now she had a real gun.

And nobody's gonna go to school today,
She's going to make them stay at home.

Unfortunately for many students, they were already at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, lining up outside, waiting for Principal Burton Wragg to unlock the gates and let them in.  It was January 29th 1979 and Brenda Spencer was about to become the first school shooter.

She used her Christmas present, a Ruger 10/22 Semi-Automatic .22 calibre rifle with telescopic sight, to shoot at the children lining up across the road.  Principal Wragg tried to protect his charges, and was fatally wounded in the process.  The school janitor, Mike Suchar, came to assist his boss protect the children, and paid for his heroism with his life.  One of the first responding officers, Officer Robert Robb, was wounded in the neck.  The shooting was only stopped because another brave police officer drove a garbage truck between Brenda’s house and the school, blocking her view of the children.  After 30 rounds of ammunition, 2 men lay dead, and a police officer and 8 children were wounded. 

Tell me why?
I don't like Mondays.

Brenda then barricaded herself in her house for nearly seven hours.  She told police negotiators that she was going to “come out shooting”.  A journalist began ringing all the local phone numbers, to ask residents of the area if they had witnessed the events, trying to get a scoop.  He unintentionally managed to call Brenda, and so he asked her “Tell me why?”  Her response, according to that journalist, was the now iconic “I don’t like Mondays”.  She ended the conversation by saying “I have to go now.  I shot a pig, and I want to shoot some more”.  The journalist had his scoop.

Brenda claims to not remember this exchange, but it would be safe to say that on that day she was not strongly connected to reality. 

Eventually, she surrendered, and walked outside, dropping her rifle on the front lawn.  The person terrorising an elementary school and a whole neighbourhood was a 5’2”, very thin girl, with long red hair.  Police searched the run-down house, finding evidence of beer and whiskey, although Brenda tested negative for any substances in her system.
Brenda was tried as an adult.  She pled guilty to two counts of murder and assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to 25 years to life.

Brenda clearly had a mental illness at the time of the crime, which doesn’t seem to have ever been effectively treated.  At her first parole hearing she told the parole board that she was hoping that the police would kill her.  She claims to have attempted suicide the previous year, and she felt that her father wanted her to kill herself, which is why he gave her a gun.  She also claimed to the parole board that she was under the influence of drugs, but the police conspired to falsify the drug test results.  She has self-harmed several times in prison, once using a heated paper clip to burn the words “courage” and “pride” into her chest after a relationship break up.    Brenda has been treated for epilepsy and depression while in prison, but still seems to be significantly disconnected from reality.

At her parole hearing in 2001 Brenda claimed her father had sexually abused her.  This was the first time she had mentioned it to authorities, so they did not believe her.  After Brenda’s arrest, her father went on to have a relationship with Brenda’s 17 year old roommate from juvenile detention, later marrying her.  Brenda’s roommate looked just like her.  In a cruel twist of fate for one of the children shot by Brenda, a child of Brenda’s father and Brenda’s roommate – Brenda’s half-sibling – attended the child care centre where the now adult victim worked.
Brenda has expressed concern that she is responsible for the school shootings which have occurred since. 
“With every school shooting, I feel I’m partially responsible,” she told the parole board back in 2001. “What if they got the idea from what I did?”
Sadly, I suspect that even though Brenda was the first, she did not create nearly four decades of copy cats.

Long before my interest in crime, I loved the song “I don’t like Mondays” by The Boomtown Rats.  The first two songs I asked for on vinyl, aged 5, were ”I don’t like Mondays” and “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles.  I clearly had excellent taste.  It was more than 30 years later before I discovered the story behind the music, after watching the documentary about Brenda titled “I don’t like Mondays”.  If you get the chance, I recommend watching it.  It gives a fascinating insight into Brenda, both at the time of the crime, and throughout the years in prison.  It really is a story of a mentally ill person who needed help, but didn’t know how to get it.  As a result two heroic men died, 9 more people were injured, and psychological scars were inflicted on scores of innocent people, many of them children.  She is still in prison, and I doubt she will ever be released.  At her last parole hearing in 2009 the parole board decided that she would not be eligible again until 2019. 

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