To outsiders, 17-year-old T.J. Lane had the hallmarks of a ticking time bomb: a troubled family life involving absentee parents who filed domestic-violence charges against each other; an older brother with a history of drug-possession charges. But to people who know Lane, no explanation, not even the unsubstantiated rumors-bullying? A love triangle? Drugs?-accounts for why the sophomore brought his grandfather's .22-cal pistol into the Chardon High School cafeteria on Feb. 27 and fired off 10 bullets, killing three students at point-blank range and injuring three others. Instead, the sentiment heard most frequently in grief-stricken Chardon, Ohio (population: 5,150), remains the same one that was expressed by Bobby Pristas, 17, and five other students, moments after the tragedy. "All six of us," says Pristas, "looked at each other, like, 'There's no way that's T.J. That's not like T.J.'"
By Lane's own admission, he brought a gun and a knife into the school and fired at random. Now behind bars and charged with murder, Lane-who attends Lake Academy, a school for at-risk students-could face life in prison without parole if he is tried in an adult court. Striking a note more typically sounded by defense attorneys, Geauga County Prosecutor David Joyce told a juvenile court, "This is not about bullying. This is not about drugs. This is about someone who is not well." That left Lane's attorney Robert Farinacci expressing his client's family's "most heartfelt and sincere condolences" to the victims' families. "The family is devastated," he said. "This is something that could never have been predicted."
No less striking were the reactions of some of the people affected most by Lane's actions. Phyllis Ferguson, whose son Demetrius Hewlin, 16, was fatally shot, emphasized the need for forgiveness. "You have to forgive," she said at a press conference, "because if you don't forgive, you hold that in your heart through the memory of your child." Friends of the two others who died-Daniel Parmertor, 16, and Russell King Jr., 17-and the three who were injured-Joy Rickers, 18, Nick Walczak, 17, and Nate Mueller, 16-refrained from harsh judgment. "T.J. always seemed happy when he was in middle school, but then he seemed to have changed," says a student who lost two friends in the rampage. "I really don't think anyone can tell you the real reasons, well, that is except for God."
Though authorities say Lane chose his victims at random, a few students offer a different version of events. His motive? King, said some friends of the victims, had been dating Lane's ex-girlfriend and had picked on Lane, calling him names and threatening a fight. Witnesses allege that Lane walked directly to King's table on the day of the shooting, spoke to him and others sitting there, then opened fire. "He did it on purpose," says Mike Wargo, 17. "T.J. said, 'What the [expletive] are you doing?' before he shot [Walczak]." He and Nate Hunter, 17, allege that Lane then chased Walczak down a hallway.
That hallway is now covered with commemorative posters of those who are gone. Daniel was a joke-cracking Xbox fanatic who loved to tinker with gadgets. Demetrius is remembered as a bright student who loved football. Russell was an environmentalist and avid outdoorsman. As for how students will face the difficult days ahead, Heather Sethman, 18, says, "This tragedy has really drawn us together."
- Myndi Milliken/Chardon,
- Ken Lee/Los Angeles,
- Howard Breuer/Los Angeles.