06/08/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
It has to be a prank, thought sophomore Sadie Hayles, 16, as Kip Kinkel, a skinny, 15-year-old freshman, stepped into the Thurston High cafeteria wearing a cowboy hat and with a rifle propped against his shoulder. After all, it was May 21, election day at the Springfield, Ore., school, and students often staged showy displays to win attention and votes. When Hayles heard what she took to be fireworks, she half-expected another student to walk in and "shoot" Kinkel. "You know, one of those good-guy, bad-guy kind of things," she says.
But Kinkel was deadly serious, and the gunfire was real, killing two Thurston students, Ben Walker, 16, and Mikael Nickolauson, 17, and wounding 22 others—including Teresa Miltonberger, 16, who lay in critical condition with a bullet in her brain. The shooting ended only when high school wrestler Jacob Ryker, 17, shot in the chest, saw his girlfriend Jennifer Alldredge, 17, bloodied by a bullet and, with the help of others, tackled Kinkel as he attempted to reload. "I saw she got hit, and I went for it," says Ryker. "Enough's enough."
As Springfield (pop. 51,000), a mostly working-class community just outside Eugene in Oregon's Willamette Valley, struggles to cope with its tragedy, answers to the lingering what-ifs remain in frustratingly short supply: What if Kinkel, who once announced to his literature class that he dreamed of being a killer and admired the Unabomber, had been referred to a counselor by his teachers? (In fact the school had only one counselor for every 700 students, explained Springfield schools superintendent Jamon Kent. "If we detained every kid who says they're going to kill someone...we'd have a lot of kids detained.") And what if, after Kinkel was arrested at school for possession of a stolen gun on May 20, he had been held in jail instead of being released to his parents? (Standard procedure, said police chief Bill DeForrest, unless cops have probable cause to believe the juvenile will turn violent.)
There were, of course, other inescapable questions. What had the people of Springfield done—or not done—to add their town to the growing roster of U.S. communities (including Pearl, Miss.; West Paducah, Ky.; and Jonesboro, Ark.) where teenage rage has turned public schools into killing fields? Having no answers, Springfield's fire chief, Dennis Murphy, can only offer a warning. "People have been wanting to marginalize the places that have this happen by saying, 'That's the South,' or 'That's way out in Oregon,' " he says. "But this is Middle America. This is you."
Police say the personal apocalypse of Kipland P. Kinkel began the day he was arrested for buying a stolen pistol for around $100 from another student and hiding it in his locker at Thurston. Kinkel, currently on suicide watch at Skipworth Juvenile Detention Center, where he is awaiting arraignment on murder charges as an adult on June 16, was suspended from school on the spot, only to return the next morning just before 8 a.m. According to police, he parked his parents' Ford Explorer a couple of blocks away, slipped through a fence behind the building and approached the cafeteria along a breezeway buzzing with students before the start of class. Outside a choir practice room, he allegedly pulled his .22-cal. semiautomatic rifle from under a tan trench coat he was wearing and fired at two students "like it was nothing," says an eyewitness. Ryan Atteberry, 17, was shot in the face, and Ben Walker suffered a fatal head wound. (He was later kept on life support while doctors at Springfield's McKenzie-Willamette Hospital found 12 recipients for his organs.)
At that point, police say, Kinkel walked calmly into the cafeteria where some 400 students were chatting and doing homework and, without uttering a word, emptied a clip of ammunition into the crowd. "I started seeing people running and saw Kip turning back and forth, spraying bullets," says Trina Harty, 17, who was injured in the calf. Shrieks and groans ripped the air as students cowered for cover under tables, and one victim after another slumped to the floor bleeding.
After allegedly shooting Mikael Nickolauson once in the torso and again in the head at point-blank range, Kinkel was tackled when his gun ran dry and before he could reload or reach for another weapon from his arsenal of two handguns and a pair of knives. "It sounded like a click, like an empty gun," says Ryker, a Boy Scout troop leader who was celebrating his 17th birthday that day. Kinkel allegedly managed to squeeze off another round from a handgun, wounding Ryker's left hand, as more boys joined the effort to subdue him.
Ninety minutes later investigators discovered the bodies of Kinkel's parents, whom Kip had allegedly shot in separate rooms at the secluded, comfortable house outside town where he grew up and where a collection of homemade bombs was found, some hidden in a crawl space.
By all accounts, Bill Kinkel, 59, who loved tennis and motorcycles, and his quiet, nature-loving wife, Faith, 57, were devoted parents to Kip and his sister Kristin, 21, a senior majoring in speech pathology at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu. Kip was a freckle-faced, cheerful youngster, friends recall, but by his early teens he turned moody and often brashly boasted of dissecting live squirrels and blowing up cows. "He used to tell us all these stories about catching animals and torturing them and stuff," says Erik Deleon, 14, who has known him since first grade. "At that age, in the fourth or fifth grade, you kind of think that kind of thing is real neat."
But other students were put off by Kinkel's darkening temperament. "He talked about killing things way too much," says schoolmate Lindsay Parr, 14. "And he'd always go into so much detail, like how he'd cut animals open with hunting knives." Kimberly Wymore, 12, who used to play basketball with the quick-to-anger Kinkel, recalls that she and others sometimes let him win "so we wouldn't have to see him mad."
According to family friends, Bill, a Spanish instructor at Lane Community College, and Faith, who taught Spanish at Springfield High School, became deeply concerned about three years ago when Kip developed an obsession with guns, bombmaking and violent movies. While Kristin, an award-winning cheerleader, was "the kind of all-American every parent would be proud of," says family friend Tom Jacobson, Kip grew increasingly sullen and short-tempered. The Kinkels took him to a psychiatrist, briefly tried home schooling and discussed enrolling their son in the National Guard's Youth Challenge Program, a 10-week boot camp for at-risk youths.
One longtime family friend, Ethel Reesor, believes Bill Kinkel may have applied "too much fatherly discipline." But most are quick to defend him. "Bill was doing everything in his power to help him," says his tennis partner John Douglas, 55. Even in a chance encounter with a juvenile-delinquency expert at San Diego airport last December, Bill reportedly poured out his concerns for two hours, confessing that he was "terrified" of his son. "I told Bill that raising kids is the toughest thing we'll ever do," Dan Close, a professor at the University of Oregon told the Eugene Register-Guard. Replied Kinkel: "If we survive."
Finally, when he seemed unable to get through to his son in any other way, Bill—in a move that Faith objected to and which, in hindsight, appears to have been a tragic miscalculation—bought him the weapon of his choice: a 9-mm semiautomatic Glock handgun. The idea was to "expose him to guns in a controlled situation," says Douglas. But friends believe that a family dispute over use of the Glock led Bill to confiscate it and may have prompted Kip to buy the stolen gun allegedly found in his locker. On the afternoon of his suspension from school, police believe, Kip returned to his house and killed his father. At around 5 p.m., Kip phoned a friend with the cryptic message "It's all over," then allegedly shot his mother when she returned from work.
Classes resumed at Thurston High on May 26, with fresh paint and Spackle masking all visible evidence of the shootings. The cloud of confusion, guilt and grief will be harder to dispel. "This is not just a Springfield problem," Mayor Bill Morrisette told the congregation at Ben Walker's funeral on May 25, where hundreds of mourners listened to the theme from the movie Titanic and "Nothing Else Matters" by the heavy-metal group Metallica. "We are not the first and we probably won't be the last." The mayor used the occasion to call for legislation requiring that kids caught with guns at schools be detained for 72 hours and be given psychological counseling if necessary. "The only thing that could make this tragedy worse," he said, "is if we do nothing."
Michael Haederle, Elizabeth Leonard and Johnny Dodd in Springfield