02/19/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
As an aspiring actress, Kelly Bennett has dreamed of seeing her name in headlines just about as long as her family can remember. "As a little girl, Kelly told me she wanted to be famous," says her mother, Lori Bennett, 44, of the middle of her seven children, now a freshman at California's San Jose State. But it's a safe bet that even in her wildest fantasies the 18-year-old never imagined the drama that would land her in the spotlight—and turn her into a real-life star.
Bennett's quick thinking during her shift on Jan. 29 in the photo lab at Longs Drugs in San Jose helped prevent what police believe would have been a Columbine-like bloodbath the very next day at nearby De Anza College at the hands of sophomore Al DeGuzman, 19. "If he had been successful, this would have overshadowed anything that Timothy McVeigh did," says Santa Clara County Deputy D.A. Lane Liroff of DeGuzman, in whose bedroom officers found hidden 5 guns, 60 bombs and 2,000 rounds of ammunition, as well as writings praising the Columbine High School killers. "It's incredible that anyone could plan something so horrible—and that you had a heroine that stopped it."
Bennett wasn't expecting anything out of the ordinary when she arrived for her 5 to 10 p.m. shift that Monday. "The lab guy who worked ahead of me told me that it had been really boring all day," she recalls. Around 5:45 Bennett began to process a roll of film that had been dropped off the day before and was due to be picked up at 6:05. Putting the roll into the negative processor, she looked at it on a computer screen to check the colors. The very first image caught her eye. "It was a pile of black clothing," says Bennett, "and folded neatly was a white T-shirt that had the saying Natural Selection on it." The next negatives sent a chill down her spine. "They were of sawed-off shotguns," she says. "If it had been just one gun, I wouldn't have thought anything of it. But there were so many, plus the bombs and everything. I couldn't believe what I was seeing."
After showing the photos to her coworker Michelle Houde, 20, a third-year De Anza student, and her manager, who were also concerned, Bennett decided to phone her father, Bob, 46, a San Jose police officer. "Once I got that she was saying weapons, bullets, bombs," he recalls, "I told her to dial 911."
When the police arrived 10 minutes later, Bennett says that initially they seemed nonchalant. But they got serious as soon as they saw the photos. They told Bennett to develop a second roll, in case the customer showed up. "It was 6:15 by now. I was almost frantic," she says. "While I was in the back, the police were watching through the door. They said, 'We think that's him.' They told me to go out and help him.
"I asked his name, and he said, 'Al DeGuzman.' His eyes were really red. He said he was picking up photos. I began looking in the bin even though I knew they weren't there." Kelly returned to the back of the store. When she did, the police came out and arrested DeGuzman, who tried to flee when he saw them. "The bomb squad came and looked over the place," Bennett says. "But I worked the rest of my shift like it was a normal day."
Bennett found out the next morning how utterly remarkable her day had actually been when her father called her off-campus apartment. She went to her early class, but then police decided that she should go into hiding at her parents' home, 50 miles away in Aromas, Calif., in case DeGuzman had coconspirators. (Authorities now believe that DeGuzman—who is being held without bail after pleading not guilty to 122 weapons counts and is due back in court for a preliminary examination on Feb. 15—acted alone.) DeGuzman, whom neighbors describe as quiet, lived in San Jose with his father, Leonardo, an engineer, and mother, Alma, a personnel trainer. He had been fulminating for months on two different Web sites against targets ranging from Bush and Gore to De Anza students and teachers.
While Bennett—whose proud father describes her as "a pretty cool customer"—was enjoying a round of talk show appearances in New York City, grateful De Anza administrators announced the establishment of a scholarship fund to help cover her and Michelle's educational costs. But Bennett has a plan of her own. "Ever since this was on the news, a lot of people have been coming into Longs just to see where everything went down," she says. "I've brought so much business into the store that I'm going to ask for a raise."
Bob Meadows in New York City and Leslie Berestein in California