Fourteen-year-old honor student Barry Loukaitis entered Frontier High School in Moses Lake, Washington, on February 2, 1996, armed with a high-powered hunting rifle and two pistols. He immediately headed to his algebra class, where he took the class hostage. Loukaitis killed two students, Manual Vela, Jr., and Arnie Fritz, as well as his algebra teacher, Leona Caires. He seriously wounded several other students before being overpowered by physical education teacher Jon Lane, who had talked his way into the room.
Loukaitis had a disturbing home life. His parents were divorced, and his mother repeatedly told him that she planned to take his father and his father’s girlfriend hostage, tie them up, and commit suicide in front of them on Valentine’s Day. His parents reportedly fought a lot about his father’s drinking and womanizing behavior. Both parents had a history of depression. Loukaitis’s grandmother on his mother’s side had made at least one suicide attempt.
Although he seemed to do well and enjoy elementary school, Loukaitis was picked on in middle school. One of his victims, Manuel Vela, Jr., had reportedly tormented Loukaitis, calling him a faggot, spitting on him, shoving him in the hallway, and kicking him until his legs were bruised all over. Allegedly, Loukaitis had a crush on Vela’s girlfriend. Other students teased him as well. He allegedly told classmates that he hated everyone and wanted to go on a shooting spree. Classmates said Loukaitis was an easy target because he was very serious, he was gangly looking, and he wore cowboy boots and strange clothes to school. On the day of the shooting, he was decked out as the man with no name from the film Fistful of Dollars.
The case drew great attention to popular culture, as Loukaitis was reportedly obsessed with the film Natural Born Killers. He had seen it many times, and classmates said he could quote the entire film. He also loved the song and video Jeremy by Pearl Jam, which featured a young man shooting his classmates after enduring their abuse. Additionally, Loukaitis was a Stephen King fan, and particularly loved the horror author’s book Rage. Rage tells the story of a high school student who is bullied until he goes insane. He takes his class hostage and kills a teacher for revenge, much as Loukaitis did. He allegedly quoted a line from the book when he was holding the class hostage. King has expressed regret for authoring the novel.
Frontier High School was closed temporarily after the shootings, and areas in the school where the incident occurred were renovated. The district has since implemented a dress code, increased security, and hired guards for schools. Many commentators have noted that Loukaitis’s attack was the first of a series of multiple-victim homicides in schools and was the impetus for a number of copycat shooters.
Loukaitis was waived to adult criminal court after a hearing in which it was determined that he was competent and that the severity of the incident warranted more serious penalty. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, with the defense arguing that he lived in a fantasy world. The prosecution prevailed, showing that Loukaitis planned the attack with great detail. He was convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Later, questions arose about the quality of his defense, given that his primary attorney, Guillermo Romero, was being investigated by the Washington State Bar Association for providing inadequate counsel for several clients.
- Armstrong, K., Davis, F., & Mayo, J. (2004, April 4). For some, free counsel comes at a high cost. Seattle Times.
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- Langman, P. (2009). Why kids kill: Inside the minds of school shooters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.