On May 20, 1988, Laurie Dann (born Laurie Wasserman) shot and killed one boy and wounded five other children at Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Highland Park, Illinois. Prior to the attacks, she had mailed and delivered food and drink laced with arsenic (which she had stolen from a lab) to family, friends, and even acquaintances she had not seen for some time. Immediately after the shootings, Dann took a family hostage and shot one man before shooting and killing herself.
Dann grew up in Glencoe, an affluent suburb of Chicago. She was the daughter of an accountant and his homemaker wife. By all accounts, Dann had a relatively normal childhood. She was described as a shy, withdrawn, but attractive girl. By high school, she had dated a number of males, although none seriously. Despite her poor grades, she graduated and began attending Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. After improving her grades, she transferred to the University of Arizona, where she was studying to become a teacher. It was there that she began dating a pre-med student. Although the relationship was fairly serious, Dann grew tired of her boyfriend’s possessiveness and incessant demands. To leave the situation, she moved back to her parents’ home and transferred to Northwestern University. She eventually dropped out of college.
In the spring of 1982, Laurie met Russell Dann. He was an executive in a successful insurance brokering firm, and the two were fast in love. They married that September. Early on, things did not go well. Laurie began exhibiting very strange behaviors–leaving trash around the house, for instance, and she appeared to have obsessive-compulsive disorder. She saw a psychiatrist for a short time.
Three years after marrying, Laurie and Russell Dann separated. Laurie claimed that Russell had been violent and abusive during the marriage, and in the month following their separation, the police were called to investigate a number of incidents involving the two. In April 1986, Laurie accused Russell of breaking into her parents’ home, where she was living, and vandalizing it. Shortly thereafter, she purchased a Smith & Wesson 357-magnum handgun. Laurie continued to do odd things and make strange accusations. She accused her former boyfriend of raping her when he refused to believe her claim that she had his child. In September 1986, Russell Dann reported being stabbed with an ice pick while he slept. He thought it was likely Laurie, but did not actually see her. Police refused to charge her, suspecting that Russell had inflicted the wound himself. Laurie was arrested once for making harassing calls to Russell’s sister, but the charges were later dropped due to lack of evidence. Laurie accused Russell of having raped her and of planting an incendiary device in her home. Despite having failed two polygraphs, no charge were filed against Russell.
It had become clear that Laurie had some mental problems. She began seeing another psychiatrist for obsessive-compulsive disorder. According to this psychiatrist, while she needed professional help, Dann was neither suicidal or homicidal. Her behavior continued to be odd, however, and seemed to be deteriorating. In November 1987, Dann moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where she was under the constant observation of a psychiatrist. She had previously been prescribed clomipramine, a new drug for treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the new psychiatrist both increased its dosage and added a prescription of lithium to help address Dann’s phobias.
At the end of December 1987, Dann purchased a .22 semi-automatic Beretta. She abruptly stopped seeing her psychiatrist in March 1988, and began making plans for her attacks. She stole library books about poison and some arsenic from a lab. Dann also shoplifted clothes and wigs and was arrested for theft once. Both her psychiatrist and her father tried to persuade her to enter the hospital as an inpa-tient, but she refused. She continued making threatening calls and, because at least one of the threats crossed state lines, the FBI got involved in the investigation.
Leading up to May 20, 1988, Dann prepared rice-cereal snacks and juice boxes poisoned with the arsenic she had stolen and diluted. She mailed these items to several individuals, including her psychiatrist and Russell Dann. She delivered snacks and juice “samples” to others, including friends in fraternities at Northwestern University. No one became seriously ill, however, because the arsenic was quite diluted and because the smell tipped the recipients off that the food and drinks were tainted.
Dann then went to the home of the Rushes, a family for whom she had previously done some babysitting. She promised to take the two youngest Rushe children on an outing, but instead took them to Ravinia Elementary school, where her former sister-in-law’s two sons were enrolled. Dann left the two children in the car and entered the school, where she tried to detonate a fire bomb. The small fire was quickly extinguished. Dann left and drove to a local daycare center, which she tried to enter with a can of gasoline. She was stopped at the entrance.
Next, Dann took the Rushe children back to their home and offered them some poisoned milk, but they spat it out. She then lured them to the basement and used gasoline to set the house on fire, trapping the two boys and their mother downstairs The Rushe family managed to escape.
At that point, Dann drove to nearby Hubbard Woods Elementary School and wandered into a classroom, then left. Outside the classroom she found a boy and, after pushing him into the restroom, shot him with one of the three guns she had brought. Another gun jammed as she tried to fire at two other boys in the rest-room, so she threw it into the sink and left. Dann then went back into the classroom she had previously entered and demanded that all of the children move to the corner. Theteachertriedtodisarmher,anddidmanagetounloadtheBeretta.Dannpulleda .32-caliber handgun from her waistband, however, and shot at several students, killing eight-year-old Nicholas Corwin and wounding four others before she fled.
Dann was unable to leave the area in her car due to a funeral procession, so she started running. She ran through the woods with her two remaining guns and entered the home of the Andrew family. Mrs. Andrews and her 20-year-old son, Philip, were home, and Dann told them that she had been raped and had shot the rapist. The pair believed her and tried to convince her to call the police, but she refused. Apparently they did call Dann’s mother, who knew nothing about what was happening and could not come to get her because she did not have a car. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Andrew arrived home and insisted that Dann give up the gun. Again, they called Mrs. Wasserman. When Dann spoke to her mother, Mrs. Andrew left the house and called the police. Dann shot Philip Andrews in the chest when she saw the officers arrive, although he managed to escape and was rescued by police and ambulance. Dann knew the house was surrounded, so she went upstairs to a bedroom. At approximately 7:00 p.m., an assault team entered the house. Police found Dann dead in the bedroom, having shot herself in the mouth.
Although some of the victims sustained very serious wounds, all except Nicholas Corwin (the lone fatality) recovered. All of the children at the school (Hubbard Wood Elementary), especially those who were wounded, received special counseling. Many in the community went on to lobby for gun control. Philip Andrew ended up becoming executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. The Wassermans were criticized for refusing to be interviewed by police initially, as well as for not allowing access to their daughter’s medical records (they were eventually obtained through a court order).
Some have blamed Dann’s behavior on the drug she was taking for her obsessive-compulsive disorder, which at the time was not approved for this indication. Others consider this case to be a clear-cut example of mental illness. In any event, this school shooting case is unique in two aspects: Dann’s bizarre behavior and the fact that she was female.
- Eggington, J. (1991). Day of fury: The story of the tragic shootings that forever changed the village of Winnetka. New York: William Morrow.
- Kaplan, J., Papajohn, G., & Zorn, E. (1991). Murder of innocence: The tragic life and final rampage of Laurie Dann, the schoolhouse killer. New York: Warner Books.