T.J. Solomon

On May 20, 1999, a 15-year-old sophomore named Anthony Thomas Solomon, Jr. (also known as T. J.), walked into his high school in Conyers, Georgia, and shot six of his classmates, giving all but one of them superficial wounds. The shooting took place before classes at Heritage High School began for the day, while 150 students were gathered in the school’s indoor commons area. The United States was shocked by this tragedy because it occurred exactly one month to the day after the Columbine High School massacre. When one realizes that no one was killed, this incident might not be perceived to be as horrifying as what happened at Columbine.

Solomon had arrived at school that day with a .22-caliber sawed-off shotgun and a .357-magnum revolver stuffed in his baggy jeans. He also arrived at school with a pocket full of bullets. That morning, instead of socializing with his friends, Solomon stood alone off to the side. At 7:55 a.m., he pulled out the shotgun and fired all of its rounds. He emptied the gun, aiming low and firing between 10 and 12 shots.

The six students hit were Jason Cheek, a senior who was shot twice; Cania Cullins, an African American sophomore; Drake Hoy; Stephanie Laster, a sophomore; Ryan Rosa, a junior; and an unidentified student. Of the six, only Laster was seriously hurt; in her case, the bullet first hit a hard surface such as a floor, a table, or a wall and then ricocheted into her lower abdomen. Everyone else suffered either flesh wounds or minor injuries. The attack had lasted less than 10 minutes.

After Solomon had emptied the shotgun, he ran out of the commons. He then fell to his knees and put the revolver in his mouth. Before he could shoot himself, the high school’s vice principal, Cecil T. Brinkley, calmed Solomon down. According to Brinkley, Solomon grabbed him and started shaking. Solomon said, “Oh, my God, I’m so scared.” Brinkley took Solomon outside and handed him over to a deputy from the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Department.

That afternoon, after Solomon was arrested, Solomon’s mother, Mae Dean Daniele, a secretary for a veterinarian, and his stepfather, Robert W. Daniele, an executive at a trucking firm, arranged for lawyer Edward T. M. Garland to defend him. He was transported by Sheriff Jeff T. Wigington to a youth detention center, where he was met by his parents and Garland. Rockdale County’s District Attorney, Richard Read, said he planned to have Solomon’s case transferred from the juvenile courts to the Superior Court so that he could be tried as an adult for aggravated assault, cruelty to children, and weapons violations. Nonetheless, becauseofhisage, Solomon was going to be held in a juvenile facility until he reached the age of majority. The hearing for the transfer was placed on a fast track and scheduled for June 1, approximately two weeks later.

The transfer hearing actually did not begin until August 9, and was held in front of juvenile-court judge William Schneider. It lasted two and one half days. On August 11, Judge Schneider determined that Solomon would be tried in Rockdale County Superior Court on 21 felony charges. If convicted of all of the charges, Solomon could have faced up to 351 years in prison. During the hearing, Garland argued that Solomon, who had been taking Ritalin since the fourth grade, had the maturity of an 11-year-old. He further presciently warned that if Solomon was put in the adult system, he would one day try to kill himself. Schneider partly based his decision on the fact that the shooting seemed to be a copycat shooting. Solomon had left a suicide note at home on the morning of May 20, in which he “expressed allegiance to his ‘brothers and sisters related to the trenchcoat mafia.’ ” In his mind, these individuals included Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters in the Columbine massacre. When discussing that event with friends at school, Solomon had stated that he was a better gunman than either Harris or Klebold and that such a massacre should have happened at Heritage High School a long time ago.

Read planned to take Solomon’s case to Rockdale County’s grand jury on September 7. Garland appealed this plan, arguing that Solomon was mentally ill and belonged in a mental institution. In February 2000, the Georgia Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that Solomon was not out of touch with reality and could be tried as an adult. At some point in February, Solomon’s parents were interviewed on television. They read a letter from him apologizing for the shootings. In that letter, Solomon said, “It is hard to describe how dark and isolated I felt leadinguptothedateofmymistake. Italmost made everything in my life not worth waiting for.” In the letter Solomon did not clarify his motives for the shootings. According to some of his friends, he was depressed and upset over a fight and a breakup he had with his girlfriend, Kara Ward. Ward had been the same age as Solomon when the shootings took place. According to Ward, she and Solomon had not broken up but had simply had a fight. The fight was over the fact that, according to Ward, Solomon was uncommunicative. Solomon, however, had perceived this fight as a breakup.

On October 2, 2000, Solomon pleaded both guilty and guilty but mentally ill to all charges against him. He entered two pleas because Read did not want to accept the plea of guilty but mentally ill. Superior Court Judge Sidney Nation set sentencing for November 8.

At the November hearing, Nation sentenced Solomon to 40 years on charges of aggravated assault. Nation told Solomon at the sentencing hearing that he would be eligible for parole in 18 years. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles told Solomon in May that he would not be considered for pardon until he had served 36 years of his sentence.

While he was in prison, Solomon was given Prozac. As Garland had predicted, Solomon tried to commit suicide. In January 2001, he took a one month’s supply of Elavil and ended up hospitalized for three months. After his recovery, Solomon was placed under 24-hour suicide watch in the infirmary at Arrendale State Prison.

In August 2001, Nation agreed to hold a post-sentencing hearing. On August 17, the judge reduced Solomon’s sentence from 40 years, which would have meant that he would be eligible for parole after 36 years, to 20 years, which means he is eligible for parole after 18 years, around the time of his 33rd birthday in 2017.

In some ways, Solomon was not a typical school shooter. Before he moved to Conyers, Solomon and his family lived in Kernersville, North Carolina. In Kernersville, he was a member of the Boy Scouts, went to the YMCA, and spent a lot of time with his stepfather. Even in Conyers, Solomon had friends, was a Boy Scout, went to church, and was involved in sports. His stepfather also made sure that he took a gun safety classes. Solomon was an excellent shot, which explains why his friends believe that he had no intention to kill anyone on May 20–if he had wanted to kill someone, they say, he had the gun skills to do it.

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References:

  1. Cloud, J. (1999, May 31). Just a routine school shooting. Time, 153(21), 34. Retrieved January 19, 2009, from Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost.
  2. Farber, H., & Stafford, L. (1999, August 11). Parents mystified as to what set off son: Mom, stepdad say Solomon on Ritalin since 4th grade–changed three years ago. Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved January 8, 2009, from Custom Newspapers, Gale.
  3. Roche, T. (2001, May 28). Voices from the cell. Time. Retrieved December 18, 2008, from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,999966,00.html
  4. Tryggsted, E. (2000, March 7). Former principal recalls day of terror. Savannah Morning News. Retrieved December 17, 2008, from http://savannahnow.com/stories/030700/LOCconference.shtml