On March 23, 2005, six years after the infamous Columbine High School massacre, another tragic high school shooting occurred, this time in Minnesota. On that day, Jeff Weise, a 16-year-old adolescent, killed two family members– first his sleeping grandfather, and later his grandfather’s life partner–in their home. He then drove his grandfather’s police cruiser to nearby Red Lake High School. He was armed with three weapons. Surprising a school security guard, whom he shot and killed, as students and teachers tried to flee. Using his murdered gradnfather’s handgun and shotgun, Weise shot randomly at surprised students and teachers who had crowded into a room. He attempted to enter other classrooms, but was encountered Red Lake Police, with whom he exchanged gunshots. Weise was wounded several times and escaped back into a school room, where he committed suicide. The violence, which was over in 10 minutes, left seven students wounded and 10 dead, including Weise.
Red Lake is a fairly remote town populated by residents of the Red Lake American Indian Reservation. It is located in northern Minnesota a few hundred miles from the Canadian border. Weise was a Chippewa Native American Indian, and learned about his indigenous ethnic identity while living on the reservation. At the age of nine, Weise lost his father; the elder Weise was apparently despondent and committed suicide. Jeff moved to Red Lake following the incapacitation of his mother in 1999. Essentially orphaned, Weise moved in with his grandmother, who raised him.
Following the shooting, it was reported that 100 FBI agents worked the case to determine the characteristics of the crime. At the same time that community and tribal leaders mourned the loss of life, the media descended on the town, issuing with numerous news reports covering the massacre. One British reporter counted thousands of Google Internet hits on Jeff Weise’s name in a matter of weeks.
The media reported many descriptions of Weise that provided numerous clever story lines concerning his family, personal history, and potential reasons why he committed the shootings. Among them were Weise’s unstable family history. Later, concerns about his medication and counseling were highlighted. Reports about Weise’s writings about zombies, his identification as a Goth (a teen subculture interested in dark and dangerous images), his dressing in black clothing including trench coats (associating him with the Columbine murders), and his involvement and posts supporting Hitler on neo-Nazi websites–all supposedly links to obsessions with violence and power. Other factors cited in his attack included video games (Grand Theft Auto was mentioned) and the movie Elephant (about a shooting). In all of these cases there were appealing descriptions and plausible arguments about Weise’s motives, but no evidence was given about any direct links that produced the loss of life.
While general patterns in school shootings have been established by researchers who study data on such events, there is no single motive that causes this rare form of violence. Extensive research concerning school shootings has reached the conclusion that while specific risk factors may be involved, the specific constellation of factors that prompt a mass murder or a murder-suicide in a school is unique to each unfortunate incident. Such is the conclusion reached in the National Research Council Institute of Medicine’s 2003 book, Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence.
The school shooting incident at Red Lake is classified as a rural murder-suicide. Such incidents are quite rare, and the factors in such events that are cited by behavioral scientists include a mix of the most influential variables that can be used to develop a model that explain the murders. The following scenario has been proposed to explain Weise’s high school massacre.
Weise’s family history reveals some mental illness, given his father’s suicide in 1997; there also appear to be genetic dispositions toward despondency, given that Weise was prescribed an antidepressant for diagnosed depression. Researchers also report that some high school shooting perpetrators learn about suicides in high school shootings through multiple media reports, television news, newspaper articles, magazines, and the movie industry. If this exposure coincides with a triggering event or incident, perpetrators may impulsively reason that their violent plans will likewise resolve their own dilemma. The tendency for suicides to cluster following media reports is referred to as the copycat phenomenon.
Orphaned at age 11, Weise experienced two major stressful life events–first parental loss and then moving hundreds of miles to live with his grandmother in Red Lake. Weise lived with her from age 11 to about age 15; it is unclear how long he lived with his grandfather. Research has shown that family bonds are important insulators from delinquency. It appears that Weise’s family support was mediocre at best.
As Weise matured during adolescence, his behavior became problematic to school officials. This conflict eventually led to a stressful event in his life: He was expelled from school for misbehavior. The punishment produced an even greater lack of involvement in high school activities and further insulation from friends and teachers. While Weise apparently accepted home schooling, this experience may have affected him detrimentally.
During high school, Weise was reported to be involved in blogging on a number of Internet websites, including a neo-Nazi website that discussed racial purity theories. Research documents that Weise was alarmed by the dilution of his classmates’ tribal heritage, symbolized by their listening to rap music. According to Weise, only weak students embraced rap music, which ruined their Native American Indian racial purity. Apparently Weise had read material on websites that discussed Adolph Hitler’s politics of authoritarianism and nativism, views that can be appealing to an idealistic and alienated adolescent male. One theme that emerges from this ideology is racial decline. It appears that this distorted racist ideology exacerbated paranoia in Weise (after all he was expelled) and heightened his distrust and perhaps rejection of classmates. This further removed him from group affiliation. Indeed, records show he reported himself as a complete loner, without any friends.
In a context of depression and paranoia and then rejection by the school, Weise’s attack appears to be his way of seeking redress for a series of private irritations from his past treatment. Lacking any loyalty to significant others, Weise had little to constrain his conscience and formed a faulty sense of righteousness in his causes. The murder of his grandfather reveals the extent of family disassociation: In most families, a bond of love and loyalty forms among family members.
For the most part, youth tend to communicate their angst to others. Weise did not say much about his frustrations, although his cousin, Louis Jourdain, was later arrested and charged with conspiracy in the Red Lake shootings. Investigators found that Weise had shared some of his personal conflicts with the school and classmates with Jourdain, who had himself engaged in making general threats to the school. Other students also indicated that Weise made vague allusions to violence that might occur at the school. This behavior supports the contention that Weise’s paranoid ideation and revenge plans were partially concealed. In most cases, friends of high school shooters report that they learned about some part of their plan prior to its implementation. Given this fact, media organizations have set up hotlines to encourage anonymous reporting (e.g., 1-866-SPEAK-UP) of possible violence. As part of the move to stem the tide of high school murders, current laws allow for prosecution of students who have communicated with others about violence and of anyone who may support or conceal the students’ secret, lethal plans. High schools across the country have established safety procedures and encourage students’ reporting of any potential violence to them.
In Weise’s case, it appears that a combination of distorted perceptions, paranoid and suicidal thinking that increased after his expulsion from school, and possibly conflict with his disciplinarian grandfather (a police officer on the reservation) fueled his plans. Some of the distortions were encouraged by extremist Internet websites and may have led to rejection by, and perhaps contempt of, his Indian classmates owing to Weise’s sense of superiority. Probably other unspecified conflicts were taken as personal slights that offended him. For isolated and lonely youth, the best solution may appear to be exacting revenge on those who they perceived have hurt them. For Weise, that meant his grandfather (living with his partner), the school, and his classmates. Following his horrible deeds, he chose to mimic the actions of other murderers before him and commit suicide. The unfortunate postscript to the story of Jeff Weise, and the legacy of high school shooters in general, is that by talking about their frustrations with adults, they might have come to understand that their irritations could be greatly reduced through peaceful means.
- Fox, J., & Levin, J. (2005). Extreme killing: Understanding serial and mass murder. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Marzuk, P., Tardiff, K., & Hisch, C. (1992). The epidemiology of murder-suicide. Journal of the American Medical Association, 267(23), 3179.