At the age of 16, Evan Ramsey was the perpetrator of a deadly school shooting at Bethel Regional High School in the small town of Bethel, Alaska, on February 19, 1997. On that day, he killed 15-year-old Josh Palacios, a popular student, as well as the school’s principal Ron Edwards, age 50. After wounding several other students, Ramsey then threatened to kill himself with the 12-gauge shotgun he had used to kill the two mortally wounded individuals, but he ultimately surrendered to the police instead.
Ramsey did not have a stable family life growing up. The son of a father in prison and an alcoholic mother who was in several abusive relationships, Evan and his two brothers were taken away from home by the Division of Family and Youth Services. He was in third grade at the time. After that, the brothers were separated and put in different foster homes. Ramsey lived in 11 foster homes as a child, and suffered from sexual and other kinds of abuse in a few of them.
An eerie parallel has been noted between Evan and his father–Evan’s father was involved in a similar incident before Evan’s school shooting. When the Anchorage Times did not publish a political letter Don Ramsey wrote in 1986, he came to the office with an AR 180-223 semi-automatic gun. Both father and son said after their incidents that they had been ready to die. Don also surrendered to police, and was released from prison two weeks before Evan’s school shooting took place.
A psychiatrist discovered that Evan had previously tried to commit suicide as a child. By the time he was in high school, Ramsey was smoking marijuana and getting bad grades. His friends told reporters that he was often depressed and quiet, but he would talk a lot when you got to know him. However, Ramsey claimed that no one knew how he felt; they did not know the pain and rejection he had inside him. He described how, throughout most of his student life, he was teased and tormented by other students, who would hang toilet paper on him, spit on his head, and call him names. When the torment first began, Ramsey would tell his teachers and the principal; when the bullying persisted, the principal simply told him to ignore it. Ramsey, however, said he could no longer take the abuse.
Although Ramsey blamed his actions on a number of sources, including the bullying he received, his parents and teachers, and the foster care system, he also said there were certain people he just wanted to kill, comparing his hatred of them to Hitler’s hatred of Jews. A 17-year-old witness noted that Ramsey looked like he was enjoying the shooting during the event. In an interview, Ramsey claimed that after the shooting, he felt good and believed that he let go of his pain and hate through his violent actions; he felt like he had worked out his problems. Friends and teachers of Ramsey portrayed him as having uncontrolled anger, noting that he had previously thrown garbage cans, pushed people, and punched a hole in the wall of one of his foster homes.
One factor thought to have contributed to the attack was the video game Doom, which was also believed to have played a role in the Columbine massacre and other school shootings. Ramsey and his friends James Randall and Matthew Charles would play Doom together for hours after school. In Doom, players shoot and kill each other.
His friends Randall and Charles, both age 14 at the time, encouraged Ramsey in his plans to attack the school, and one helped him learn to use the gun. Randall and Charles even told other students of what Ramsey was planning, though no one shared this information with authorities who could have prevented the attack. Instead, Ramsey said students encouraged him to go forward with his plans, even giving him suggestions about which students to target and taking pictures to remember the event. This pattern is not out of the ordinary; according to a study by the Department of Education and the Secret Service, when people know of a possible school shooter, only 4% tell anyone, and 81% of school shooters do tell other people about their intentions.
On the day of the shooting, Ramsey hid the shotgun he had taken from his foster home in his loose pants when he went to school. The details in reported in various sources are inconsistent, but Ramsey claims that many news sources portrayed the shooting in a way different from what really happened. Many sources claimed that Ramsey went after Palacios and shot him, and that he then tracked down the principal at his administrative office and killed him there. Other sources and Ramsey himself say that both people died in a common area in the school, and that he had not picked Palacios specifically as a target. It is unclear whether Ramsey intended to kill the principal.
A number of students came to watch the shooting from an area above the common area, as they knew something bad was going to happen, although it is unclear if they knew exactly what. Ramsey had told these students he was going to have an “evil day,” and he told those whom he liked to stay away from the common area that day. Police said part of the rationale for the shooting was for Ramsey to get back his CD player, which the principal had taken away. Ramsey told his friends he would get the device, and then would start shooting.
It was reported that before he started shooting, Ramsey angrily asked everyone in the common area why they would not just leave him alone. Palacios intended to try to stop Ramsey by getting up and talking to him, which incited Ramsey to shoot him. When the principal then came up behind him to see what was going on, Ramsey turned around and shot him. His wife was nearby and cradled him as he died. Ramsey then ran yelling that he did not want to die.
More than 10 years later in an interview, Ramsey said that he had intended only to kill himself; he stated that he wanted to torture his tormentors–by dying in front of them–but not kill them. However, he claimed that his friends convinced him that he might as well kill others if he was going to kill himself. Ramsey also claimed that he did not realize shooting someone would kill the person at the time. He had thought the situation would be like a video game, in that the person would be alive and get back up, instead of dying. He also said later that at the time he did not think of the consequences of his actions, but only of fixing his problem in the present moment.
Now years after the attack, Ramsey has said he regrets his actions on that fateful day. He feels that prison life is worse than his battles when he was dealing with bullies as a teenager. He even wishes that one of his friends who knew about his plan had turned him in, so that the crime would not have happened. Ramsey has stated that he over-reacted about the bullying. Many people now sympathize with Ramsey because he was only a teenager at the time of his crime, but will spend the rest of his life in prison for something he regrets.
In 1998, Ramsey was tried as an adult and charged with two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder, and 15 counts of assault. On December 2, 1998, he was sentenced to 210 years in prison. James Randall and Matthew Charles were tried as juveniles as both provided support for Ramsey. Both have been released from prison.
Ramsey has received hundreds of letters from other teens who felt the same way he had felt before the shooting. The letters describe teens who were picked on, who felt they had nowhere to turn, and who had no one listening to them. Ramsey told many people that he planned to kill himself, but no one helped or reported his threats. Now he wants to help others avoid his mistakes.
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