Patrick Purdy had a history of arrests, mental illness, and alcohol-related problems– but no one could have predicted that he would massacre schoolchildren in the small farm city of Stockton in northern California. On January 17, 1989, Purdy, age 24, fired 106 rounds of ammunition from an AK-47 assault rifle equipped with a 75-round ammunition drum. He sprayed these bullets at Cleveland Elementary School, killing five students, and wounding 29 others plus one teacher, in less than two minutes. The children who died from Purdy’s attack were all Southeast Asian refugees. Three girls–Ram Chun, age 8; Sokhim An, age 6; and Oeun Lim, age 8–were Cambodian, as was one boy–Rathanan Or, age 9. The other girl who died, Thuy Tran, age 6, was from Vietnam. At the time of the shooting, the neighborhood in which the school was located was 68.6% Asian.
Purdy was born November 10, 1964. His father, Patrick Benjamin Purdy, was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington. His mother, Kathleen Toscano, filed for divorce when Purdy was three years old and moved the family to California after her husband threatened her with a weapon. Toscano then married Albert Gulart, Sr., although the marriage lasted just six years. Patrick attended Cleveland Elementary School from kindergarten through third grade.
Twice in December 1973, Child Protective Services took Purdy and his two siblings into custody after a neighbor reported neglect. As a child, Purdy was described as very quiet and lacking coping skills. Neighbors remember him as weird and violent. Joan Capalla, who lived near Purdy when he was a child, recalled the boy chasing her sons with a wooden-handled butcher knife. He developed an alcohol problem as a teenager and was kicked out of his mother’s home for hitting his mother when he was 13 or 14. When he was 14 years old, Purdy lived with a foster parent, who told officers she feared him because he had knives and guns. Purdy lived on the streets for a while, attending high school only sporadically.
Between 1980 and the shooting in 1989, Purdy was arrested numerous times. His first arrest was for prostitution. He also was arrested for selling drugs, possessing illegal weapons, receiving stolen property, and being an accomplice to an armed robbery. In 1986, he vandalized his mother’s car because she refused to give him money for drugs. When he was almost 22, Purdy told a mental health professional that he had destructive thoughts and was considered to have an antisocial personality. Despite his problems, he never received any long-term mental health intervention. Purdy’s friends described him as a nice guy, although they said he was often frustrated and angry.
In fall of 1987, Purdy began taking welding classes at San Joaquin Delta College. He complained that there were too many Southeast Asian students there. In 1988, Purdy held a series of jobs and drifted from Oregon, to Texas, to Connecticut, to Tennessee, before returning to Stockton and renting a room at the El Rancho Motel on December 26. It was during these travels, on August 3, that Purdy purchased the AK-47 he used in the shooting, for $349.95.
On January 17, 1989, Purdy dressed himself in a camouflage shirt with the words “PLO,” “Libya,” and the misspelled “Death to the Great Satin” written on the front. Before leaving his hotel room, he lined up 100 green plastic soldiers and small tanks, weapons, and jeeps in his hotel room, placing them on shelves, on the refrigerator, and elsewhere. He had carved the words “Freedom,” “Victory,” and “Hezbollah” (a Shiite Muslim group) into his bayoneted rifle.
At approximately noon, Purdy parked his car behind Cleveland Elementary School. He set it on fire with a Molotov cocktail, then entered the school. Purdy hid behind a group of portable classrooms and shot at the students. When he ran out of ammunition, he shot and killed himself with a pistol. The California Attorney General concluded that Purdy hated minorities and blamed them for his horrible life. He selected Southeast Asians simply because he had the most contact with that group. Captain Dennis Perry of the Stockton Police Department said that Purdy was obsessed with the military.
The school opened the following day, with workmen attempting to patch the 60 bullet holes in the building and scrub the bloodstains from the floors. Only one-fourth of the school’s 970 students were in attendance. The school brought in psychologists and nurses, as well as interpreters, to assist the traumatized students.
Purdy’s rampage prompted legislative efforts–at both state and federal levels– to restrict the use of assault weapons. The California state legislature moved quickly to enact the nation’s first ban on assault weapons. This legislation banned the sale, production, and possession of certain types of assault weapons. The Stockton incident, coupled with a deadly shooting at a San Francisco high-rise office building in 1993, also prompted the U.S. Congress to pass the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994. This ban was part of a larger crime control bill called the Federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. It prohibited 19 types of semi-automatic weapons, including the AK-47, Uzi, Colt AR-15, and Street Sweeper, as well as copies or duplicates of these named weapons and ammunition clips that hold more than 10 rounds. Also banned were any weapons with two or more of a list of military features, including grenade launchers and flash suppressors.
A 1999 study by the US Department of Justice National Institute of Justice (NIJ) found that the ban did, indeed, help keep assault weapons away from criminals. According to a 2004 study commissioned by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the assault weapons ban reduced the number of deaths from assault weapons by 66%. Despite this research showing its effectiveness, Congress and President George W. Bush allowed the ban to expire in 2004.
- Reinhold, R. (1989, January 19). After shooting, horror, but few answers. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1989/01/19/us/after-shooting-horror-but-few-answers.html
- Reuters. (2009, January 15). Twenty years since a nightmare: Stockton, CA shooting of 35 led to strengthening of gun laws. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/01/15/idUS226787+15-Jan-2009+PRN20090115