I wrote this piece nine years ago. It's about a violent crime that occurred at my high school seventeen years ago. Which is to say that I carried memories of this crime around with me for eight years before I finally was able to create an opportunity to turn those memories into useful words.
By "useful" I mean useful mainly to myself. I don't know if these words were useful to anyone else, though I hope so. But they were useful to me, in that they reacquainted me with the sense of violation I felt even as someone several steps removed from the crime below, and moved me toward a new perspective on the perpetrator. They also left me feeling that perhaps I'd created a small worthwhile something out of a larger senseless mess.
Perhaps. It may be that what I actually created with this piece was merely an opportunity for a curious person—me—to explore some questions that had been hanging around unanswered for too long. If that's the case, then at least this story can serve as a reminder of something basic, something even us journalists occasionally forget: if you've been wondering, you can pick up the phone and ask.
The guy who shot two people inside my high school is on the phone.
I have tracked him down because I want to hear his story. I want him to explain what happened that day. I want to know what has become [End Page 67] of him since he got out of juvie. The day was January 12, 1995. He was fifteen, a freshman at Seattle's Garfield High School: short, smooth-cheeked, black, and on that particular morning selling weed in the school gym as students gathered there for the Martin Luther King Day assembly. I was seventeen, a Garfield senior, an overachiever, white, editor of the student newspaper, wearer of outsized round glasses. Like the rest of the kids, I filed orderly into the gym, listened dutifully, applauded on cue.
While I was doing this, the freshman was getting "jacked." Another black student, a junior named Hassan Coaxum, was teasing him and, according to police reports, stealing his weed. To the five-foot-four freshman, Hassan and the other tough guys surrounding him seemed too much to take on alone.
So the freshman gave up—for the moment. He left the assembly feeling humiliated and angry, and as the speakers talked of Dr. King's legacy of nonviolence and black liberation, he headed home, grabbed a nine-millimeter semiautomatic handgun he had stolen from his grandfather, and headed back to Garfield to shoot a black man.
The shooter's recollections of that day are occasionally interrupted by shouts from a female voice outside his door. The woman wants to know what he's doing. He tells her not to worry, which is a relief. I have already had to tangle with another female voice, that of the shooter's mother, whom I called first when trying to find him. His mother wanted money for access. "It's an unbelievable story," she told me, trying to pitch her son's tale of redemption for cash. I told her it would be unethical for a journalist to pay for information. She told me that's what all the other journalists said. I got the message: I was about to be refused an interview, just like them.
Searching for a personal connection that might trump money, I reminded her that I went to school with her son. She seemed unmoved, remained vague about whether she would actually tell him I called.
But now here he is on the phone, a few days after I spoke to his mother, willing to tell his story on the condition that I not reveal his name. (Because he was convicted as a juvenile, the shooter's name was never released, and he wants to keep it that way.) It's about 10:30 p.m. [End Page 68] on a Wednesday. He too asks if there's any money in this. I tell him no. He starts talking anyway.
In 1995, the...