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Remembering Thurston Pt. 1: 20 Years Later, Wounds And Questions Still Linger

Betina Lynn

Next Monday marks 20 years since Kip Kinkel - a high school student in Springfield -- opened fire on his classmates, killing two and wounding twenty-five others.  Adding to the death toll were Kinkel’s parents, both shot dead by their son the night before.  The Thurston High incident was one of the earliest modern-day school shootings, preceding Columbine by nearly a year. KLCC’s Brian Bull revisits the tragedy. 

(ARCHIVAL RADIO BROADCAST): “KLCC’s Northwest Passage, I’m Tripp Sommer. At least three people dead and twenty-four injured, after shootings today in Springfield…” (FADE UNDER, HOLD)

Well before “school shooter” became a familiar term, well ahead of social media, and back when most phones were still landlines…violence erupted on the campus of Thurston High School.

Credit BBC/AP
A wounded student is carried out of Thurston High on May 21st, 1998.

[RESUME BRIEF POST OF NEWS REPORT HERE: “….the suspect is a 15-year-old freshman…]

Jolene Leu was a junior. She recalls May 21st, 1998 as starting off as just a normal day.  That morning, she was hanging out with friends in the cafeteria before classes began. There were kids outside campaigning for student elections, and a senior honor breakfast across the hall.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Jolene Leu (Cosby) today. She was among those in the cafeteria when Kip Kinkel opened fire on his classmates.

"So there was a lot of activity going on anyway," says Leu. "But it switched when we heard the popping. And not growing up around guns, I had no idea what the noise was.”

Another junior in the cafeteria, Betina Lynn, figured some of the student campaigners had actually brought fireworks into the building as a prank. 

“And I felt something impact me from behind, in my back. I had no idea what it was," Lynn tells KLCC.

"Possibly it was a firework. But it was a really powerful impact."

Lynn says by this time, she was very angry. 

"‘Who’s doing this prank that’s putting us all in danger?’" she thought. "And the moment the second bullet hit my foot, I noticed the gun.”

15-year-old Kip Kinkel had arrived with a .22 caliber rifle, two pistols, a knife, and more than 1000 rounds of ammunition. Clad in a trench coat, he walked through the cafeteria letting bullets fly. 

Jolene Leu recalls after her boyfriend was hit, turning towards Kinkel and seeing his expression.

Credit Springfield Police Department
Booking photo of Kip Kinkel after being arrested.

“Anger. Just plain anger," says Leu. "I wouldn’t say that he targeted my table.  But my table of friends was the one that was hit the most.”

By this point, Betina Lynn was struggling to hide under one of the tables, and watched as Kinkel advanced on the panicked mass of students. 

“I watched as my friends got shot.  I watched the six or seven kids tackle and dogpile on top of Kip.  I heard books hitting the floor, I heard screams, I heard hysteria, I heard people running for the exits.”

One person pushing against the tide was Don Stone, who was a football coach and vice-principal at Thurston High. He’d been across the hall, cleaning up after the senior breakfast when he heard the gunfire. 

Stone ran into the cafeteria and found one of his players, shot in the leg.

“And he was spurting blood," he remembers. "I grabbed his hand and slapped it down on his leg and said, “Keep pressure on that.'"

Stone slowly opened up the door to one of the breezeways. He found two young men there. One was slumped down, sitting. Stone saw that the boy had taken a wound to the face, but "was still very conscious."  He pushed him up against the wall.  

"And immediately I heard one of my other football players saying, ‘Hey Coach, I need your help!' He was trying to do CPR on a young man by the name of Ben Walker.”

Mikael Nickolauson (left) and Ben Walker (right), who died of their gunshot wounds after classmate Kip Kinkel's rampage on the morning of May 21, 1998.

16-year-old Ben Walker would die within 24 hours.

Another classmate, 17-year-old Mikael Nickolauson was shot in the head point blank, and died on the scene.

Another junior, Tony Case, was on the floor. He’d been hit four times. Case recalls a paralyzing numbness and weakness.

"And I was trying to pull myself up to sit on the bench of the table, and there was a girl next to me, like watching me struggling to try and get up on this bench and she’s like, 'Uhh, maybe you should just stay there on the ground.' I was like, “Yeeaahh, okay, I guess that’s a good idea.”

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Springfield Police Officer Russell Boring.

A few blocks away, Springfield patrol officer Russ Boring was at a gas station.  He got a call of a shooting at Thurston High.

"When that call first came in, you think, 'Well, maybe this is a hoax,'" says Boring. "But then as we were driving to it and we’re getting’ more details we realized, “No, this was really happening.”

When Patrolman Boring arrived at the school, two other officers – Donny Myers and Dan Bishop – were already trying to help victims and look for any other shooters. Within the span of five minutes, Kip Kinkel had fatally wounded two students and injured two dozen more.

“It’s chaotic, very chaotic, people are running around and people are in a state of shock," Boring says. "And Officer Bishop had Kip Kinkel down on the ground. 

"We had fire personnel that were already on the scene. They helped them triage some victims out in that hallway that were severely wounded.”

With Kinkel in custody, police went to check on his parents. Detectives entering the isolated, sylvan home were met with a surreal and grisly scene: the bodies of Bill and Faith Kinkel were found in separate rooms as music – Wagner’s Liebestod  -- which literally means “love death” -- looped full blast on a CD player.

Kip was facing expulsion for having a .32 caliber handgun in his locker the day before. He’d bought the weapon from a classmate. He’d been taken out of school by Springfield police, then released into the custody of his father. In an interview conducted by Springfield Police Detective Al Warthen, Kip talked of feeling shame, as well as voices in his head.

Kinkel:  I didn’t want to, I loved my dad, that’s why…

Warthen: You love him so that’s why you had to kill him? 

Kinkel:   ...yes...

There has been talk among classmates that Kip’s relationship with his father was strained at times. After he was taken out of school May 20th, it’s speculated that the elder Kinkel was looking into military school or similar program for his son. Kip retrieved a .22 caliber rifle that he’d stashed away, shot his father in the back of the head, then dragged his body into a bathroom.

“My dad kept saying how my mom…how embarrassed she was going to be and how horrible I was," Kinkel continues in his recorded confession.  "And I couldn’t let my mom feel like that. I couldn’t do anything else. There’s no other way.”

Faith Kinkel arrived later, with groceries. After Kip helped her, he told her he loved her. Then shot her several times. She was found in the basement by authorities.

As for the two dozen Thurston High school kids wounded in the attack, they’d been rushed to two local hospitals. Tony Case – with three bullets in his back and one in his leg – recalled ending up at Sacred Heart Hospital.

Credit Thurston High School
Thurston High School
Tony Case's yearbook photo.

“And the surgeon…he definitely worked miracles with what he had to work with," Case says.

"I came in and was essentially gone at that point.  And he revived me and not only saved my life, but got me back to where I am still able to do everything I want to do.”

For many survivors, it would be months – even years -- before they recuperated from their physical wounds. Emotionally, many still contend with nightmares, flashbacks, and PTSD.

Jolene Leu says looking back, she struggled with emerging from the attack unscathed.

“It’s a hard situation when a lot of your close friends have been injured in a shooting," explains Leu. 

"They have the scars or the pains from their injuries. It creates a distance between those who just witnessed it, and those who’ve actually gone through it. 

"So I felt like because I wasn’t shot, that I didn’t deserve the title of ‘survivor’.”

In the days to come, satellite trucks and reporters from across the globe descended upon Springfield. Amidst the media blitz, mourners appeared and began leaving notes, flowers, photos, and stuffed animals on one of Thurston High School’s fences.

Credit AP
Visitors at the "Thurston Fence", a growing memorial to the shooting victims, 1998.

The incident touched those well outside of Oregon, too. President Bill Clinton spoke of the tragedy in his Memorial Day address that year.

“And my thoughts and prayers go out towards the victims and their families," said the president.

"Like all Americans, I am struggling to make sense of the senseless. And understand what could drive a teenager to commit such a terrible act.

"And like all Americans, I am profoundly troubled by the startling similarity of this crime to the other tragic incidents that have stunned America in less than a year’s time. In Paducah, Kentucky; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Pearl, Mississippi; and Edinboro, Pennsylvania.”

A few weeks later, President Clinton visited Thurston High School. 

“He said some amazing things to the kids," says former Thurston High vice-principal Stone. "He met with the victims and their parents.  I remember saying to him, 'It's amazing that you're here.' And he said,  'I’m not amazing, your kids are.'”

Credit Betina Lynn
The Thurston High School Yearbook for academic year 1998-99 shows photos of the shooting aftermath, including President Bill Clinton's visit to the school a few weeks later.

The president and his staff wore blue ribbons, as part of a “promise” campaign to, “Let it end here”.

But as the coming decades would reveal, the bloody shooting at Thurston High was just the beginning of a long chain of gun violence in America’s schools…including one that would be even more notorious the following year in Colorado.

At a high school called Columbine.

Copyright 2018, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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