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Remembering Thurston Pt. 3: A Look Into Kip Kinkel's Life Behind Prison Walls

Springfield Police Department

Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the Thurston High School shooting in Springfield, when teen gunman Kip Kinkel opened fire on his classmates. Two students died and twenty-five more were wounded.  The bodies of Kinkel’s parents were found in their rural home, having been murdered by their son the night before. 

Yesterday, we looked at what some survivors of that day have done since. And today, in the final segment of our three-part series, KLCC’s Brian Bull reports on what Kip Kinkel himself has been reportedly up to while serving a 112-year sentence.

To this day, many people wonder about Kip Kinkel...his activities today, as well as why he attacked his school two decades ago. Some note his parents let him go off Prozac in the months before the incident.

Others say Kinkel contended with bullying and anger issues.  Betina Lynn was a teaching assistant in Kinkel’s Spanish class.

“There were a lot of people who very often went out of their way to make him feel like an outsider, to ostracize him, to tease him, to laugh at him, to make his life really hard and uncomfortable.”

Kip’s history included counseling sessions, experimenting with guns and explosives, and being grounded for pranks. He seemed intrigued by recent school shootings in Arkansas and Pennsylvania.

Once in custody, Kinkel was interviewed by a Springfield Police detective on the attacks against his classmates, and the murder of his parents. The boy referred to voices, and his head not being “right”.

Detective Al Warthen: “So you told me that your mom gets out of the (Ford) Explorer and starts up the stairs from the garage or basement, right?”

Kinkel: Yes.

Warthen: “Do you say anything to her?

Kinkel: Yes, I told her I loved her.

Warthen: “And then you shot – 

Kip:  Yes! God damn these voices inside my head!

Warthen:  Alright, hey…Kip, settle down…

Those voices were expected to play heavily into Kinkel’s defense during the trial. But he dropped his claim of insanity, pleading guilty to 26 counts of attempted murder and four counts of first-degree murder.

Former Thurston High School vice principal Don Stone credits Kip’s sister, Kristin, for sparing Springfield a painful revisit of the tragedy.

“Previous to Kip’s trial, she basically talked him into just pleading guilty.  She felt strongly that he shouldn’t put the community through ah, in essence, a second shooting…the trial.”

On this spring afternoon, Tony McCown sits at the Thurston Fence, a concrete and tile memorial to Kinkel’s victims. He watches as current students mill on and off the campus, like he and Kinkel used to before the shooting.

“Kip was certainly one of my best friends.”

While some people have painted Kinkel as a schizophrenic youth influenced by shock rock, gun culture, and bullying, McCown says the friend he knew didn’t particularly stand out as a troubled soul.

He says he visited and wrote Kip frequently after he was sent to the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn.  Kinkel was transferred to the Oregon State Correctional Institution in 2007. McCown says he’s only visited his friend recently. But Kip has kept busy.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Tony McCown at the site of the Thurston Memorial, outside the high school.

“Since he’s been in prison, he’s finished a Bachelor’s Degree," begins McCown. "He’s received his electrical license, and he’s become the prison’s electrician. He teaches yoga in the mental health ward of the prison.

"He’s got an odd, centered peace to him.”

Kinkel himself has not granted any media interviews. His sentencing remains under appeal and was recently upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court. 

However, a former inmate – who also served time for a violent offense committed while a youth – spent nearly six years with Kinkel at the state prison in Salem. 

To protect his identity, we’ve electronically altered his voice.  We’ll also call him “David”. He tells KLCC that he was struck by Kip Kinkel’s transition to a fairly dangerous place. 

“A lot of the times, other individuals, especially with high profile cases, gang members and the rest will attack you pretty quickly," explains David.  "They’ll see it as an opportunity to score points in their gangs.

"So within the first month or so that he was there, he was attacked. Some man came behind him and struck him, hit him one or two times.  It was unfortunate, it was on the yard, and that’s usually where those attacks happen. And he handled himself well, he didn’t strike back.  Which is really the rule of the prison, you let the guards handle that.” 

Kip Kinkle's legal team.
Recently, Kip Kinkel and some other inmates petitioned to adopt a cat for the OSCI Chapel. Kinkel shows a photo of the cat they wished to bring into the facility.

David confirms that Kinkel is now an electrician at the facility.  He’s also worked in the prison library and when he’s not exercising, is a voracious reader.

“One of the first ‘connect’ books that we really read together was James Joyce’s Ulysses. He really enjoyed that. What’s another great one?  Crime and Punishment was a book we explored together. 

Kip Kinkel (bottom, left) is also active at the OSCI. Here he poses with members of his basketball team. The other inmates' faces have been obscured for confidentiality.

"So he reads a lot of poetry, he reads a lot of lit, and he’s reading it mostly not just to educate himself, but kind of understanding the broader humanity.”

Among Kinkel’s recurring visitors are ministers, suggesting he’s found religion.  David puts it this way:

“I don’t know about “religion”, I’d say “spirituality”.  And I think spirituality is part of a way to deal with sort of the moral challenges of having hurt so many people.  Any sort of tragedy like this, there’s no fixing it, there’s no repairing it.  

"And I think relying on meditation and prayer and thought towards the people who’ve have been harmed is really kind of his spiritual practice in big part.”

Kinkel says very little about May 21st, 1998, according to his friends.  McCown says that even extends to his correspondence.

“I think he’s presented it in a way that he doesn’t want to hurt anybody, and he’s cognizant that written words could hurt people. So he’s very brief and concise in his letters," says McCown.

Credit Oregon State Correctional Institution
A 1998 photo of Kip Kinkel (left) paired with a more recent one (right) provided by the OSCI.

"Whether it’s education, or faith, or meditation, and yoga, he’s taken a lot of steps to make sure he can function.  I think that living with those demons made it really hard to function for years.”

Just this month, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld Kinkel’s sentence, affirming rulings from two other courts. Kinkel’s defense is seizing upon several Supreme Court rulings in the last decade that they say can help reduce his sentence.

Portland attorney Andy Simrin says a 2012 case, Miller vs. Alabama, ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for crimes committed by juveniles.  Simrin says it’s unlikely Kinkel will survive his time.

"He’s got to live to be 127 years old which is longer than any human in recorded history has lived so far.”

Simrin says there’s a possibility Kinkel’s case could reach the nation’s highest court.

“We can file what’s called a petition for a Writ of Certiorari. It’s like an application to get the case directly into the U.S. Supreme Court. And if you’ve got a good federal issue that they haven’t written on before, then there is some chance they may be interested.”

Kip Kinkel (far left) with other inmates who work in the OSCI Chapel. Their faces have been obscured to protect their identities.

Tony McCown says were his friend ever to be released ahead of his 112-years, there’d be hard questions.

“Do I personally think that if you let Kip out, that he’d be a risk? Probably not.  Would society be a threat to him?  Yeah, probably. 

"And then as a country, we have to consider what our incarcerated people can contribute anyway, and in a way I think Kip’s demonstrated that you can.  I think he’s having an impact inside prison in a way that most people don’t.”

And David adds that for all his exchanges with Kinkel, he’s never talked with him about seeing a world beyond prison walls.  But he understands that should Kinkel be released, there’d be resentment and fear in any community he lives in.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
A larger marker honors the two Thurston High School students who were killed by Kinkel on May 21, 1998: Mikael Nickolauson and Ben Walker.

“I think that’s a reasonable…fear," says David.  As he’ll readily admit, I mean the level of harm that’s happened, is…it’s impacted the community, it’s impacted so many people, there’s definitely resentment and desire not to see him released. 

"And I think he recognizes that. Kip isn’t dismissive of it, he understands the level of harm that he’s caused.”

Many victims and witnesses we talked to say Kip Kinkel is best left behind bars. But one says he’s giving serious thought to visiting Kinkel, 20 years after he sprayed the cafeteria with bullets.  Former vice-principal Don Stone, who had Kinkel removed from school for having a handgun in his locker….says it’s been on his mind a lot lately.

Credit Submitted by Don Stone.
Former THS administrator and coach, Don Stone.

“I…I’m struggling with this, but I would like to visit him in prison.  And…and feel for myself if in fact, he is remorseful in terms of what happened that morning.”

But first, says Stone, he’ll meet up with a former student and survivor who’s asked him to join her at the Thurston High School cafeteria next time he’s back in Springfield. He says when they connect later this spring, they’ll stand in the space where the tragic events of May 21st, 1998 unfolded…and share a moment of reflection.

And hopefully, healing.

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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