I went to graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the 1990s. Although there were many things I loved about the campus, they had also had serious issues with the campus’ handling of violence against female students. There had been a major Title IX complaint, supported by female faculty members. After an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the campus was operating under a consent decree.
It was in this environment that I reported a former student who was using the campus online discussion forums to post fantasies of being in combat in Bosnia, revenge fantasies, and references to thinking about a mass shooting at work.
The former student had attended UC Santa Cruz as an undergraduate. He had been physically and emotionally abused by his father, a prominent solid-state physicist. He struggled with demons from it. After graduating, he moved back to Colorado and got a job working for a chemical process research company started by his father. His work was brilliant, but he also started to lose his sanity. And it was a bad combination, because he had been using his salary to buy guns. His online profile listed 75 WWII and assault rifles that he had bought. He had also reported having had to go to the hospital for a psychiatric intervention and being put on leave from work.
This was before the Columbine shootings. School shootings had been rare enough that people didn’t understand the dangers. Some former students even encouraged the revenge fantasies. In December 1996 I finally spoke up online and said that people shouldn’t encourage him, because he might actually act on his fantasies. I also reported it to the campus authorities. The campus police did not take the threats seriously. “He doesn’t have all the guns he says he has,” they said. But people in the campus community had been out to visit him and had seen his guns and shot them with him at the Boulder rifle range.
After I reported him to the authorities, I received an email describing a fantasy of shooting off a horse’s head with a high caliber rifle, saying “if you fuck with me, I’ll fuck with you.” There was then a post on the campus electronic discussion forum about a special high-caliber rifle he was buying, and special flechette ammunition he was making for it. There was also a description posted about using the gun to practice shooting head-sized rocks. His friends also started asking for my home address, and one of them got it.
Living with being terrorized gave me PTSD. I channeled the anger into becoming an advocate and a protector. I visited Florida International University, which had a pioneering victim advocacy center. Their victim advocate told me that “people distrust victims who are advocating for themselves.” She encouraged me to start a local chapter of Students Against Violence. I did, and started supporting other crime victims on campus, as well as the mother of a teenage homicide victim in Monterey. I flew to the National Victim Law Institute Conference in Portland. I also rattled cages all the way up to the UC Office of the President about the continuing homicidal fantasies being posted on the bulletin board. The only thing UCOP did was to move the electronic discussion forums to a computer off campus. It did not solve the problem.
In 1999, the Columbine school shootings happened. I spoke to the local and national media about the case. The Colorado FBI also finally started investigating him, because he had sent emails to his father, threatening to kill his father. The FBI arrested him in July 2000. Twenty-four federal agents seized 75 WWII and assault rifles from his condominium — the exact number he described in his online profile. The lead FBI agent told me that one of the assault rifles was “possibly converted to full auto.” The inventory showed that he also had the special high-caliber weapon he had described buying after I reported him to the campus authorities. The lead FBI agent told me that everyone in his life was afraid of him, except for his mother, and his sister thought that his mother should be afraid of him. His workplace had been paying him $3,000 a month to stay home and not kill them. He was convicted of interstate threats and threats to kidnap and sentenced to 3 1/2 years in federal prison.
The experience changed my life in profound ways. In 2002, I worked on a campaign to elect a really good District Attorney, Bob Lee. Bob ran against a political appointee who ran a very dirty campaign. We won, and Bob became an amazing DA. In 2003, the former student was about to be released on high risk parole. I took a police gun training class and learned to shoot a Glock pistol. I met a private detective, and worked with him to help solve a case of a missing 14 year old girl, a friend of my nephew’s. It was the start of my developing investigative skills, something that I have used in my water work.
Although these experiences were very dark and traumatic, I realize in retrospect that dealing with them made me a warrior. And it was also how I developed the skills that helped save the Delta Independent Science Board in 2021. And that was a good thing.
In Lord of the Rings, Frodo says, ““I wish it need not have happened in my time.” Gandalf replies, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”