Residents of Grant County are shaking their heads and looking for good news to offset a raft of tragedies in 1996.
This year produced a record number of homicides and auto fatalities in a town that for years has been quiet, conservative and friendly.
In February, 14-year-old Barry Loukaitis killed two classmates and his math teacher in a Moses Lake junior high school classroom.
Last week, another 14-year-old boy, Aaron Harmon, stunned the community again by fatally shooting his 43-year-old mother, his 9-year-old stepsister, and then himself.
The recent murders and suicide have reopened pained feelings and increased the likelihood that the Loukaitis trial will be moved out of Grant County, said Loukaitis’ father, Terry.
“People were trying to have these wounds heal,” said Terry Loukaitis last week. “I think Barry’s trial would have been moved anyway. This just helps force the issue. These things are too much on people’s minds right now.”
No one can establish any link between the murders Loukaitis is charged with and the Harmon incident. But residents of Moses Lake are aware that Harmon, a junior high student, was the first cousin of one of the boys killed by Loukaitis, Arnold Fritz.
The two youths attended different junior high schools.
A suicide note was found after Harmon’s shootings. It apparently did not give a motive for his death or the killing of his family members.
Some community members have said that Fritz’s death at the hands of Loukaitis deeply affected Harmon.
Another possible thread is the suggestion by some school officials that Harmon was picked on by some classmates. Defense attorneys for Loukaitis have said the same behavior helped ignite the boy’s emotional disorders and contributed to what they say was an insane act.
Prosecutors are supposed to begin the trial of Loukaitis, now 15, in Ephrata in early February.
Defense co-counsel Guillermo Romero already has made one motion to move the trial, claiming excessive publicity has made it difficult to find a fair-minded jury in Grant County.
“It was impossible to find an impartial jury before (the recent deaths),” Romero said.
“Now it’s absolutely impossible.”
Judge Michael Cooper has said he intends to begin looking for jurors in Grant County. He’ll move the trial - expected to last two months or more only if no chance exists of finding a fair and impartial panel.
Deputy Prosecutor Robert Schiffner is convinced the jury can be selected from Grant County residents. “Maybe not from Moses Lake, but Grant County has a lot of other residents who are open-minded people,” Schiffner said.
Schiffner agrees that the past 12 months have cast a dark cloud over the residents of Grant County.
“I grew up in this town, where we’d go two or three years and not have a single murder,” said Schiffner.
Already this year, Grant County has recorded 10 homicides and more than a dozen auto-related deaths. The yearly average has been about three murders and six auto fatalities in this mostly rural county about 110 miles west of Spokane.
“Anyone who’s aware of these statistics is feeling concern,” Schiffner said. “Whether this is a statistical anomaly or a sign of having severe problems, no one knows.”