February 4, 1996 in Nation/World

Tragedy Draws Town Together Stunned Residents Cling To One Another After School Slayings

Bonnie Harris And Gita Sitaramiah S Staff writer
 

Moses Lake woke up Saturday with murder on its mind.

Residents of the small, Columbia Basin farm community couldn’t shake the image of the armed boy who so easily gunned down a teacher and three fellow students in the middle of an algebra class Friday.

Neighbors hugged one another at the post office, cried together in the aisles of the city’s biggest grocery store and shook their heads over cups of coffee at a busy downtown diner.

A steady line of cars rolled slowly by Frontier Junior High where, just a day before, students climbed through windows and ran to nearby churches to escape gunfire.

From the sidewalk out front, people gazed sadly at the locked school. They wondered aloud how a tragedy like this could have erupted in their once-drowsy home of 11,500.

“Yesterday it was in somebody else’s community,” said the Rev. William Graham, a pastor at Community Church of Christ. “Today it’s in ours.”

The shooting occurred shortly before school let out Friday, when a 14-year-old student toted a high-powered rifle into a classroom and shot three students in the front row.

Then the boy shot math teacher Leona Caires, 49, as she moved toward him, assistant police chief Dean Mitchell said.

The mother of four was killed, along with Manuel Vela, 14, and Arnold Fritz, 15.

A fourth victim, 13-year-old Natalie Hintz, is in serious condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. A team of 16 doctors spent 12 hours operating on Hintz, who suffered wounds to her arm, chest and stomach.

Jon Lane, a physical education teacher at Frontier, ran to the classroom when he heard shots.

Lane, a former high school wrestler, managed to get the gun away from the boy and tackle him to the ground, police said.

“He’s fine,” said Lane’s wife, Carol. “He’s a little bit shaken up.”

Immediately after the shooting, police arrested Barry Loukaitas, an honors student who “had a very small circle of friends,” one former teacher said.

“He was shy, I thought,” said math teacher Louise Stehr. “But never did I dream …”

Students initially said victim Vela teased Loukaitas, whom many called “nerdy.” They thought Loukaitas became fed up with Vela’s taunting.

But Loukaitas’ family attorney Garth Dano called that motive “flat-out wrong.”

“It isn’t appropriate for me to comment further,” Dano said. “But there’s a lot of erroneous rumors flying around.”

Loukaitas’ father, Terry, cried when he answered the door of the family’s lakeside home. “Our thoughts are with the victims and their families,” he said, refusing further comment.

Residents dissected the shooting throughout the day Saturday, some with guilt and grief, others with anger.

“It’s about time this town woke up about these damn kids,” said Clarence Toddy, a 20-year resident of Moses Lake. “It always takes something like this before anybody does anything.”

Cindy Miyamoto said she is “scared to death” of sending her daughter to Frontier next school year and may choose a different school.

“We could have lived in Seattle but we don’t,” Miyamoto said. “It’s not supposed to happen in the small towns.”

Amy Parris, an Ephrata high school teacher who lives in Moses Lake, said she hopes the shooting won’t cause neighbors to lose faith in small towns and public schools.

“I want the kids to know this is reality - but still, you can’t always watch your back and be afraid of your friends,” Parris said.

A group of pastors from several local churches met Saturday to plan counseling sessions and prayer services for the grieving community.

Yolanda Rios, director of the Hispanic Community Forum, said she wants people to know there’s help for anyone who needs it.

“This has hit so many people so hard,” Rios told the group. “We cannot let them down.”

Assistant school superintendent Paul Ganalon assured the pastors that dozens of counselors would be on hand Monday when students return to class. He also said several police officers will be at school, to make sure students feel secure in the first days back.

“We’re told we need to keep things as normal as possible and get kids back in the classroom right away,” Ganalon said. “We have to get people moving on.”

Kevan Smith, a pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church, said he wonders how quickly his community will heal.

People expect such bloodshed in New York or Chicago, he said, “But in Moses Lake … There is no such thing as a small town anymore.”

Rev. Graham said he hopes people will open their hearts to everyone who’s hurting, even the family of Barry Loukaitas, “because they are traumatized too.”

“Something’s happened to our youth,” said Graham, who also is a chaplain for the Moses Lake police department. “They’re angry and they don’t know where it’s coming from.”

At the Safeway store downtown, neighbors huddled in the aisles and wept, whispering about the shooting over grocery carts and produce.

One cashier broke into tears as Mabel Kinder came through her line.

“There is so much grief right here, in this place,” said Kinder, 64. “We know so little about our children.”

Nearby at the school, residents dropped off flowers and balloons at the front doors. Jack Campbell stood on the sidewalk with his first-grade son, who quietly held his father’s hand.

Campbell stared for a moment at the dark school.

Then, pulling his boy closer, he said, “How will we ever get over this one?”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos

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