March 10, 1996 in Nation/World

Tragedy Strengthens Resolve Mom’s Slaying Steels Son’s Ambition

Eric Sorensen Staff writer

Before the phone rang late that Friday afternoon, Matt Caires had been having the best week of his life.

The 21-year-old had just been appointed to the Pullman City Council. His picture was on the front page of The Daily Evergreen, the Washington State University student newspaper. The stage was set for him to catapult from chief of staff for the student government to student body president.

“I was walking around pretty high and mighty, I’ll be the first to admit,” he said last week.

Then his fraternity president called his office in the student union and broke the bubble.

“There’s been an emergency,” he told him. “Your mother’s been shot.”

A disbelieving Caires telephoned his father, Steve, who confirmed the news. His mother, schoolteacher Leona Caires, had been shot in her Moses Lake classroom.

She’s gone, his father said.

As all strength drained from his body, Caires collapsed to the floor. But then he set to helping his father and donning the mantle of an older son whose job is to pull his family through.

“I tried to be the one that would never cry,” he said, “to be strong for the rest of my family.”

A month later, his resolve is apparent as he talks about the shooting and memories of his mother in an occasionally breathless but fast-paced, forthright voice. He is taking his cue from the poster on his office wall, the one that says attitude is everything, that life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you deal with it.

“Things happen every day,” he said. He was echoing remarks he made at his mother’s eulogy in Coeur d’Alene, where he grew up with his brother and two sisters. “We really shouldn’t dwell on why. And there’s really no reason to dwell on why. It’s what we do from now on.

“I’m not going to sit around and mope about this. I have a heck of a life ahead of me and so does everyone in our family.

“My mom would be very disappointed if we reacted in any other way.”

The buzz of activity around the Sigma Nu house suggests things are pretty much back to normal. In the middle of a weekday, half a dozen brothers were stretched out on couches, taking in “Baywatch” on a big-screen television.

Caires, in full trim in a seersucker dress shirt and paisley tie, stood reminding everyone to turn out early and pack the audience for an upcoming WSU presidential debate to be aired on cable TV.

“You know about Friday night, right?” he said. “Six o’clock. Cable 8.”

Pictures of Caires and his running mate, Karen Carlson, were posted in every window for next Tuesday’s election.

After ushering a visitor into the quiet of the nearby formal living room, he plowed into his reflections on Feb. 2: what happened when 14-year-old Barry Loukaitis entered Leona Caires’ eighth-grade math class with a high-powered rifle, what lessons the day’s events might hold, the value of a life cut short at 49.

For all his soul-searching over the past five weeks, Caires has spent the least energy on probing for details of the shooting. “I don’t think anyone really knows exactly what happened,” he said.

His mother might have been the second of student Barry Loukaitis’ four victims, only one of whom survived. She might have been the fourth. The impression Caires has is she was sitting at her desk and was about to be taken hostage. At that point, Caires suspects, she panicked and so did Loukaitis.

“My dear Mom, she did have a problem: she was very hysterical. She saw a spider and boy, everyone knew,” he said. “She was very loud.

“It was probably something real similar, she probably screamed really loud, somehow turned and drew attention to her. And because of that the kid panicked.”

Caires does know his mother was shot in the back.

From these vague details, out of this “horrible, horrible incident,” he is determined to draw a firm, positive conclusion. He sees it already in his personal growth, the newfound strength of his family and the expectation that, as a teacher himself, he may someday prevent a similar incident at another school.

“Maybe down the road, through this kind of adversity that I’ve had to face in my life, at some point when someone else has faced that kind of adversity, I can be there for them,” he said.

He finds comfort in other ways, as well. Chief among them is a feeling that his mother lives on through her students: a high school girlfriend of his whom she tutored in math to help her graduate, a Coeur d’Alene mechanic whom she helped get a GED and into North Idaho College.

“The legacy she left behind is that kind of compassion for people, the fact that she cared so much for her students,” Caires said. “She showed it every day.”

There’s solace as well in his most wrenching, lingering image.

It comes from the night before her murder as they talked on the phone and she asked why he wanted to run for president of the student body.

“I want to make you guys proud of me,” Caires recalled telling her. “And she was telling me I don’t need to be president to make her proud. How she couldn’t believe I was a City Council member. How she took a lot of gratification saying, ‘Damn, look at my son.”’

His voice caught like a boot on a boulder.

“We had a good conversation,” he said. “I remember me getting off the phone and she saying how much she loved me and me saying I loved her back. That’s how we left it.”

Tears arrived. He pressed on.

“I’m very happy for that,” he said. “That I had a way to say goodbye to her in a way I didn’t know.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)

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