In the weeks before he killed two students and his algebra teacher in a Moses Lake classroom, Barry Loukaitis was immersed in a dark world of violent movies and music videos and intimate knowledge of his mother’s marital troubles and suicidal fantasies.
The teenager’s attorneys opened their defense here Monday by putting his parents on the witness stand. The lawyers say he is innocent by reason of insanity.
Less than a month before the February 1996 killings, Loukaitis’ mother, JoAnn “Jody” Phillips, told him she had filed for divorce and planned to kill herself by Valentine’s Day.
Phillips, 48, testified that she had told Loukaitis, then 14, that he should call his grandmother as soon as she was dead to make arrangements about where he would live.
Phillips also told her son about her plan to tie up Loukaitis’ father and his lover and tell the couple at gunpoint how miserable their affair had made her.
Then, she explained to her son, she would surprise them by turning the gun on herself.
Loukaitis responded by urging her to write a play about suicide instead of actually killing herself, Phillips said.
The witness also said she routinely had told her son all about her fits of depression. He frequently would come home from school and find her in bed, incapacitated by her dark mood, she said.
Phillips said she came to rely on her son as the only person she could talk to. “He was my best friend.”
When his mother walked to the witness stand, Loukaitis raised his eyes to watch her. It was a rare flicker of recognition from the usually stone-faced defendant.
Phillips said she turned to her son for companionship early: When he was in kindergarten, she would keep him out of kindergarten so the two could be together.
“He would cry at school because he missed me, and I missed him … so I let him stay home.”
She said she gave no thought to the effect her behavior had on her son. “I was so depressed and consumed about how I was feeling I didn’t pay much attention to whether it bothered Barry or how he was feeling.”
But Phillips said the upheaval at home clearly upset her son. When his parents fought in front of him at the dinner table, Barry would throw down his silverware and run from the room. “He’d say, ‘Why can’t you guys get along?”’ For fun, Phillips and her son would watch movies and music videos together, including one called “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam.
The courtroom was dimmed as the 1991 video was played for the jury. In the video, a bored, miserable teenage boy in a suburb is depicted as unloved by his parents, who also fight at the dinner table. He is an outcast at school, and taunted by other students.
The video ends with the boy walking into a classroom in the middle of the afternoon, then cuts to horrified looks on students’ faces as they shield themselves. The final shot is of a student with a bloodstain just below his neck.
Loukaitis swept into his algebra class on the afternoon of Feb. 2, 1996, and shot Manuel Vela, 14, with a high-powered rifle just below the neck. Then he killed Arnold Fritz, 14, and his teacher, Leona Caires, with a shot to the back.
Natalie Hinz, 13, was seriously wounded in the rampage at Frontier Junior High.
Loukaitis, who has admitted to the shootings, is charged with three counts of aggravated first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, second-degree assault and 16 counts of kidnapping.
If convicted, he could face life in prison without parole.
Terry Loukaitis told the jury his son became increasingly quiet and sullen in the weeks leading up to the shooting. He would fall asleep in the shower in the morning, until his father picked the lock on the bathroom door and woke him.
Terry Loukaitis also painted a bleak picture of a home life in which he was gone most of the time and arguing with his wife when he was around.
He said he was too busy starting a new sandwich shop business in Ellensburg to take his son aside and ask how the news of the pending divorce affected him.
During cross-examination, the father said he felt his son was depressed. But he told psychiatrists in three earlier interviews that his son had not changed significantly in the months before the shootings.
Two employees at the Grant County Juvenile Detention Center said Loukaitis was depressed when he was first incarcerated and placed on suicide watch.
But when questioned by prosecutors Monday, the employees said Loukaitis’ mood steadily improved.
The improvement was just as marked before he began taking lithium, an anti-depressant, as after, they said.
Both also said Loukaitis’ trademark courtroom demeanor - down-cast eyes, slow walk, and depressed manner, would show up whenever he was taken to court or to talk to a psychiatrist or lawyer.
“That would disappear as soon as he left,” said Warren Swanson of the detention center. Back at the center, “He’d be interested in getting on the basketball court right way.”
During cross-examination, Terry Loukaitis confirmed his description to a psychiatrist of his son the night of the shootings: “Vicious. No emotion. Not crying.”