Almost a year ago, Sean Fitzpatrick left $250 in his bedroom. The money was to help pay for his funeral.
The quiet 16-year-old boy, who had been hearing voices in his head urging him to hurt himself, didn’t expect to make it home that day, Sept. 22, 2003 – his father’s birthday.
He grabbed the handgun that his father had trained him to use and left for Lewis and Clark High School.
Everyone, including Sean, agrees that he raised that 9 mm pistol and aimed it at Spokane Police officers who had evacuated the 2,000 students out of the high school on the south side of Spokane’s downtown. But his father, Angel Fitzpatrick, now says police officials were too aggressive when they sent the SWAT team to deal with his troubled son. Officers ultimately shot him three times.
“There was nobody in the building, nobody in harm’s way,” Angel Fitzpatrick said. “They could have waited my son out.”
Assistant Police Chief Jim Nicks said the only person who could have controlled the whole ordeal was Sean.
“We were more than willing to wait as long as necessary to end the confrontation,” Nicks said. “It’s unfortunate that this situation occurred at all. Sean is the one who set the stage for this … and chose to point the loaded gun at police officers.”
The incident that forever changed Sean’s face, and rocked the school’s core, started the morning of Sept. 22 when Fitzpatrick took 30 over-the-counter painkillers and watched the movie “Phone Booth.” He walked into his father’s bedroom and grabbed the handgun from the top shelf of the dresser.
Once at school, Fitzpatrick walked into Room 307 and confronted a teacher and three students who were eating lunch. As they left the room, Fitzpatrick fired one shot into a wall.
Spokane patrol officers raced up the stairwells as school officials activated a fire alarm and herded students into the street.
The first officers isolated the science room and police officials called every other available officer to secure a perimeter. The Washington State Patrol even shut down Interstate 90 for fear of stray bullets hitting passing cars.
Police Chief Roger Bragdon called for the department’s SWAT team and two hostage negotiators as they tried to figure out what they were facing.
“Anytime we have that situation, we bring those officers with the training and expertise and specialized equipment to hopefully successfully resolve the situation,” Nicks said. “In this case, the SWAT team moved up and relieved the initial responding patrol officers.”
Almost immediately, negotiator John Gately started talking with Fitzpatrick. The teen had moved a metal bookcase to block the entrance and emptied several fire extinguishers, filling the room with powder. He paced back and forth and asked for painkillers.
Nicks said Gately and the SWAT team members were standing in a stairwell across the hall from Fitzpatrick. They could see into the classroom, which was more than 30 feet from their location.
The officers brought beanbags, which are fired from a shotgun, and tasers that can shock suspects into submission. But both options are only effective to about 20 feet, Nicks said.
Other SWAT members were hauling in bullet-proof barriers, called body bunkers. “Our plan was to put those bunkers between the officers … to reduce that distance between the officers and Sean,” Nicks said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t give us the time to do that.”
Angel Fitzpatrick, a former Methodist minister, had just arrived at his Fairfield home and started preparing his birthday meal when one of his son’s classmates called him and frantically asked about Sean. “I could tell something terrible had happened or was in the process of happening just from the sound of her voice.”
Fitzpatrick called school officials, who put him in touch with police. “I told them to back off, to not assault the room and give me a chance to get there.”
About 30 minutes after that first call, Fitzpatrick arrived at the school. As he got out of the car, he saw SWAT team members preparing to go in the school.
“I looked at one of the officers and said something to the effect, ‘You are going in to shoot my boy.’ He said, ‘No. We are just going in to secure the area.’ I said, ‘Don’t lie to me. You are going to shoot my boy.’ “
Police officials took Angel Fitzpatrick into the command post and later took him to the school gymnasium.
“If the father is there and wants to defuse the situation, he should at least be given the chance before deadly force is used,” Fitzpatrick said.
But as Angel Fitzpatrick arrived, the police negotiator had been talking with Sean for about an hour. “He told us to send his dad away,” said a police official who asked not to be named but was quoted on the day of the shooting. “He said, ‘I don’t want him to see this.’ “
It was that moment when Sean Fitzpatrick put on his jacket, climbed onto the metal bookcase and aimed the gun at police. Sgt. Troy Teigen and officers Daniel Lesser and Kevin Keller fired simultaneously. Bullets struck Fitzpatrick in the jaw, arm and stomach.
“One of the officers came up to me, grabbed me by the arms and said, ‘I want to tell you that Sean is alive,’ ” Fitzpatrick said. “My reaction was, ‘Dear God, no.’ “
After his son was rushed to the hospital, police asked Angel Fitzpatrick to search their Fairfield home.
“We went to his room and there’s where we found it,” Fitzpatrick said of the suicide note located on top of Sean’s CD player. “We just sat down on his bed and we kind of went through it together. It basically said he was sorry.
“It mentioned that he was struggling … and that he just wanted to be out of that pain,” Fitzpatrick said. “We had no idea he was suffering from auditory hallucinations. Later on, we discovered that the voices were telling him to hurt himself.”
At the hospital, doctors were struggling to keep Sean alive.
“He was bleeding to death from his tongue and they didn’t know if they could save him,” Fitzpatrick said. “He made it 48 hours and they discovered that part of his cheek bone was lodged in his throat. So they had to go back in and get that out.”
Fitzpatrick and his wife, Linda Schearing, who teaches Old Testament at Gonzaga University, kept a bedside vigil with their son.
“About the second day, his head was all bandaged up and wrapped up. I leaned over his bed and said, ‘Sean. God’s not done with you. I’m praying for you,’ ” Fitzpatrick said. “He reached up and squeezed my hand. It was a happy moment, a very happy moment.”
“That was the beginning of this long road of recovery.”
Four surgeries later, Sean, now 17, still has more coming. Along with the efforts to rebuild his face, he works weekly with a psychiatrist and a psychologist to heal his emotional problems, Fitzpatrick said.
“He had been struggling with (the voices) for two years. We asked him why he hadn’t told us,” Fitzpatrick said. “He was afraid we would think less of him.”
Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker decided this spring not to try Fitzpatrick as an adult. He would have faced up to 30 years in prison. In May, Sean Fitzpatrick was sentenced to 45 days of home detention and he will be monitored by juvenile court services until he turns 21.
As his son struggles to heal, Angel Fitzpatrick battles the decisions police officials made that day. Asked if he planned to file a civil suit, Fitzpatrick would not answer.
“The SWAT team should have stayed back and kept their mouths shut,” Fitzpatrick said.
Nicks said the officers followed their training and will continue to rush into lethal situations when everyone else is running away.
“I can sympathize with Sean’s father that this is a horrible thing,” Nicks said. “It’s a horrible situation for everybody, including the officers who had to shoot him.”
When Sept. 22 comes, Angel Fitzpatrick said he won’t celebrate his birthday.
“There will be painful memories, but I’m so glad he is here,” Angel Fitzpatrick said. “You realize how short life is, how transitory our existence can be. Right now, I just take each day as a gift.”
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