Nearly five years after Sam Strahan was slain in a hallway of Freeman High School, his mother let out a deep sigh before turning to face her son’s killer.
“These past five years have been the hardest and darkest of my life,” Ami Strahan said.
Strahan spoke Thursday during the sentencing hearings of school shooter Caleb Sharpe. The boys were 15 years old the morning of Sept. 13, 2017, when Sharpe brought multiple weapons to school and opened fire on his classmates.
Sharpe is now 20 and faces decades in prison when he is sentenced Friday by Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price.
He pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, three counts of attempted murder and one count of assault earlier this year.
Strahan and her husband, Scott, are from Southern California, where they met, married and started their family.
After having a daughter, Emily, the couple had Sam. When he was born, their family noted he had a strong name, Ami Strahan recalled.
“Who would have known his strength would make him a hero to so many?” she asked.
When Sam hadn’t started talking at 18 months old, his mother took him to an audiologist to get his hearing tested. On the way home, he started talking and basically never stopped, his mom said.
He was a happy child, Strahan said, recalling Sam wearing a tutu and carrying a wand just to be included in his older sister’s games.
In 2004, the Strahans moved to the Spokane area, hoping for a better life away from the crowds and traffic of California.
Sam was “really smart,” with an interest in math and language arts, Strahan said. He was a Boy Scout and loved playing board games with family.
On Father’s Day in 2017, Scott Strahan died in an accident at the family home, Ami Strahan said through tears. He was working on a motor home in the family’s driveway when it fell and crushed him. It was the day before Sam’s birthday.
“It was a rough summer,” Ami Strahan said.
Despite the grief, Sam stepped up to be the “unofficial man of the house,” she said.
The night before the shooting, she was struggling to adjust to her new life as a single mother. She had a playful fight with Sam over showering, she recalled. That night she cried, desperately missing her husband, she said. But the next morning, her spirits were up. She wore a new dress, did her hair, and chatted with Sam about their plans to go grocery shopping for some new recipes he wanted to make.
“I told him that I was just doing the best I could and that I loved him,” Strahan said.
Sam said he loved her, too.
“And that was the last time I saw my son alive,” Strahan said.
She was at work when her friends came up to her desk and told her to get off the phone. They said there had been a shooting at Freeman. Strahan was unable to reach Sam, so they headed for the high school. She didn’t know her son had been pronounced dead 30 minutes earlier.
When she arrived at the school, she noticed she was being led to a different area than other parents: She was taken to the sheriff.
When she told Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich who she was, he just shook his head.
“I screamed twice, loud,” Strahan said. “And I fell down.
“I had just hugged him hours before and he was gone.”
Since that horrific day, Ami Strahan said her pain has been amplified in numerous situations.
In one raw example, she learned that Sharpe’s father, Ben, had been told of the shooting before she was informed of Sam’s death.
During court proceedings, Strahan has been repeatedly told to be respectful, to be quiet, she said. The criminal justice system is broken and “simply not sensitive” to victims and their families, Strahan said before addressing Sharpe.
“You took my son in the worst way possible and you have zero remorse,” Strahan said. “You ruined my life.”
She called Sharpe an “evil, hateful human being” and shamed his parents for not paying attention to their son, and letting him have access to their guns.
Strahan asked the judge to sentence Sharpe to the maximum allowed by law for a young offender: 45 years in prison with the requirement he go before a review board to determine his likelihood to reoffend and his level of rehabilitation before he could be released.
Brooke Foley, Sharpe’s public defender, argued earlier in the sentencing hearings that due to his age and immaturity at the time of the shooting, Sharpe should be considered a “youthful offender.” She asked Price to use his judicial discretion to mete out a 20-year fixed prison sentence.
Deputy Prosecutor Sharon Hedlund agreed Sharpe was a youthful offender and that his sentence should be below the standard range, but urged Price to settle on a sentence that would ensure community safety. Hedlund argued a 35-year sentence would be more appropriate, along with the sentencing review board requirement.
Strahan, like many other victims, asked Price to hand down the maximum sentence.
“You should never again get to be in society,” Strahan said. “You are a sick, evil coward who only deserves to rot in hell for what you have done.”
‘We had to be strong. There was no other option.’
Gracie Jensen walked to the front of the courtroom Thursday morning, something she and her doctors doubted she would be able to do in the days after she was shot that September morning at Freeman High School.
On the day of the shooting, Jensen walked into the hallway to tell a friend something important.
“The next thing I remember, I was laying in the hall, stuck,” Jensen said.
She saw “the most emotionless face” walk by her. It was Sharpe carrying a handgun.
Jensen had just been shot through the spine by Sharpe.
She was among three girls shot. The bullet entered her back and broke a vertebra. Spinal fluid leaked into her body. Her kidney was pierced and her hip flexor torn.
Her neurosurgeon said it was a miracle that she can walk, Jensen told the judge. But her recovery didn’t come easily, Jensen said. The leaking spinal fluid caused intense migraines that Jensen pushed through during weeks of rehab.
Her freshman year of high school was marked by doctors appointments, rehabilitation and therapy, she said.
“I missed out on so much because of what you did to me,” Jensen said to Sharpe.
Despite the “major highs and major lows” of the past five years, Jensen said she is stronger than ever.
“We had to be strong,” Jensen said. “There was no other option.”
After five years of waiting for justice, Jensen said she knows she won’t get the outcome she hopes for, the death penalty. But the sentencing will bring closure, she said. She hopes that a harsh sentence could deter others from committing school shootings, Jensen said.
“You took a life, attempted to take three others and came into the hallway intending to kill us all,” Jensen said.
Emma Nees was excited for what Sept. 13, 2017, held for her.
She donned her new white sneakers she got ahead of her freshman year of high school while thinking about cheer practice and then “invite night” at her youth group, Nees recalled.
Once at school, she went to make sure her friends were coming to youth group. As they stood talking in the hallway, she heard a loud noise that she thought was a balloon popping. When she spun around to look, “Caleb Sharpe had a gun in his hand.”
She turned to run in what felt like slow motion. As she sprinted, she felt pressure in her hip. She pounded on a classroom door along with two of her friends, waiting for what felt like 10 minutes for someone to open it.
“That was the moment that I lost all hope I was going to get out of this alive,” Nees said.
But she was let inside. When she dropped to the floor of the classroom and looked down, she saw blood.
That’s when her friend Ellie Roibal yelled to the teacher: “Emma has been shot.”
Nees texted her mom, telling her she had been grazed by a bullet, not realizing the extent of the gunshot wound that had ripped through her hip.
Toward the end of the text she wrote, “I love you. Don’t be scared. I’m ok.”
While Nees’ physical wounds healed quickly, the emotional trauma has been extensive, she said. Despite years of therapy, she still has panic attacks, depression and anxiety.
Sam Strahan saved her life, Nees said, and for that he is her “true hero.”
She also asked that Sharpe receive the maximum sentence.
“I hope every horrible thing that can happen in prison happens to you over and over and over again,” she said.
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