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‘I know what it’s like to look into the face of someone trying to murder me’: Survivors continue to detail how the Freeman school shooting traumatized them

Feb. 9, 2022 Updated Fri., May 13, 2022 at 7:38 a.m.

While hundreds of parents and students were in Freeman High School for a community meeting about the shooting on Sept. 13, 2017, a group of students gathered the day after in front of the school sign to add to the memorial for slain student Sam Strahan.  (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
While hundreds of parents and students were in Freeman High School for a community meeting about the shooting on Sept. 13, 2017, a group of students gathered the day after in front of the school sign to add to the memorial for slain student Sam Strahan. (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)

It was a typical school day for 14-year-old Ellie Roibal.

She arrived at Freeman High School, put her backpack away and stood in the hallway chatting with her longtime friend Emma Nees.

Then there was a loud bang.

The crowd of students in front of her parted and she looked into the eerily calm face of her classmate, Caleb Sharpe.

“Time stopped as I looked down the barrel of that gun, no more than 15 feet away from me,” Roibal said in court Wednesday as she read her victim impact statement.

Roibal, along with dozens of members of the Freeman community, gave victim impact statements before Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price over the last three weeks.

The statements come ahead of Sharpe’s sentencing this spring for the murder of Sam Strahan, injuring three classmates and attempting to shoot dozens of other students.

Roibal remembers dropping to the ground as shots continued to ring out. Her classmates were dropping too, but she wasn’t sure if it was because they were dead or ducking for cover, Roibal said.

She sprinted down the hallway, running out of her shoes. The pair collapsed into the nearby classroom of teacher Marty Jessett.

Roibal recalls thinking the shooting couldn’t be real, only for Nees to lift up her shirt, exposing a bullet wound on Nees’ hip.

She jumped into action, grabbing Nees’ face and telling her to “look at me” and “it’s going to be OK” as Jessett called 911.

Nees and Roibal laid on the floor together until police officers arrived. When officers came into the classroom, they saw Nees and one shouted “We’ve got a third victim in here,” Roibal recalled.

That’s when Roibal said she started to realize how serious the situation was. Nees remained in good spirits, Roibal recalled.

As her friend was rolled away by paramedics, Roibal was left standing barefoot in her classroom.

“I was having a conversation with her and he shot her,” Roibal told her brother. 

She also called Nees mother and was able to pass along a sliver of good news: Nees was positive, responsive and her injuries didn’t seem too bad, she recalled. A few hours later, she was reunited with Nees at the hospital.

That’s the story Roibal says she tells most frequently, the events of the day of the shooting. People rarely ask her about the last four and a half years since the shooting, she said.

Those years have been full of panic attacks, missing holidays and large events that will bring loud noises that remind her of the gunfire. Roibal is afraid of men wearing black, or that someone will roll down the window of a passing car and shoot her.

“Nowhere feels safe anymore,” she said.

Roibal’s childhood ended that day, she said.

“I know what it’s like to look into the face of someone who was trying to murder me,” she said.

The stress manifests itself physically too. Roibal has a heart condition that is aggravated by stress, so memories of the shooting can send her into a panic that leaves her hospitalized or in danger of going into cardiac arrest, she said.

The shooting has been hard on the entire Roibal family.

Her mother, Alyssa Roibal, has dealt with two children processing the shooting in different ways. While Ellie talked about what she saw shortly after the shooting, her son didn’t want to share what he had seen.

They ended up going through much of the grieving process alone, Alyssa Roibal said.

“I believe that we have all been alone to some degree,” she said.

Hearing the victim impact statements for her and other community members has shown her for the first time how many people deal with similar triggers and fears following the shooting, she said.

When it came to discussions of Sharpe’s sentence, the entire Roibal family asked for the maximum possible sentence, citing not only the trauma they went through but that Sharpe had carefully planned the attack and knew what he was doing.

Sharpe faces up to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

James Roibal, Ellie’s father and Alyssa’s husband, asked that future members of the parole board look back on these victim impact statements and deny Sharpe parole at every request.

“God may forgive; I will not,” he said.

Other community members, such as bus driver Chari Conklin, spoke about who got the blame for the shooting.

Conklin said she will never forget the “utter nightmare” of that day or Sharpe’s “deplorable actions.”

She also won’t forget being blamed for Sharpe getting onto her bus with the bag containing the AR-15 he tried to use in the shooting.

Parents, families, co-workers and staff all doubted her ability to keep kids safe on her bus, Conklin said, but she is not the “monster” who shot people, Sharpe is.

She recalled one community meeting in which a mother she knew well called her “that bus driver.” It’s a painful memory, Conklin indicated in her statement.

Conklin believes the blame for that day rests on Sharpe, something further evidenced by his lack of remorse throughout court proceedings, she said.

Sam Strahan’s uncle, Carl Adams, believes more people are to blame.

The school district knew of threats from Sharpe but didn’t deal with them correctly, Adams wrote in his statement. Sharpe’s parents also didn’t practice good gun ownership, he said.

He juxtaposed his “vibrant, fun, silly, caring, kind and considerate” nephew with Sharpe, who he called “a stone-cold heartless person.”

If it hadn’t been for Strahan going up to Sharpe, the shooting could have been the “most catastrophic shooting in our nation’s history,” Adams said. Instead, the Strahan family is only left with the memory of their loved one who saved so many lives, he said.

“I hate that my family will never get to share life with Sam,” Adams wrote. “In that moment, the defendant took a lifetime of opportunities and experiences.”

He asked for the maximum sentence, saying Sharpe “plotted, planned and wanted to wreak havoc on his school.”

“There’s no defense. He admitted it without remorse,” Adams said. “Make no mistake the defendant is a killer.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct Carl Adams and Marty Jessett’s names. Ellie Roibal’s medical condition was inaccurately described. The person Roibal was talking to when describing Nees being shot was inaccurate in the original story, she was talking to her brother. 

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