Four years after gunshots rang out in the halls of Freeman High School, victims and their families sat quietly in the rows of a Spokane courtroom.
As freshmen, the teens were terrorized by their classmate, Caleb Sharpe, who brought an AR-15 to school in hopes of killing numerous people.
Instead, the gun jammed leaving Sharpe to use a handgun rather than the semi-automatic rifle. A classmate, Sam Strahan, confronted Sharpe and was shot in the head and killed.
Elisa Vigil, who was 14 at the time of the shooting, was trapped in the hall near Sharpe as he brandished the gun.
“His face was completely passive,” Vigil said at the time. “He shot someone in the head. I crouched down in the hall. I looked up and a girl screamed, ‘Help me, help me, help me.’ The hall was empty. She was shot in the back. I looked to my right, and there was a boy and he was shot in the head.”
Sharpe shot and injured three freshman girls, Emma Nees, Jordyn Goldsmith and Gracie Jensen, before the school custodian, Joe Bowen, tackled him and took away the weapon.
On Thursday morning, Sharpe entered the silent courtroom of Judge Michael Price.
Tension built as Price read out the charge of premeditated first-degree aggravated murder for killing of Sam Strahan.
“How do you plea?” Price said.
“Guilty,” Sharpe said.
An audible gasp rang through the courtroom as Ami Strahan, with a photo of her son, Sam, pinned to her chest, let out a deep breath.
Sharpe went on to plead guilty to three counts of premeditated attempted first-degree murder and second-degree assault with a deadly weapon. Prosecutors dropped more than 40 additional second-degree assault charges in exchange for Sharpe’s plea.
He faces a sentence of up to life in prison for the crimes.
School shootings have continued to cause terror, injury, and death across the United States, reminding those students of their own experience.
From 2018 to the end of 2021 there were 92 school shootings, according to Education Week. Just months after the Freeman shooting, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, shot and killed 17 people.
At about the same time, Ami Strahan began advocating for gun reform, hoping to create a safer future for students like her son.
“Since that day, so many more students have died while they were attending school. Writing this sounds just absurd,” Strahan said at a 2018 event. “To think that kids died going to school.
“This is not the way this is supposed to work. What has the world come to? Children should come home. Sam should have come home.”
As Strahan advocated for gun law reforms, little headway was made in the legal case against Sharpe.
It took nearly two years of legal hearings before Price decided Sharpe would be charged as an adult, despite being a 15-years-old at the time of the shooting.
Sharpe’s attorney Bevan Maxey withdrew from the case in September 2019, leaving the Spokane County Public Defenders Brooke Foley and Anthony Beattie to take over.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit just months later, all jury trials in the state were halted.
The group of Freeman students, bonded by their experience, were pulled apart by the distance required to keep the virus at bay.
“It was definitely harder to be away from the community because we’ve relied on them so much,” Sydney Arnzen, the class president, said at graduation.
Despite only having one normal year of high school between their freshman year after the shooting and their junior and senior years affected by COVID, many students like Arzen remained optimistic.
Closing a chapter
Many of the former Freeman students would be wrapping up their first semester of college as Sharpe’s trial date of Jan. 18 approached.
Judge Price barred Sharpe from offering an insanity defense this summer saying the request was “very last minute.” He then denied the use of a diminished capacity defense in November, after an expert witness told prosecutors that, in his opinion, Sharpe was insane at the time of the shooting, not that he had a diminished capacity.
Defense attorneys appealed both decisions while continuing to make pre-trial motions as the date for jury selection loomed.
On Monday, prosecutors spent the day talking with victims while Sharpe spoke to his defense attorneys.
A plea agreement was reached to drop some of the lesser charges if Sharpe pleaded guilty to the most serious offenses.
Victims and their families trekked through a snow covered Spokane to the courthouse Thursday morning to see Sharpe admit his guilt.
The courtroom was packed, with more attendees watching in an overflow room. Law enforcement officers who worked the case lined the jury box.
While tears welled in the eyes of a few onlookers, most remained stoic as Price went through the necessary procedures, taking the time to read the initials of dozens of former students before Sharpe pleaded guilty.
Years of pain, tense waiting, and struggle, were over in less than an hour. Sharpe kept his head down as he was handcuffed and led away.
Families hugged before leaving with prosecutors to discuss plans for sentencing. No one at the hearing chose to share their feelings about the plea. The victims will have a chance to speak at Sharpe’s sentencing set for later this month.
Freeman High School officials said in an emailed statement they were grateful for the community support they have received during a “difficult four years.”
“We are relieved this case has been settled. This has been a very difficult four years to endure for our Freeman community, especially for the families of the victims,” the statement reads. “The plea agreement closes this chapter of the tragedy and avoids having to experience the trauma all over again. We are so proud of our students, staff, and parents who have been resilient and resolute in moving forward on our road of recovery. We want to thank all those who have stood by Freeman and offered their love and support. Your kindness will never be forgotten. We are Freeman Strong.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the type of one of the weapons Sharpe used in the shooting.