When Joe Bowen decided to become a school custodian after years in the Air Force, he thought he was choosing a safer career.
“Come to realize schools have become just as dangerous as a war zone,” Bowen wrote in a victim impact statement that was read Monday, along with dozens of others from students, teachers, family members and other loved ones affected by the 2017 shooting at Freeman High School.
The gunfire killed 15-year-old Sam Strahan, wounded three teen girls and left other teens reeling from the terror of that day.
The shooter, Caleb Sharpe, pleaded guilty earlier this month to aggravated murder, attempted murder and other charges.
Ahead of his sentencing, expected to take place this spring, people affected by the shooting have a chance to share their experience with a judge who will sentence Sharpe to prison. Prosecutors said approximately 150 people are expected to give statements with hearings scheduled Tuesday and Thursday as well as Jan. 31 through Feb. 3.
Fear, panic, anxiety, depression
There were common themes throughout many of the statements read by victim advocates with the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office.
Corrine Thurman, a student who walked by Sharpe as he held the gun, called it the “worst day of her life.”
She recounted being unable to complete basic tasks like sleeping, showering or eating in the months that followed.
After months of struggling, she made it back to school. Thurman recalled one day when a class of kindergarten students visited and the children joyfully ran down the stairs at the high school, sending Thurman back to that September day when she and her classmates ran for their lives down those same stairs.
“I live in a constant state of fear that someone has a gun on them,” wrote Thurman, who is now at Boise State University.
Many students and their families shared their experience of ongoing panic attacks, the terror loud noises bring them or the inability to go into crowded spaces. Others shared their daily bouts of anxiety and depression.
Matt Smith, a social studies teacher at Freeman High School, said he continues to struggle to cope with the shooting. He did 13 months of counseling and suffered panic attacks.
“Sometimes I feel there is no rhyme or reason for why I feel the way I do about the shooting,” Smith wrote.
While Smith says he is coping better with the trauma now, it continues to affect him.
Lorraine Robinson thought a student had set off a firecracker in the hallway, so she rushed to the door to see what was going on, she wrote, only to realize someone was shooting inside the school.
“I yelled, ‘Oh my God, get down,’” Robinson recalled.
She locked her students in the classroom, told them to hide then called 911. When she listened to that call years later, Robinson didn’t recognize her own voice, she said.
“I was convinced we were going to die,” she said.
After the shooting was over, Robinson guided her students to the football field to meet their parents. Some students were “leaping into their arms like toddlers,” Robinson recalled.
One student held onto Robinson’s flashlight so hard it cracked. After he graduated, he came back and asked to keep the flashlight.
Shawna Russell, wife of Freeman School District Superintendent Randy Russell, was one of the few people to speak to the court in person Monday.
She recounted waiting for what felt like hours for her husband to tell her that he and their children were OK.
When she finally tracked him down hours later, “it was as if the life had been drained out of him,” Russell said.
In the months after the shooting, the Russells did the best they could to shield their children from the trauma.
Randy Russell was working 12- to 15-hour days, his wife recalled. He would have panic attacks and at one point was taken to the emergency room because of his heart rate.
The physical and emotional toll came with paperwork, Shawna Russell said.
For years, she took care of the insurance paperwork that came with the shooting, working to get her husband into see a counselor he trusted. Eventually, at her husband’s insistence, Shawna Russell saw a counselor herself, something she had put off because it wasn’t covered by insurance.
She was diagnosed with caregiver fatigue syndrome, she said.
In the more than four years since the shooting, the trauma from that day continues for the Russell family.
Setting an example
Of the dozens of statements read Monday, everyone who mentioned a sentence for Sharpe asked that he receive life or the maximum sentence possible by law.
Many people said they hoped a severe punishment for Sharpe would be a caution to anyone who considers carrying out a similar act of extreme violence.
Eric Strahan, Sam Strahan’s uncle, wrote about the moment he found out his nephew had been killed in a “horrific way.”
He was at a café when he learned of the shooting. Moments later his phone rang and he learned Sam was the one who died.
“I will never forget that day and the horrible moment we learned the news,” Strahan wrote.
As time has passed “the enormity of Sam’s murder became a reality,” Strahan wrote.
Sharpe knew what he was doing and made threats in advance, Strahan said.
“Please be as strict as you can,” Strahan implored Judge Michael Price.
Barbara Heskett has two grandsons who were at Freeman that day. They rode the bus with Strahan and remember him fondly.
“You never expect to send your child off to school and have them murdered,” she wrote. “Caleb Sharpe, I hope you pleaded guilty because you feel guilty about what you did.”
Bowen, the custodian, was in the women’s bathroom, taking advantage of the late start to fix a mechanical issue, when he heard a pop out in the hallway. Armed with just his Leatherman multi-tool, he ventured out into the hallway where he saw Sharpe wearing a stocking hat, black jacket and jeans staring back at him with a blank face.
When Bowen yelled “get on the ground,” Sharpe complied. Sharpe said just “OK,” Bowen recalled.
That’s all Sharpe said, Bowen wrote. He showed no remorse or reaction for what he had just done.
There’s no sentence, Bowen said, that could ever “outweigh the damage.”
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