Reservation for death

Jeff Weise's murderous rampage at the Red Lake Indian reservation horrified the nation. But in this closed and despairing world, shocking levels of violence are normal. A Salon exclusive.

By Kimberley Sevcik

Published August 8, 2005 7:24PM (EDT)

The first time Jeff Weise tried to commit suicide, in the spring of 2004, he couldn't bring himself to complete the task. He sliced his wrists with a box cutter, but he lived to chronicle the incident on the Web in characteristically dramatic prose. "I had went through a lot of things in my life that had driven me to a darker path than most choose to take," he wrote. "I split the flesh on my wrist with a box opener, painting the floor of my bedroom with blood I shouldn't have spilt."

The second time Weise tried to kill himself, a few months later, he looped a belt around his neck and pulled it taut. A friend found him and called the tribal police on the Indian reservation of Red Lake, Minn., home of the Ojibwa tribe. As the squad car pulled away from his house, Weise leaned toward the officer in the front seat and said, his voice raspy and strained, "I need help."

The third time Weise attempted suicide, the 16-year-old not only pulled it off but also took nine people with him. Last March, in an incident that has been classified as the worst school shooting since Columbine, Weise shot his grandfather and the woman who lived with them, and stole his grandfather's 12-gauge shotgun, Glock .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun, and police cruiser. He then drove to Red Lake High School, where he killed an unarmed security guard, a teacher who summoned God for help, and five students, before turning the gun on himself.

A few weeks after the shooting, a memorial was erected on the chain-link fence that runs in front of the high school. Posters and teddy bears and dream catchers were gaffer-taped to the metal, as were notes from high school students from around the country: "I know it sucks for you right now, but hope will prevail," read one. "Sorry for your shooting," read another. In the midst of it all was an unsigned poem, the only tribute to Weise among the dozens of photos and prayers that had been dedicated to his victims.

Cold as winter, strong as stone
He faced the darkness
All alone
A silver god, a reflection
not his own ...
He stares down at a shattered youth
A shattered mirror shows
The shattered truth

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Jeff Weise was raised in a mobile home behind a pickle factory in Minneapolis, the only child of an alcoholic, abusive single mother. From time to time, she would shuttle Jeff up to Red Lake, four hours northeast, to see his father, Dash Weise Jr. Dash was known to his neighbors as "a real nice guy when he was sober." When Jeff was 7, his father holed up in his house in Red Lake and killed himself with a shotgun blast to the head in a standoff with police, as his own father tried, unsuccessfully, to talk him down. Two years later, Jeff's mother was injured in a drunken-driving accident that left her brain damaged and confined to a nursing home. After that, Jeff was shipped off to Red Lake to live with his grandmother.

The Red Lake reservation, which sprawls across more than 400,000 acres of woods and wetlands, is a world unto itself, isolated politically and geographically from the rest of the state. The closest city, Bemidji, population 12,000, is 30 miles down an unlit country road. Growing up in Red Lake, a kid might learn to ice fish or hunt deer. He might go with his family to weekend powwows. But when adolescence rolls around and kids start craving something more, life on the rez gets frustrating. There are no malls in Red Lake, no bowling alleys or Pizza Huts or McDonald's -- no real restaurants at all, in fact, unless you count the casino, which is off limits to minors. Teenagers out for a good time on a Friday night are pretty much left to cruise around aimlessly in their parents' cars, license or no license, or hang out at each other's houses taking turns playing "Halo," an ultraviolent video game.

All Indian land in the United States is sovereign, but among Native Americans, Red Lake is considered the most sovereign. Over the past 200 years, tribal leaders have essentially sealed the reservation's borders from outside influence. In the late 19th century, when the federal government offered aid to those reservations agreeing to open their borders to development, Red Lake flatly rejected the proposition, although it does receive some government money through grants. It also resisted a 1953 law giving states criminal and civil jurisdiction over reservations. Today, as a result, Red Lake is one of only two reservations in the country classified as closed, meaning that no one outside the tribe can own land or live there -- the population is made up entirely of Ojibwas. The reservation also runs its own police force and courts, handling all crimes internally except for murder and other capital offenses.

The Ojibwas are not shy about exercising their right to eject outsiders from their territory. In the early 1980s, the tribal council twice passed resolutions banning news media from the reservation, as well as requiring non-Ojibwas who visited the reservation to apply for passports. A few years ago, when a small plane piloted by an outsider alighted on the lake for a little ice fishing, tribal authorities not only seized the plane, but put it on display in front of the local casino, a kind of battle trophy.

But for all its seclusion, Red Lake is hardly pastoral. It's like a ghetto in the country, camouflaged by towering evergreens and shimmering lakes. Over the past five years, there have been a dozen murders and seven cases of manslaughter on a reservation that is home to 5,000 people. In the Red Lake tribal court, where misdemeanors are prosecuted, more than 3,500 cases were filed in 2004. And those are only the episodes that make it into the public record. The domestic violence, the drug trafficking, the drunken-driving accidents generally stay behind Red Lake's metaphorical firewall. During the two weeks I spent on the reservation, I heard unsolicited anecdotes of violence or death from everyone I met: the mother whose son had kicked her face in because she yelled at him for stealing her car; the man who was bludgeoned to death with a hammer by a crack addict in desperate need of cash; the keg parties that invariably escalated into shootouts. "When you look at all the violence that occurs in Red Lake, the shooting was mostly shocking because it happened all in one day, in a school, a place that should be safe," says Amy Randolph, a former youth counselor at Red Lake Middle School. "But the extremity of the violence -- that's not shocking up there."

And then there are the suicides. In a 2004 survey of ninth-grade girls at Red Lake High School, 81 percent said they had contemplated suicide. Nearly half said they had attempted it -- a figure staggering even for an Indian reservation, where suicide rates routinely run well above the national average. A few weeks before I arrived on the reservation, a 14-year-old girl hanged herself over a failed romance. While I was there, driving by the gas station on Red Lake's main drag, a local pointed out another teenage girl who had lost a friend to suicide in the past year, then showed me the spot on the bluffs overlooking Lower Red Lake where an 18-year-old drove his car over the edge last year in a futile attempt to end his life. A few days before I left the reservation, a 15-year-old girl hanged herself with a belt. Her death, like many other suicides in Red Lake, was not reported in the local paper. Because they're dealt with internally, by Red Lake's tribal police, news of them doesn't carry beyond the reservation's borders.

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Before the shooting, Jeff Weise wasn't known as a violent kid. He was an introvert who spent most of his time around the house, drawing, writing and playing guitar. Some of the kids at school found him a little dark, a little odd, but when they teased him about the spiked collar he wore, the motorcycle chains that swished against his pants as he walked, he ignored them rather than respond with his fists. Even in his yearbook photo, in which his dark hair is sculpted into spindly horns, he is an unconvincing Satan, the sweetness of his baby face undercutting the intended menace.

One of his closest friends, 16-year-old Carter Hart, describes Weise as kind and empathic. "He was the one I talked to about my problems," she says. "He was trustworthy, and he always understood what I was going through." In the eulogies written by his friends, Weise comes across more as victim than perpetrator. "He often used to say that he wished he had a dad to show him things and give him some guidance," says "Jace," a rangy 19-year-old friend of Weise's who didn't want to give his real name.

In private, however, Weise harbored plenty of rage and despair. He was fascinated with horror stories and war, and he carried a notebook labeled WARNING: VERY FUCKING OFFENSIVE, its pages filled with ghastly drawings of skeletons engaged in warfare, of SS officers carrying out executions of Jews, women, children and communists. With no parents or siblings to turn to, Weise retreated into cyberspace, where he found connection, distraction and identity.

The Web writings that survive him reveal a tormented kid who slalomed from irreverence to nihilism to gloomy introspection. On his Web page, he listed his marital status as "single, not looking" and his occupation as "doormat." Responding to the cheerful prompt, "a little about me," Weise laid out his pain bluntly: "16 years of accumulated rage suppressed by nothing more than brief glimpses of hope, which have all but faded to black" -- as well as sounding an alarm: "I can feel the urges within slipping through the cracks, the leash I can no longer hold." Much of his writing is like that -- not so much a means of self-expression as a desperate bid for help.

Weise also used his postings as a way of giving his anguish and rage a larger meaning. Last year, on the Web site of the Libertarian National Socialist Green Party, he began ruminating on the importance of racial purity, using the aliases NativeNazi and todesengel, or Angel of Death. Later, reading about his Nazi sympathies, people on the rez would express bewilderment that a Native American kid could endorse an ideology that posits the supremacy of the Aryan race. But Weise's party of choice, the LNSG, promotes cultural purity, not white power.

If you were looking for foreshadowings of the massacre, you could certainly find them on Weise's MSN page, which has since been taken down -- in the description of his hobbies ("planning, waiting, hating"), in the picture he posted in lieu of his own (a still from Gus Van Sant's film "Elephant," inspired by the Columbine shooting), in the animated short he posted titled "Target Practice" (which depicts a man shooting people with a rifle, then putting a pistol in his mouth and blowing his brains out). Weise also posted his own explicitly violent stories online. One tale, "Surviving the Dead," begins with what appears to be a school shooting but winds up being an invasion of the undead -- hordes of townspeople who have come back to life and are now stalking their own friends and family, eating them alive. The story is set in the small town of Grovers Mill -- which could easily be a stand-in for Red Lake. (Grover's Mill was the landing site of the Martians in Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds.) The town, Weise wrote, is "nearly forgotten by all except those who lived there," a place of "dull, barren streets ... completely void of anything living."

The story follows Max, the protagonist, and his best friend, Morticia, as they flee the zombies. Along the way they meet an SS officer who has come with a battalion of soldiers to kill the undead and save the town. In one scene, Weise describes a family, freshly murdered, who turn on their own son and devour him.

"Everyone's real nervous," one of the SS officers muses in the wake of the incident. "There's thing's happenin' here that shouldn't be happenin' ... Dead people comin' back to life, mothers and fathers eatin' their children ... It ain't right."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

School officials first flagged Jeff Weise as a problem kid during the 2003 school year when, during the national anthem at a Red Lake High School basketball game, he thrust out his arm in a Sieg Heil while the rest of the crowd dutifully pressed their palms to their hearts. Later that year, he claimed that his Nazi leanings had made him the prime suspect in a bomb threat against the school.

In the wake of the Nazi salute and his suicide attempts, Weise was sent to a school counselor -- whom he described to a friend as "about as useful as a Billy goat's tit." He was also put on the antidepressant Prozac, which he often fretted about to his friends: He prided himself on his sharp mind and worried it would muddle his thinking. Then last fall, at the beginning of his junior year, Weise stopped attending classes at Red Lake and enrolled in the school's homebound program, which allows students to complete their schoolwork at home. The program was created as a last-ditch effort to help at-risk students graduate. But Weise's grandmother, Shelda Lussier, says Jeff chose to go on the program because he was sick of being taunted by fellow students and snubbed by teachers. "The teachers purposely ignored him when he tried to participate," she says. "He challenged them, he asked too many questions, and they didn't like that."

Whatever his reason for studying at home, Weise's friends think that his isolation only deepened his depression. "Jeff often said his friends were the only thing he had in life," says his friend James King. "Going on homebound cut him off from them and gave him too much time to think about how crappy his life was."

At home alone all day, Weise's writings became more tormented and hopeless. "The instrument of my resurrection was supposed to be freedom," he wrote in his online journal in January. "But there isn't an open sky or endless field to be found where I reside, nor is there light or salvation to be discovered. Right now I feel about as low as I ever have." Reading his words, you get the sense of a kid buried alive -- sequestered in a dark, stuffy bedroom in a forgotten corner of the country, shouting into a void. Despite his discomfort with the Prozac -- and despite recent research that links antidepressants with suicidal behavior in teenagers -- his dosage was doubled.

Two weeks later, on March 21, Weise entered Red Lake High School with the bravado of a gunslinger in an old western. He screeched up to the school's double doors in his grandfather's police cruiser and swaggered inside, brandishing a weapon in each hand. His first shot, which killed a security guard, sounded to students in Neva Rogers' class like someone dropping a stack of textbooks on the floor. The second and third shots sounded like what they were. Rogers flipped off the lights in her classroom and ordered the students to hide in the back of the room. For a few minutes the room was silent except for the sound of breath rising and falling, students crouching beneath desks, jammed up against bookshelves. There was the sound of the door handle jiggling. The sound of a pane of glass shattering. A hand reached through the jagged hole where the pane had been and opened the door.

Glass crunched beneath Weise's boots when he stepped into the classroom. Ashley LaJeunesse, 15, dared to glance up at him. Her eyes met Weise's, and he fired at her. LaJeunesse ducked, and the bullet hit and killed Chase Lussier, another 15-year-old who was huddling in front of her. "God be with us," Rogers murmured. Weise pointed the gun at her and pulled the trigger. He turned to another student, Chon'gai'la Morris, and pointed the gun at the boy's face. "Do you believe in God?" he demanded.

"No," Morris replied. Weise turned away.

Weise then shot four more students as they huddled on the floor: Dewayne Lewis, Chanelle Rosebear, Thurlene Stillday and Alicia White. He left the classroom, spraying bullets randomly until he saw two students staring at him through the windows of Ray Rowell's biology class. It was Cody Thunder and Weise's friend Carter Hart peering into the hall, anxious and curious about the banging that sounded like gunfire but couldn't really be. Weise smiled at Hart, then scowled at Thunder and fired at him through the glass, grazing his hip with a bullet. "At that point I didn't realize Jeff had a real gun," Hart says. "I thought he was messing around with a BB gun. I remember thinking, 'Boy, is he going to be in trouble.'"

Students and teacher fled into an adjacent office and Rowell locked the door. As Weise shot again and again at the lock, Rowell held the door to the room closed, yelling to the students, "Run! He's coming! Just fucking run!"

Only 10 minutes had passed since the killing spree began, but across the street at the Red Lake convenience store, parents had already begun to gather, searching frantically for their children, clutching them to their hearts when they found them. Inside the school, Weise was confronted by two cops who shot at him, wounding him in the hip and the leg. He stepped back into Rogers' classroom, yelling, "I've got hostages!" but he didn't shoot any of the terrified kids cowering below him. He put the gun under his chin and pulled the trigger.

That night, Tom Barrett, a serious, contemplative Red Lake sophomore, sat numb in front of his computer reading about the shooting on the Internet. He'd been there, in the second classroom, but there were things he needed to know. He'd heard that his best friend Alicia White had been killed. He was looking for confirmation, and he got it. To commemorate her, he had an angel tattooed on his forearm, with "R.I.P." hovering above it. In spite of the pain of losing her, he doesn't feel anger toward Weise. "I don't think it was Jeff shooting that gun," Barrett says. " I guess he's like a lot of us -- we live in our own little worlds. Jeff just lived more deeply in that world. He lived in more of a fantasy. I just tell myself that Jeff didn't mean what he did."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Almost everyone in Red Lake seems to be related, whether through blood or marriage, so news there travels fast. It didn't take long for rumors to start zipping around the reservation about the FBI investigation into the shooting. Federal law prohibits agents from disclosing any information about the case until the investigation is complete, but the rumor that's circulating among the tribe is that Weise might have had conspirators. Two weeks after the shooting, the FBI allegedly arrested 16-year-old Louis Jourdain, the son of Red Lake tribal chairman Floyd "Buck" Jourdain, in connection with the incident. The unofficial word on the reservation -- echoed in my conversations with several people -- is that Jourdain, who was in the library at the time that Weise went on his rampage, defied a teacher's orders to stay put and bolted into the hallway, where he allegedly confronted Weise for acting without him. Shortly after Jourdain's arrest, at least seven students were subpoenaed by a Minneapolis grand jury, and rumors persist that other kids will eventually be charged with conspiracy, that there may be evidence that they were urging Weise on, on the Internet. There is also talk that a map of the school was found, charting two separate entrances for two separate gunmen, as well as sniper positions for other kids on the roof of the school, to ward off police.

When I arrived in Red Lake a few weeks after the shooting, the high school had reopened, but the halls were virtually empty. Two-thirds of the students were out, still too traumatized to return. The first day back had been much worse. Barrett, the sophomore valedictorian, was the only student who showed up to some of his classes.

Even before the shooting, getting kids to go to high school was a challenge at Red Lake. Nearly half the class of 2004 did not graduate, and school officials fear the dropout rate may increase in the wake of the shooting. In 2000, 33 percent of Red Lake teens between 16 and 19 were neither enrolled in school, employed or looking for work. Most kids are afraid to leave the reservation. People think they talk funny. They're not go-getters. They're on "Indian time." Even those who do want to leave, like Barrett, who wants to go to UCLA, plan to come back. "I feel welcome here," he says. "I know everybody and everybody knows me, and we respect each other."

There aren't a lot of job prospects for Red Lake youth if they stay on the reservation; unemployment currently hovers around 60 percent, and it has been as high as 80 percent. They can become police officers or run for the tribal council. They can work at the solid-waste transfer station. They can become loggers. And of course, they can work at the casino, which seems to be more a joke than an aspiration among ambitious kids: No straight-A student aspires to cook hot dogs or exchange paper bills for buckets of quarters. Then, too, Red Lake's casino doesn't serve alcohol or pull in outsiders with fat wallets, so it hasn't been the kind of economic boon most casinos are to reservations.

Because so few Red Lakers seek out lives beyond the reservation, those who do feel a lot of pressure to make the tribe proud. Charlie Norris, a hulking guy with thick black hair that grazes his deltoids, had a successful run as a World Championship Wrestler for three years. He traveled to places his friends and family had never dreamed of -- Japan, Australia, Papua New Guinea -- earning six figures a year. "Everyone always knocks us Red Lakers down," Norris says, "but when my people saw me out there, on TV all the time, they thought, 'Hey, he can make it, we can make it in the world, too.'" Then the head of the WCW proposed that Norris dress up as a John Wayne-style Indian, the kind that claps his hand to his mouth in a war cry and talks without verbs. When Norris refused, he was fired. "I felt like I'd let the entire community down," he says.

Today, Norris works as a trainer at Red Lake's diabetic fitness center, testing clients' blood sugar, monitoring their exercise programs, that kind of thing. The fitness center isn't exactly a community gym, but with so few places to congregate, teenagers sometimes drop by to fool around on the machines, just for something to do. That's where I met Weise's friend Jace Hixon. He loped up one afternoon following a pretrial hearing, looking for company. He had the slouchy, unhurried gait of a kid with an image to uphold. Hixon has two felony counts against him, one for assault with a weapon, the other for concealing stolen goods. He's not scared of getting locked up, though -- his cousin has been in prison and he says it's a cakewalk if you're an Indian. "Natives run the prison, so everyone is scared of us," he says. "We got a reputation for being crazy."

Hixon is in some kind of gang, though he wouldn't divulge his affiliation. He doesn't really want be a gangster, but he feels he doesn't have much choice. It's a family thing -- his cousins, his uncles, they're gangsters, too. "When you grow up with it, man,... " he says, his voice trailing off. The drugs, too, are hard to avoid. Where Hixon lives now, a neighborhood called the West End, is crack central. "Sometimes I feel endangered, living there," he says. "All kinds of people going in and out of there. Shootings. I'm scared for my life sometimes, you know?"

- - - - - - - - - - - -

There is a paragraph in "Surviving the Dead" in which Max, the protagonist, realizes that he is probably going to die, and he is suddenly flooded with regret:

"He pondered on his loved ones, and his friends ... He began to doubt that he would ever see them again, that he would ever wake up Saturday mornings to the smell of his mother making breakfast ... Saturdays were always special, more tears began to well up in his eyes as he realized he would never see another Saturday morning."

I wondered if Weise was describing a Saturday morning from his own life, or someone else's Saturday morning, the way he imagined it might be for another kid in another family in another town.

In the end, Max does die. Weise seems to revel in the description, which is predictably gory -- blood and body fluid shooting up his throat and out his mouth, fountaining to the ground. But then Weise's writing gets quiet, even vaguely spiritual for a kid who openly scorned religion:

"Max closed his eyes as everything seemed to be getting brighter, though it didn't hurt his eyes, he knew soon he would be seeing Morticia. His breathing slowed, his fists uncurled, his body went limp, the warmth already fleeing, his last breath escaped freely carrying away his soul, he was leaving hell behind..."

"Surviving the Dead" ends with a military general's perusal of a file on the annihilation of the population of Grovers Mill, which is revealed to have been a secret government operation. Unable to contain the rampage of the undead, the government simply doused the town with a toxic chemical, leaving the town of 650 to die.

Weise appears to have logged on at some point after he posted the story -- it could have been a few days, it could have been weeks -- hoping for feedback, finding none. Below the words "The End," he gave it one last try. "Any comments?" he typed. "Any at all?"

There was no reply.

Kimberley Sevcik

Kimberley Sevcik is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone. She has also written for the New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Elle and Travel & Leisure.

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