It could happen anywhere

Before Aurora and Oak Creek there was Moses Lake, Washington, where a school shooting has left lingering problems

By Jo Scott-Coe
Published August 7, 2012 10:24PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on The Nervous Breakdown.

The troubled boy attends school, drops out, stocks up on guns and paramilitary gear, stages his siege–from a bell tower, in a cafeteria, down a lane of classrooms, in a parking lot or a theater. Secret diaries are found, blog rants or videos discovered. We just can’t believe it. Then we believe it. We shudder and weep and damn things. We forget that we’ve already forgotten.

The Nervous Breakdown

Places that know their variation of the story, that have suffered human wreckage and been left behind, must ache from the next round of oblivious headlines that repackage each event as if it’s a new sensation, Like Nothing You’ve Ever Seen Before.

On the surface, Moses Lake, Washington, seems to be recovered from its wounds. Driving east from Seattle over the Cascade Mountains, across the Columbia River, you find this town by being careful not to let it pass you by. With little shade, it’s ten to twenty degrees warmer than Seattle’s emo coastline, and as the mountains disappear farther behind you, one horizon melts away into another. Rolling plains spread to the south and north of the freeway. Crops are labelled on fences: alfalfa, potatoes, corn.  At times the vast golden expanse looks like the Wild West. Suddenly it could be South Dakota, except for the broad lake with a fountain in the middle.

Here, in 1996, when the population was below sixteen thousand people, a 14 year-old boy named Barry Loukaitis dressed up in a cowboy hat and leather duster and strode through the side entrance at Frontier Middle School with a hunting rifle and two handguns. He shot and killed two students, Arnie Fritz and Manuel Vela, and his Algebra teacher, Leona Caires. He seriously injured another student, Natalie Hintz. Gym coach Jon Lane was able to talk Loukaitis into releasing student hostages from the classroom, where he eventually put down his weapons. The following year, after a change of trial venue to Seattle, the shooter was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

Following the violence, ministers and community leaders in Moses Lake asked self-scrutinizing questions: “What has this town become?” Sixteen years later, the town looks like a place that has indeed been taking care of itself. The population has surpassed twenty thousand. Roads are smooth, as if recently repaved. Agriculture still powers the regional economy, butmanufacturing is the most common local industry. There’s little graffiti and few people loitering. Gutters are remarkably clean. Even the poorer parts of town seem tidied up. Dingy or abandoned properties don’t dominate. There’s a remarkably quiet quality to the main drags in town: few bars, and no visible strip joints or porn shops. Across from the large high school is an outreach for pregnant girls (not Planned Parenthood) and also a Mormon seminary. Denny’s is crowded with older folks and families with young kids, and I saw only one person, maybe two, staring down at electronics or cellphones. The city center and downtown integrate perky and well-maintained community gardens, a civic auditorium, and several blocks of small shops. You’ll find public art–metal sculpture, mainly, and a few murals–alongside an antique store, used book shop, a new-looking skate park (deserted), and the humane society. A clock stands in the middle of a traffic roundabout. Traffic feels mellow. Parks and recreation shares a building with the police department.

Remembering What Happened takes up dedicated public space here. At Frontier Middle School a large memorial for the victims and heroes of that day has been constructed on the south lawn, within view of the classroom where the killings and surrender took place. There are other shrines in town, too. A 9-11 sculpture on a prominent corner in front of the public library. A Japanese peace and meditation garden on the newer south side of town. A recent housing development is even named after Moses Lake’s international sister city, Yonezawa. People power-walk on new paths nearby, where grassy parkways include the occasional granite pagoda.

With all these markers of tranquility and remembrance, there is one striking disjunction. The rates of violent crime and property crime for Moses Lake are alarming: the town ranks 2 on a scale of 100 when compared to all other U.S. cities, meaning that 98% of other cities are safer locations. (Importantly, a drastic uptick in violent crime was noted back in 1997.)

I’d seen the statistics elsewhere prior to my visit, and I had been prepared to find a town with a rougher visible edge. Yet even police records published in the Columbia Basin Herald the week I visited revealed nothing remarkable: a mix of domestic disturbances, burglaries, petty neighbor disputes, trespassing incidents, stray animals, driving infractions, and minor assaults. Anglo and Hispanic surnames mingle together freely in the column listing jail bookings: Fulfer, Navarette, Stewart, Ortega, Riojas. (More integration there than at Denny’s.)

How to explain the high incidence of violent crime in a place that, on the surface, has taken so many visible steps to make its community safe for kids and families? The presence of male migrants may suggest one factor. A recent report estimates that 60 to 70 percent of all undocumented workers in Washington harvest most of the state’s crops. There’s bound to be tension when young men without local ties–or local protection–labor daily in an economy that is both happy to exploit their bodies for cheap labor and equally insistent that there’s no legitimate place for them in Mayberry America.

But that’s not exactly a new story for us. We also can’t forget the claustrophobia that can be palpable in small communities. The landscape of Moses Lake visually embodies the perpetually evasive frontier and its promise (or mirage?) of self-invention, which in turn presents the enticement (dare?) of manifest destiny that has motivated so many. The underlying entitlement should haunt us, yet we tend to deny its predicament: take what you can get, but don’t get taken; you are chosen, you are special, and don’t settle for less. (Less than what? And where?) For young men trying to carve out identity, the most ready model of manhood too often remains the gun-toting cowboy who shoots first if there’s a score to settle or a point to gain, then asks questions maybe later. (He certainly never talks to a counselor about anger, sexual anxiety, or family problems, and he doesn’t take meds for depression.)

Even when communities such as Moses Lake work to fix things, even as we cheer them on, we must not be afraid to find frayed ends in tidy spaces. Look at the parking lot of Holiday Inn Express, where a woman and kids sit in a red van with sliding door open, a square cardboard sign on the windshield: NEED HELP. And look nearby, under some juniper bushes: an ellipses of McDonald’s bags, wrappers, and cups. Drive too fast on your way elsewhere, and you could almost miss the details.

Jo Scott-Coe

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Aurora Gun Control Gun Violence Moses Lake Oak Creek Shooting The Nervous Breakdown