Sense of loss endures 25 years after shootings at Simon's Rock
GREAT BARRINGTON — The wailing came near midnight. Before that, an even stranger sound issued from a haven for teenage spirit in woods off Alford Road in Great Barrington.
In the 25 years since Wayne Lo shot and killed two people and seriously injured four at Bard College at Simon's Rock, the early-college program has worked to recover, with violence now woven into its history.
A sense of loss lumbers on for families, students and the school. Survivors speak of lingering trauma. A father continues a two-decade search for meaning. And some still marvel at how much worse it could have been.
"I have worked on other dreadful cases, but Wayne Lo's case was a time where we were all sort of lowered into this pit of the sad and incomprehensible, and without purpose," said Buz Eisenberg, one of Lo's defense attorneys.
Lo, who was 18 and lived in Montana, later said he was following God's orders. On Monday, Dec. 14, 1992, Lo took a taxi to Pittsfield, bought a semiautomatic assault rifle, loaded it with armor-piercing ammunition that he purchased by mail, and murdered student Galen Gibson, 18, and language professor Nacunan Saez, 37.
Lo wounded students Thomas McElderry, Matthew David and Joshua Faber. He also critically wounded Teresa Beavers, a security guard who was the first in Lo's path of violence, which began around 10:15 p.m., and ended when his weapon jammed. He surrendered to town police around 11 p.m.
"You can never lose touch with the disappointment, the sadness," said Leon Botstein, the college president, "and the sense of failure that is associated with having something go terribly wrong."
While Lo's attorneys tried to make the case that he should not be held criminally responsible because of a psychotic disorder, Lo was found guilty in February 1994 after a five-week trial and a nearly weeklong jury deliberation. He is serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole at a state prison in Norfolk.
During the trial, District Attorney Gerard Downing and then-Assistant District Attorney David Capeless detailed the criminal intent and premeditation that preceded the violence. There hadn't been a murder in town since the mid-1980s.
"He wasn't crazy then, he isn't crazy now," Capeless told The Eagle.
In a phone interview, Lo, now 43, told The Eagle he did not want to speak about the murders because he doesn't want to eclipse the suffering of the victims near the Day of Remembrance, for which the college held a gathering Thursday.
But Lo did say he wants anyone touched by his violence at the college and beyond to know he is sorry.
"I think about everyone," he said. "Everyone in Great Barrington — the police officers, the hospitals. It affected the whole community. ... I wish I could apologize to them personally."
It was six years before the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. And it was 20 years to the day before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. The Simon's Rock shooting, Capeless said, was one of the first in the "modern wave of school shootings."
The year before, Gov. William Weld had signed a law that allowed a gun buyer's home state rules to apply to a sale, and Montana had few restrictions.
Lo presented his Montana driver's license to the gun dealer who later said Lo had been calling the shop's 800 number "for months." Lo hid the gun in a guitar case for the trip back into his dorm.
He had already ordered ammunition from a company called Classic Arms. On the day of the shooting, the unopened package containing ammunition was brought to a meeting and discussed with school officials but taken back to the mailroom out of respect for Lo's privacy, a school official told Galen Gibson's father, Gregory, after the murders.
There were signs of trouble, Gibson wrote in his book "Gone Boy, A Father's Search for the Truth in His Son's Murder."
After the murders, Gibson, an antiquarian book dealer from Gloucester, went in search of the "greater meaning."
In "Gone Boy," Gibson documents his journey visiting people and places along Lo's path, and eventually he even visited and studied the gun used by Lo, which was stored at the Berkshire Superior Court clerk's office.
Gibson learned at the trial that a janitor had found bullets in the weight room of Lo's dorm, where Lo used to work out.
According to testimony at the trial, a school staff member received an anonymous call that Lo had a gun, and a school official then learned of it. This all happened about 45 minutes before the first shots.
Years after the bloodshed, the former town police officer who took the dispatch call from Lo that night said Lo "definitely had a plan."
Kevin Larkin told The Eagle that Lo's preparations to kill as many people as possible were "methodical."
"If the gun hadn't jammed, it would have been horrible," Larkin said.
Officers Clifford Twiss and Mark Stannard arrived on the scene while Lo was firing. Stannard said Lo stopped shooting because he might have been "disgusted" with the malfunctioning gun.
The gun jammed repeatedly during the attack, according to forensics.
Gibson said this saved countless lives and perhaps "an entire college."
"Imagine him taking his murderous walk with two hundred rounds of ammunition, loaded in clips of thirty shots each that fired as fast as he could pull the trigger," Gibson wrote in his book.
Around 10:15 p.m., Lo left his dorm for the security guard gate at the entrance to the college, shooting Beavers, 40, in the midsection while she was on the phone with her husband, who, in turn, called police at 10:23 p.m. Capeless said Beavers was shot at point-blank range. She survived.
At that moment, Saez, an Argentinian linguist, had pulled into the drive. Lo shot him through the driver's-side window, and soon the car had drifted off the road, hit a nearby snowbank and stalled, with Saez slumped over the steering wheel. The driver's door hung open, and the dashboard radio droned in the dark.
A bullet had entered Saez's left temple and killed him. Lo headed deeper into the campus.
Stannard and Twiss called for backup. They didn't know how many assailants there might be, and so they didn't continue into the campus. Stannard later said this was the hardest decision of his life.
Bleeding heavily, Beavers told police it was Lo who shot her. Just after she said it, more shots rang out, six and eight at a time, the officers said.
At this point, students studying in the library, or tucked into dorms for the night, thought the shots were closer and different than the occasional sounds of hunting in nearby woods.
Not knowing a shooter lurked in the dark, some students ran into the library to announce that there might have been an accident.
Some tried to help and headed for the doors. Galen Gibson, a blossoming poet and theater lover, was fatally shot as he tried to leave.
And Thomas McElderry, 19, was wounded when a bullet from that same spray broke his femur.
Lo then went to a dorm, where he wounded Joshua Faber, 15, and Matthew David, 18.
Police said Lo's gun jammed one final time, and he quit trying. About 20 minutes had passed since he had fired the first shots.
Alone in the nearby student union, Lo called police. Larkin answered and persuaded him to surrender to the half-dozen officers who surrounded the building, said Police Chief William Walsh.
"It was the first time the department had encountered this kind of violence," Walsh said, noting that all town police officers are now trained for such incidents, and the department now has specialized equipment.
Back then, "we were severely outgunned," Larkin said.
Capeless said he got the call at 11 p.m. and went to the campus, where he stayed with investigators for 48 hours.
"It was so cold and dry, we were walking around and the snow squeaked," he said. "The students had gathered together in what we now call 'shelter in place.' We walked around the campus, and there was dead silence."
Winter recess came early that year. Soon, a steady stream of cars rolled into the college as parents arrived to pick up their children.
The tragedy undercut the sense of safety at a place with small seminar classes where students could call their professors by their first names.
Meanwhile, Lo soon appeared in Southern Berkshire District Court for his arraignment, cuffed and wearing a sweatshirt that said "Sick of It All," which he had worn throughout the rampage.
"Sick of It All" was a hardcore band, a contrast to Lo's talent as a classical violinist. At some point, his music and his friends shifted, and this high achiever in music, academics and sports, who had also worked at his family's Chinese restaurant in Billings, Mont., had taken a turn.
"I recall it like it was yesterday," Eisenberg said of his first meeting with Lo at the county jail, along with co-defense attorney Janet Kenton-Walker, now a state Superior Court judge.
"[Lo's] eyes were apparently making contact with us, but they were much deeper, and there was an ocean in his eyes," he said.
To this day, Eisenberg wonders how Lo went from that state of rage to what he terms the "remarkable changes" he has undergone over the years, despite the lack of mental health treatment he would have received had the defense prevailed.
"To the extent that I could look into anyone's soul and heart and mind, I think he's really come to understand the pain of the victims and the secondary [victims] and how the college and community suffered," Eisenberg said.
Eisenberg said Lo's targets, the victims, "were in the wrong place at the wrong time" after Lo had heard a voice telling him to "open [the Book of] Revelations and do what has to be done."
For Gibson, Lo is an inescapable part of his experience.
From prison, Lo would begin a 20-year correspondence with Gibson. They began to work together against gun violence.
"Over the course of time, we mutually agreed that we would use our stories to make sure that no one else would have to go through what [the victims and their families] had gone through," Gibson told The Eagle in a phone interview.
"Most of our correspondence was, `How can we get this message out?' " he said.
In the phone interview with The Eagle, Lo said he is focused on helping to strengthen gun laws.
"If they let me out of prison today, they would let me buy a gun," he said, acknowledging that is purely a hypothetical question.
When asked if he believes that is so, Lo doubled down."Yes. They would," he said.
Gibson wrote in his book that he and Lo are inching "toward whatever deep and inexplicable destination we have in common."
From prison, Lo sells artwork so he can contribute to the Galen Gibson Fund, which supports education and victims of gun violence, as well as groups that work toward "common-sense gun laws."
Gibson, who is a state organizer for the Everytown USA survivors' network, said the gun culture in this country is what has to change.
"It's so much more than political advocacy," he said.
That's why Gibson is doggedly pursuing his idea of creating some kind of public service announcement with Lo that "is like the old anti-smoking commercials with the skeleton on the hospital bed."
In October, the two spoke together for the first time at the prison, a conversation aired this month on NPR's "StoryCorps," a discussion Gibson hoped would produce good audio for a future gun control message.
While it did produce some, Gibson said prison officials objected to the fact that he and Lo used scripts that had not been preapproved. A prison spokeswoman told The Eagle that corrections officials don't object to the two speaking, but need enough detail from Gibson to draft a legal agreement.
Gibson said he knows that his engaging with Lo can be confusing and hurtful to survivors, former students and even his own family.
"I completely understand that and I respect that," Gibson said. "I know this will hurt some people."
McElderry, who survived the shot in the leg, and Craig Sauer, who was upstairs in his dorm when Lo shot two students downstairs, said they had asked "StoryCorps" producers to rethink their decision to give Lo a voice, and to consider stories about survivors instead.
Both men say they've struggled with depression and other symptoms in the years after the attacks.
But Gibson is pressing forward, and Lo is part of that.
For his own hurt, this is Gibson's way through, he explains, just as others have their way.
"My son died, and it is a constant intention to get useful [audio], to turn it around so it isn't just a complete loss and hellish situation," he said.
Eisenberg said that while Lo's trial was a fair one, the pain from what Lo did that day will never be fair for the victims, their families and the survivors.
"There were no prospects for a happy ending here," he said. "The loss is permanent and immeasurable."
Reach Heather Bellow at firstname.lastname@example.org or at @BE_hbellow on Twitter and 413-329-6871.
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