On Wednesday, December 12 of last year, at lunchtime, Sammie Eaglebear Chavez talked about shooting up his school. The 18-year-old was in the cafeteria of Bartlesville Senior High, 45 miles north of Tulsa, Oklahoma, conversing with classmates he considered friends.
He floated an idea: What if he got on the intercom, made an announcement directing kids to the auditorium, then chained the lobby doors shut behind them and started firing down from the balcony? And what if the auditorium's exits were also rigged with bombs, so when the police arrived and tried to get inside, the explosives would detonate? Sammie couldn't pull this off alone, he told his buddies. That's where they came into the picture.
One of the teenagers told someone else, and the next day, Thursday, December 13, a Bartlesville mother phoned an assistant principal to report a second-hand version of the conversation. Sammie was absent that day—not an unusual circumstance—so no one questioned him. But by that evening, the Bartlesville Police Department had an affidavit regarding his lunch-table fantasia and an extraditable felony warrant for the young man's arrest.
On Friday, between four and five in the morning, Sammie and his mother Jessie Chavez, now 43, heard a noise outside the sallow one-story Adeline Avenue house they were renting. "Sammie comes in the hallway and goes, 'Mom, somebody's knocking on the door,'" Jessie recalled recently. "I said, 'I don't give a shit, it's 4:30 in the morning! Only two kinds of people come at this hour—and that's po-po and crackheads.' I was mad!'"
Jessie's instincts weren't wrong. Sammie answered the door to the cops, who put him under arrest for threatening to kill Bartlesville Senior students. Sammie was baffled. The conversation they mentioned was a joke, he insisted.
It was December 14, 2012. Less than four hours later, a 20-year-old named Adam Lanza fired his way into Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 first-graders and six adults in the second-worst school shooting in American history. All the child victims were shot between three and 11 times, then the gunman took his own life. The rampage took less than five minutes.
Sammie learned about the Newtown massacre from a television in Washington County Detention Center, the Bartlesville jail where police brought him after his arrest. Seeing the news reports, he broke down crying so badly that guards changed the channel.
The warrant drawn up for Sammie's arrest had cited a $200,000 bond, charging the defendant with planning, attempting, or conspiring to perform an act of violence, a crime punishable by imprisonment up to 10 years. By 1 p.m., when a district judge formally arraigned Chavez, the teenager's bail had skyrocketed to $1 million.
In his mug shot, Sammie looks like a detained refugee, despondent and resigned. For an accused felon facing 10 years, he seems boyish. His eyelids are droopy and mauve, his brown eyes doleful and despairing. The white T-shirt on his back is slightly dingy, the collar tinged. His mustache looks like dirt. His shoulder-length hair has a faint blondish streak that hangs heavy over his left eyebrow. You can tell he likes its protection.
That hapless headshot flashed on screens around the country, for one news cycle, a momentary deliverance from the ghastly reconstructions of teachers shielding tiny bodies, children crouched in closets, and other inexplicably hideous transmissions from New England. Here was a blessing among the horrors, here was the face of a Sandy Hook interrupted.
"Hours after the bloodshed at a Connecticut school, police stopped what would have been a second mass school-shooting on Friday," the New York Daily News declared, in an error-riddled Saturday article that this very website passed along. Fox News Latino found a rich angle in Sammie's last name: "Latino Student Was Arrested Friday With Alleged Plot to Attack his Oklahoma School." Sammie is not Latino; his father is native American, and the Chavez name came down from his Pueblo Indian grandfather.
In Oklahoma, the terror caused by Sammie's hypothetical rampage was more than a temporary distraction. On Monday, December 17, a high-school minor was arrested for a terroristic threat in Guthrie, a 10,000-person town 30 miles north of Oklahoma City, and the local police chief told the Associated Press that "in light of what happened in Connecticut and the Bartlesville deal, we cannot take anything too lightly." The same week, Caney Valley Schools, a 700-student district also in Washington County, cancelled a full day of classes due to alleged terroristic threats made by two juveniles.
Back in Bartlesville, where police were suddenly stationed at the city's 10 schools, administrators staged the district's first-ever press conference on Tuesday, December 18: The senior-high principal had spotted two suspicious individuals carrying rifles behind the campus. They had fled, and their identities were still unknown at 10 o'clock that night, so city officials called off the last day of school before Christmas vacation. (The culprits, it would turn out, were skittish students out hunting ducks.)
The Oklahoma state legislature, not to be left out, began writing bills inspired by Chavez's arrest. Republican Representative Mark McCullough introduced a measure that would allow school districts the option of having teachers armed in the classroom, given the proper training. Republican State Senator Brian Crain proposed raising the maximum penalty for "planning, plotting or conspiring to commit a crime of mass violence"—specifically, here, talking in the lunchroom about shooting up the school—to a life sentence. Under the bill, the old maximum of 10 years would be a new mandatory minimum.
Crain's bill also stipulated that anyone between the ages of 13 and 17 would be charged as an adult when accused of the crime. You could feasibly be 13, talk about killing your classmates, and spend the rest of your life in prison. In addition, the bill sought to punish anyone "having reason to believe that another person is endeavoring, planning, plotting or conspiring to commit a crime of mass violence" with up to a year's imprisonment and $1,000 fine for not reporting it; if a plan were attempted or carried out, individuals who had "reason to believe" it might have happened would face a minimum of five years. (In February, the bill passed the state senate by a vote of 44 to one, only to stall in the house of representatives.)
Meanwhile, as far as the dangers of Sammie's plan itself went, the police had found one gun in his house, an ancient Marlin Model 99, a .22 caliber semiautomatic utility rifle with its stock sawed down to a pistol grip. It was lying by the door like a discarded umbrella. Jessie told the cops Sammie had bought it for $15 from some guy named Devon, who'd said it was so cheap because the firing mechanism was broken. The search found no ammunition for Sammie's intended rampage, and no sign of any explosives.
Besides the lone gun, the police ended up confiscating an assortment of items from the residence, including "a leafy green substance" that tested positive for marijuana, and accompanying paraphernalia—rolling papers, a pipe, aluminum foil, an herb grinder, a digital pocket scale. They seized two decorative swords, a pair of brass knuckles, a wallet with what they called an "R.I.P. Graveyard" drawing inside, a recipe for homemade alcohol, a love letter from Sammie's girlfriend at the time, a poster of a scorpion, a poster of the Joker from The Dark Knight, and something listed on the search warrant return as a "Suicidal Timmy" drawing.
On a bedroom dresser, the two officers who performed the search, Lt. Kevin Ickleberry and High School Resource Officer Korie Plummer, also found a black trench coat. "This coat was photographed but not seized as evidence," the police reported.
Jessie Chavez—a garrulous woman who tells reporters she has been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder—acted as their guide. As Lt. Ickleberry photographed the area near a small table, she volunteered that it was called "the 'Murder' table," explaining that Sammie and a friend had written "MURDER" all over it and a chair in the kitchen. Later, before a jury, Ickleberry would extract all sorts of meaning from the detail.
"Sammie's attorney was like, 'You have kids over your house and let them write 'MURDER' on your furniture?'" Jessie told me in November. We were in her current home, a two-bedroom rental in West Bartlesville, where she'd moved in May. "I'm like, 'Yeah. Anything they want to write, the furniture is just furniture. It can be replaced. That is a way of us expressing ourselves.'"
Her hair was cropped short and bleached blonde, tucked under a pink breast-cancer-awareness handkerchief. She is a woman who will tell someone she's just met, apropos of nothing and everything, that she laughed so hard yesterday her dentures fell out straight onto the table. She won't even tell you what was so funny; she'll just tell you that—poof—there they were! She will also tell you she was a really, really bad drinker until she quit on February 2, 2010. And that long before, she did a year in jail—"and OOOH, I hated it"—though she won't say what offense brought her the time. Her black T-shirt said #1 MOM.
"Several times during her conversation with Officer Plummer," the investigators wrote, "Ms. Chavez advised that she was an alcoholic and a terrible mother."
During the search, according to the report, she also told the officers that her son had sent her a text the evening of his lunch-table conversation that read, "Just leave me alone, I'm having bad thoughts."
"Several times during her conversation with Officer Plummer," the investigators wrote, "Ms. Chavez advised she was an alcoholic and a terrible mother."
Jessie offered me a guided tour of the home. "Everything in this house, with the exception of the TV and the armoire, came out of a dumpster," she said. The living room had a wall of Christian iconography: an illustrated portrait of Jesus Christ; sun-rays beaming down on His Praying Hands, a minimal wooden cross on top. "As you can tell, we are a very Christian-based home," she said.
Jessie narrated a gallery of family photos: a shot of Sammie happily holding a small dog next to a canned-food pyramid; Sammie as an adolescent skateboarder, landing a kickflip; pictures of Sammie's older half-sisters, Rachel and Alex. Is she still in touch with her daughters? "Not anymore," she said. "They gotta get over their little temper tantrums."
One of the bedrooms is Sammie's room, though he hasn't had a chance to see it. Affixed to the door is a hand-scrawled NO TRESPASSING sign, on which Jessie has taken the trouble of adding a clarification—VIOLATORS WILL BE SHOT/SURVIVORS WILL BE SHOT AGAIN, with four miniature guns as visual aids. The walls are mostly bare, and his remaining possessions are gathered low around the perimeter. The crown jewel is a bed with a burgundy spread. "Check this out, nobody believed me," Jessie said, handing over a brochure for Full Sail University, a Florida for-profit entertainment-trade school, as evidence her son had plans. "Sammie was trying to apply."
Jessie dug through a shoebox filled with newspaper clippings about Sammie to find a letter he'd written her from jail. "Hey mom, I'm doing okay," she read out loud, sitting on the bed. "Every day I'm learning that 'innocent until proven guilty' is a lie. To the cops, the public, and everyone else, if you are arrested, then you are guilty. I find it funny that all these people have such strong opinions about something they know absolutely nothing about.... If the news and newspaper say it, then it must be true." He sent his love to Jessie, his ex-girlfriend, his friend Jake, then signed off with a reference from The Outsiders. "Stay gold."
Back in the living room, Jessie plunked down on the blue plaid sofa, sipping sweet tea and smoking a cigarette, and proceeded to tell me about her son. "Yeah, he's had a shitty life and that's all my fault," she announced. "Let's get real. It is, all my fault."
More damning than any of Jessie's revelations, in the eyes of the prosecution, were Sammie's own words. One handwritten note found in his pocket at the time of his arrest read, "maybe I should just do what I've been planning for so long." Another prophesied, "One day I will show them all they do is wrong. They will never forget what I did. I will be remembered forever, changing the way the youth interact with each other."
"I will be remembered forever, changing the way the youth interact with each other."
Among the many journals Sammie kept over the years—for therapeutic purposes, at the direction of his counselors, according to his family and friends—were two entries made not long before his arrest:
These thoughts are becoming increasingly real. IDK I'm starting to like it. It's like they used to be scary and frightening, but now it's like these thoughts of hurting and killing others has become comforting. It's almost like they're actually started to calm me down, like when I feel shitty I can think about hurting someone and it will make me smile and feel better.
Sitting in a room full of people screaming for help...but no one can here me [sic]. Asking them, begging them to do something before I have to. Wanting to show them all what their actions can cause. If they would've just left me alone, they would be ok. How many lives must be lost before they realize that the things they say and do can really fuck with someone's head. How many times must the "freaks," "weirdos," "punks," and "geeks" shoot up a school, or bomb a building before they start leaving all of us alone and letting us express ourselves how we want without ridiculing or ostrecizing [sic] us. I've been brought to this point, this point of not feeling sympathy for those who die because most if not all of them deserve it.... Those who deserve to die, will be killed. Those who don't yet know our cause will be forced to witness it....
The language and imagery are familiar now. For the past 14 years, angry and frustrated teenagers have had a vivid real-life precedent for what it could be like to strike out at everything and everyone around them. Targeted attempts at school violence occur now at an alarming pace. In the 21st century, mowing down peers is not something limited to lunatic hallucinations, but an action with historical reference.
Tyler White, one of the Bartlesville Senior students who'd been talking with Sammie that day at lunch, told administrators he'd also witnessed Sammie researching "pipe bombs" on the school computer, and "Columbine." During the police search, according to court documents, Jessie mentioned "spontaneously" that her son had recently watched Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine and then announced, "And they wonder why kids shoot up schools."
"Pre-Columbine, when we had a frustrated kid wanting to lash out, he was really unclear how to do that," said journalist Dave Cullen, who spent 10 years researching the definitive account of Columbine. "He might do something, but who knows what. Now, for the last 15 years, there's this template set up, this recurring thing that if he's one of those guys who is actually going to do something, it's sort of the go-to option for a kid at that level of desperation.... It sort of provided the model."
There's no evidence to suggest that Columbine's frightening legacy has turned regular kids into killers. But for a small fraction of deeply depressed, suicidal, or mentally ill young people, the massacre has made an unthinkable course of action become thinkable.
"Is it going to push somebody over the edge, so that they choose that as an option?" said Jeffrey Daniels, a professor of counseling psychology at West Virginia University who's spent more than a decade studying school violence. "I don't think so. I think it's one of those things where probably somebody who is pretty disturbed to begin with, and is thinking about it, and then sees all attention that it gets. And that may be the final thing to say, 'Yeah, maybe, I'll do it this way—I'm going to sound really callous here—instead of just committing suicide.'"
Virginia Tech shooter Seung Hui Cho considered the Columbine perpetrators, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, martyrs. Steven Kazmierczak, a 27-year-old who killed five at his alma mater Northern Illinois University in 2008, talked about how he admired Cho's door-chaining strategy and the Columbine killers' use of bombs as a diversionary tactic. Adam Lanza not only had a detailed spreadsheet of mass murders, but a digital and physical archive that included a New York Times piece about Kazmierczak's spree, a book about a 2006 Amish-school shooting, and photocopies of newspaper articles from 1891 about school shootings.
School shootings, and the revenge narratives the shooters use to justify them, have become mythology, a part of young mens' mindscape. "YEAH SURE PICK ON THE KIDS WITH PROBLEMS," Sammie posted to Facebook on August 27, 2012, less than four months before his arrest. "AND YOU ASK WHATS WRONG WITH US?????? YOU ARE THE TYPE OF PEOPLE THAT CAUSE COLUMBINE....PEOPLE WHO CANT LEAVE OTHER PEOPLE ALONE!!!!!! WHY DONT YOU JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP AND MIND YOUR OWN SHIT!!!!!!!!!"
Sammie Eaglebear Chavez was born on July 2, 1994, at Sparks Regional Medical Center in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Ronald Chavez and Jessie Ellyn. That December, when Sammie was five and a half months old, the couple married. Within a year, they broke up. Jessie maintains her ex-husband walked out on his family. In any case, Ronnie was entirely absent from his son's life for more than a decade.
When Sammie was nine months old, Jessie said she couldn't take care of her baby, and left her son with Ronnie's mother, Reba Rodgers, in Marble City, Oklahoma. As a boy, Sammie liked to sing and play and goof around. He made a game of hiding the television remote. Reba was a schoolteacher, so when Sammie turned four or five, she enrolled him in Head Start.
But when Sammie was still a preschooler, Jessie returned. "It broke my mom's heart when she took him back," Sammie's uncle Will Chavez told me. Mostly, he said, because she never knew when or if she'd see him again. "She never stopped talking about him and wondering about him," he said.
When Jessie decided she wanted Sammie back, she was living with a man named Jimmie. "I was with Jimmie 12 years, on and off," Jessie said. "I was like, 'Dude, I want my son,' and he was like, 'Here, go get him.' Gave me the truck, gas money, everything."
Sammie's childhood was nomadic. He was dragged among Oklahoma cities like Arkoma, Sperry, and Tulsa in tandem with Jessie's romantic whims. He usually had long, sleek hair: In a class photo from an Arkoma elementary school, the third grader has hair past his shoulders; cross-legged in the front row, he's biting his lip.
At eight, according to his family and court documents, Sammie was sexually molested by his older stepbrother. "They had their clothes on, but his stepbrother did dry-hump him and say some hateful things," Jessie said. "So that was hard on Sammie."
When Sammie was 10, his mother pled guilty to food-stamp fraud. In the sixth grade, Sammie told a school nurse he wanted to kill himself, which resulted in his spending two weeks in a Tulsa psychiatric hospital. It's unclear whether this was before or after the suicidal act he described to a Washington County court-appointed psychologist, when at the age of "probably 11," he swallowed a bunch of Seroquel—used to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia—hoping to overdose.
"Sammie wanted so bad to have a dad that every time we broke up with Jimmie, he'd be like, 'I want Jimmie,' and cry."
Jessie severed things permanently with Jimmie when her son was 12 or 13. This breakup was emotionally devastating for Sammie. Although volatility had been the only real constant in his mother's third marriage, Jimmie was also the only father figure the child had known.
"Sammie wanted so bad to have a dad that every time we broke up with Jimmie, he'd be like, 'I want Jimmie,' and cry," Jessie said. "That was his dad. Twelve years." She sighed. "Then, guess what, we went to another domestic-violence shelter. And then it didn't help that I—I ain't gonna lie—I was a boozehound bimbo. For real."
Court documents state something everyone who knows Sammie also seems to know: Jessie worked as a prostitute when her son was a kid. Later as a teenager, Sammie would confide in friends that he'd been present for the transactions. "So a lot of bad things happened," Jessie said. "A lot. I ain't gonna lie. A whole bunch of bullcrap happened."
Bartlesville, population 36,000, is the seat of Northeastern Oklahoma's Washington County. I drove in from Tulsa on Route 75, exiting the highway into a flat landscape of major corporate chain stores and restaurants. "This is very much a Super Walmart community," Chris Oldroyd, publisher of the free glossy magazine Bartlesville Monthly, told me. On Halloween eve, the 24-hour Walmart was promoting Duck Dynasty, a rotisserie-chicken sale, Joel Osteen books, and gun magazines.
The demographics are very white (79 percent in the 2010 census), very red (73.9 percent of Washington County went Romney in 2012), and institutionally conservative. "It's very polarized," one politically left local told me. Democrats, he joked, "meet in private and cover the windows."
Teenagers call Bartlesville "the Shady B" because, they say, everyone is always up in each other's business. Sammie's arrest exacerbated that tendency. On Facebook, the commentary became dramatic and heated. A handful of kids defended Chavez in their posts, insisting the situation was blown out of proportion. Mr. Brutal N' Beastly yelled back, "IF YOU WERE FELT WHAT SNADY [sic] HOOK IS FEELING RIGHT NOW YOUR WORDS WOULD BE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT." To which someone identified as Dustin G. added, "It dosent fukin matter what his reasons are . . . shootin up a school that is the most pussey thing ever." Eventually, Brutal N' Beastly concluded, "THIS IS JUST GONNA LEAD TO A FUCKIN FIGHT IN DA STREETS."
This tension manifested itself in jail, where Sammie was scared for his life. "I honestly did not think he was gonna make it a year," his good friend Missouri Dodd, 17, tearfully recalled one night at her house. She visited him in January. "It was a so horrible. I'd never seen Sammie cry like that. I'd seen him cry, but not like that." Remembering this, her voice cracked. "He said, 'I'm scared. People are threatening me, threatening my life.' I was so worried about him."
Ken Dossett, a local youth minister, saw Sammie two days after his arraignment. "The first day I saw him, I said, 'How do you feel?' And he said, 'I don't feel safe in here because some of the people in here may've had children in school, or knew people there, and they think I wanted to kill everybody.' He felt threatened."
Making matters worse, in the wake of Sammie's nationally publicized arrest, the young Bartlesville men Sammie considered his very best friends—friends he'd lived with in 2011 and 2012, friends listed as a "brother" on his Facebook page—hadn't stood by him. When they were questioned, they separately told investigators that they barely knew Sammie, or that they hadn't talked with him in months, lies motivated by self-preservation that trickled back to their incarcerated friend. According to mutual friends, they feared police harassment, or search warrants, or whatever other social and legal repercussions would come from associating with someone portrayed as a young monster.
I contacted four of these young men on Facebook, trying to see if it had been pure self-interest, or whether Sammie's arrest had changed their perception of their friend to something more frightening. I only heard back from Caden Shepherd, someone Sammie lived with for six months in the eleventh grade, someone friends say knew Sammie better than anyone. "He is really not what they are trying to say he is," Caden texted me late one weeknight. That was the only thing I'd hear from him.
Meanwhile, Sammie was almost entirely alone. He hadn't heard from his biological father since the arrest. His paternal grandmother's landline was unreliable, thanks to the callous indifference of storms and telephonic bureaucrats, and he couldn't reach her.
Jessie was around, but not handling the situation emotionally well. In addition to her remarks to the cops, she'd said unexpected things to a Tulsa World reporter, claiming that Sammie had texted her about wanting to "shoot up the school" the same day of his lunch-room conversation. ("That would be the last thing I'd say if my son was in trouble," a source familiar with the case told me. "It almost felt like she wanted to send him off for good.") The purported wording of this particular text message never appeared again, in court documents or testimony, but there it was, printed in the newspaper, for all of the city to read.
Sammie had no chance in hell of making bail; he couldn't even afford a lawyer, listing his monthly household earnings as $750 from Supplemental Security Income in his sworn application for a public defender. One former classmate set up a Facebook page called "Saving Sammie:": "Everybody message me if you are willing to save money to get Sammie out!" The effort only accumulated 25 friends.
For weeks after Sammie's arrest, the local sheriff's office couldn't say who his lawyer was. Eventually, he was assigned a public defender, in the form of James E. Conatser, a prickly 86-year-old whose son is a municipal judge. Conatser has a reputation for forgetting questions he's asked in court.
Bartians describe him privately as "the town's worst lawyer," "a jerk to everybody," "in the early stages of dementia," "off his corncob," "a stickler for accuracy," or "a man with an admirable past." No one seems to understand why he hasn't retired. "I felt like they put that old man with him because they knew he'd bomb it," the mother of one of Sammie's closest friends told me.
Conatser did not return any of the detailed messages I left him, over the course of months, regarding his client's case. At 10 a.m. on Halloween morning, my first full day in Bartlesville, I visited his downtown office. Talk radio crackled behind his locked door. I knocked. Twice. Eventually, with the creak of a coffin lid, the door opened. I have never seen any man look more angrily interrupted.
"I don't give anything out on Sammie Chavez, I don't care," he said. "I didn't talk to the radio, I didn't talk to to the TV, I don't talk to anybody." A back-and-forth ensued (Q: "Would you possibly have time this weekend?" A: "I don't work on weekends!"), and then the door really did slam in my face.
The figure of the school shooter in the national consciousness is built, to a great extent, out of misconceptions. Columbine, in Cullen's painstaking reconstruction, wasn't a ruthlessly well-executed shooting plot; it was a completely botched mass-bombing attempt that left the perpetrators aimlessly wandering the halls, peeking out the windows for explosions that never came. Nor were the Columbine killers outcasts or victims of bullying. Despite the police's interest in Sammie's outerwear, the much-discussed Trenchcoat Mafia had nothing to do with it.
Who really perpetrates school killings? In 2002, the Secret Service, in conjunction with the Department of Education, released the most definitive report regarding targeted school violence to date. In Columbine's aftermath, both agencies identified and analyzed 37 cases in the United States, from December of 1974 to June of 2000. The incidents involved 41 attackers who ranged in age from 11 to 21. All were males; all were former or current students of the schools they besieged.
The predominant finding was this: There is no consistent profile of a school shooter. Three-quarters were white. Many of the attackers felt bullied (71 percent), but they were frequently part of their peer group's social mainstream (41 percent). One third were loners, most were not. Two-thirds came from two-parent homes. Many had exhibited suicidal inclinations (78 percent), but only a few had been diagnosed with mental health disorders (17 percent). Only 27 percent had been previously been arrested, and only 11 of the 41 had ever been suspended from school.
Gary Noesner, a retired FBI hostage negotiator who worked several school crises during his 30-year career, attended one of very first national conferences on school violence. "One of the objectives was to try to identify one of the common attributes of these shooters in the schools," Noesner said. "What we found out is that there were, indeed, some by and large, fairly common behaviors. But what was disarming for us was the fact that these same behaviors were present in quite a large number of kids who never did these things. So they might be common in the perpetrators, but they're not precursors. It's like, for example, if a kid's raised in the ghetto, you can't say he's probably going to become a criminal, because he also might become a neurosurgeon."
"Society is now so frightened of these things that he's not gonna get the benefit of the doubt," retired FBI negotiator Gary Noesner said.
However, one consistent factor was that at least one other person knew the assailant was considering or planning the attack (81 percent). In two-thirds of the cases, more than one outside person knew. Nearly all (93 percent) had done something before the attack that alarmed other people in their lives.
So when a high-school senior talks about shooting up a high school in the lunchroom, school-violence experts believe the threat has to be evaluated seriously, even if it's purported to be a joke. "Society now is so frightened of these things that he's not gonna get the benefit of the doubt," said Noesner. "It's like yelling 'Fire!' in the movie theater; you can't yell 'Hijack' on a plane. You can say, 'Hey, I was just joking.' Well, you were just joking a little bit too far. We don't know the difference, and the consequences are now going to fall on your shoulders."
On Halloween afternoon in the Education Service Center, a stone-facade single-level office space of wood-paneled hallways and tiled ceilings, Bartlesville Senior High principal LaDonna Chancellor sat down with Chris Tanea, Community Relations Coordinator of Bartlesville Public Schools, and tried to explain how her staff determines when a student threat is credible enough to involve the local police.
"There's some history with the kid that comes into play," she said. "If a kid just pops off in a class, you know the situation around it: Is this something?" She added, "You pay attention to other things too. You pay attention to things kids write, you pay attention to things kids draw."
The Bartlesville school system, a 10-school nexus of approximately 6,000 students and 800 employees, is considered a top school district in the state. In December 2012, the Oklahoma State Department of Education ranked Bartlesville second among the 32 largest districts. In spring 2013, Bartlesville High claimed eight National Merit Finalists, the most of any Oklahoma large school per-capita. Last month, the state Department of Ed's bi-annual report-card evaluation awarded Bartlesville Senior, a 900-pupil secondary school of 11th and 12th graders, a letter grade of A.
Chancellor has known Sammie since the seventh grade, when she was his middle-school principal. Federal privacy laws prevented her from discussing his records specifically, but court documents filled in some blanks. In eighth grade, he accrued a series of suspensions: five days for fighting in February 2009; three days for swearing at a teacher that same month; a suspension for the rest of the year after a blanket offense of disruption and defiance in March. In September 2010, he received in-school suspension for using profanity and punching a locker. Before his arrest, his GPA was a 1.64.
At the time of his lunch-table conversation, Sammie was enrolled in a special-education program called Bruin Brilliance, a fully supervised half-day schedule for 10 students, grades nine through 12, who also attend supplementary counseling. "Usually there's something going on that's not allowing them to be successful at school and their education needs the counseling piece," Chancellor said. "It's just another level of intervention."
Tyler White, who talked with Sammie that day at lunch, was also in Bruin Brilliance. He told his best friend Tony; the next day, Tony's mom called an assistant principal to register her concern. When Tyler White was questioned about the incident, he not only synopsized Sammie's fantasy, but also said his classmate was trying to obtain a campus map.
Separately, Bruin Brilliance instructor Bill Wright told the investigators that Sammie had told him he'd recently bought a Colt .45 and gone shooting. Those sworn testimonies were enough for the Bartlesville Police to build an affidavit and to convince a judge to sign a warrant for Sammie's arrest.
Chancellor called a faculty meeting on Friday morning, to inform the staff of the situation. Before noon, a mass email went out to all Bartlesville Public School parents, alerting them that an unspecified threat had been dealt with in an appropriate manner. Bartlesville High administrators were so consumed with handling the fallout of Sammie's arrest that day, they didn't even know about the Newtown rampage until later.
"Over the weekend, I started to realize [Sammie's arrest] was bigger than it even was—for peoples' peace of minds," Chancellor said. "After Sandy Hook, you just can't help but connect them."
Bartlesville High School officials categorically believe they prevented something terrible from happening last December. "With the conditions that were set out, we certainly think that we made a really good decision," said Tanea. "We think it's quite possible that we prevented something serious from happening—not only for our students, but for the kid who was thinking about doing it."
"I don't think he could have played out the whole movie the way that he shared in the cafeteria that day," Chancellor said. Her voice was a whisper. "I mean, I don't know."
"We just know that what we had in front of us, that we prevented something," interjected Tanea. "We don't know if it ultimately would have happened or taken place, but everyone did about as good a job as we could have."
"Our whole goal, every day, is to educate every kid we have at our site," Chancellor continued. "Sammie was one of our kids. That's just as disappointing as anything else: Everything we know we tried couldn't make a difference for him."
Since Jesse moved into her latest house half a year ago, she's already had a parade of roommates: Sammie's older sister Rachel and her girlfriend Ashley; Jessie's friend Craig; Sammie's old friend Dakota Bush and his uncle Billy; John and Roscoe, two guys Sammie had met in jail, who didn't have places to go after their releases, plus Roscoe's "psychotic" girlfriend Jessica, who Jessie eventually filed a protective order against. Now Dakota was back, sharing a bedroom with his pregnant 17-year-old girlfriend, Natasha. "My door is always open," Jesse said.
Dakota and Natasha traipsed off to the store to buy ramen noodles and Cheetos. Jessie drank her sweet tea and talked about life with Sammie. Her fourth marriage, she said, took place on June 24, 2008. Sammy was 14, living with her at the Lighthouse Outreach Center, a Christian homeless shelter in Bartlesville. He walked his mother down the aisle of the mission's chapel to marry 54-year-old Jack Garnett, Jr.; Jessie wore a wedding dress, with a tablecloth as a veil.
The union lasted a little more than 24 hours. Shortly after the wedding, Jessie learned that Jack had told people he'd emptied out his bank account and sold his van to buy her the engagement ring, which Jessie says she'd paid for herself. "If you have a bank account, why you at a homeless shelter?" she said. She could not live with such a preposterous liar. "When he come off work at two o'clock in the morning, his shit was out on the lawn."
"From then on, I had numerous boyfriend, girlfriends, people moved in and out because they needed help," Jessie said. "Sammie has seen me beaten by all of the boyfriends once Jack left."
It's difficult to disentangle the strands of culpability that led to Jessie requesting a Bartlesville Police officer to help "discuss problems with her 16-year-old son" on January 11, 2011. But at approximately noon that winter Wednesday, a cop was called to an apartment complex called the Georgian Arms. Jessie and Sammie had shared a place there until 201o, until Jessie moved somewhere else and Sammie ingratiated himself with the new renters, a young married couple named Tori and Wes, who let the teenager stay with them.
Now Jessie wanted him out of their apartment, and she became belligerent. "Due to the level of the Defendant's aggressiveness, her son had been secured in my patrol vehicle, separated from her," wrote the arresting officer, who also summoned a caseworker from Child Welfare to the scene.
When the tenants came home, Jessie went ballistic, pushed past their door, and grabbed Tori by the neck, according to an affidavit. Jessie was charged with unlawful entry, plus assault and battery. Court documents later alleged that the husband had discovered his wife had become romantically involved with their teenage roommate—who at 16, met Oklahoma's age of consent—and that was why Jessie was livid. "He was old enough," Jessie said. "He knew right from wrong. Nobody made him do this. So he had to face it on his own."
"The defendant reported being shocked when he found out his mother terminated her rights. As a result of his mother's decision, the defendant began drinking heavily and cutting himself."
The Department of Human Services took Sammie. Jessie was ordered to take parenting classes, but she refused and signed away her parental rights. "The defendant reported being shocked when he found out his mother terminated her rights," the pre-sentencing report gathered this past October said. "As a result of his mother's decision, the defendant began drinking heavily and cutting himself."
On the night of May 21, 2011, the date that apocalyptic radio preacher Harold Camping had predicted the Rapture would occur, Sammie posted a Facebook message lamenting that the world hadn't ended.
"What are you talking about," Delia Avilez, a loyal friend from junior high, wondered in the comments.
"The rapture. . . We were supposed to die today," Sammie wrote back.
"Why do you want the world to end," Delia asked.
Sammie clarified: "Not everyones just mine."
Privately, Sammie told Delia why he was so despondent: His girlfriend had thought she was pregnant. But Sammie wasn't scared of becoming a father; he was so upset that because she wasn't. "He couldn't get over the fact that she might've been pregnant," Delia told me over the phone. "He was excited because he had a feeling that if he was a dad, it would change him into a better person." Sammie was 16. "He wanted to be a really good dad to the baby, if he was gonna have one."
Jessie said that her relationship with Sammie is great now, ever since she admitted her failings. "I said, 'I know the truth, I'm a horrible mom'—ever since then we've been like that," she said, crossing her fingers. "I told him, 'Hell yeah, I screwed your life up. And I'm sorry. I can't do nothing about it.' And now we're like buddy-buddy." She paused. "I can't WAIT for him to come home!"
Will Chavez learned about his nephew's arrest from a smart-phone news update. A senior reporter for the Cherokee Phoenix, the first Native American newspaper in the United States, Chavez received a mobile alert on December 14 about a thwarted school-shooting plot. Click. There was Sammie's mugshot. "It was pretty heartbreaking," he said. "I was shocked."
Chavez and Reba Rodgers, Sammie's grandmother, were seated in a quiet lobby inside the headquarters of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, a gorgeously sprawling 15,000-person town along the Western foot of the Ozarks. To their right was a tribal gift shop; to their left was a buffet-style Restaurant of the Cherokees. The carpet was patterned with the Cherokee alphabet, Reba's first language.
Earlier in December, Sammie had phoned his grandmother to tell her he would visit during Christmas vacation. "He said, 'When school turns out for vacation, I'll let you know where to come get me, or to meet me somewhere,'" she said. Sammie had a driver's license, but no access to a car, and Reba lived three hours away from Bartlesville. "I said, 'OK. I'll be waiting.' Then just a couple days later, Will calls, and says, 'Mom, bad news: Sammie's been arrested.'"
Reba, a soft-spoken matriarch with a profoundly soothing presence, hadn't talked with Sammie since his arrest. The silence has been difficult. She has followed his case through the newspaper and the television, but that's a pinhole perspective. In the last 11 months, she's dropped 30 pounds. "My doctor said, 'Is there anything bothering you, something going on in your life?'" she said. "I said, 'Ahhh, just worried about the kids, I guess.'"
Will had been the one person relatively close to Sammie who I could track down before arriving in Oklahoma. Over the phone, he'd been candid about his frustration with his brother Ron's lack of involvement in Sammie's life. "It's a source of bad blood between my brother and I," Will said. "He never stepped up and did anything for him." (Ronnie could not be reached for this piece; even the number Will had for him, for a pay-as-you-go mobile phone, didn't work.)
But in 2011, with Jessie renouncing her parental rights, DHS custody called: Could Sammie's father take him? The department had nowhere for him to live. His dad only had a one-bedroom, so Reba offered up her home again—after all, it was where he'd been as a baby.
At a court date in Bartlesville, Reba said, she encountered Jessie: "She said, 'Well, I just want to say: If you all are trying to get that boy, I'm gonna tell you, he's no good. He's a drunk, he's a drug addict, he's just no good. Me, I'm gonna go in there, and sign those papers, and give away all my parental rights. I've got nothing to do with him.'"
Reba hadn't seen Sammie since he was a little boy. She didn't know what to believe. "Later, I asked the DHS lady, 'Is he really something like that?' She said, 'Noooo, Sammie's a good boy. He has no problem with us.'" Reba, who is careful with her words, inhaled deeply. "So I don't know."
At the time, Sammie had been living in a group home. "He didn't like it," Will said. "Everybody was in your business constantly, he said, so he was glad to be going to my mom's home."
"He said, 'This is my own bedroom? My own bed?'" Reba said. Despite his constant moving, Sammie had managed to keep a few prized possessions: a workout bench, a punching bag, a big screen TV, a gaming console.
Every morning, Reba enticed him out of bed by cooking him breakfast. He'd say she made too much, but then clean his plate every time. "He was smart," she said. "He knew world events. And he knew how to say things." In the evening, they'd sit on the porch and chat. "He probably talked to me more than my boys did," said Reba. "He was a talker."
Sammie still went to counseling regularly, and every night, Sammie would write in his journal, which intrigued his grandma. "I said, 'What you write, Sam?'" she said. "He said, 'Oh, just what I did during the day. If something made me mad, I write about it.'" She's pretty sure she gave him the black notebook police confiscated.
Reba's parents had bought land in Marble City way back, so her siblings all built houses there, turning the area into an informal familial settlement. Sammie had grown up being the only Chavez he knew, but all the sudden he was surrounded by others. In July, he turned 17. Relatives came to celebrate. "He said, 'I never had a birthday dinner before,'" Reba recalled. "He thought that was something." Four days later, Sammie updated Facebook with: "So kinda of not feeling so alone anymore . . ."
"He used to say, 'I think I would've been a different boy, Grandma, if I'd grown up with you.'"
At the same time, Sammie was still a high-school kid, plagued by fear that things were going on without him. On July 5, he wrote on Facebook, "Ready to go back to the ville...missing so much...I just hope my dad can understand…" Again, on August 12, "I can not wait to get to the ville." He moved back soon after, to start his junior year.
"He used to say, 'I think I would've been a different boy, Grandma, if I'd grown up with you,'" Reba remembered. "He said, 'Your brother, he goes to church all the time. And I noticed all your family around here: Nobody drinks, nobody smokes, I don't even hear nobody cussing.' And I said, 'Well, I guess that's how you would've been if you'd stayed with me.'"
Bartlesville Senior High was not a welcoming place for a half-Native American teenager with an unstable home life. Sammie skateboarded frequently, painted his fingernails, and wore eyeliner. He listened to metal, hardcore, rap, sometimes the much-maligned Insane Clown Posse—people teased him about that.
"He would have a sideways mohawk that he would dye all sorts of crazy colors," said 17-year-old Missouri Dodd, the only one of the defendant's close friends who kept in contact since his arrest. "People, I guess, didn't like the way Sammie had fun with it and bullied him over that."
Missouri, who goes by the nickname Mo, was curled up on her Bartlesville couch, knees pressed against her chest. Dark-haired with a lip ring, she looked and sounded like a millennial Angela Chase, if the My So-Called Life's protagonist liked zombies and played Grand Theft Auto. Her mother Kelli sat to her left.
Sammie lived with them for a month in high school, after he returned from his grandmother's house. "He is welcome in my home any time," said Kelli. "He always will be."
Sammie sometimes trusted the wrong people. "When he would get someone close, and he thought they were his good friends, he would confide," Kelli said. He told some people that he'd been molested; later when they turned on him, they gossiped about the assault. Kids started calling Sammie a "faggot."
The aggression occasionally got physical. He got jumped a few times. "He'd come over here bleeding and everything," Kelli said.
"It wasn't every day," Mo said. "But it happened. He came over with his battle wounds."
"Through all that he had this great heart, he was still a every sensitive guy, he still just wanted to be accepted and loved and be accepted for who he was," Kelli said. "He's different, he's strange, he's kind of geeky, but he's a very cool kid."
Mo, whose close friends tend to be male, met Sammie at Central Middle School. "He was the odd one and we clicked as soon as we met," she said. "We just had this crazy, emotional, rollercoaster relationship."
From the other end of the sofa, her mother translated: "They dated off-and-on for six years."
"He was like my first real boyfriend in school," Mo admitted sheepishly. "I freaking love that kid, no matter what."
The two agreed that Sammie was a "tortured soul." They said that even when he tried to be tough, sometimes he just came over to the house and cried. Occasionally, he got too drunk and acted like an idiot, but he was never violent or mean. He'd been cutting himself in the time before his arrest, Mo knew. He'd been prescribed the antidepressant Celexa and the anti-anxiety medicine propranolol. But Mo saw him in the hall at school a couple days before his arrest. Everything was the same.
Kelli doesn't understand why if Sammie really was searching "Columbine" on a school computer, the administration didn't know. "Is that not a cry for help?" said Kelli. "Instead they want to prosecute this boy, put him on a million dollar bond, and give him 10 years in prison? Is that gonna help him? There needs to be some other option."
Sammie's trial went absurdly fast, so fast that the local NBC affiliate, KJRH Channel 2, declared the proceedings "abrupt." At nine a.m. on Monday, September 23, 79 potential jurors were seated in the third-floor courtroom of Washington County Courthouse. By 3:37 p.m. the next day, both sides had rested their cases and a jury of 12 had reached a verdict. There'd even been time to break for lunch.
Gathered in support of Sammie were his mother; his older sister and her partner; Sammie's ex-girlfriend Shelby; and Mo. Dakota showed up the for first day, on a bicycle. There were also a handful of local print and television reporters in attendance, including the Tulsa World's Bartlesville correspondent, who had been dutifully covering Sammie's case.
Tyler White, who'd turned 18 since the incident, testified. Visibly nervous, he stumbled over his words while recounting the cafeteria conversation he'd already repeated to administrators and law enforcement: Sammie's proposed intercom takeover, the auditorium trap, picking off kids from the balcony, the cop-deterring explosives by the doors, Sammie's casual bid for accomplices.
When it was the defense's turn, all Sammie's public defender wanted to know was how White would describe Chavez. A "jokester," Tyler said. Conatser was satisfied.
Lieut. Ickleberry, the officer who'd executed the search warrant on the Chavez's home, was a far more compelling witness for the prosecution. Ickleberry testified that Chavez's school computer had logged searches on various weapons, Columbine, and Virginia Tech. "We found that there were 13,000 hits on the word 'bomb' on that computer," Tulsa World quoted him as saying. The defense had planned to argue that the rifle seized from Sammie's residence didn't work; Ickleberry demonstrated that the weapon was functional.
Ickleberry also talked at length about the ominous "Murder Table" and assigned macabre significance to the dates carved in the wood. For example, he proposed that "9-25-12" represented the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, and that "9-19-12 Murder Barbie" corresponded to the death of Barbara Olson, a Wisconsin grandmother who was hacked to death by her 13-year-old great-grandson and his friend.(Mo and Kelli told me that "Barbie" was one of Jessie's multiple personalities and that "MURDER"was the graffiti tag of Sammie's friend Jake, but no one offered those interpretations to the jury.)
In a Tulsa World photo from the trial, Sammie looks small, outmatched, and a little lost. But on the witness stand, Sammie was self-assured and spoke confidently. Dressed in a striped button-up shirt and black slacks, he didn't dispute White's factual recollection of his lunch-room scenario, just the intent of his words.
"It was a joke in the sense that it wasn't meant seriously," Sammie said. As for the journals, he clarified, "It was just me being really angry and writing anything down that came into my head." He described the evidence collected against him "an unfortunate coincidence."
For rhetorical effect, the prosecution kept flashing the pages from Sammie's journal on a screen and referring to the notes found in Sammie's pockets. Those who deserve to die will be killed. Those who don't yet know our cause will be forced to witness it. District Attorney Kevin Buchanan hammered away at the jury, imploring them to sentence Chavez to the 10-year maximum. When I feel shitty I can think about hurting someone and it will make me smile and feel better.
The defense countered, "I would hope that when you weigh everything that you would decide what you have heard is not worth 10 years of his life."
The jury, seven women and five men, deliberated for two hours and 43 minutes. Their verdict: Guilty on one felony count of devising a plan to cause serious bodily harm, with an intent to perform an act of violence. They recommended 30 months imprisonment and a $5,000 fine.
Every Sunday, Jessie turns up at Washington County Detention Center—dutifully, she said, "like a Catholic girl going to confession." But on Saturdays, when visiting hours begin at 8:30 a.m. and inmates' relatives start lining up before seven, Sammie doesn't regularly have guests.
Even though I was a total stranger who showed up unannounced, he was undaunted; in fact, through the window, we mimed a cartoony greeting that acknowledged our lack of acquaintance.
Through the echoing receiver, I told him that I'd been following his case since it first happened, that I was writing a long article about him, and that I'd already talked with his grandmother, who loves him very much. "I miss my grandma sooooo much," he said, smiling profoundly, eyes squeezed shut. "She's the best."
Behind the glass partition, Sammie looked surprisingly great. The photos from his trial made him seem wiry and diminutive, but here in his blood-orange jumpsuit, he appeared strong and masculine and physically healthy. He'd been lifting weights in the jail's gym and his forearms had grown thicker. The longhaired orphan in the mugshot has disappeared.
I asked what it was like getting arrested that day. "It was dumb," he said, plainly. "And difficult." He's still adamant the lunch-room conversation was a joke, that he was bullshitting with people he thought were good friends, people he thought understood his dark humor. And that he'd thought wrong. "Anybody who knows me knows I'd never ever do that in a million years," he said.
Ken Dossett, the minister who visited Sammie two days after his arraignment, told me, "As soon as he saw me, he just started crying: 'I didn't mean what I said.'" Ten months, a trial, and one guilty verdict have dried out those emotional denials, and now Sammie's disavowals are more resigned. "I've done nothing," Sammie said. "Yeah, I said something. I shouldn't have said that, I'm sorry." The apology is almost matter-of-fact.
"I've done nothing," Sammie said. "Yeah, I said something. I shouldn't have said that, I'm sorry."
I asked about school. He hated going. "I've been out for one year now and I haven't used one thing from school," he said. You're in jail, I countered. "But I work in the kitchen and I haven't used math. History? Come on." He spoke as if he'd been tricked.
Thoughtful discussions in jail were few and far between, he said, and he grew more reflective. "Maybe that was problem: School was too easy," he said. It was clear from our conversation that he was smart. "All the kids at school—everybody was just mean. The way I grew up, everybody supposed to be kind, you don't go around picking on people. If somebody needs something, you give it to them and you don't ask for anything back. My mom...she's insane, she takes in homeless people, people she doesn't even know."
Things became dark. "Jocks would pick on anybody they thought were inferior." His tone was wounded. "And girls." He sighed. He stewed. He addressed me directly. "No offense or anything, but in my experience, women at school are just. . . whores." There was silence. "It's bad—it's really bad that I think this."
He looked uncomfortable but almost relieved to be emptying his head, despite the awful honesty. "But I can remember in sixth grade, I can remember, I dated this girl for a few months. She was the most goody-two shoes virgin ever. Then I leave for a little while, and come back to Bartlesville in high school. Next thing I know, she's gone and had sex with half the town. What happened." He shook his head, stared at the counter. "What happened." He was crestfallen. "This place"—he meant Bartlesville, but also maybe the Earth—"is bad. It takes good people and makes them bad."
He spoke as if he'd lost faith in goodness. "I've been conditioned to believe that people are just shitty," he said. "That's one thing I've learned from this: 'Everybody's just shitty.' Everybody wants something in return. Guy gives some money to a homeless person, what's that guy want back in return? Later, he'll expect that guy's last cigarette."
A few minutes later, he smiled sadly and said, "Let's be honest—I'm a little messed up." We both laughed.
I asked if they'd given him counseling there.
"No, they don't care," he said. "They don't care if you're depressed or you're schizophrenic, they just lock you up." Before this, he'd been talking to a therapist weekly, sometimes daily, since he was a kid. "You say you're gonna kill yourself, they just throw you in a padded cell with a blanket. 'I need help.' 'Oh really?' Slam."
Had that happened to him? "No, I've actually not been in a lick of trouble when I've been in here. I keep to myself, I do what I'm told." This is true. His behavior had been so superb that he'd become a Washington County Detention Center trustee, a model prisoner with special privileges, job responsibilities, and visitations extended from 20 minutes to 45 or 50. In fact, this position will get him out of here sooner.
That day in the lunch room, Sammie was drunk, he said. "On a daily basis, I was going to school intoxicated," he said. "I call them, 'My dark days.' I really was completely obliterated. I can remember waking up to school and taking shots. I'd put vodka in water bottle at school; that way it looks like water, and you could drink it all day. By the time I left school, I'd be blackout drunk and not even remember the last period of school, not remember the rest of the day, wake up the next day, and wonder what the hell happened."
"I started drinking when I was eight years old," he said. "It didn't really become a problem when I was 12. Then I was an alcoholic until I went to jail."
He's sworn off liquor, he said, but he can't imagine civilian life without weed. He can't help it: He started smoking pot when he was five. "I can remember this clear as day. Years ago, whenever my parents were smoking"—he means Jessie and his step-dad Jimmie—"I'd come in and poke my head. After a while, my step-dad says, 'You know the only reason he comes in here is to get high?' She's like, 'Yeah, pretty much.' He's like, 'Well, what do you think?' She's like, 'Just go ahead.'"
I would've been a different boy, Grandma, if I'd grown up with you.
Sammie did not remember living with his grandma as a toddler, he said. Apparently he didn't even know Reba had helped raise him until he was 16 and saw all the pictures of his childhood there.
"What's really weird," he said, "is that I remember at two years old, running through the house, and I tripped and fell into a glass table." He pointed to a scar on his head. "I busted my head open and I remember not doing anything about it. I remember I walked to my mom, showed her, and we went to the hospital."
But at that time, wouldn't he have been in his grandmother's care? "I really believe that people believe are conditioned to believe. I really think that if you tell somebody something for long enough, even though it might not be true—just keep telling them, and telling them, and telling them, and telling them—maybe eventually they believe it. Maybe that's a story my mom came up with and she just kept telling me and telling me and telling me, and eventually I just came up with it. It's happened before."
The guard knocked on the window. Time was up.
There were two things that Sammie had said, when we first sat down. One, regarding that conversation about attacking the auditorium: "My whole life has been a bunch of things that could have been avoided but weren't," he said, speaking slowly. "Just a bunch of wrong decisions. And that's all this was: another bad decision. I had a conversation with somebody I shouldn't have had."
The second, regarding the first thing he'd do when he got out of there: "Hug my mother and tell her I love her."
Was Sammie really going to shoot up the school? "I really don't think he would have done that," said his friend Delia Avilez. "He's talked about stupid stuff like that before, but he'd never act upon it."
"He wouldn't have done it because I know Sammie's heart," said Mo's mom Kelli. "We know Sammie. That's not Sammie."
"Everybody that knows Sammie knows he wasn't gonna do that," said his friend Dakota, who lives with Jessie. "He was just talking about blowing the school up—like any other kid who hates school would."
"I could imagine him saying something like that and not being serious about it—just laughing about it," his uncle Will told me. "Around my kids, he was a jokester. He had a lot of humor—that's how I imagine it went down. Someone ran with it; that's all it took." Besides, his nephew lacked the resources. "I don't think he had the capacity, the tools, to do something like that. He couldn't even afford to buy the bullets for the gun."
"He was just joking!" his grandmother said. "Kids say things, when they sit around, acting silly. I think that's the way it was with Sammie. He just said it without thinking what could happen, especially nowadays."
"All that pipe-bomb bullcrap? Wasn't there," Jessie said. "All he did was have a conversation. An inappropriate one, but a conversation nonetheless. He actually did nothing."
Tyler White, who was there for the conversation, saw it differently. "I think he was serious," White wrote me in a Facebook message. He had lost friends over this. He wrote: "I was in class I saw how he joked around he was funny but that day was diffrent and I believe that someone wouldn't say that unless they really meant it plus I saw him looking up all that shit on his computer."
"Can anybody say for sure, unless he were to reverse course and say, 'Yeah, I actually was going to kill people?,'" said Noesner, the former FBI crisis negotiator. "But if he persists that—'Nah, I was just joking, I really didn't mean it'—that may be true." Then again, he adds, it also might not. "Kids go to jail every week in this country for making a stupid threat and chances are they're never gonna carry it out. Your friend there can say it was a joke. Maybe it's a joke now that he got caught, but who's to say? Who's to say?"
Only Sammie knows. And does Sammie even know?
What was left, for many Bartlesville residents, was the mythic figure of the school shooter. Many of them believe Sammie Eaglebear Chavez has been insufficiently punished for the danger he presented. Before his November 12 sentencing, 23 members of the community—including district principals, parents, and school-department employees—submitted victim-impact statements to the judge, Curtis DeLapp, begging for a harsher punishment than the jury had recommended.
"Why? Because he may have had a poor childhood? Because he may have had depression or another crutch society likes to use to get out of personal responsibility? No excuse is good enough."
By state law, DeLapp could not legally deliver a longer sentence than the panel of 12 had suggested. But the purpose of these letters seemed to be to renounce Sammie publicly and to inform the 19-year-old that he is unwelcome in the Shady B. To wit:
As a mother and member of this community, I say that Sammy [sic] Chavez should be in prison for a much longer sentence, since he was willing to plan to kill students in such a horrific way. . . His fine should be such a high amount that he will never be able to pay it off and return to society. He doesn't deserve to be in society at all, much less one that he threatened children and public servants.
He may have had a hard time in high school, but does that give him the right to threaten everyone's peace of mind and education? NO!!!!!!!!!!
Such disdain was fairly consistent among the letters, as was the assumption that Sammie Chavez had been about to commit an extensive rampage on Friday, December 14:
My husband would have lost his wife that day. My children would have lost their mother. I have parents and siblings who were also impacted to a great degree just knowing how close death was . . . on the day Sammy [sic] Chavez decided to take the life of as many as he could. Why? Because he had a poor childhood? Because he may have depression or another crutch society likes to use to get out of personal responsibility? No excuse is good enough.
We all know what he had planned. The proof was evident in many ways.
Please consider sentencing Sammy [sic] to a lifetime.
Most of the pleas were submitted anonymously "out of fear of retaliation." Some authors elaborated on this anxiety, including this elementary-school professional:
Mr. Chavez has been in my building several times in my year and a half before the incident occurred. He would come with a "friend" who was picking up a sibling after school. Knowing that he has been in my building gives my staff and I chills. He knows that there are innocent children here. He could have very easily committed the crime in my building, knowing the dismissal process. That terrifies me.
What terrifies me even more . . . That "friend" he accompanied to my school on numerous occasions was the one who gave information which led to exposing Chavez. What if Mr. Chavez comes back to get revenge on the "friend" and the members of his family?
"It is all a misunderstanding," Sammie responded to the court in writing. "I never threatened no one."
Ken Dossett, the minister who visited Sammie, has promised him a job at On the Rock Ministries, the Christian recreation center he co-founded in 1998, where Sammie skateboarded as a sixth grader. When a parole office called Dossett to confirm this offer, he said the woman on the phone told him, "That's really good, because there're not too many people lined up right now to offer him any aid or support."
But even Dossett, a man only concerned with pleasing the Lord, anticipates a backlash. "There may be some people in the community—my wife's already talked to me about it—who say, 'I don't want my kids going down there because you got Sammie working down there,'" he said. "I believe this is what the Lord would have us do: Reach out to him and give him sanctuary and a place of refuge, a place where he can straighten himself out."
Other Bartians who've expressed any sympathy or compassion have heard the same thing Dossett has: Friends and acquaintances insist they'd feel differently if they'd had loved ones in the school. "One of my staff members whose husband works at the school was saying, 'How would you feel if your wife was a school teacher and she came under that threat?'" Dossett said. "I said, 'Well, I would want to feel just as I do now—that this young man has value or redemption, regardless of what he proposed to do.'"
On Tuesday, November 12, Judge DeLapp formally sentenced Sammie Eaglebear Chavez to 30 months in prison, a $5,000 fine, and a year of follow-up supervision by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. He was barred from future contact with Bartlesville Senior High or its employees. Before the hearing, Sammie's uncle and his grandmother Reba had mailed the judge letters of support. That morning, Will and his kids said a special Indian prayer. Jessie wore a blue turtleneck sweater and a necklace. Mo was in black.
Judge DeLapp addressed the thick file of victim-impact statements by saying, "I want to make clear for the record today the court cannot disregard [jury sentencing recommendation] and impose a sentence beyond that, nor do I think the court would do that."
"I know they're disappointed he's not in jail longer," District Attorney Kevin Buchanan—who ignored all my requests for comment, including an in-person visit to his secretary—told local Channel 6. Buchanan tried to explain that this was "a challenging case," because Chavez hadn't gathered weapons. "Each case in the future, I think, is going to depend. . . on the degree to which somebody has actually gone to follow through with their plan and prepared to carry out some sort of violent act." Each case in the future.
Before graduation, Tyler White quit school. He was labeled a snitch.
This past Wednesday, a suspicious backpack left in a Bartlesville High hallway sent the building into lockdown. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol bomb squad came to investigate. Inside the bag, they found school supplies.
Sammie expects to be released early next year. He told a parole officer that he plans to live with his mom, get his GED, and maybe someday study psychology. But after reading all those outraged victim-impact letters, he's looking to escape Oklahoma. "Sammie and I have decided to leave Oklahoma once he is done with his probation," Jessie texted me after his sentencing. "He wants to move to Oregon. Weed is legal there. :-)"
[Top image by Jim Cooke, photo via AP]
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