The Mind Of A School Shooter
Science teacher Ralph Johnson was in his classroom at Richland High School when a student walked through the school's north entrance, armed with a .22 caliber, semiautomatic rifle. He began shooting at the first teachers he saw.
The student was Jamie Rouse, then 17. Now 25, and in prison, Rouse sat down with Correspondent Maureen Maher to give a rare glimpse into the mind of a school shooter.
"I didn't feel anything. I was empty," says Rouse.
The first shots hit Carol Yancey, 50, who taught math and science, and Carolyn Foster, 58, a teacher at the school for 15 years.
His third victim, Diane Collins, was a 14-year-old freshman.
"When you're in that state of mind where you're gonna kill someone, nothing matters," says Rouse. "I wasn't expecting to, you know, come back alive."
The killing stopped only after Rouse was wrestled to the ground. Two of the victims -- Collins and Foster -- died. But Yancey miraculously survived.
Rouse was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, without parole, for the shootings. His mother, Cheryl Rouse, was stunned. "This can't be my son that did this. Why didn't I know? Why couldn't I see how much pain he was in," she says. "He was the good kid. He was the one that always did what he was told. You could depend on him."
She says that the fact that her son was dressed all in black, listened to loud music and loved violent movies didn't set off any alarms at the time. "To me, that was just typical teenager. You know," says Cheryl Rouse. "One minute they're mad, and the next minute, they're OK."
But Jamie was troubled. In high school, he started drinking and doing drugs, and he was listening to death metal music – songs about killing and dying.
The film, "Natural Born Killers," also made a big impression on him. "It made killing look easy and fun," says Rouse. "I mean, it fascinated me."
He now says the music and violent images were filling an emptiness inside – and their message made him feel powerful. "I guess for so long I'd felt helpless and weak, and with violence, you know, you have control," says Rouse "I'm not saying that it's music made me did what I did, because ultimately, it was my choice. But it helped shape who I was."
At home, there was yelling and fighting. "The yelling was because of me," says Rouse's father, Elison, a truck driver who now admits he was part of the problem in his son's life.
"To this day, I still believe if I'd been home that day, I'd been the one that died and – and the teachers wouldn't have … I believed he'd kill me … I was the cause of most of his problems, I felt like."
Elison was on the road for most of Jamie's childhood, and at the time, using drugs and drinking heavily. When he was home, Rouse says, Elison was often angry.
"One of the earliest memories I have was sitting on my mother's lap. And she was crying. And I can remember my dad punching holes in the door and walls because he was drunk," says Rouse. "I knew that he was capable of actual violence."
Rouse says he learned how not to cry because he was afraid of his father. "I knew what happened if I cried around my dad. So I just stuffed it in. I didn't expose that," says Rouse.
"It had a big impact. You don't know how to deal with problems when they do happen. And it just snowballs until eventually something gives."
As time went on, Rouse's reactions became more destructive – and more dangerous. But no one took it seriously, not even when he pulled a gun on his brother. His father merely took his gun away for a couple of months.
"Right there ,that sent the signal that, you know, that I wasn't gonna get help from him. Because to me that's a pretty big deal when a sibling pulls a gun on another one," says Rouse. "They didn't think that anything, I guess, was severely wrong."
Cheryl Rouse says that her son kept all of his emotions inside: "If he let off steam, it wasn't around us. When he was around us, he was just a perfect teenager."
But Rouse says he was desperately unhappy – and it started when he was a child, bullied by classmates for being small and too quiet. Things got worse in high school, where he was ostracized by kids who thought he worshipped the devil.
"People were scared of me. I was a normal kid. And I didn't want people to be scared of me. I wanted to be just, like, you know, everyone else," says Rouse, who says his life in 1995 felt out of control. "I was under a lot of stress."
"I guess I blamed school ... and the teachers," adds Rouse. "And I was so filled with, you know, hate and anger and this evil that, you know, I guess in a way I felt that, you know, they should be punished, too."
He says he went to school that Wednesday morning, prepared to hunt down teachers. But someone else got in the way – his best friend's sister.
Diane Collins was accidentally shot when Rouse says he missed the teacher he was aiming for: "Of all the people I could have shot. I keep asking myself, 'Why her?'"
It's too late for Rouse, but it may not be too late for others. A classroom of 14-year-old kids are taking a field trip to the medium security prison in Clifton, Tenn., for a lesson they'll never forget.
Here, they see the harsh reality of life behind bars – and get to hear from a school shooter.
"When I was 17 years old, I walked into Richland High School and shot two teachers and a student," says Rouse, who has been trying to reach kids who may be as unhappy and desperate as he once was. "I used violence as a way out. And because of that, I'm in prison for the rest of my life and two people are dead. What I did didn't have to happen."
Sitting alongside Rouse is fellow inmate, Jacob Davis, 24. In 1998, Davis was a senior at Lincoln County High School in Fayetteville, Tenn. He was a popular honor student and had a scholarship to college. Just days before graduation, he shot and killed his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend in a jealous rage.
Looking back, Davis says he was secretly troubled as a kid, even though he seemed normal to others: "Most of the people I would say that knew me refused to believe it. It just didn't make sense."
"There is no mold. These were people who looked more mainstream than you would think," says Marisa Reddy, a research psychologist with the United States Secret Service, who has interviewed a number of school shooters. "The fact of the matter is, it would be a lot easier for all of us if there were a profile. But there isn't."
After the massacre at Columbine, the Secret Service joined forces with the Department of Education to find out how to prevent school shootings. They focused on 37 incidents dating back to 1974 – including attacks by Jamie Rouse and Jacob Davis
How do you identify, stop and then help a child who is a potential killer? "You can't tell by looking at a child whether he or she may engage in a school shooting. But you can look at what they're doing and what they're saying," says Reddy.
There may not be a common profile – but Reddy and her colleagues did find common behaviors. "They had done something to seriously concern at least one adult in their life," says Reddy. "And actually the majority had concerned at least three adults. These were kids on someone's radar screen."
"The biggest problem I had was I didn't think anyone could help me," says Rouse. "And so that stopped me from actually reaching out."
Researchers discovered most of the shooters were overwhelmed by feelings of depression, and in more than two-thirds of all these cases, the attackers felt bullied or persecuted.
"Not every child who's bullied in school is at risk for doing something violent or harmful, let alone engaging in a school shooting," says Reddy. "But we heard from some of these kids of situations that went on for years at a time. That I would almost characterize as torment."
Many of the shooters were also so unhappy that they had actually considered or attempted suicide.
"I'd always been dealing with depression, but when this hit, it became so severe that I really didn't want to live anymore," says Davis.
But one of the biggest surprises may be that these shooters rarely just snap. "These attacks were typically thought out in advance. They were typically planned in advance," says Reddy. "And, before most of them, other kids knew these attacks were going to occur."
Rouse told five friends, and one of them even drove him to school on the morning of the attack. "He saw that I had the gun," recalls Rouse. "I remember him making some, a comment like, 'So, you're really going to do it, aren't you?' I guess I wanted someone to stop me."
"We know that some people, if they've threatened and there's no response, they may take that as permission to move forward with a plan," says Reddy.
In the five years since Columbine, teachers and law enforcement have learned to be more vigilant and take every threat seriously. In just the past three months, at least four attacks on schools have been prevented.
"All of you guys, remember me," Davis tells the kids on their fieldtrip to the prison. "You know, tell somebody. Go tell somebody."
These are important lessons that Davis says he wish he had known sooner: "My life's pretty much over with. I've got a life sentence, and there's a young man that's dead."
"It wasn't like the movies, you know, where you shoot someone, and then, you know, go about your life. And you know, I hurt real people," adds Rouse. "It's the most horrible feeling you can have."
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