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Victims of San Diego School Shooting Are Forced to Cope Again 10 Years Later

January 19, 1989|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

Christy Buell was "shocked, saddened, horrified" by the headlines.

Tuesday, a killer walked onto a schoolyard in Stockton and opened fire on children, killing five and wounding 29 with bursts from a semiautomatic rifle. A teacher was also wounded in the assault, which lasted only three to four minutes.

For Buell, the news was a grim reminder, an ugly blast of history repeating itself. She was one of eight children wounded Jan. 29, 1979--almost exactly a decade ago--when teen-age sniper Brenda Spencer opened fire on schoolchildren in San Diego.

Part of the creepy flashback for Buell was learning that the school in Stockton bears the same name as the one in San Diego--Cleveland Elementary.

"I was scared for those people," Buell said Wednesday, adding that she was "shaking" just in having to discuss the incident in an interview. "I felt really sorry for them, because I know exactly what they're feeling . . . . I went through the same terrible thing."

Buell, 19, was then a 9-year-old fourth-grader still coping with the death of her mother, who lost the battle to leukemia when her daughter was 2. Buell said the grief her father felt--losing a wife, almost losing a daughter--was unimaginable.

Buell now works at a day-care center not far from where the shootings occurred. Her work with children has made her wonder all the more why someone would ever want to harm them. Buell was shot twice by Spencer--in the abdomen and in the lower back. She was hospitalized for a month and spent 18 months recuperating.

"There's no other way to say it," she said with a quivering voice. "I'll just never get over it."

She suffers no physical repercussions, only the psychological fallout, which she compared to a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome, not unlike that experienced by some veterans of the Vietnam War. The same can be said not only by victims but also their parents.

Lee Selvig is an attorney, a family law specialist in San Diego. His daughter, Monica, now 18, was shot in the stomach, the bullet exiting her back close to the spine. She suffers no lasting physical effects, although Selvig asked that Monica not be interviewed; he would speak for her.

"I'm not going to deny the trauma," he said. "Even before yesterday (Tuesday), the incident was constantly on the minds of the family. We haven't been able to shake it. I heard Michael Mantell (a San Diego psychologist) interviewed on radio this morning, and he pointed out something really beneficial. He said families must emphasize the positive at a time like this. I have to say it improved our family's relationships, drew us closer together. It had to. It also impressed upon us how fragile our

lives really are. It woke us up to our own mortality."

Selvig said the school's bearing the same name carried an eerie afterglow that was almost indescribable.

'Happening All Over'

"It's strange, but that alone made it seem the nightmare was happening all over again," he said. "It made our incident close and all too frightening."

Selvig sees as one of the saddest tragedies Monica's losing of an illusion. Much like children in Belfast or Beirut, he said, those wounded at Cleveland Elementary in San Diego 10 years ago were shocked into the world of adult reality without being allowed to make the transition gradually.

"A child has the right to grow up feeling that they're out of harm's way," Selvig said. "They have a right to a childlike aura of invincibility. Brenda Spencer took that away from Monica forever."

Julie Robles, 20, suffered a gunshot wound to the side that day in San Diego. Doctors marveled that the bullet that struck Robles passed right through her--almost hitting her kidneys but striking no major organs and leaving her with only a minor injury.

The psychological wound was greater.

'Terribly Upsetting'

"The Stockton thing was terribly upsetting and disturbing," she said. "I was very upset by the date being so close to the 10th anniversary of our shooting and the name of the school being the same."

For a decade, Robles has been traumatized by news accounts of snipers or gun-wielding psychopaths walking into a public place and opening fire. She wrestles with the feelings for days, and, just when it seems she's over it, she hears about a Stockton.

Thoughts seem to leap out of nowhere that tear at her spirit and toy with her equilibrium. She actually thinks about Brenda Spencer from time to time, wondering if the woman is safely locked up--she is, in the California Institution for Women in Frontera--and whether she will ever return to do Robles harm.

Informing Friends

From time to time, she has the strange task of informing a new friend that once, on a school ground in San Diego, she was shot in an incident that made the national news.

"I tell them, and they just look at me stunned," Robles said. "Their reaction is one of total disbelief. They say, 'No way , Julie.' They just can't believe it."

For Christy Buell, the saddest memory is that two men she knew--good men--were slain that day. Spencer murdered Principal Burton Wragg and custodian Michael Suchar.

"The loss of two men that put their lives in danger to save children . . . that's the hardest part for me," Buell said, "the part no one will ever undo."

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