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California and the West

Woman Imprisoned for '79 School Slayings Withdraws Parole Request

Crime: Brenda Spencer acts just minutes before hearing. She killed two and wounded nine in San Diego sniper attack when she was 16.

January 21, 1998|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHINO, Calif. — She won worldwide notoriety in 1979 when, as a freckled 16-year-old proclaiming, "I don't like Mondays," Brenda Spencer sprayed a San Diego elementary school playground with .22-caliber semiautomatic sniper fire.

Spencer's onslaught, as she crouched in her parents' home across the street, left the school's principal and janitor dead and eight children and a police officer wounded.

On Tuesday--just minutes before a parole board hearing at which she would have been confronted by one of her victims--Spencer withdrew her request for prison release. Instead, she settled in for at least three more years behind bars.

Her state-appointed attorney, Keith Stanton, said outside the California Institution for Women that Spencer was remorseful for the killings, but was "adjusting well" to prison and decided to waive the hearing "for tactical reasons" he declined to detail.

A San Diego County prosecutor was prepared to tell the parole board, meeting here at the prison where Spencer is confined, that the 35-year-old remains a public threat.

"She knew she would be denied [parole]. There's nothing she could say at this time to sway the board," said San Diego County Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrea Crisanti. "We think she should still do life. She killed two people. How can she repay that? How could we take that risk [of killing] again, if she were released?"

For Spencer, who is 18 years into her prison sentence of 25 years to life, the next opportunity for parole will come in 2001.

Among those who planned to argue against Spencer's release Tuesday was Charles Miller, who at the time of the shooting was a 9-year-old fourth-grader. He recalled being dropped off at school by his mother and, moments later, seeing the principal and janitor lying on the ground before he blanked out--after being shot in the chest.

Miller, who today is a San Diego County probation officer, said he still suffers emotional pain from the shooting. "It's very vivid in my mind," he said, talking to reporters outside the prison.

"It's not really hatred," he said of his feelings about Spencer. "But she should remain in prison for life."

The hearing was Spencer's second opportunity for parole; she was rejected in her first effort five years ago.

At the 1993 hearing, she contended that she was under the influence of drugs when she began firing on Cleveland Elementary School in the San Diego neighborhood of San Carlos. Toxicology tests proved otherwise, Crisanti said.

Spencer's surviving victims were not informed about the 1993 parole hearing and none attended.

Amid the shooting spree, Spencer unwittingly was reached on the telephone by two reporters from the San Diego Evening Tribune who, while attempting to call neighbors, hadn't realized that they had reached her house.

She told them that she had opened fire because, "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day."

Her comment inspired the Boomtown Rats, an Irish rock group, to write the song "I Don't Like Mondays."

She finished the interview by announcing, "I have to go now. I shot a pig [a police officer], I think, and I want to shoot some more."

Armed with 200 rounds of ammunition and a rifle that she had received the previous month from her father as a Christmas gift, Spencer opened fire about 8:30 a.m. Jan. 29, 1979, just as students were arriving for class.

The sound was mistaken for firecrackers or caps until bodies fell to the ground. Principal Burton Wragg, 53, was shot and killed as he ran toward one of the wounded children, and custodian Michael Suchar, 56, was struck and killed as he ran to Wragg's side.

Spencer surrendered to SWAT officers 6 1/2 hours later--after firing about 40 shots and telling negotiators that the children were "easy pickings . . . like shooting ducks on a pond," Crisanti said. "She said she liked to watch them squirm after they were hit."

At the women's prison in Chino, Lt. Bob Sebald described Spencer as a well-behaved inmate who is learning how to make electrical repairs to small appliances.

"Of course she's been good," Crisanti said. "She's in a confined setting."

Cleveland Elementary was closed in 1983 because of dropping enrollment. A plaque memorializing the victims remains at the site.

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