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SANTEE SCHOOL SHOOTINGS

Santee Searches for Answers as Motive Remains a Mystery

March 07, 2001|KEN ELLINGWOOD and TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTEE, Calif. — As authorities prepared to arraign school murder suspect Charles Andrew Williams, this community spent Tuesday asking questions no one could answer, searching for consolation and worrying that the memory of blood in a high school hallway may forever trouble the town's conscience.

Sheriff's investigators, despite hours of interrogating 15-year-old Williams, were still without a motive for Monday's rampage. It left two people dead, 13 wounded and Williams, a diminutive Santana High School freshman, in jail on suicide watch.

Parents and students at Santana High struggled to understand who among them could have prevented the carnage, who stayed silent and why.

At dusk, scores of children walked their parents through the school, pointing out where they stood when the shooting started and where their friends were wounded or had died. Gone were several bullet-pocked backpacks that police had removed hours earlier. Some suggested that those bags, dropped in a hallway, may have saved children's lives as Williams randomly fired at least 30 shots, reloading his weapon four times.

Brian Zuckor, 14, and Randy Gordon, 17, were killed. The wounded included 11 students and two adults--a student teacher and a campus security worker.

Four students remained hospitalized Tuesday in good condition at two San Diego hospitals. Student teacher Tim Estes, who was wounded in the chest, was released from Sharp Memorial Hospital.

Williams is set to be arraigned today at the East County Regional Center in El Cajon.

So many victims, family members and reporters were expected that court officials were arranging for video cameras in the courtroom so the proceedings could be transmitted to a nearby jury lounge that seats 200 people. Williams--who friends said was constantly picked on by bigger teenagers, and who authorities said acted out of unfocused rage--could face a sentence totaling hundreds of years. Prosecutors have said they will not seek the death sentence.

Williams' father, Charles Jeffrey Williams, a 41-year-old lab technician at the Naval Medical Center-San Diego, said in a brief written statement Tuesday that the boy's family was stunned by the rampage.

"We understand that the general public wants answers to how and why a thing like this could have happened at the hands of what everyone reports to be a well-mannered good kid," the father said. "The family, too, joins the public in this need for answers."

When asked about her son, the boy's tearful mother, Linda Williams, who lives in North Augusta, S.C., told a local TV station: "He's lost." She and the boy's father have been divorced for a decade.

Prosecutors said Charles Williams told them that the 8-shot, .22-caliber Arminius handgun used at Santana High came from a locked cabinet in the modest two-bedroom apartment the father shared with his son.

On Monday, deputies seized seven guns from the apartment, along with a computer and some clothing.

Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst said sheriff's deputies and his investigators plan to interview possibly hundreds of students and adults to find out what they knew or suspected about the boy's temperament and signs that he was about to go on a rampage.

At least one adult and several of Williams' friends heard him make threats to shoot up the school.

Granger Ward, superintendent of Grossmont Union High School District, said that at least three students who knew about Williams' plans to shoot up the school will not be allowed on campus today, when the school is scheduled to reopen for counseling sessions.

"I believe it's not in the best interest of those three to be on campus. We probably need to look at legal counsel if in fact they did know this and did not respond. I do have concerns," said Ward.

Even if they did hear Williams' threats before the shooting, his friends and others probably would not be vulnerable to prosecution, said Franklin Zimring, a law professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall. Likewise, Zimring said, debate over the moral obligation to report Williams' threats can also be problematic.

To be sure, Pfingst said, there is no law that requires the average citizen to report suspicion that someone is about to commit a crime, even a heinous one.

Nonetheless, "we need to know how many people heard this kid saying threatening things, and how serious those warnings were. We need to know that not to file any charges but to decide, as a community: Was this avoidable?" he said.

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender, ashen-faced at a Tuesday news conference, said that only the quick actions of a sheriff's deputy and an off-duty police officer stopped Williams from shooting more people.

"I do believe that if it had not been for the conduct of the people involved . . . it would have been even worse," he said.

San Diego County Sheriff's Lt. Jerry Lewis said there is no evidence that Williams singled out victims.

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