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SANTEE SCHOOL SHOOTINGS

Nightmare Evolves From the Suburban Dream

March 08, 2001|SCOTT GOLD and ELAINE GALE and RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTEE, Calif. — There isn't yet anything that passes muster as a profile of a schoolhouse killer. This is, in part, good news. There haven't been enough of them, yet, to form a statistically reliable portrait. Maybe there'll never be. But the one thing that is, or ought to be by now, well-known is that there is no place that is immune from a young man with a gun and troubles, and a compulsion to apply one to the other.

The places of which it is frequently said, "It couldn't happen here," are in fact the places it seems most likely to occur: fringe towns, suburbs and country villages.

By income, by location, ethnicity or almost any measure you could apply, Andy Williams' hometown lies right in the cross-hairs.

Santee sits in a flat-bottomed valley, scrunched down under clouds that hang low in the bowl of the scrub-rush hills. It's a young city, just 20 years old, but people have lived here, under one name or another, for more than 200 years.

Santee today is, by any definition, a suburb, a bedroom community without much economic base. People commute here, usually west over the Fletcher Hills to San Diego, or to the Marine Corps Air Station at Miramar. To call it a suburb, though, is not to confuse it with tonier places where the well-off, weary of fighting metropolitan woes, high-tail it for comfort.

East county, as San Diegans call almost everything out of sight of the ocean, isn't like that. It's a place people settle for as well as in. Most homes are modest tract models. One of every nine residences is a mobile home. One of four is an apartment.

The Sanside Apartments sit more or less in the middle of town--more or less because the town has no real center, just some intersections that are busier than others. It's a complex of 63 beige, stucco one- and two-bedroom units, with a swimming pool. Rent tops out at $795 a month.

The single-family homes in this part of town are small, with half-paved driveways, rusting swing sets in the back, maybe a trailer, and sagging fences. One house has no grass, just dirt turning to mud.

The ground-floor entry to Apartment 53 is beneath the staircase. There's no name on the door. The Williams live here. Or did. Andy Williams probably won't be back for a long while and Charles, his father, remains hidden from view. Charles, according to his sparse public response, remains as perplexed as anyone on the subject of Andy and the events of Monday morning that left two dead, 13 wounded and a trail of questions that wind up into the hills and beyond.

The blinds have been drawn on Apartment 53 all week. There appears to be a light left on in the living room. The bedroom is dark. A small patio out front looks as if it has been deserted for a while. Three bikes with dusty seats and early signs of rust are piled willy-nilly next to upside-down brooms and a rainbow-colored beach chair.

Just beyond the patio, a slight depression in the ground is filled with runoff and cigarette butts. When he could get them, Andy smoked Marlboro Reds.

The suburbs are no longer a one-stop escape hatch, no panacea for troubled families, said Max Neiman, a political science professor at UC Riverside and the director of the Center for Social and Behavioral Science Research.

"The expectation is different when you get to the suburbs," he said. "People still come to the suburbs with the expectation that life is about to change, that it's a brass ring, that it's still a bastion of a different, homogenous culture. That's just not true anymore."

Almost none of the places where the more notorious of school killings have occurred was known much, if at all, beyond its county line before the triggers were pulled: Moses Lake, Fort Gibson, Pearl, West Paducah, Jonesboro, Springfield, Conyers, Littleton. They're mostly smaller towns, many of them semirural or not far removed from it.

All a town really needs to be a potential target is a population of teenage boys and guns. Santee has plenty of both.

Like most places, Santee and its children are divided on an intricate social grid, often too fine to measure and know, but sometimes as obvious and old and sadly human as a tribe.

High school hierarchies tend to be simpler and more standard than most. At Santana High School, where Andy Williams enrolled last fall, the social order has two main levels. On top are the jocks--football and basketball players--and the "bops"--cheerleaders and their crowd.

Below that rank, and all more or less at the same level, is everyone else. Most of the other groups are determined by recreational affinity. Musical taste, for example, dictates membership among the "freaks," dark-clothed devotees of Marilyn Manson and gothic rock.

Some groups are named for weekend destinations. The "beach" people go west to surf at "OB," Ocean Beach; the "desert" people drive east to the deserts in full-size trucks and go off-roading, or "froading," as they call it.

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