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SANTEE SCHOOL SHOOTINGS

Tragically, Father Couldn't Find Where Son Belonged

Shooting: Andy Williams was seen as a 'people person' and friend despite strains caused by family's uprooting.

March 11, 2001|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ and MEGAN GARVEY and NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Charles "Jeff" Williams had agonized for a month about moving to California.

He sought a better life for his young teenage son, Andy, an honors student. Jeff Williams, a 41-year-old single father, saw few opportunities in their hometown of Brunswick, Md., a place with a one-room library and no movie theater.

Williams wanted his son to find a stronger sense of family. Andy didn't see his mother much after she split up with his dad 11 years ago, just before the boy turned 4. So Jeff Williams was considering moving to Twentynine Palms, where his parents lived and he had attended high school.

In Maryland, he tended animals in a research facility at Ft. Detrick, a local Army base. California might be better for them both.

Andy hoped to stay in Brunswick. "But he didn't want to say anything to his dad," said Mary Neidlander, the mother of Andy's former girlfriend, Kathleen. "He knew that everything his dad did was for him."

Last Monday about 9:20 a.m., about 15 months after leaving Maryland, Andy Williams, 15, allegedly used his father's long-barreled .22-caliber revolver to fire more than 30 rounds, killing two classmates and wounding 13 other people at his high school in Santee, Calif.

Three days later, on Thursday, the phone rang at the Neidlander house. Kathleen answered.

"Kathleen, honey, how are you doing?" a man's voice said. It took Kathleen a minute to realize it was Andy's dad. Then her mother took the phone.

"We still love you," she said. "We still love Andy."

"I don't know any more than you do," he told her. "I haven't even been able to talk to my son."

She stayed on the line as Jeff Williams sobbed.

Jeff and Andy moved to Twentynine Palms in December 1999, midway through Andy's eighth-grade school year. They first stayed with Jeff's parents, Ann Williams and her husband, Charles, a retired Marine. They soon got their own little house on the same street, with two trees in the yard.

Andy enrolled in Twentynine Palms Junior High School. Jeff Williams took a job collecting fees at Joshua Tree National Park. He worked eight hours a day, often on weekends and holidays. It was a three-month temporary position paying a fraction of the wages he'd earned in Maryland.

Andy soon made friends with classmate Brian Burdett. Brian, then 14, suffered from a disabling muscle disorder that made simple movements--walking, sitting, bending over--a slow and arduous task.

Brian was constantly teased. He got pushed into bushes and knocked over and his backpack was stolen, his mother said. He never fought back.

Andy understood. Teasing, said Andy's half-brother Michael Williams, had always been a part of Andy's life. "You should see pictures of him when he was a little kid," said Michael Williams, 20, in Atlanta. "Andy had these big ears that stuck out, and he was real skinny and all the kids would make fun of him."

Last spring, Andy and Brian hung out frequently at the Burdetts' home on an isolated dirt road. They would catch lizards, play Nintendo and go swimming.

'A Special Kid,' Friend's Mother Says

"Andy didn't see any of the imperfections in Brian. He just saw a friend," said Terry Burdett, 40, an elementary school teacher. "It takes a special kid to be that kind of friend."

Andy told Kathleen in Brunswick that school in Twentynine Palms was OK. Some kids teased him because of his small size, called him gay and used slurs. But things were manageable, he said. He and Kathleen talked nearly every week on the phone and kept in touch via e-mail.

Andy volunteered for a walkathon, along with his father, to raise money for Baptist missions. He played bass guitar in a church youth group. His father helped coach--and, when needed, served as umpire--at baseball games.

Jeff Williams was a good father, "much better than I ever was, and I had a wife to help me," said Charles Williams, Andy's grandfather, a retired major.

"Oh, the attention he gave Andy," he said. "He would fix the boy's meals, get him ready for school, take him to school. . . . Andy was his life."

On Sundays at First Baptist Church, Andy sat next to his grandmother, who worked as a secretary for Pastor Raymond Butcher. His grandparents filled their tract home with pictures of Jesus. They keep 8-by-10 pictures of their four children on top of an upright piano.

At his new school, Andy came off as a quirky individualist who thrived in drama class, carried a monkey Beanie Baby and sometimes donned a Superman costume. Once he wore his underwear over his pants.

"He was a class clown," said Laura Poblet, 14.

"He was someone you could always talk to," said classmate Rachel Romberg, 15. "He was sweet. If I had a problem, I could always talk to him."

Classmate Jenny Whitten said Andy enjoyed school plays. "I think he liked being in front of everybody," the 14-year-old recalled. "He was a people person."

During spring vacation, Scott Bryan, 14, a friend from Brunswick, came to visit Andy. He'd hounded his mother for air fare, telling her he'd repay her. Andy and his father met him at the airport.

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