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Teen Admits School Killings

Courts: He could be sentenced to life in prison for shooting rampage that also wounded 11 classmates and two adults.

June 21, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EL CAJON — Charles "Andy" Williams, 16, pleaded guilty Thursday to murdering two fellow students and wounding 11 others and two adults in a six-minute shooting rampage at Santana High School last year that traumatized a community and added to the agonized national debate about the causes of youth violence.

Williams faces life in prison when he is sentenced Aug. 15 on two counts of murder and 13 counts of attempted murder. A teacher and campus monitor were also wounded in the attack.

"Andy wants to make a statement to the community that he is truly remorseful," defense attorney Randy Mize said. "He did not want to cause the victims, their families, or his family any other pain" by going to trial.

Peter Ruiz, a campus supervisor who was shot three times by Williams, said he believes the teenager should be sentenced to life in prison, not the minimum term, which is 50 years.

"If he gets the minimum 50 years, after 50 years will the two young men he murdered come back to their families?" Ruiz said. "Are my scars and wounds going to be gone?"

No longer the short, frail, timid-looking teenager captured by police in a school bathroom minutes after the rampage, Williams has grown several inches, added weight and wears his black, wavy hair swept back.

He smiled briefly at his father, Jeff Williams, a civilian lab technician at the Balboa Naval Hospital, and answered "guilty" when asked about his plea to 15 felony counts by Judge Herbert Exharos.

Several victims and family members wept in the packed courtroom in eastern San Diego County.

"The events of today have reinforced our confidence in the justice system in the United States," said Dr. Rufino Macagba, the grandfather of one of the slain students, Bryan Zuckor, 14.

Using a .22-caliber revolver owned by his father, Williams fired 30 random shots shortly after arriving at the school in the blue-collar suburb of Santee on the morning of March 5, 2001.

Despite enhanced security measures and months of counseling at the school, students, teachers and others continue to be in pain, officials said.

"There has been a phenomenal amount of collateral damage done by this," Deputy Dist. Atty. Kris Anton said in an interview.

"We have teachers who cannot teach, kids who are afraid to go to school, kids who have panic attacks whenever they hear helicopters or police sirens."

Friends portrayed Williams as a lonely, introverted youth who felt isolated and bullied by other students.

He and his father had recently moved to Santee from Twentynine Palms, where the father worked for a year at Joshua Tree National Park, collecting fees.

The father and son had moved to Twentynine Palms from Brunswick, Md.

The younger Williams never adjusted to moving to California and leaving his friends behind, friends said. Once an honor student, he began failing classes and smoking marijuana.

In the days before the shooting, Williams told friends he planned to take his father's gun to school and kill some people--but his friends dismissed the comment as the kind of sick humor that is popular with teenagers drawn to gothic and drug cliques.

After he surrendered, Williams told police he had planned to commit suicide after the attack.

Williams' rampage set off a wave of concern in the media and among parents and school officials nationwide about bullying as a trigger of violence. Numerous districts began anti-bullying programs.

But prosecutors said the explanation that Williams, a freshman, was lashing back because he was bullied did not match the facts.

"We could not find evidence that he was picked on by other students," said Anton, the prosecutor.

"He hung out with a group of punks who liked to smoke marijuana and drink and give each other a hard time. But those were his friends of choice; kids who remembered him from class saw him as a kind of class clown," Anton said.

While still grieving from the Santana shooting, the community was again stunned 17 days later by a shooting at another school in the Grossmont Union High School District.

Jason Hoffman, 18, a moody, hulking senior with a history of mental problems and failed aspirations, wounded five people at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon.

While awaiting trial, he hanged himself in the San Diego jail.

His family is suing the Sheriff's Department for not preventing him from killing himself despite knowing that he was suicidal.

San Diego County Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst fought a successful battle to the California Supreme Court for the right to prosecute Williams as an adult in Superior Court, rather than in Juvenile Court, where sentences are lighter.

Defense attorneys said that Proposition 21, the ballot measure that gives prosecutors greater authority to try juveniles as adults, is unconstitutional.

After he is sentenced, Williams will be sent to state prison and kept in a special section for inmates younger than 18.

When he turns 18 he will be housed with other adult inmates.

After the two shootings, the Grossmont district formed the Lessons Commission, which made numerous recommendations about boosting security, increasing contact between parents and school officials, and redoubling efforts to help troubled teenagers.

Commission member Sandra McBrayer, a former national Teacher of the Year and now director of the San Diego-based Children's Initiative, praised the Grossmont district for its response to the tragedies.

But she also worried that another Andy Williams could occur at nearly any school in the country because of the paucity of counseling and psychological assistance for troubled students and the easy access to guns.

"I look at Andy and my heart breaks," McBrayer said. "How could we have identified his problems earlier?"

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