Rifleman Kills 5 at Stockton School : 29 Other Pupils Hurt; Assailant Takes Own Life
A young drifter clad in combat gear attacked an elementary school here Tuesday, methodically spraying children with bursts from a semiautomatic rifle before taking his own life. Five students died in the brief but furious assault, and 29 other pupils and one teacher were wounded.
The invasion of the Cleveland Elementary School began shortly before noon and seemed to be staged according to a plan.
Police officials said the gunman parked his station wagon at the back of the school at 11:42 a.m. and, in what they surmised was a diversionary tactic, set it ablaze.
Outfitted for Combat
Armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, a 9-millimeter pistol and a fixed bayonet and wearing fatigues, earplugs and a flak vest, he entered the schoolyard through a back gate and positioned himself behind a temporary classroom. From there, he directed gunfire on a playground crowded with hundreds of children.
“He was standing with the gun, making a wide sweep,” said Lori Mackey, a teacher at the school. “He wasn’t talking. He was very straight-faced. He was just standing there, not angry, not screaming, just kind of matter-of-fact.”
Between volleys, the gunman ducked back and forth behind the structure. The attack lasted three or four minutes, and in that time at least 60 rounds were fired. Witnesses likened the sound to that of a jackhammer.
Four girls and a boy were killed. They ranged in age from 6 to 9. Twenty children and one adult were being cared for late Tuesday at hospitals; many had undergone surgery. Nine students were treated for their wounds and released.
The gunman was identified by police as Patrick Edward Purdy, who listed his age variously as 24 and 26. Officials said he was also known as Patrick West, in addition to half a dozen other aliases. He was described by authorities as a drifter with an extensive criminal background, and his last known address was in the nearby city of Lodi.
Police officials said Purdy was too young to be a veteran of Vietnam. They were not prepared to ascribe a motive to the shooting.
More than 600 of the school’s 970 students are of Southeast Asian descent, part of a wave of migration that has altered the face of this San Joaquin Valley city of 190,000.
It was not clear what significance, if any, to attach to the school’s ethnic composition, although leaders of the Southeast Asian community in the past have complained of racially inspired attacks. Interpreters were summoned to help calm the children’s parents, many of whom speak no English.
The attack occurred in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood just north of downtown. The horror revealed itself gradually to witnesses and victims alike.
“I thought somebody had come up and was jackhammering our parking lot,” said Shirley Booher, who is administrator of the First Baptist Church near the school. After listening to the noise for a minute, Booher looked out her second-floor window.
Below she saw a burning automobile and running children. She assumed at first that the children were attempting to get clear of smoke from the car fire. She also saw some students lying on the ground.
Two minutes later, a church employee who had been sent to notify authorities told Booher that it was a rifle she had heard. At that moment, she recalled, “I noticed those bodies were not moving. . . . It’s very sad to see those little bodies lying out there.”
Mackey, who teaches disabled students, was giving a mathematics lesson in the temporary structure when she spotted a man with a gun outside the classroom window.
“There is a man with a gun,” she told them. “Stay low. We need to be real quiet.”
She hustled her charges under tables. She heard what she first thought were firecrackers, “but they kept going on.”
Mackey said she could watch the gunman through the window spraying the playground with bullets. The children outside, she said, “were running and screaming.”
Mackey said she saw a colleague, second-grade teacher Janet Geng, dash out to help the children. “I remember seeing her running toward the playground to get the kids,” Mackey said, weeping. “It was the last I saw of her.”
Geng was listed in stable condition at St. Joseph’s Medical Center here with a broken femur.
Mackey called the school office from her classroom telephone and told whoever answered to call the police. At that point, she said, the main office seemed unaware of what was happening outside.
Another teacher, Betty Stover, who later would be needed to identify the dead, described the scene as “a war zone that I never thought I would see in my whole life. There’s classrooms that can’t even be used tomorrow.”
The power of the weapon drove rounds completely through some walls and steel girders.
Stover said that she had passed the gunman’s firing position only a minute before the first shots were head.
“In the beginning it was horrible. Horrible. . . . We didn’t know where he was or what was happening. We just didn’t know. . . . There were little bodies all over the place.”
The playground was between the gunman and the main school building, a single-story, L-shaped structure. Some children scrambled about in terror, with nowhere really to run.
“They never had a chance,” said Phil Yamamoto, who witnessed the attack from his driveway across the street.
Many students bolted for the schoolhouse. Two wounded children were dragged inside by teachers, and died there.
Pupils Recall Terror
“I was running to the cafeteria when I heard the bullets,” said Nikmalen Sun, 7. She was struck once in the buttock.
Another pupil, Benito Victory, saw two playmates felled. “Two people got shot in the leg,” he said, “and I felt sad because it hurts when you get a bullet in you. My friend Benjamin said, ‘Ouch, ouch!’ and started screaming. They were dripping blood.”
The attack ended when the assailant killed himself with a single pistol shot to the head. He died near the temporary classroom where he had staged the attack.
Within minutes, the first police units arrived.
In the lull between when the gunman ended his attack and emergency equipment arrived, a strange calm fell on the playground.
“The officers had their guns out and were going from body to body in the schoolyard,” said a witness who declined to give his name. “There were kids lying all over. Some were moving; some were not. No one made a sound, except the balls rolling around the play yard.”
The dead children were identified by authorities as Rathanar Or, a 9-year-old boy, and four girls: Ram Chun and Oeun Lim, both 8, and Thuy Tran and Sokhim An, both 6.
The attack brought chaos to emergency rooms throughout the region, as the tiny, terrified victims were rushed in by ambulance and helicopter for treatment and surgery.
“It’s not clear they understood what happened to them,” said Jim Shebel, a spokesman for St. Joseph’s. “Everyone was quiet except one little fellow. He was whimpering.”
Thu Hoang’s daughter, Hoang Huong, was taken to Modesto Hospital with two bullets in her abdomen, but was reported in stable condition.
Hoang, who spoke little English, said, “My daughter is very hurt.”
He said he had moved with his wife and three of his children from Vietnam to Texas in 1982 and came to California in 1987. Two of his children remain in Southeast Asia.
“I still want to live here,” he said. “I would not go back.”
But, he added, “If my daughter was to die, I would be very sad.”
Stockton Police officials said Purdy had been arrested three times in the early 1980s in Southern California on charges of soliciting a prostitute, cultivating marijuana and possessing a dangerous weapon. The complete outcome of those cases was not known, although it appeared that he had been placed on probation after the weapons arrest.
He was arrested again in 1984 in Woodland, Calif., on a misdemeanor charge of robbery and conspiracy and was convicted of being an accessory to the crime.
The police chief of Sandy, Ore., said Purdy lived there from July until late October, and had purchased an AK-47 assault rifle there on Aug. 3.
The chief, Fred Punzell, said Purdy had lived with an aunt, who on Tuesday told authorities her nephew “was a loner, and . . . he was an alcoholic.”
Authorities here said the gunman came to the playground packing three 30-round “banana clips” and one 100-round ammo drum for his Chinese-made rifle. Carved into the wooden grip of the rifle were the words “Victory” and “Freedom.” Stenciled onto one of the clips was the lettering SSA. Police officials were unsure what the writings meant.
Witnesses said the burnt wreckage of gunman’s station wagon, which bore Oregon plates, revealed what appeared to be a crude incendiary device constructed primarily of gasoline cans.
The Stockton incident was the gravest of five assaults by gunfire on schoolchildren in the United States in the last year.
It recalled an incident that took place in Los Angeles five years ago, when Tyrone Mitchell, 28, fired into the schoolyard of the 49th Street Elementary School from a house across the street, killing one girl and wounding 13 other people. Then he killed himself.
The Tuesday attack at Cleveland Elementary here followed by one decade an attack at Cleveland Elementary in San Diego. In that Jan. 29 incident, a 16-year-old girl opened fire on a schoolyard, killed the principal and a custodian and wounded eight students.
Stein reported from Stockton, King from Los Angeles. Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Henry Weinstein, Rich Connell, Larry B. Stammer and researcher Tracy Thomas in Los Angeles; Paul Jacobs and Carl Ingram in Stockton, and Mark Gladstone in Sacramento.
Where the Shooting Occured
1. Gunman parks on the south side of the L-shaped school. He enters through a fence gate and follows a walkway to the playground.
2. Unknown number of children playing on an asphalt playground.
3. Gunman moves along the edge of temporary classroom, shooting from two locations.
4. Gunman shoots and kills himself.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for the L.A. Times biggest news, features and recommendations in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.