Drug abuse and school violence often are cited as two of the most virulent symptoms of contemporary America’s alleged moral decay.
But contrary to popular perceptions, the primer on both was not written on the bloody playgrounds of the South Bronx nor in the decaying classrooms adjoining Chicago’s sprawling housing projects nor on the mean streets outside gang-ridden schools in South-Central or East Los Angeles.
In fact, one of the most deadly and sensational incidents in the history of public education occurred nearly 60 years ago, on May 6, 1940, in South Pasadena. And its perpetrator was neither a vengeful drug dealer nor some prematurely hardened gang member, but Verlin Spencer, a disgruntled 38-year-old junior high school principal, who may have become deranged under the influence of an addictive over-the-counter drug.
Whatever its cause, Spencer’s 30-minute shooting rampage left five of his colleagues dead and another terribly wounded.
Although he pleaded guilty and was given a life sentence, Spencer always maintained that he remembered nothing of the slayings. A possible explanation emerged three years into the 30-year prison term he ultimately served. It was only then that the former school principal learned that a blood sample taken shortly after his arrest showed that his system contained enough bromide to render him legally insane.
Bromide was the active ingredient in a widely popular headache remedy that for years had been dispensed at practically every drugstore and soda fountain in America. Spencer took it several times a day to relieve his constant headaches. And he appears to have been one of the millions of people who became hooked on the painkiller before it was banned later that year.
Just seven years before his half-hour of mayhem, Spencer--a small, quiet, bespectacled man--moved with his wife from Ventura to begin a job with the South Pasadena school district. But his perfectionism and relentless administrative style soon became a source of friction with the staff. By 1939, clashes with the school’s faculty prompted Supt. George Bush to place Spencer on an involuntary three-week leave of absence.
If anything, the break made the principal more difficult. When he returned to work, Spencer was more touchy and irritable than ever, criticizing everyone who crossed his path.
An expert marksman, he soon began carrying a .22-caliber Colt Woodsman semiautomatic pistol in his car, and often stopped by a local shooting range to practice.
Colleagues attributed Spencer’s even more abrasive manner to the worsening of his chronic headaches, perhaps as a consequence of long hours spent studying for his master’s degree in education. His supervisors urged him to shape up, but to no avail. On April 30, Spencer was fired.
Outraged, Spencer refused to accept the dismissal and demanded a hearing, which was set for May 6.
That day, Spencer arrived as scheduled at the district’s now-demolished brick headquarters on Diamond Avenue. He was carrying his pistol and 50 rounds of ammunition. Spencer walked into the administrative offices, where his hearing was to occur, and shot to death Supt. Bush, John E. Alman, principal of South Pasadena High School, and Will R. Speer, school district business manager. Another board member happened to be late for the meeting, which may have saved his life.
Spencer then raced across the hall to where Dorothy Talbert, the school board secretary, was sitting stunned at her desk. As he fired, she ducked; the bullet shattered her shoulder, leaving her paralyzed for life.
The principal then walked calmly from the building to his car, which had a dead battery. Some high school students, oblivious to what had happened inside, gave him a jump-start. Spencer then drove just a few blocks to the junior high school at Fair Oaks Avenue and Bank Street, where he hunted down the two people he thought had plotted against him.
While junior high students waited for the 3:15 p.m. bell to ring, Spencer found printing teacher Verner V. Vanderlip and, sticking the gun in his ribs, walked him to the basement storage room. There, they struggled before Spencer shot and killed him.
Spencer crossed to the other side of the campus and entered Room 120, where he shot and killed Ruth Barnett Sturgeon, a veteran art teacher who was alone in her classroom.
By then, the police had been summoned. Three officers cornered Spencer in the empty school cafeteria, where he shot himself in the stomach in a failed suicide attempt.
Police found a note in Spencer’s handwriting that said he was in his “right mind” and that willed his property to his wife. A notation added that the bequest was null and void if she spent more than $200 on his hospital care or funeral expenses.
Spencer pleaded guilty and was sent to San Quentin to begin serving his life sentence.
Three years later, he discovered that a doctor at County-USC Medical Center had found such high levels of bromide in his blood that he filed a report indicating Spencer was insane and, therefore, not responsible for his actions at the time of the killings.
While working in the prison’s library and teaching school to inmates during the daytime, Spencer began writing his own appeals at night; 16 of them ultimately were filed in various courts.
In 1968, Solano County Superior Court Judge Thomas N. Healy, acting on one of Spencer’s writs, ruled that the former principal was entitled to a new trial because his lawyer had failed to raise the sanity issue at trial. Healy also held that by repeatedly denying Spencer parole, the state board had acted “in a capricious manner.”
Healy’s ruling was quickly overturned by a higher court.
The handling of Spencer’s parole, however, shows that--like school violence--concern about crime victims is hardly a novel issue. Prison personnel said the former educator was a “model inmate.” But though he became eligible for parole in 1947, letters from fearful South Pasadena residents, who still believed that Spencer had a long list of people he wanted to kill, prolonged his incarceration.
“He said afterward that he was sorry he hadn’t killed more,” one longtime resident of the community declared each time his parole hearing came up.
Just prior to Spencer’s 1970 parole the only surviving school board member, former Mayor Joseph Partsch, said: “I’d better go out and buy an iron vest. If he gets out, it’s just a matter of time before he comes to finish the job.”
But Spencer never returned to South Pasadena. He spent the rest of his life helping rehabilitate other ex-convicts with the Salvation Army in Hawaii.