Charles “Cam” Miller sees the scar on his chest every day and remembers how, when he was 9, a bullet from Brenda Spencer’s .22 rifle pierced him from back to front.
He vividly recalls the sight of Principal Burton Wragg and head custodian Michael Suchar lying bleeding in front of Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego’s San Carlos neighborhood.
And Miller has never forgotten the horror he felt when he lay in an ambulance next to an inert Suchar and, as the ambulance rounded a curve, the custodian rolled on top of him, face to face.
It was 40 years ago, on Jan. 29, 1979.
Spencer, then 16, armed with the rifle and scope her father gave her for Christmas, started picking off students heading to the school that was across the street from her Lake Atlin Avenue home. Miller was one of them.
She fired 36 rounds. Eleven hit their mark — eight children and three adults. Wragg and Suchar died; the others, including San Diego police Officer Robert Robb, survived.
Spencer fired at the school for about 20 minutes and famously told a reporter who reached her by phone that she was shooting because “I just don’t like Mondays…. I did this because it’s a way to cheer up the day.”
The flippant phrase inspired a hit single, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” by Irish rock band the Boomtown Rats.
Her former defense attorney said the Patrick Henry High School student suffered from a broken home, an abusive father, drug use, and hostility toward authorities and society in general.
Her standoff with SWAT lasted more than six hours. Officers found about 200 rounds of unspent ammunition in the house.
Spencer, who was charged as an adult, pleaded guilty in 1980 to two counts of murder. She was sentenced to concurrent terms of 25 years to life in prison. Nine counts of attempted murder were dismissed.
Now 56, she remains in the California Institution for Women in Chino. After being denied parole several times, she is eligible for another hearing in 2021.
Hers wasn’t the first school mass shooting in the nation, but at the time it was among the few in which more than two or three people had been killed or wounded. Two of the worst shootings before Spencer’s — in 1966 at the University of Texas, where a gunman killed 17 people and wounded 31, and in 1976 at Cal State Fullerton, where seven were killed and two were wounded — involved adult male shooters.
As with any mass shooting, Spencer’s sniper assault on the elementary school changed the lives of the widows, the wounded, their families and a community. It might have even changed the nation.
“She hurt so many people and had so much to do with starting a deadly trend in America,” said Richard Sachs, a San Diego County deputy district attorney who has opposed parole for Spencer on several occasions.
Since 1979, the United States has seen a dramatic rise in the frequency of mass shootings and the casualty list.
A USC professor who has studied school shootings agreed that, while they can no longer considered new, they tend to cast a wider, more significant effect on society, through widespread news reporting and posts on social media sites.
“That shooting probably affected every person on that campus,” Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social work and education, said of the San Carlos shooting. “It has a very strong ripple effect; even if you’re not hit by a bullet, that stays with you forever. It’s like the ripple in a pond that goes through generations and a community.”
The community may eventually have a hard time remembering the 1979 shooting. The school was sold and leveled, and housing was built on the 9-acre site. A sign notes homes available starting at $700,000.
One ripple outward from the shootings sent fear through a third generation in the Wragg family.
The principal’s widow, Kathe Wragg, and daughter Penny made sure the parole board heard their opposition to releasing Spencer from prison. Both have since died, and two surviving sons don’t like to speak publicly about it, family members said.
But Haley Wragg, who at 26 wasn’t alive when Spencer killed her grandfather, learned as a child to fear her release from prison.
“I know there was a lot of turmoil in the family every time Brenda was up for parole,” she said in a recent interview. “I was so young I didn’t really understand it. I felt really scared — like she’d come after me. I felt like letting this person out of her cage would harm my family members even more.”
Her cousin Valerie Stahl, Penny Wragg’s daughter, said she grew up not knowing much about Spencer until she reached college and Googled the incident. Stahl said her mother never got the right help dealing with her father’s murder.
“Now I think it’s better to talk about it,” Stahl said.
Haley Wragg said she decided to break the family silence by telling her grandfather’s story on a video for Safe Kids Inc., which develops school safety curricula and guides for parents.
“My grandfather and the janitor threw themselves at the kids that were being shot at that morning, to save their lives, and in the process, lost their own,” she said. “I may not have grown up with a grandpa, but many children grew up to have their own families.”
One of those children was Miller, who believes Spencer targeted him that morning because he was wearing a down vest in her favorite color: blue. Other children in down coats were targeted, too, and Spencer later was quoted as saying she enjoyed “seeing feathers fly” as she shot them.
Miller recalls that his mother had just dropped him off, about 8:30 a.m., and he saw the principal and custodian lying in the parking lot near some bushes. He felt a sharp pain and blacked out for a moment, then a neighbor girl helped him toward the school building. He and other wounded children were hustled to the auditorium to await an ambulance.
“I lay in the cafeteria it seemed like forever,” with a bullet entry wound in his back and a chest exit wound, Miller said.
Meanwhile, San Diego police raced to the school. Officer Ted Kasinak halted a garbage-truck driver headed into the shooting scene and commandeered the truck. He drove it into the parking lot to serve as a shield while officers and school staff removed the wounded.
“Right away a volley of shots started, then it stopped,” Kasinak said. He took cover behind the truck as SWAT officers surrounded the Spencer house.
SWAT Officer Jim McGinley said he took up a position on a neighbor’s roof, his rifle trained on the Spencer back door. SWAT Officer Marty Duitz aimed his rifle at the front door, from the safety of a school room. They said they had a “green light” to kill Spencer if they had an opportunity.
But Officer Paul Olson, primary negotiator, talked to Spencer on and off by phone for hours, urging her to throw out the gun and surrender. He promised that a Burger King Whopper would be waiting for her.
Now 72, Olson has kept his report notes from that day. He said Spencer told him things such as having shot a rabbit in the back of its head from 25 yards. She said the school victims looked “like a herd of cows” as they gathered around the wounded, making them “easy pickings.”
Spencer came out of her house about 2:30 p.m., laying her .22 rifle and a pellet rifle on the ground, then boxes of ammunition.
Kasinak and Officer Patty Bernathy drove the teen to the homicide unit for questioning.
Suchar, the custodian who died, had no children and his widow is deceased. Mike Guerrero, now a financial accountant with National School District, worked for Suchar as a part-time janitor while studying at Cal State San Diego.
He said Suchar and the principal didn’t get along all that well, but that day when Wragg was felled in the parking lot, Suchar didn’t hesitate to run out to try to help.
“All I can think was, his military training kicked in. It’s your comrade and you assist him,” Guerrero said. He noted that Suchar had been in a Navy Seabees construction battalion during World War II.
Daryl Barnes, who taught fifth and sixth grades at Cleveland Elementary, was having coffee with the principal when they heard gunfire and ran outside. Barnes was narrowly missed by bullets as he dragged children indoors.
Twenty-two years later, his son Dan Barnes, also a teacher, found himself a target of Granite Hills High School shooter Jason Hoffman. Hoffman fired at him but missed. Dan Barnes is now principal at Grossmont High School.
Daryl Barnes retired from teaching in 2001 and died in 2016. His widow, Karen Barnes, said her husband always believed that God had protected him from Spencer during the shooting.
“He always remembered that day,” Barnes said. “He always talked about that bloodstain on the principal’s shirt.”
Mary Rintoul remembers, too. She was Mary Clark then, just 9 years old, when she was shot through her lower torso and didn’t know it. A quick pain subsided as she was rushed into the cafeteria, to safety. Other children lay bleeding on the stage.
“I remember that fear; you don’t know what’s going on. We didn’t understand why she was shooting at us,” Rintoul said.
Police escorted them to buses to be reunited with parents at Pershing Middle School. Her mother discovered the bullet hole through her jacket zipper and in her side.
Rintoul suffered nightmares and got counseling. Her older brother helped her overcome a fear of guns by taking her out shooting jackrabbits when she was 11. She said she learned the gun wasn’t the danger, but the person firing it.
“Whenever I hear of school shootings, I’m bothered because I know what those children are facing,” Rintoul said. “I stopped following Brenda’s parole hearings 25 years ago. I realized she’d never have a realistic answer of why she did it.”
Spencer’s former attorney, Michael McGlinn, who has represented juvenile offenders for decades, believes she didn’t know what she was doing and no longer poses a threat to society. He was not hired to represent Spencer at her parole hearings.
She wrote him a letter in 2015, thanking him for his criminal defense work and noting, “What I did was horrible so I don’t really complain about the amount of time I’ve done.”
McGlinn believes Spencer’s accounts that her divorced father, Wallace Spencer, sexually abused her and that under his influence she began dressing as a boy and learned to hunt and shoot with him. Her father married Spencer’s 17-year-old Juvenile Hall cellmate, but they divorced. He died at age 87 in 2016.
The morning of the shooting, McGlinn said, Spencer drank alcohol and took her epilepsy medicine, Tegretol. When he saw her days later in Juvenile Hall, “She was ashen, zombie-like in appearance,” the lawyer said. “After she came out of her zombie state [in prison] I didn’t perceive her as a danger. And I don’t today.”
Sachs, the deputy district attorney who supervises the “lifer” unit to track the parole hearings of major offenders, disagrees. He noted that Spencer shot people 150 feet away with deadly accuracy, not as one under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
At her 2016 parole eligibility hearing, she cried frequently, “demonstrating emotional instability,” Sachs said.
“She claimed she wasn’t trying to kill anybody, she was just shooting,” he said. “What she did was so awful, shooting at children. We feel a life sentence is only fair for someone guilty of all those things.”
Repard writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.