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Sunday, February 23, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Scarred By Killings, Moses Lake Asks: ''What Has This Town Become?''

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

One year ago this month, a 14-year-old boy burst into a junior-high school and carried out the most violent act ever committed in a Washington state school. As the boy awaits trial for multiple murder, the "small town" of Moses Lake struggles for a new definition of itself.

MOSES LAKE - Barry Loukaitis entered his fifth-period algebra class with three guns, his principal weapon being a .30-30 lever-action rifle, most commonly used to hunt deer.

A cartridge is the size of an average man's pinky, shaped like a tiny missile, capped by a copper-jacketed lead bullet. When fired, the bullet leaves the muzzle at a speed of 2,200 feet per second, its impact equivalent to the force necessary to move a 1,800-pound object one foot.

Often a struck deer dies, not from actual physiological damage, but from a type of shock - a sudden arresting of vital functions.

At the end of Loukaitis' rampage on Feb. 2 of last year, four broken bodies lay on the floor, and, as if the bullets had gone through the walls of Room 15 and pierced the heart of town, Moses Lake went into a kind of prolonged shock, its self-perceptions arrested in limbo.

"What kind of town has this become," the underlying mood goes, "that such a thing can happen in its most public, and most vulnerable place?"

As Loukaitis (pronounced Loo-ky'-tus), now 15, awaits a May trial in Seattle - a judge decided an impartial jury could not be found in all of Grant County - Moses Lake, the municipality, the collection of 13,000 souls on this arid Central Washington plain, gropes for a new way to think of itself.

Town meetings have been held. Civil suits have been filed. Public-health counselors, dispatched like SWAT teams, have introduced "closure" into the town vocabulary, even as its citizens struggled to figure out what happened.

A task force was created; the task force became a focus group; the focus group splintered into committees. The chief result: the posting of two security guards at each of the town's two junior-high schools.

"We like to think of ourselves as `Mayberry RFD,' said county deputy prosecutor Robert Schiffner, referring to the 1960s television show about an idyllic rural town. "Obviously, we are not that."

The town has been further shaken by two similar, loosely related incidents.

In July, another 14-year-old Moses Lake boy invoked the name of Loukaitis in the process of breaking into a house, firing three shots from a hunting rifle and holding a man hostage. Police eventually captured the boy without harm. The boy had told friends he wanted "to go out in a blaze."

In December, yet another 14-year-old, a first cousin of one of the students killed at Frontier Junior High School, used a hunting rifle to kill his mother and stepsister, then fatally shot himself in the head. A cryptic, unfinished suicide note left few clues, but relatives say the boy was deeply affected by his cousin's slaying.

The Rev. Kevan Smith, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, attended by both cousins, likened a small town like Moses Lake to a spider web. "When one part of the web trembles," he said, "we all feel it."

Everywhere in Moses Lake, the talk among townspeople, true or not, is that some fundamental change is taking place in their little web.

Everyone is feeling it.

No one is sure what to do about it.

`A COMMUNITY OF SURVIVORS'

Moses Lake is 179 miles east of Seattle along I-90, in the heart of the Columbia River basin, a region that comes as close to desolate as Washington gets. "Between man and horizon: Nothingness," wrote one chronicler of the region who didn't stay long.

The town clings to the northern arms of an 18-mile-long lake of the same name. Both town and lake were named after an Indian chief whose real name was Sulktalthscosum. A couple of Presbyterian missionaries re-named him Moses, and the great chief let the name stick.

In return for the chief's accommodations, white homesteaders drove him and his people out. The homesteaders tried to farm the land but were, themselves, almost driven out by the arid climate. Defeated farmers fled in waves. Only the bull-headed stayed, and there's still something of this quality in the descendants who populate the region.

"Moses Lake," a Chamber of Commerce brochure declares, "is a community of survivors."

The Grand Coulee Dam, finished in the 1930s, opened the way to irrigation and, in a matter of decades, the desert was made into wheat and potato country. Moses Lake formed, as towns do in farming regions, to service the farmers. Potato-processing plants sprouted up in the town proper and, for years, were the area's main employers.

From the start, the town had the gritty, functional feel of any place of labor, with all the aesthetic appeal of a pallet jack. It was a factory-whistle town of builder box homes nestled between two truck stops.

It was never pretty. On good days, it was merely nondescript. On bad days, in the middle of winter when month-old snow blanketed the area in a uniform gray and tumbleweed rolled along the frozen lake, it was downright dreary. But it was a stable place, and the quiet fed into a certain kind of vision the community wanted to have of itself.

"Welcome to Moses Lake, the Desert Oasis," reads one entrance sign into town.

The 1980s brought new kinds of factories, in some cases replacing the old ones. Today, instead of making French fries, a plant worker could just as likely be making microchips or air bags. The average salary remains low, hovering at about $22,000.

The 1990s brought Wal-Mart, a new and improved Kmart, and a slew of other retailers, attracting a different kind of unskilled labor to the area. Wal-Mart and Kmart today are among the top 10 employers in town.

SWELLING CRIME RATE

Sometime during the past decade, Mel Hurd, a lifelong resident and a coffee-shop owner, began noticing changes in town. For one, he knew fewer of his neighbors. Where once he knew nearly everyone in his part of town, and certainly everyone on his street, now he saw unfamiliar faces. The faces would come and go.

"At some point, I started locking my doors. Walking down the street, I'd find myself looking over my shoulder," Hurd said. "I'd never, ever done those things before."

The population in town grew from 10,000 to 13,000, but the real growth was taking place outside of town, within a five-mile radius, where an additional 15,000 people settled.

The changing economy attracted a new class of working poor, said Al Lundberg, a retired Seattlelite who runs the only social-service referral agency in Moses Lake. Lundberg said this emerging group lives so close to the margins that some inevitably go over the edge.

Gradually, service centers became busier, the lines at food banks became longer, the number of families turned away from the only emergency shelter in the region increased to an average of 15 a week.

At the tiny Moses Lake Police Department, down the street and around the corner from Frontier Junior High School, officers were confronted - 10 years after their big-city counterparts - with a strange phenomenon roughly summarized as Crips vs. Bloods, with its own localized versions. "Drive-by" was introduced into the daily lexicon.

Ten years ago, in 1987, two violent crimes were reported in Moses Lake, and 26 violent crimes in all of Grant County - low figures even for rural America. Last year, the number of violent crimes reported in Moses Lake alone: 289.

The county coroner's office, whose biggest body-count contributor is Moses Lake, recorded 22 violent deaths last year - by far the worst year for murder and suicide since records have been kept in the region.

Moses Lake Police Chief Fred Haynes, a veteran of 25 years, plays down the dramatic change. "It's not like people are running around all the time killing each other," he says. "But, yes, we've become more metropolitan."

The rising crime rate does not explain what happened at Frontier, town officials say.

Moses Lake school Superintendent David Rawls, whose district is being sued by two victims' families, says the Frontier tragedy was a random act that could not have been predicted.

Even if the school had had a complete psychological profile of every single one of the district's 550 students, Rawls said, "would Barry Loukaitis have been in the top 10 of the highest-risk students? Maybe not."

People snapping can happen anywhere, and does, officials say. It isn't exclusive to urban or urbanizing areas. But even they will admit there's something about cities that can go a long way in nurturing the inclination.

That small towns are perceived as more protected from insane acts comes from the notion that the intimacy of a tight community can better penetrate the kinds of psychic isolation that are often fertile ground for snapping.

It's harder to disappear in a small town, harder to become anonymous, or lost. Inversely, the idea goes, it's easier to become lost in a city, even the small city that Moses Lake is becoming. Sometimes in that lostness, both great and horrible things can germinate.

`I HAD TO KILL MANUEL'

Barry Loukaitis sits in the Grant County Juvenile Detention Center in Ephrata, about 20 miles northwest of here. The town of Moses Lake knows a great deal more about him now than it did before the killings. Before then, the Loukaitises were minor characters in a town that knew, or cared to know, little about them.

Terry and JoAnn Loukaitis moved to Moses Lake with their son in the late 1980s and opened a coffee shop in the middle of town. Court papers indicate the family was constantly strapped for money.

Barry Loukaitis was an honor student with an above-average IQ of 116, but who in most other ways was unremarkable. Now, of course, those unremarkable traits - his reserve, his interest in reading and writing - have taken on especially sinister connotations.

There's certainly nothing remarkable about him physically: his build is gangling bordering on wispy, with long, thin arms and outsized feet. During pretrial hearings to determine whether to try him as an adult, Loukaitis often appeared downcast, his little-boy face turned toward the floor. When the judge ruled that he would, indeed, be tried as an adult - facing possible life sentences - the boy wept.

Psychologists testifying at the hearings all agreed Loukaitis was deeply disturbed at the time of the shootings. One psychologist diagnosed him with bipolar personality disorder, which can be marked by prolonged depression, unrelenting anger and extreme mood swings.

Loukaitis' attorney hopes to use that testimony as part of his insanity defense. But Grant County Prosecutor John Knoddell implied that Loukaitis was faking it, noting the boy had requested and received information about bipolar disorder before he was examined.

In any case, the picture that emerged during the hearings was a chilling portrait of a young man sliding into a dark, even diabolical, state of mind.

The slide, JoAnn Loukaitis told the court, began two years earlier, when her marriage began falling apart, dissolving into tense silences and loud, curse-filled arguments and fistfights.

Loukaitis, whom his mother described as "really friendly" and "outgoing" for most of his childhood, began withdrawing from everyone. "It was like all of a sudden he didn't like people. He didn't trust people. He thought all people were bad."

He became obsessed with death and killing, friends say. He pored over gun magazines at the town library. Investigators searching his home found 28 books by Stephen King in the boy's bedroom. One of the books, "Rage," about a teenager who kills his teacher and holds his algebra class hostage, was found on Loukaitis' night stand.

Also found in his bedroom was a Clint Eastwood western, "Fistful of Dollars," in a videocassette recorder. The video was cued up to a part in the movie that shows Eastwood's character, rifle in hand, standing over a victim.

Loukaitis told one of his friends, Zachary Ufkes, that it would be "cool" to kill people, and that he'd like to go across the country killing people like the characters in another movie, "Natural Born Killers," a video that someone in the Loukaitis household rented seven times, according to investigators.

At school, Loukaitis was teased relentlessly by bigger boys who called him "dork" and "gay lord." They teased him about his slight build, and pushed him around. One friend told police Loukaitis never wore shorts because he didn't want to expose the bruises on his legs caused by the bullying at school.

One of the boys who teased him was Manuel Vela Jr., a popular, athletic boy in his algebra class.

Loukaitis talked of wanting Vela dead and asked friends what they would think of him if he killed the popular ninth-grader. The friends didn't take him seriously; he was just "being Barry," the morose, little guy who'd made a habit of asking them: "Do you think you deserve to live?"

Even his English teacher, who'd been reading the boy's poems about "killing with the cold ruthlessness of a machine" and "killing a bastard that deserves to die," thought he was simply going through an adolescent phase, saying that many kids go through a dark period.

A month before the slayings, JoAnn Loukaitis filed for divorce. The mother told the court that a couple of weeks later, she told her son in detail about her plan to confront her husband and lover, tie them up and force them to listen to how much pain they had caused her, and then kill herself in front of them.

JoAnn Loukaitis said she often vented her anguish on her son. After she told him of the plan, the boy withdrew into his room for days.

Julia Moore, a psychologist who treated Loukaitis after the killings, said he snapped about a week before the attack, driven to what amounted to a nervous breakdown by the troubles at home and at school.

Along with his obsession with death was another, complementary obsession with fighting evil. The boy "saw so much evil in the world," Moore testified. He began seeing himself as some sort of avenger. When he snapped, it was as if his obsessions came together in a crystalline vision.

Loukaitis was walking home from school when a plan took shape. He would get rid of one evil. "It clicked in my head," he told Moore. "I had to kill Manuel."

KILLINGS SEEMED `REHEARSED'

The day of the attack, a Friday, was cold and clear. The sun shone on a snow-streaked Columbia River basin. Residents reported seeing a vertical rainbow in the sky.

Loukaitis turned down an offer from his father to drive him to school, saying he'd rather walk. The boy spent the morning in preparation.

He laid out the things he would use that day before putting them on: black pants, black shirt, black cowboy boots and a black cowboy hat. On each hip was a holster with a loaded handgun - a .22-caliber revolver and .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol owned by his parents. One of the handguns had been stolen from the trunk of his mother's car. Across his body, Rambo-style, he draped two fully stocked ammunition belts.

On top of it all he wore a long, black trenchcoat he and his mother bought for $240 at Skeen's Western Wear on Third Avenue a few weeks earlier. Mother and son had shopped all over town; Loukaitis was looking for a particular style, and finally settled on the one at Skeen's.

He cut a hole in one of the pockets so he could slip his hand through and carry his father's .30-30 rifle underneath. The idea was to be able to raise and aim the rifle without taking it out of his coat.

Dressed like the gun-slinging avenger he fantasized about, Loukaitis walked the 1 1/2 miles to Frontier, a generic brick-built school with a lot of doors but no clear front entrance. Loukaitis took a side door, reportedly passed a couple of teachers in the hallway, passed the front office, and found himself in front of Room 15.

He paused at the door, collecting himself, making certain the rifle was loaded and cocked, according to his taped confession.

It was just before 2 p.m. algebra class was under way, and teacher Leona Caires was at the blackboard working out binomials. Loukaitis burst into the room, took two steps toward Manuel Vela Jr., whose desk was closest to the door, raised his rifle and fired three times, striking three students.

Vela was shot in the chest at a distance of less than two feet. He died instantly, still clutching a pencil.

Arnold Fritz, sitting directly behind Vela, ducked to one side and raised a paper folder, as if to shield himself. He was also hit in the chest. He stumbled to the back of the room before collapsing near the heater.

Natalie Hintz, sitting behind Fritz, turned to run. The bullet went through her upper torso and nearly severed her right arm. Hintz later said her chest "exploded" from the impact.

Caires moved toward the boy, screaming "No! No!" but when he pointed the rifle at her, she crouched and turned. She was hit in the back and died instantly, holding an eraser in one hand and a Magic Marker in the other.

Classmates later said Louakitis was calm and organized during the rampage, and that his actions seemed "rehearsed." At one point, he turned to the horrified students and said, "This sure beats algebra, doesn't it?" - a line straight out of Stephen King's "Rage."

He ignored pleas from classmates to "get help for Arnie," who was struggling to breathe on the floor in the back of the room. Louakitis said, "Just let him lie there and die."

P.E. teacher Jon Lane, teaching a class two doors down, went to investigate the "explosions." He heard crying as he neared Room 15. He went inside and saw Caires lying on the floor. He saw Loukaitis standing in a corner with the rifle. Lane dove behind Caires' desk.

Loukaitis tried to coax Lane to stand up, but the teacher kept saying he was too afraid.

Down the hall, Caires' husband, assistant principal Stephen Caires, headed to the classroom to check on a student's report of firecrackers going off. He opened the door and saw Lane crouching behind his wife's desk. Stephen Caires smelled gunpowder and spotted three spent cartridges on the floor nearby. Then he saw his wife's body.

"I called her name," Stephen Caires later told the court, his voice trembling. "I said, `Jon, how's she doing?' "

Lane responded: "I think she's dead. Get help."

Minutes later, officers arrived outside Room 15. A police sniper outside stationed himself to shoot into the classroom windows, but the only person he could set his sights on was Lane.

Lane gave this description of what happened next:

"Barry said, `If you don't get up, I'm going to start shooting more students.' I told him to put the gun down and then I'd get up."

Loukaitis turned the rifle toward the ceiling. Lane slowly stood up. The class phone rang. Loukaitis ordered Lane to hand it to him, which he did. The boy threw the phone down, breaking it.

"Natalie was crying out in pain," Lane recalled. "I asked if I could take her out. He said yes. I took her out the door and went back. There was a diabetic in distress, and I asked Barry if it was OK to take that student out, and he said OK. Then I heard Arnold breathing, making sounds that were so difficult, and Barry agreed to let us take him out of the room. Two other students helped me drag Arnold out the door, then I went back in."

From the hallway, officers were trying to talk to Loukaitis. The boy said he would talk to them in 10 minutes. He began organizing the students, telling them to "chill" and asking them one by one to move to the the back of the room. He said he was going to end the situation and take a hostage.

He took a plastic bag from his coat pocket, put it over the muzzle of his rifle and told Lane, "I'm going to put this gun in your mouth and you're the hostage."

By that time, Lane stood only a few feet from Loukaitis, who held the rifle toward the ceiling. Lane, a former wrestler, lunged toward Loukaitis. In seconds, he had the boy pinned against a wall and was telling the students to get out.

Officers rushed in and found a blood-smeared classroom.

"He was acting shockingly calm," Detective Paul Harder said of Loukaitis. "I expected to see a look of remorse, some facial expression. He was very calm. . . . A sergeant made a comment to him, like `Look what you've done.' "

Loukaitis said, "I know."

SECRET THINGS

The surviving students eventually went back into Room 15 and painted a vertical rainbow on one of the walls, the colored stripes meant to represent the ascending spirits of the victims.

Natalie Hintz, now 14, underwent seven surgeries, suffered innumerable complications, and on a couple of occasions nearly died. She still goes to physical therapy three times a week. She will never regain full use of her right hand. She now attends a school in Ephrata.

The Hintz and Fritz families have each filed separate lawsuits against the Loukaitises and the Moses Lake School District. The Vela family is considering a similar move.

Jon Lane underwent months of counseling after the killings, and emerged, he said, "stronger" and "more grateful." The walls of his home are adorned with plaques and citations for his heroism. He transferred out of Frontier, and is now principal of a middle school in nearby Warden.

Stephen Caires moved to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and took a job as principal at Palouse Garfield High School in Whitman County. He has kept silent about the slayings, saying only that he misses his wife of 28 years.

Terry and JoAnn Loukaitis have separated and are still working out their divorce. Their property has been a target for vandals. Shortly after the shootings, Terry Loukaitis came home to find the bathtub filled with water, and all of the family's electronic equipment - a television, stereos, cameras, radios - placed in the tub. The couple has closed the coffee shop and filed for bankruptcy.

"I would never want to be in their shoes," said Manuel Vela Sr. of the Loukaitises. "I don't like the shoes I'm in, but they're in a very bad situation, too. I don't know what they feel, but I don't want to know either."

The town of Moses Lake waits for the trial in Seattle, hoping for an explanation that will put the matter to rest and allow the town to move on. Arnold Fritz's father, Phil Fritz, still talks about a handwritten sign in black letters that hung on Frontier's flagpole a year ago. The sign read simply, "Why."

The Rev. Smith of Immanuel Lutheran said the trial may bring some closure, but no ultimate answers.

"The secret things belong to God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children," he said. "This whole tragic situation is one of the secret things. We'll never really know why. Our task is to move from the `Why' to that which has been revealed, so that we know that the bullet is not going to have the last word."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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