A wide range of people stated that they were more sorry for him than angry at him. This was especially true of young people in the community. One adult who worked with some Heritage students immediately after the shooting said “kids were compassionate with T.J. They understood his problems. They described it as ‘Yeah, he had problems with X, Y, Z and he just lost it.’ They were not angry with him.”
Two years later, in two separate youth focus groups, we heard similar statements. There was a lot of doubt about whether he had really wanted to kill anybody. One person said, “I don’t think T.J. knew who he shot.” Another said, “He just started pulling the trigger, I don’t think he intended to seriously harm people,” and another “Yeah, he was shooting towards the ground, the whole time. I don’t think—I really truly don’t think he was trying to kill anybody.” Another pointed out how much T.J. knew about guns and said, “if he wanted to kill somebody, they’d be dead.”
These youths also felt a good deal of sympathy for the emotional stress that they perceived as driving his actions. They said he was giving a “cry for help” and a “cry for attention … look at me.” One said, “I think he got tired of everybody’s bullshit and said ‘Screw it,’” to which another added his construction of T.J.’s state of mind as “Nobody else is going to help me, I’ll do it myself…. I think he wanted to scare the hell out of everybody. And he accomplished that.” When asked what kind of help they thought he wanted, they said “Friends, somebody to care about him” and “Somebody to stop judging him; judgment is a huge issue, right now.”
Not everyone held compassionate attitudes. Some were simply afraid and wanted him put him away for as long as possible. Others vigorously disputed the idea that he had not really wanted to hurt anyone, echoing the prosecution’s emphasis on the girl who missed a bullet through the chest only because she was holding a book in front of her and pointing out that 9 hits and 6 wounded victims out of 12 initial shots was a high percentage. One of the victims was aware of and impatient with the sympathy for T.J., saying, “People feel sorry for him. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”
It is of course quite likely that if there had been deaths or more serious injuries, this mix of views would have been angrier and more punitive. The feelings of empathy among the young people, however, are striking. The tone of their remarks suggests fairly prevalent feelings of emotional identification.
Public officials and community members described a wide range of responses by community institutions in the aftermath of the shooting. There was clearly a flurry of activity right after the event. Extensive efforts were made to provide counseling to victims, students at Heritage,