Feeling scars at Red Lake, 10 years after school shooting
Jeff May has a scar running from his jaw line down past his collar bone.
It could go away with a few skin grafts. Doctors suggested that, but May said no. “I want to keep it,” he said, “as a souvenir.”
Ten years ago today — on March 21, 2005 — a troubled 16-year-old named Jeff Weise walked into Red Lake High School in northern Minnesota with a shotgun and a Glock pistol. He’d already killed his grandfather and his grandfather’s girlfriend that morning, and he had killed another man, security guard Derrick Brun, by the time he reached the room where May sat.
The day has rippled across the Red Lake Indian Reservation since then. Today, about 6,000 tribe members live on the reservation, and just about every resident lost a friend or a family member — a loss that continues to sting.
At the time, it was the deadliest school shooting since Columbine, and it remains the largest mass homicide in Minnesota history. Including Weise, 10 people died. More, including May, were wounded, and many more saw things they can’t forget.
The legacy of the shootings for the reservation and the state is complex and perhaps impossible to grasp from the outside. But for individuals there that day, the scars remain palpable.
May limped into the Seven Clans Casino on the southern edge of the Red Lake Nation. It was a Monday morning a month ago and the place was mostly empty. The lobby echoed with country western hits and the jingle of a handful of occupied slot machines.
May lives in a small house in Redby, on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. He’s 25 and single, and he lives mainly on Social Security disability checks. This is not what he had planned when he was 15.
Ten years ago, May was tall and strong and just getting to the age when people take you seriously in the Red Lake Nation. He played football and basketball. By 18, he figured he’d have a real shot at a football scholarship, and a ticket off the reservation.
And he was in love. He planned to marry Alicia White, a girl in his class.
On the third Monday of March, his life shifted. Jeff Weise came into his classroom and shot five students and a teacher. May saw Alicia die. He saw his friend Dewayne Michael Lewis drop and then he charged Weise with a pencil, and was himself shot in the face. The bullet cut downward, ripping through nerves and lodging by his spine.
The last thing he remembers, he was on the floor with blood in his mouth.
Months later he wheeled himself from a hospital in Fargo, N.D. The strength in his left side was gone, along with 100 pounds of muscle and his chances at a football scholarship. His mother had suffered a stroke just weeks after the shooting that put her in a nursing home for good.
May was alone except for his older brother, returning to a somber reservation with a face changed by Weise’s bullet.
But fame and money awaited May in Red Lake.
He’d conducted himself well under pressure, rushing toward the shooter instead of hiding behind his desk. The tribe looked for a hero and settled on May.
Reader’s Digest wrote an account of his actions, naming him Hero of the Year. Letters of praise and gratitude flooded in from dozens of states.
In the midst of the attention, the school started paying out settlements to injured students. May was awarded just shy of $750,000 for the bullet he took, and that money attracted a lot of new friends.
“It wasn’t about the kids,” he said. “It was about that money. That money came, and everybody worried about that money, and everybody lost their way.”
He bought a house, and he bought some cars, and by 2010 May’s settlement money ran out. April of the next year saw him in a mental health facility in Duluth recovering from an attempted suicide.
When he got out, he started going to sweat lodges and disappearing into the woods for longer and longer walks. The sounds in those woods, he said, keep his mind from revisiting bad places.
Last spring he spent seven days out there, by a river not far from home with no food or water.
“I prayed,” he said. “It seemed to help me a lot. Shortly after that I got the will to get up and go forward with my life again.”
May still spends his days in Redby. He stokes the wood fire in his furnace and lip-syncs to music to keep the scar tissue in his face flexible. He still wakes some nights to the gunshots he heard 10 years ago, but he’s not wandering anymore.
He just got a job at Red Lake Foods, bagging groceries a few hours a day for firewood money. He hopes to go back to college in the next few years, and maybe start a business with his cousin.
TEACHER LEAVES THE CLASSROOM
The last time Missy Dodds saw Jeff May, he was in a hospital bed. She came to visit him a week after the shooting. His face and neck were bandaged. He couldn’t speak, so he wrote on a whiteboard.
“I thought you were dead,” he printed.
In the midst of his shooting rampage, Weise had trained his gun on the ninth-grade math teacher’s head. He pulled the trigger, and the hammer snapped down with no bullet in the chamber. May made his rush as Weise reloaded. If he hadn’t, Dodds probably would be dead — but May didn’t know he saved her life until she walked into his hospital room.
“I remember feeling relief,” she said, recalling the sight of May’s whiteboard. “That I wasn’t dead.”
Ten years after the shooting, Missy Dodds is a full-time mother of three. Her husband works while she buys groceries at Wal-Mart, and keeps the children in line. It’s a life led by many in Bemidji, but Dodds couldn’t always manage the everyday tasks.
Dodds was leading study hall the day of the shooting. She can remember only bits and pieces of what happened — gunshots cracking in the hall, Weise peering through the classroom window and the look in his eye when he realized he could shoot his way through it.
Hours later, John Egelhof, an FBI agent in charge of the initial investigation, asked her to come back into her classroom and identify the bodies of her students.
“I remember asking,” she said, “’Well, is it going to look like CSI?’”
But for Dodds, those memories don’t seem real.
“To me, it’s a dream,” she said.
The dream ended six months later in a hospital room. Her sister had just given birth. A nurse put the newborn in Dodds’ arms.
“I didn’t feel anything,” she said. “So then I freaked out.”
A newborn, she figured, should inspire some emotions. When none came, she checked herself into a treatment program for post-traumatic stress. Feelings she’d been holding back shook loose.
The next three or four years she spent sleepless nights racked with guilt over her dead students, dragged from her home only for court appearances.
About a dozen teachers, including Dodds, were suing the Red Lake school district for workers compensation payments. State law didn’t cover the post-traumatic stress left in the wake of the shootings, so teachers went to court.
Five years of psychological evaluations and legal proceedings ended in 2010. The teachers got their payments. Amounts were never released, but Dodds said the money wasn’t worth opening old wounds for so long.
Fire alarms don’t spark the panicked flashbacks they once did, but Dodds is still very aware of her surroundings.
She recounted all this sitting in the back of a coffee shop, facing the door. She has to sit that way, with her eyes on the entrance.
“Even today, right now, I know what I’ll do if the shooter comes in,” she said. “I’ll try to go into the bathroom first.”
She pointed to the door of the men’s bathroom, an arm’s length to her right.
As a child, Dodds set her dolls up in a pretend schoolroom, imagining herself at the front of the class. Now, at 40, she hasn’t taught in a decade.
Someday she plans to teach a few college classes. College students are older, she said, and less vulnerable than the ninth-graders she saw die 10 years ago.
“Nobody has ever blamed me,” she said. “But those parents sent me their babies, and I didn’t send their babies home to them.”
A COMPLEX LEGACY
The Red Lake Nation is a different place since the shootings. Ten years later, just how different is tough to nail down.
Jeff May described the reservation of his youth as place where kids passed their afternoons shooting hoops and people knew each other by name. He said people are more suspicious of each other now.
Ashley Lajeunesse, who was in Dodds’ classroom on the day of the shooting but was not wounded by the gunfire, said many in her generation dull 10-year-old traumas with alcohol, violence and illicit drugs. But these things were problems long before Weise brought his grandfather’s guns to school.
Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki said drugs are a major problem in Red Lake, but he didn’t want to speculate on the cause. The Red Lake Police Department did not return calls for comment about the shootings’ aftermath.
High school graduation rates were always chronically low in Red Lake. After the shooting, though, the bottom dropped out. In 2013, graduation rates dipped below 15 percent. In 2014, only one in five students was proficient on basic tests.
At the direction of the tribal government, school board officials refused an interview.
Tom Heffelfinger was the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota 10 years ago. He worked the Red Lake case closely, and said at least in the short term, the reservation got a lot of help. Therapists and backup law enforcement flooded in, along with money for the school system. But that outpouring of support didn’t last.
“It didn’t take very long,” he said, “and it went right back to Red Lake being overlooked.”
The high school is more hospitable these days. Former Tribal Chairman Floyd Jourdain said the barbed-wire-topped chain-link fences that ringed the school before the shooting have since been taken down. It looks less like a prison now, but the halls and classrooms where students died, he said, are largely unchanged.
Spiritual leaders on the reservation have stepped up their effort to reach young people, said Anton Treuer, executive director of Bemidji State University’s American Indian Resource Center. There’s a language immersion program in its early stages. The youth, he said, are embracing their culture, a trend he hopes will lead to healing.
“A lot of people are trying really hard,” he said.
Ten years after the shooting, May stood in the empty casino and rolled back his shirt-sleeves.
“Let me show you my tattoos,” he said.
He had to use his right hand — the fingers of his left still curl numb into his palm. The word “Pain” covers his forearm, inked there after his stay in Duluth. A grizzly bear, the spirit guide revealed to him in one of many sweat lodge ceremonies, is tattooed on his shoulder blade. And on his neck curls that white scar from the day that started it all.
“I can still imagine it,” he said. “I can still hear. I can still taste the blood.”
Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Duluth at 100.5 FM. Find an extended version of this story at www.MPRNews.org.