A lost boy in America's killing fields

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The Independent Online
"TO All Media," read a cardboard sign on the fence at Thurston High School, amid endless bouquets of flowers thrust in the wire, "We need to put the blame in its right spot ... not all on Kip! Kip was an average middle-class boy and because he got angry you showed him how to become famous in 15 minutes. Your fault, no one else's!"

Nearby Amanda Nilsen, 17, talked passionately through her braces. "I think that the boy lost hope," she said. "I think he felt he had nothing to live for. People lose hope, they feel lost, they act in odd ways. We're teenagers, nobody ever listens to us. As soon as they start listening, this will stop."

Kipland P Kinkel, 15, was to appear in court charged with murder yesterday in the killing of two schoolmates and the wounding of nearly two dozen others in a bloody early morning rampage in his school cafeteria.

Mikael Nicolson, 17, engaged to be married, died at the scene; the death of a second teenager, initially on life support was confirmed yesterday.

Prosecutors said they would seek to try Kinkel as an adult, though Oregon does not have the death penalty. Kinkel was also presumed to have shot dead his parents, William and Faith Kinkel, both teachers in their late 50s found dead at the family home. The only family survivor was his older sister, Christin, a former Thurston cheerleader studying at a college in Hawaii.

A small and eminently solid American city groped for an explanation yesterday to the latest spree shooting by a US schoolboy, and could not find one. The answer that sprang to mind - gun control - was hard to reconcile in a place where most families have guns at home, and schools traditionally close for a day when the deer season opens.

"You look at our kids, and you know they've got deer rifles, they've always had them," said Ginny Lauritsen, a Sunday school teacher at Thurston. "Of course kids know how to shoot," she added, but said in her day they didn't carry semi-automatic weapons.

Kinkel entered the cafeteria in a dark trench coat and hat, carrying two pistols with ammunition reportedly spilling from his pockets, but picked off most victims with a .22 rifle.

For years now, when commentators have talked of a chilling loss of remorse in American teenagers, they have meant the gang killers in the cities, the drive-by shootings and drug turf wars where the faces were almost inevitably black.

But since the killings moved to the schools, shooters and victims have mostly been white and rural. In the last six months, they have taken on the appearance of a national phenomenon.

The depths of Kip Kinkel's rage had yet to be plumbed yesterday. But whether he was psychologically imbalanced or badly brought up, his actions spoke of an anger that he could not control. He was said to have been voted by his contemporaries as "The person most likely to start a Third World War".

Amid calls for everything from peer counselling to metal detectors, there was a good deal of finger pointing yesterday at the media, and "violence" in general.

One Boy Scouts of America official described how he had gone home and switched channels from the shooting coverage to find "Hard Copy", a tabloid news show, broadcasting graphic pictures of someone shot in a drug deal.

"There's too much violence everywhere. People don't have respect for parents or anybody. There's no thankfulness: it seems like we've lost that," said Josh Taylor, 18, who was in the cafeteria.

The last major school shootings were in March, in Arkansas, when an 11-year-old boy and his 13-year-old friend killed four students and a teacher. It followed others in West Padukah, Kentucky and earlier in Pearle, Mississippi where a boy shot his mother and nine students.

But people in Springfield yesterday angrily rejected any "redneck" label, and were not above pointing out that they lived in the new West, not the old South. Oregon is a state that has a liberal political culture, with green belts and legal euthanasia, where the forested green hills and pastoral coastline are a favourite retreat for wealthy Californians.

But the National Rifle Association is still a potent force: in a supreme irony, a local legislator who successfully sponsored a law making it a crime to bring a gun to school was targeted by the NRA and defeated in Tuesday's primary.

Springfield, a city of 45,000 was mostly a logging community until the mills closed ten years ago, but it has diversified since then, with Sony establishing a plant. Unemployment, locals say, is about as low as it can be.

The Thurston teenagers were certainly sophisticated and well-spoken. One, a boy scout on the wrestling team, had the old-fashioned courage to tackle Kinkel and continue to struggle with him after being shot in the chest.

It was a surreal experience to hear others describing scenes of graphic horror. "I thought it was a joke," recounted Emily Olson, 17, surrounded by giggling girlfriends. "Then he went up to this kid and shot him right in the head in front of me."

Kip Kinkel, like Timothy McVeigh, liked to make bombs. Obsessed with guns and explosives, he was caught with a pipe bomb in his locker, and school rumour had it - well before the shooting - that he had once blown up a cow. He hid guns under his bed at home, it was reported.

Classmates said he could be sweet and funny, but also showed signs of an explosive temper, picking fights without cause, stopped for throwing rocks off a freeway bridge. He had been in an anger management programme, contemporaries said.

He bragged of torturing animals, and "he said it would be pretty cool to kill someone", said Brian Austin, 14, a classmate. Arrested at school the day before with a gun, he was released to the custody of his parents, facing expulsion, in a decision denounced yesterday as crazy by some locals, but defended as routine by police. He reportedly threatened revenge, and on the school bus next day boasted he going to "do something stupid".