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Minnesota Killer Chafed at Life On Reservation

Teen Faced Cultural Obstacles And Troubled Family History

By Blaine Harden and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page A01

RED LAKE, Minn., March 24 -- In the months before he killed his grandfather, his classmates and himself, Jeff Weise painted an utterly nihilistic -- and often eloquent -- word portrait of life here on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

He described the reservation in Internet postings as a place where people "choose alcohol over friendship," where women neglect "their own flesh and blood" for relationships with men, where he could not escape "the grave I'm continually digging for myself."

The Red Lake reservation is geographically remote, and tribal leaders have been resistant to federal programs that would lead to private land ownership. (Morry Gash -- AP)

_____Survivors Speak_____
Two Red Lake High School students wounded in Monday's deadly shooting there talk about their experiences during the attack.

In his dark and self-pitying depictions of life on the reservation, Weise appears to have drawn from his troubled personal history: When he was 8, his father committed suicide on the reservation after a standoff with police. About four months later, his mother suffered severe brain damage in an alcohol-related car accident.

Before that accident, while Weise was living with her in the suburbs of Minneapolis, his alcoholic mother often locked him out of her house and her boyfriend locked him in a closet and made him kneel for hours in a corner, said his grandmother, Shelda Lussier, 54, in whose home on the reservation the boy had lived since age 9.

In an interview outside her home, Lussier said that Weise, a hulking boy who stood 6 feet 3 inches tall and was almost always dressed in black, tried to hurt himself 14 months ago by jabbing his arms with a pen.

With his self-professed loathing of reservation life and burdened by the psychopathologies of his parents, Weise on Monday joined the ranks of America's schoolhouse mass murderers. The 16-year-old killed nine people -- his grandfather, his grandfather's female companion, a school guard, a teacher and five schoolmates -- before killing himself.

Still, Weise was not all wrong in his assessment of Red Lake. Like many Indian reservations, especially the poor and isolated ones in and around the Great Plains, this can be a dangerous, soul-crushing place to grow up.

Compared with the tidy Denver suburb where two teenage boys went on a well-armed rampage at Columbine High School, killing 13 people and then themselves in 1999, Red Lake exists in a distant and exponentially more dismal dimension of the American experience.

"I'm living every mans nightmare," Weise wrote online in January. "This place never changes, it never will."

If that sounds like teenage overreaching, Sister Sharon Sheridan, 73, principal at St. Mary's Mission School on the reservation, said this of the shootings: "You can't condone what happened here, but you sure can understand it."

Warning Signs

In Washington this week, the director of behavioral health for the Indian Health Service, which provides health care here and for hundreds of other reservations, said the complex behavioral problems that have scarred several generations of Weise's family are all too common.

"This is a tragedy that I have seen the potential for in so many other places in Indian country," said Jon Perez, who is also a psychologist for adolescents. "I am worried about making sure that this doesn't have to happen again."

As the months, weeks and days ticked by before Monday's shooting, Weise was sending clear signals -- what Joe Conner, a clinical psychologist and expert on mental health care for Native Americans, described as "huge red flags and baggage everywhere" -- of serious adolescent mental illness.

Twice in the past school year, he stopped attending Red Lake High School -- and received home tutoring -- because he became severely depressed and was unable to handle teasing from his classmates, his grandmother said. She said the last time he had been at school -- before he stormed in with guns blazing on Monday -- was about five weeks ago.

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