Six Wounded in Ga. School Shooting
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 1999; Page A1
CONYERS, Ga., May 20 – A 15-year-old sophomore armed with a rifle and a revolver opened fire as high school students arrived for classes in this middle-class Atlanta suburb today, wounding six schoolmates one month to the day after the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., that left 15 people dead.
The boy, described by classmates as an average teenager despondent over a breakup with his girlfriend, fell to his knees after the shooting and stuck a revolver in his mouth before an assistant principal restrained him, witnesses said. The boy began sobbing as the school administrator held him and students screamed for help.
"He said, 'Oh my God, I'm so scared,'‚" Joe Watts, a senior at Heritage High in this wooded community 25 miles east of Atlanta, told reporters.
Once again, the nation was stricken by news of a troubled adolescent who, for unfathomable reasons, decided to shatter his life and those of his schoolmates by coming to school with loaded guns and opening fire. And once again, the scene was an all-American suburban high school where no one would have thought such a thing possible.
In a tragedy that still has no full explanation, two students with bombs and guns killed 12 students and a teacher before taking their own lives at Columbine High School on April 20. It was unclear today if the suspect here was aware that the Littleton shooting occurred exactly one month ago.
President Clinton, who learned of the latest incident before flying to Littleton for a special service commemorating the victims there, called the Conyers shooting "deeply troubling to me, as it is to all Americans," but gave thanks that none of the victims appeared in danger of dying.
Rockdale County Sheriff Jeff Wigington declined to name the suspect because he is a juvenile. But students identified him as T.J. Solomon, describing him as an average youth who did not attract attention and apparently was distraught over a recent breakup with his girlfriend.
Wigington cautioned, however, that authorities are still trying to determine a motive.
"He's not one of those trench coat types," Brandon Bailey, a 17-year-old junior, said about the suspect, referring to the long black garments reportedly worn by the two Littleton killers. "He has short hair. He dresses normal. There's nothing really outstanding about him."
A recent yearbook photo of Solomon showed a smiling, dark-haired boy with bangs across his forehead, wearing an athletic T-shirt.
Solomon, who moved here two years ago from South Carolina, lives with his mother, a stepfather and a 13-year-old sister on a street of homes worth more than $250,000, with well-tended lawns and winding driveways, the Associated Press reported.
None of the injuries to the six students was believed to be life-threatening, the sheriff said. The most seriously hurt, a 15-year-old girl, was airlifted to an Atlanta hospital, where she underwent surgery for a gunshot wound in the abdomen. She was later listed in stable condition.
The shooting unfolded during a tense few minutes shortly before 8 a.m. in the high school's enclosed commons area. Rockdale County Schools Superintendent Don Peccia said about 100 students were milling around the area at the time. Had the shooting occurred 15 or 20 minutes later, after more students arrived for classes, he said, the commons would have been much more crowded. This was the final class day for seniors at the 1,400-student school.
Math teacher Tony Gray told reporters that he thought at first someone was shooting off firecrackers when he heard the loud popping sound of gunfire in the commons area.
Wigington said the suspect was armed with a .22-caliber rifle and a handgun of the same caliber. Authorities here said later the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms quickly traced the weapons, but declined to reveal where they came from. Friends quoted by local reporters said that on visits to Solomon's home, they had seen a large array of hunting weapons.
Students described a chaotic scene as they realized they were in the midst of a real shooting.
"I looked to my left and saw this guy in front of the girls' bathroom," Jessie McCumber, a 15-year-old freshman, told reporters.
"He started running sideways and shooting his gun at no particular person. Everyone's screaming, 'Oh, my God, he's got a gun!'‚"
Brandon Bailey said he had just walked into the school when a friend of his ran toward him, wild-eyed, and yelled, "Go back! Go back! Somebody's shooting in there."
"By the look on his face, I knew it was for real," Bailey said. "I just headed out to the parking lot and kept going."
Witnesses said the youth dropped the rifle before placing the revolver in his mouth.
Parent Deborah Campilango, who lives near the school, was at home arguing with her son Jeremy, a junior, about his running late for morning classes when one of Jeremy's friends burst in the front door, apparently in shock. "She was beyond crying. She could barely talk," Campilango said. "She said her friend had been shot and was bleeding. I called her mother and tried to calm her down.
"You tell yourself this kind of thing could never happen here," Campilango continued, "but you know in your heart that's just not true anymore."
Although a suspicious package was found outside the school after the shootings, Wigington said it turned out to be a bookbag containing a calculator and other school materials. He said officers are still investigating how the youth was able to enter the school with a rifle, which would have been difficult to hide, and where he obtained the weapons. Authorities swiftly sought search warrants for the suspect's house.
Friends of the youth told reporters that he had been noticeably despondent the past few days and reportedly told one, "I have no reason to live anymore."
Wigington said the youth was being held at the sheriff's department, and that his parents were with him. He was not immediately charged.
Students said the Heritage High faculty and staff had been mindful of the lessons illuminated by the Columbine shooting, and had recently enacted several new policies. Although the school does not have a metal detector, it does have surveillance cameras and a county sheriff's deputy who is assigned to patrol the grounds.
"They got a lot stricter after Littleton," said David Hollingshed, 17, a sophomore. "Before, you could be in the hallway during classes and nobody would bother you. Then after that, you had to have passes. You couldn't just go the bathroom any time you wanted to."
Bailey said students, a little nervous about the Littleton case but figuring it would never happen here, had made jokes before today.
"You'd hear somebody in class say, 'I'm going to shoot you.' Typical high school stuff," he said. "Or you'd hear somebody going down the hall, hollering, 'Bomb!' and then you'd hear them laughing all the way down the hall."
But no one was laughing today, he said.
Special correspondent Catharine Skipp in Miami contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company