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By Ceci Connolly and Dana Hedgpeth, Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 24, 2005
RED LAKE, Minn., March 23 — Two days after a shooting rampage on the Indian reservation here left 10 dead, friends, relatives and neighbors of the teenage assailant began to sketch a portrait of a deeply disturbed youth who had been treated for depression in a psychiatric ward, lost several close family members, sketched gruesome scenes of armed warriors and was removed from the school where he gunned down most of his victims Monday.
Still, even the few people close to him were at a loss to pinpoint precisely what triggered Jeff Weise’s deadly outburst and officials provided little information about the 16-year-old gunman.
On the Red Lake Indian Reservation, officials held a private prayer service Wednesday night and met to discuss when students might be able to return to school. Superintendent Stuart Desjarlait said it may take months for the high school to reopen because of the “extensive damage” from Monday’s rampage. Five students, a teacher and a security guard were killed at the school. Seven students were wounded, and two remained in critical condition Wednesday at a hospital in Fargo, N.D.
Federal authorities said they were conducting autopsies on the gunman and his nine victims, but FBI spokesman Paul McCabe said he did not expect to release any information in the near future. Tribal leaders were even less forthcoming, strictly limiting reporters’ movements. The Associated Press reported that two news photographers were briefly held at gunpoint by tribal police.
Tensions rose throughout Wednesday, with some residents whispering fears that if they spoke to outsiders they would suffer retribution. Residents of neighboring communities offered cautionary tales about violence on the reservation and the Justice Department created a task force to deal with gangs when Red Lake suffered five homicides in seven months in 2002. Because Red Lake is a “closed” reservation, it operates as a sovereign nation, running its own police force and dictating who may set foot on the property.
Those willing to be interviewed described Weise as a young man who drifted among various homes on the reservation, listening to heavy-metal music, proclaiming his affinity for Adolf Hitler and periodically showing up at the high school, even though Desjarlait said that six months ago he had ordered Weise to stay at home for tutoring.
He was taking the antidepressant Prozac and at least once was hospitalized for suicidal tendencies, said Gayle Downwind, a cultural coordinator at Red Lake Middle School who taught Weise. It was not uncommon for Weise to spend at least one night a week at her home. “He considered my house a safe place to be,” she said in an interview.
In his 16 years, Weise lost many relatives. He was estranged from other family members and had a strained relationship with Daryl Lussier, the grandfather he killed at the start of Monday’s rampage.
Family and friends said that Weise’s father, Daryl Lussier Jr., committed suicide in 1997. Two years later, a serious automobile accident killed a cousin and left Weise’s mother with partial paralysis and brain damage.
Then, about two years ago, his maternal grandfather died, an aunt, Kim Desjarlait, told NBC’s “Today” show. “You are dealing with three deaths within eight years. I think for a kid starting at 10 years old, that’s a lot to take.” At the time, Desjarlait wanted to help raise Weise in Minneapolis, but he was sent to the reservation about 260 miles to the north.
In the sixth grade, Weise met Downwind’s son, Sky Grant, and the two became close friends, often playing video games together. Grant recalled that Weise “hated his mother” and had a tendency to skip ahead to violent parts in movies they rented.
When Weise flunked eighth grade, he joined Downwind’s special “Learning Center” program at the school. “He didn’t function academically. He just sat there and drew pictures of army people with guns,” she said in an interview. “He was a talented artist, but he drew terrible, terrible scenes.”
Last June, Weise was suicidal. John Dudley, a bus driver for the Red Lake health center, was called to transport Weise to the hospital in Thief River Falls, 60 miles from the reservation. Describing the boy as quiet, Dudley said Weise was going voluntarily to a psychiatric ward, which he called “the unit.”
To some in the school, Weise was long a frightening figure, towering over many of the youngsters in all-black clothing. Because of recent bomb threats and other safety concerns, Red Lake High School insisted students secured a pass to go to the restroom, a requirement that agitated Weise, said Lee Ann Grant, Downwind’s daughter, who had worked as a security guard there since August.
On Monday, she was one of the first to spot Weise as he arrived at the red brick building in his grandfather’s police cruiser. He was wearing Lussier’s ammunition belt and bulletproof vest, waving the grandfather’s police-issued shotgun in the air. When he got out of the car, he “marched, not walked” and fired at least twice into the air, she said.
Grant screamed at fellow guard Derrick Brun: “Run, he’s got a gun.” But it was too late. Brun became victim number three.
Special correspondents Patrick Marx and Dalton Walker in Red Lake and research editor Lucy Shackelford in Washington contributed to this report.
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BEMIDJI, MINN. — Jeffrey Weise had “a good relationship” with the grandfather he shot and killed on Monday as prelude to his deadly assault on students and others at Red Lake High School, according to relatives who are struggling to understand what might have pushed the teenager from sometimes bizarre behavior to mass murder and suicide.
They have sifted through the traumas of his childhood: his father’s suicide, the car accident that left his mother with reduced mental capacity, the shuttling between the Red Lake Reservation and the Twin Cities, and the taunts of peers over his appearance, size and outsider behavior.
They wondered, too, about medication he was supposedly taking for depression, and a recent increase in his prescribed dosage.
Lee Cook, director of the American Indian Cultural Center at Bemidji State University and a first cousin to Sgt. Daryl (Dash) Lussier, the grandfather, talked about the tragedy Thursday after meeting on the reservation with Lussier’s brother, three daughters and other family members.
“The daughters said Jeff loved his grandfather, and his grandfather loved him,” Cook said. “There had never been any serious differences or harsh words between them.
“They were surprised by all of this, but they were stunned he would shoot his grandfather.”
The .22-caliber rifle that Weise apparently used to kill Lussier and his companion, Michele Sigana, “might have been Dash’s rifle, one he kept around for the kids for hunting,” Cook said.
Weise’s relatives “knew he had a problem with depression, and they took him to treatment,” Cook said. “He was getting counseling.” His medication dosage had been increased a week earlier, Cook added.
His grandmother, Shelda Lussier, 54, said he saw a mental health professional at Red Lake Hospital on Feb. 21, the same day his prescription was refilled for 60 milligrams a day of Prozac, which he had been taking since last summer, the Washington Post reported.
Studies have linked Prozac and similar antidepressants to a greater risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior in kids. In October, the Food and Drug Administration revised the drugs’ packaging to warn health professionals that they should closely monitor young patients when an antidepressant is prescribed or the dose is changed.
Prozac’s manufacturer said monitoring patients being treated for depression is critical, especially if they are children.
Weise, in hundreds of postings attributed to him on the Internet over the past year or so, noted that he was on antidepressants, was going through therapy in Thief River Falls and had attempted suicide at least once by cutting his wrists.
In a posting in January, Weise also wrote of his regret over not having ended his life and hinted that another attempt could be on the way. Friends of Weise said this week that he had tried to kill himself earlier this year.
School officials and others have refused to discuss his medical situation except to confirm that he was placed on “homebound status” this year for an unspecified medical problem.
Relatives also “knew he spent time on the Internet, but they didn’t really know what he was into there,” Cook said, and reports detailing Weise’s postings on a Nazi web site have them shaking their heads.
Weise, under a variety of user names, also visited other sites dealing with everything from government conspiracies to surviving school shootings. Last fall he posted a bloody animated video on the Internet in which four people are shot to death before the gunman shoots himself. “He was brighter than usual and had a vocabulary more like a college student than a 16-year-old,” Cook said.
School to school
Weise also had a traumatic early childhood, moving from school to school and experiencing the loss of both parents before he was 10 years old. His father, Daryl Lussier Jr., committed suicide in July 1997 during a police stand-off on the reservation. Weise’s mother, Joanne, suffered brain damage in 1999 when she and a friend crashed their car after drinking.
Shortly after his father’s suicide, Weise enrolled in the fourth grade at B.F. Pearson Elementary School in Shakopee in September 1997. He stayed until the first week of his fifth-grade year, at which point he was withdrawn and enrolled at Bluff Creek Elementary School in Chaska.
Bluff Creek Principal Cath Gallagher said Weise left school in April 1998, about a month after his mother’s traffic accident.
In his Internet postings, Weise said that before her accident his mother would hit him often, yell at him and tell him that his birth had been a mistake.
According to his Internet writings, Weise dressed in a “Goth” style with a long black coat, black boots and at times red hair spiked into devil’s horns.
“I just don’t know if anybody gave a lot of credence to the turmoil this guy lived with,” Cook said. People said he was “just going through a phase” with his unusual appearance and outsider attitudes, “and that probably was devastating to him.”
“I think you can get to the point where you feel you have no relief. Maybe he thought his grandpa should have been more cognizant of that.”
Visitation for Lussier and his girlfriend, Michelle Sigana, began Thursday at the Humanities Building in Red Lake. Funeral services for them will be held there at 10 a.m. Saturday.
Chuck Haga is at firstname.lastname@example.org.