The Virginia Tech shooting spree is only the latest in a disturbing trend of killing rampages. Images of each new crime scene pull the scabs off the freshly healed wounds from each previous incident. Last week, Columbine and the Amish school incident were cited in the media as examples of other moments of random gun-fueled horror. However, since hearing about Virginia Tech, my mind keeps going back to the rampage at Goleta’s postal facility in February 2006. While distinct from the other examples because it did not take place at a school, the Goleta incident in Santa Barbara County was particularly memorable for me because I covered the story.
Just over a year ago, I was working as an art teacher and as a freelance writer. While teaching at an elementary school in Carpinteria I heard about the postal shootings in Goleta. Immediately, my inner journalist sensed a big story. A national story. During a ten-minute break between classes, I looked up phone numbers on the internet and called the New York Times, the New York Post, and the Washington Post. The next day, while prepping child-sized tubs of acrylic paint and cups of water for that day’s painting lesson, the New York Times called and asked me to work as a stringer, or local journalist’s assistant to a staff writer, on the story. The writer said that if I wanted the job, I needed to drop everything and drive to Goleta immediately.
He gave me directions to the condo where the first victim had been shot. Although I’d covered crime stories before for various regional newspapers and worked as a stringer for the New York Post, I’d somehow managed to avoid visiting an actual crime scene. I was not prepared for the difficulty of the gruesome and morbid task ahead of me. I found the victim’s condo but no one was around. If I hadn’t known that this is where Jennifer San Marco killed the victim, by breaking into her house and shooting her in cold blood, I could not have guessed it by looking at the scene. The victim’s condo was just like every other one in the complex: tidy and anonymous. The small patio in front was decorated in the requisite Santa Barbara New Age style, complete with Buddha statue and lush plants in terra cotta pots.
I talked to a few neighbors before some of the victim’s family members arrived. I interviewed her parents, trying not to cry as they summed their dead daughter up into manageable sound bites. I attended a press conference, hosted by the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department, later in the day. Eventually, I passed my quotes and descriptions on to the New York Times writer and he included my words in his story.
With my work done, I tried to shake off the disturbing feeling that had crept over me while covering this story. But I felt the specter of death in the air. I kept having flashes of the murder scene and of someone creeping up behind me to shoot me. San Marco could have killed anyone. The next day, I felt a small thrill to see my name in print in the New York Times, included at the end of the story. But this delight was almost completely suppressed by the feeling of dread that came with covering such a macabre scene.
Now I wonder how many times I’ll have to cover another story of random gun violence. How many more Jennifer San Marco and Cho Seung-huis will I have to write about before the American people say, “No more”? What will it take to modify existing gun laws or to ban handguns? And beyond gun laws, what about mental health services? If treatment for the mentally ill were more readily available (and guns more difficult to attain) perhaps both San Marcos and Seung-hui may have been diverted from their deadly course.
While covering the Goleta rampage, I saw the direct impact that such an incident can have on a community and a family. There is no logic to such a random event. And with the perpetrator dead, there is no one to blame, no one to question, no one to offer explanations or apologies. Just as the ghost of the Goleta story lingered with me for weeks, in nightmares and in moments of nighttime panic, the Virginia Tech incident is not a story that will go away anytime soon.