It’s hard to believe 20 years have gone by since Evan Ramsey, then 16-years-old, took a gun to the Bethel Regional High School, opened fire in the lobby and killed two people.
My connection to the story goes back a few weeks before Ramsey’s attack on Feb. 19, 1997. I was news director at KYUK, the public radio and television station in Bethel and I had received a curious email from Ramsey, asking if news organizations gave out the names of juveniles arrested in crimes – or something along those lines.
I wrote back to say that law enforcement typically does not give out the names of juveniles. I assumed it was about a minor crime that some kids had recently committed in which we didn’t give out the names. But after the shooting, I wondered: Was this an attempt to find out how much publicity he might attract?
When I interviewed Ramsey recently at the Goose Creek Correctional Center, he said he couldn’t remember the email.
But like many people in Bethel that day, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing. That morning, I was at my desk in the newsroom, planning out the day, when we got a call that that shots had been fired at the high school.
Another reporter, Lillian Michael, and I talked it over. We thought it was probably a prank, but I took a home video camera with us anyway as we left to check it out.
We arrived as the principal of the school, Ron Edwards, was being carried out on a stretcher. We heard a student had been rushed to the hospital moments before we arrived. Later we learned the student was Josh Palacios, a popular basketball star. Neither the principal nor the student survived their wounds.
I still can’t watch that footage without reliving the terror I saw in the students’ faces as they ran out of the school to safety.
At that time, a school shooting was unimaginable in a remote community like Bethel, which is only accessible by air and water. There are no roads in or out.
Evan Ramsey — described as a shy, goofy kid — also appeared to be an unlikely candidate for a crime like this. The school superintendent had become a legal guardian for him and his younger brother, William. By all accounts, they were doing well in their new home after being in and out of about 10 foster homes.
When I look back at what my camera captured, there’s a shot of William Ramsey in a crowd of students looking as devastated as his classmates.
Although this school shooting made national headlines, it was soon forgotten because many more followed – Pearl, Paducah, Columbine and Sandy Hook. But there are many parts of this story that deserve a closer look.
Two students helped Evan Ramsey plan the attack to avenge bullying and teasing from other classmates. In the days leading up to the shooting, they closeted themselves in a dark bedroom and watched violent video games non-stop as they drew up a hit list.
The night before, they called their friends to warn them away from the school lobby and instructed them to go upstairs to the library — which overlooked the lobby – to wait for something “big” to happen. And while there were about a dozen kids in the balcony waiting and watching, none of them told an adult about the warning they had received.
There was Reyne Athanas, the art teacher, who tried to talk Evan Ramsey into giving up the gun after he had fired rounds at Palacios and Edwards. Another teacher, Nancy Elliott, held the dying principal in her arms in a locked office as Evan Ramsey roamed the school firing random shots.
There was Raoul Sanchez, a student who laid down beside Josh Palacios, to offer his friend comfort and prayers while other students fled the building. Some jumped out of windows to escape Evan Ramsey’s gunfire.
There were some other weird elements to this story.
Evan Ramsey’s father, Don, had just been released from prison days before the Bethel high school attack after serving time for a shooting spree of his own at the Anchorage Times.
Everyone wanted to know: Was this a copycat shooting? Was the son trying to emulate his father?
Also, Evan Ramsey’s brother, John, had recently been arrested for an armed robbery in Anchorage. Perhaps the most heartbreaking, yet chilling interview I’ve ever done is with John Ramsey about what happened to him and his two brothers after their father went to jail and they were left in the care of their alcoholic mother, Caroline, who just couldn’t cope.
Two years after the shooting, I did a series for the Alaska Public Radio Network, which looks at the Ramsey family and the tragic cycle of mental illness, violence and family dysfunction that laid the groundwork for the 1997 tragedy. KYUK has reposted it. Many of the problems Evan Ramsey experienced in the foster care system persist today. It’s a reminder that tragedies that make the news are usually preceded by a long history.
There were also many ironies. Claudia Palacios, who lost her son Josh Palacios, was a foster parent — her home was often a refuge for kids in need of a safe place to stay. She had moved her family to Bethel from Texas because she wanted to get away from guns and gangs.
Earlier this month, we sat down with Evan Ramsey to see if there were any new insights in his case. I was surprised to see streaks of grey in his hair. He no longer had a face full of pimples and didn’t seem as skinny as he was as a teenager. At 36, he’s lived more than half his life in prison. He has few visits – and none from former classmates.
This is a story with so many branches, it’s impossible to do it justice in a half-hour program like Frontiers.
It was a day when ordinary people were called upon to do extraordinary things and continue to live with memories that still evoke pain and sadness.
And yet, the town of Bethel has been remarkably resilient. Many went on to do good things to erase the evil of that day. Their stories are inspiring.
This remains the first and only school shooting in Alaska, thanks in part to lessons learned 20 years ago. But there are some forgotten lessons worth revisiting.
Special thanks to KYUK and my former colleagues at KYUK, who helped gather footage and cover this story — Mike Martz, Dean Swope, Jay Barrett, Chris Butler, Jennifer DuFord and Lillian Michael — as well 60 Minutes for use of footage from its 1999 report on the Evan Ramsey case – as well as to the people of Bethel for their help in looking back on a story that continues to speak to us today.