One Month After Littleton Massacre, 6 Are Shot at Georgia School

New York Times, May 21, 1999
By Kevin Sack

CONYERS, Ga. -- One month after the deadly shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., a 15-year-old student armed with two guns walked casually into the indoor commons area of Heritage High School here Thursday morning and opened fire, wounding six of his fellow students before surrendering in tears to an assistant principal, the authorities said.

Four of the students remained hospitalized this evening, but none were considered to have life-threatening injuries. Three were listed in good condition after suffering superficial gunshot wounds to the lower body. One was listed in satisfactory condition after a bullet lodged in her abdomen. Two others sustained minor wounds and were quickly released from a hospital in this middle-class town about 25 miles east of downtown Atlanta.

As of this evening, the police had not publicly identified the boy being held, who witnesses said was disarmed and restrained after he fell to his knees and placed a handgun in his mouth. But a large number of students, including several of the estimated 150 students in the commons at the time of the shooting, described the attacker as a quiet, utterly average sophomore named Thomas Solomon who plays baseball in a county league, attends church regularly and participates in the Boy Scouts.

Witnesses said Cecil T. Brinkley, an assistant principal who was described as a hero today, confronted the youngster as he had the gun in his mouth and asked him to hand over the weapon. The student complied, the witnesses said, and began to sob: "Oh, my God, I'm so scared; I'm so scared."

In brief remarks at a news conference this evening, Brinkley said: "I was just doing my job. I did what needed to be done."

Officials did not identify the boy in custody because he is a juvenile and for the time being under the jurisdiction of the juvenile courts. But Richard Read, the Rockdale County District Attorney, said he would move next week to transfer the case to Superior Court and to charge the boy as an adult with multiple counts of aggravated assault, cruelty to children and weapons violations.

The authorities have yet to describe any possible motive for the shootings, the sixth seemingly random assault at an American school in the last 20 months. But two friends of Thomas Solomon, who is known at T. J., said in interviews that he was distraught over recent troubles with his girlfriend. One of T. J.'s friends, Nathaniel B. Deeter, also a sophomore, said that as recently as Wednesday T. J. had told him he was going to kill himself.

"He said, 'I really don't have a reason to live anymore,' " Nathaniel said. "I told him he was crazy. I mean, a lot of kids say stuff like that and never do anything."

Nathaniel said he did not report the incident to anyone. Nor did he report T. J.'s remark to him a week ago that he had a lot of guns and planned to take one to school.

T. J.'s friends said he had ready access to a large collection of guns kept by his stepfather, Robert W. Daniele, in their four-bedroom house on a plot of more than an acre in a manicured, upper-middle-class neighborhood not far from the school.

Skip Morgan, a 16-year-old neighbor who lives two doors away from T. J. and was a regular visitor to the house, said Daniele stored 12 to 15 rifles in a wood and glass cabinet in the basement. The case was kept locked, the teen-ager said, but T. J. knew how to open it. A cabinet drawer was stocked with ammunition, Skip said.

The shooting began about 7:55 A.M. as students began to gather in the commons before the first class bells were to ring, the sheriff's office said, and was over in about 10 minutes.

Nathaniel Deeter said he had noticed T. J. leaning against a wall in the commons and spoke briefly to him about his troubles with his girlfriend. "He said he was pretty mad about it," Nathaniel said, "but he didn't seem mad enough to do something like this."

Nathaniel said that he did not see any weapons but that T. J. might have hidden the guns in his clothing.

Several minutes later, without warning, witnesses said, the assailant began shooting, indiscriminately spraying the room with bullets.

Holding the rifle in his right hand and bracing it with his left, they said, he fired round after round, pumping the barrel after each shot. Most of the shots apparently were aimed low. Several students in the room said they believe they heard 10 to 12 shots.

It was the last day of classes for the school's seniors, who graduate later this month, and many students were braced for pranks. On Wednesday, someone had released hundreds of crickets at the school. So when they heard the first shots, many students assumed the seniors had struck again.

"I just heard four shots, just pow, pow, pow, pow," said Joel L. Thomas, a 14-year-old freshman. "At first we thought it was just firecrackers."

But as the students saw their classmates fall and the blood begin to ooze, many hit the floor and crawled under benches. Others rushed for the doors and hallways, with several getting trampled. Jordan Smith, an 18-year-old student, said T. J. had worn "an evil smirk."

Gina L. Corey, a 15-year-old sophomore, described the scene as "one of those slow-motion things where you can see the sparks coming off the gun."

After hearing the shots, Nita Edwards, a special-skills teacher at Heritage, found her daughter, Stephanie, a freshman at the school, and hid with seven other students and a teacher in a closet. The other teacher, Carol Ingle, recited the 23d Psalm and assured the students they were going to be safe.

After shooting for several minutes, T. J. ran out of the building, pursued by several students, witnesses said, and was confronted by the assistant principal and then quickly restrained by the police. Students described T. J. as quiet and a bit "nerdy," the kind of student who did homework in his homeroom while others socialized. They said he was not part of any of the major cliques at the school. They also said he had friends, seemed normal and was not an outcast in the way that the teen-age gunmen at Columbine High appeared to be.

The police searched T. J.'s house Thursday afternoon and left with a personal computer, among other items. They also searched his locker at the high school. They said they were tracing the manufacturer and ownership path of the weapons, which Sheriff Jeff T. Wigington of Rockdale County identified as a .22-caliber rifle and a revolver.

Sheriff Wigington said part of the rifle's stock had been removed. He said T. J. rode a school bus to Heritage High this morning, but he did not speculate about whether the weapons had been transported to the school today or previously.

Without naming T. J. Donald A. Peccia, the Superintendent of the Rockdale County Public Schools, said school records revealed no warning signs.

"The disciplinary record would not indicate he had been any significant trouble," Peccia said. "We had no reason to suspect this student at all."

President Clinton heard about the latest school shooting as he was about to depart for Littleton to memorialize the victims of the April 20 killings at Columbine High, where 14 students and a teacher were killed, including the two gunmen. Clinton said the news "is deeply troubling to me, as it is to all Americans."

"We thank God that the injuries to the students do not seem to be life-threatening," he said.

Conyers is a one of those Atlanta bedroom communities that have developed out of the Georgia clay in the last two decades, and it is now chock full of upscale subdivisions. The equestrian events for the Summer Olympic Games were held here in 1996.

Likewise, Heritage High is considered one of the area's best. Opened in 1976, it was named one of the 13 top high schools in the metropolitan area by U.S. News & World Report in January. Test scores are well above the state average, parents are heavily involved in the school's academic and athletic programs, and the students interviewed today expressed a high degree of school pride.

The single-story, brick school does not have metal detectors at its entrances, but it does have a law-enforcement officer on the campus and surveillance cameras, including one in the commons. School has been canceled for Friday but is expected to resume on Monday.

The police roped off the campus with yellow crime-scene tape and searched the school for bombs, detonating one backpack. They discovered it did not contain a bomb.

Thomas Solomon was met by his parents and a lawyer after the shooting, and was being held in a youth detention center. Sheriff Wigington said he spoke briefly to the boy in the back of a patrol car.

"He was obviously shaken and upset," Wigington said.

As to a possible motive, the sheriff added: "I didn't ask, and he didn't offer."


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