Catherine O'Connor was reading through her grandson’s private journal last week when she saw something that made her stop and call 911. The 68-year-old from a suburb north of Seattle picked up the phone, dialed, and waited until the operator picked up.
"I'm finding journal entries from my grandson," she calmly reported last Tuesday morning. "He's planning to, um, have a mass shooting at one of the high schools."
O'Connor explained that her grandson, 18-year-old Joshua O’Connor, had written about flipping a coin to decide which of two local high schools he'd shoot up. The journal revealed that the target would be his current school, ACES, an alternative high school in Everett, Washington, that helps students with special learning needs.
“I need to get the biggest fatality number I possibly can," Joshua O'Connor wrote, according to court documents. "I need to make this count. I’ve been reviewing many mass shootings/bombings (and attempted bombings). I’m learning from past shooters/bombers’ mistakes, so I don’t make the same ones… I can't wait to blow all those fuckers away."
Within three hours after O’Connor’s grandmother called 911, police arrested him during class at the school he allegedly planned to attack. They confiscated a knife and a small amount of marijuana from him, and by Friday prosecutors had charged him with attempted first-degree murder with a firearm and third-degree assault for allegedly kicking a cop during a short-lived escape attempt after his arrest. He was also charged with first-degree robbery for an incident earlier in the week.
O’Connor’s public defender, Rachel Forde, says her client was just a teen “venting” in his journal, did not plan to carry out any attacks. She also said he legally possessed a Hi-Point 9mm semi-automatic carbine that was found in a guitar case in his room. He has not yet entered a plea.
While O’Connor was sitting in jail, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz used an assault-style weapon to kill 17 students and adults and wound 14 others last Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The shooting occurred despite multiple warnings to authorities that Cruz may have been plotting a massacre, and the FBI has apologized for not following up on several tips about him in previous months.
The blown investigation in Cruz’s case contrasts sharply with what took place in Washington state. Cruz had openly written about his plan on social media, but his comments apparently weren’t explicit enough to bring authorities to his door. O’Connor, meanwhile, had a recent run-in that put him on law enforcement’s radar even before his grandmother discovered his journal.
On Monday, police said, O’Connor and another teen were seen on video carrying his Hi-Point 9mm carbine and wearing Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un masks while holding up a convenience store, allegedly making off with $100 cash to help fund the planned school assault. An entry in O’Connor’s journal mentions the holdup, police say. Prosecutors say O’Connor’s journal talked about “how powerful he felt and how scared the female cashier was at him pointing his gun at her.”
After he was arrested, police searched O’Connor’s bedroom and seized several inert grenades that, according to his journal, he planned to fill with explosive gunpowder. The journal also allegedly described how pressure-cooker bombs could be used in the school assault to drive students toward the gunman’s position.
Documents show he bought the Hi-Point 9mm on January 25, and wrote in his journal that it was so “easy to buy a gun.” Snohomish County Deputy Prosecutor Andrew Alsdorf said the weapon, which can carry 10-to-30-round magazines, was one of the same guns used during the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School. Court documents say O’Connor’s journal showed he planned his school attack for April 19 — a day before the anniversaries of Columbine and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Unlike Cruz’s foster parents, who knew he possessed an assault rifle and made him keep it under lock and key, O’Connor’s grandmother told investigators she only noticed the guitar case in his room for the first time last week. She waited until O’Connor went off to school Tuesday morning before she opened it and saw the gun, which combined with the journal to prompt her 911 call.
O’Connor’s journal included an “Outline for Ace’s Massacre,” which described the planned mayhem. “Throw pipe bomb and smoke bomb in office,” he wrote, according to court records. “Mow kids down in hallway and gym.” He also indicated that he’d been practicing his shooting, boasting “my aim has gotten much more accurate.” O’Connor’s outline also detailed what he would do once he had killed to his satisfaction: “Kill yourself at the end.”
In Florida, Cruz was captured alive after he’d gone off to Wal-Mart and McDonald’s for post-shooting meals. There had been several red flags about Cruz beyond his posts online, including his propensity for killing animals and behavioral problems that led to his expulsion from school. His school district had conducted a “threat assessment” on him, and he was barred from wearing a backpack on campus.
Warnings appear to have done the job in thwarting a number of other potential mass shooting incidents. According to news reports, local police, the FBI, and school worked together last week to head off at least a dozen planned or rumored attacks, including several instances that involved threats on social media.
Experts predict that school shootings plots will continue to occur, and in response they recommend more vigilance and more security. For example, at the new Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, where 26 students and staff were killed in 2012, there are security checkpoints along the entry roadway, classrooms with impact-resistant windows, and a high-tech surveillance system.
William Woodward, from the University of Colorado’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, recently told CityLab.com that early identification of students who might harm others is the key to preventing violence. It starts with creating a safe school climate where students see teachers as fair and trustworthy, making it easier to identify and aid students with mental health and anger issues.
“This is really about identifying those kids early and getting them the resources they need so we don’t have to rely on locks,” Woodward said. “Teachers, the police, the PTA, parents, students, school administrators—they all have to be working with each other, or you can end up with a shooting.”
O’Connor’s hometown of Everett is no stranger to school violence. In 2014, a freshman at nearby Marysville-Pilchuck High School shot five students in the school cafeteria, mortally wounding four of them before taking his own life. In 2016, three former students at Kamiak High School were killed at a house party not far from where O’Connor’s grandparents live. Both incidents were sparked by high school love affairs gone wrong.
O’Connor formerly attended Kamiak, about five miles from ACES. He was considering attacking that school, but wound up targeting ACES after his coin flip, according to the journal. “I’m coming for you Aces. Damn Kamiak, you got lucky,” he wrote.
O’Connor’s grandmother declined to comment on her actions, but police say she likely thwarted would would have been the area’s third mass shooting in just over three years.
“This is a case where the adage see something, say something potentially saved many lives,” Everett Police Chief Dan Templeman said after O’Connor’s arrest. "We were fortunate that a family member believed there were credible threats and contacted law enforcement for further investigation. I’m sure the decision was difficult to make, but fortunately, it was the correct one.”
Cover image: Students are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)