After Newtown, residents of Greenwood, killers mother relive school shooting
GREENWOOD — A single news report Friday rewound Shirley Bordner’s life 24 years.
She was again stuck in traffic outside Greenwood’s Oakland Elementary School. She was navigating a sea of scurrying children and frantic mothers.
Last week, her mind replayed that day in September 1988. She could see herself rolling down a car window, a parent telling her that students had been shot.
Bordner had happened upon the chaos on her way to work. Her daughters attended schools elsewhere in this Upstate city, and her 19-year-old son had dropped out years ago. But she wondered, who would do such a thing?
The information trickled to her during the day: Someone had walked into the cafeteria and started shooting. Two third-grade girls, both 8, eventually died. Seven other students and two teachers were wounded.
But the question didn’t go away: What kind of person would do this? Was he acting on a grudge? Did his parents fail him?
Bordner asked those same questions last week after a man broke into Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., and fatally shot 26 people, including 20 children. As was the case in Greenwood a generation ago, the shooter had no profound connection with the school.
It was heinous and maddening. It was sad, Bordner said, to listen to a father tell reporters about his “precious little angel,” only 6 years old. The similarities wrenched her.
“Every time this happens, in malls or theaters or schools, my heart drops,” she said. “I’m sure not a day goes by that their parents don’t think about the victims and what could have been.”
Bordner also lost something on that day nearly a quarter-century ago, she said. Five hours after the attack, she heard who had committed the unthinkable.
What happened at Oakland Elementary isn’t a favorite topic of conversation in this rural city.
Residents would rather banter about how the recent economic recession stifled what was seen as promising growth.
It’s a city where a 1950s Chevrolet shares a carport with a John Deere. Its outskirts are speckled with horse farms, hay bales and roadside signs still advertising after-Fourth fireworks sales.
The killings of Shequila Bradley and Tequila Thomas deeply scarred this community. But the old wounds are not readily visible ones.
A memorial nature trail with two benches, two birdhouses and two plaques is tucked at a rear corner of the school.
Two years ago, the building was renamed Eleanor S. Rice Elementary after a longtime principal who was there at the time of the melee.
But at a steadier clip than ever, it seems, this community of 23,000 is reminded of that day.
The thoughts came rushing back in 1999, when two 17-year-olds planted bombs at Columbine High and fatally shot 12 classmates and a teacher. They came in 2006, when a milkman took Amish schoolgirls hostage and killed five of them in Pennsylvania.
The horror in Newtown had Greenwood-area natives like Shelia Waldrup mentioning the unmentionable again. Waldrup, 46, works as a custodian at Rice Elementary, where teachers conjured the past.
The shootings’ similarities startled them.
“Since then, I hadn’t heard much about it,” she said at the end of a school day this week. “It brought back a lot of bad memories nobody likes to talk about.”
A sheriff’s cruiser was posted in front of the school as parents’ cars lined up in four lanes. A waiting boy balanced a gingerbread house on a piece of cardboard.
The deputy stood vigil for parents’ peace of mind. Knowing the school’s history, the deputy said, people are especially sensitive to shootings elsewhere.
Kelly McCurry chooses to stuff the memory somewhere deep down. She can’t reach it, but what happened in Newtown did.
She related to the sights that will forever stick with the surviving Newtown pupils: the broken windows, the blood.
She was 7 and in first grade at the Greenwood school when the gunman entered.
He aimed his .22-caliber revolver at children. The two faculty members who were shot just got in his way.
McCurry was one of the lucky ones. She had just left the cafeteria when she heard the gunfire.
A janitor rushed McCurry to safety in the woods. They couldn’t grasp what was happening.
This week, in her home a mile from the school, McCurry still struggled to make sense of the shootings near and far.
In both cases, she knows the perpetrator must have suffered a mental illness. She doesn’t think stricter gun laws would have prevented the shootings. Quite the opposite, actually; if teachers were armed, she said, maybe the crises could have been lessened.
“This takes you back and makes you realize what we went through all over again,” McCurry said. “The other (shootings) didn’t hit us as hard as this one because it’s such a similar situation.”
A day later, it drove her former classmates to lay pink daisies on the Greenwood memorial.
A killer’s making
Bordner froze when she learned about Newtown.
She was celebrating an early Christmas with family members when a bulletin came across the TV.
She tried answering the same questions about shooter Adam Lanza that she had asked about her own son, Jamie Wilson, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death for shooting the two girls in 1988.
She again sensed the weight of the blame that she had heaped on herself over the years. She felt a guilt that she had helped steer her son down the wrong path.
But, she asked, what similarities in the lives of Lanza and her son pushed them to do such things?
Wilson’s boyhood was ordinary at first. He liked pulling his younger sisters around in a Radio Flyer. At church, he tithed a portion of his allowance and enjoyed the hymn “I Must Tell Jesus.”
But his father hurled verbal assaults at him. The man threatened on one occasion to retrieve a gun from a closet and use it to punish him.
After that episode Bordner and her three children left home, but they went back upon his promise of reform.
Now, she wishes she hadn’t continued being with a man who used firearms as a method of discipline.
Wilson’s behavior worsened. He withdrew socially and became prone to outbursts at his parents.
He often stayed with his paternal grandmother, who repeatedly rented the Alfred Hitchcock film “Psycho” and urged him to watch it.
In school, he was bullied. Classmates teased him for his style of dress, for being overweight. To protest going to school one morning, he clobbered his mother’s shoulder with a baseball bat.
At 14, the grip of mental illness tightened. He was sent to a special-education classroom, where the atmosphere was so unruly that he had to leave.
A tutor initially helped further his education at home, but it didn’t last. He never advanced beyond 10th grade.
After threatening to kill himself, he was committed to a mental health facility. When he was released, he gave his mother a black eye. Psychological therapy never took hold.
On the morning of Sept. 26, 1988, he went to visit his maternal grandmother, but she had left for a church meeting. He grabbed the nine-shot revolver she had stashed on the fireplace mantel for home defense.
He drove first to a store and bought two boxes of ammunition, then to the school. He had never attended there. He knew nobody there.
He started in the cafeteria, where 100 first-graders were eating lunch. His first nine bullets hit two students and a teacher.
He reloaded in a restroom. When a physical education teacher tried to stop him in the hallway, he shot her in the face.
Bullets struck six more students in a third-grade classroom. When the revolver was spent again, he surrendered to the wounded gym teacher.
Learning to cope
Bordner feared excommunication.
She promptly left her weekend job at a nursing home, where a slain girl’s mother also worked.
Bordner became known as the mother of the one who did it.
She turned to God, whom she credits for teaching her to cope. If more people invited God into their own lives, she said, maybe this wouldn’t happen so often.
The death threats never came. The news media did, but she shooed them away. Her recent discussion with The Post and Courier was her first lengthy interview with a newspaper in 24 years.
After Bordner’s second husband had surgery, the mother of Leah Holmes, one of the wounded girls, cooked a meal for her.
When Bordner herself was hospitalized years ago, she ran into the aunt of one of Wilson’s murder victims. The aunt showed sympathy for her son, who remains on death row at Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville.
Wilson hasn’t taken therapeutic medicine in prison.
He’s like a child and sometimes walks around naked; his illness has stripped him of any sense of shame. In rare lucid moments, he will ask for a candy bar and a Coca-Cola.
His latest mug shot shows unkempt facial hair and green prison garb haphazardly draped over him. He flashes a toothless, infantile smile.
Inmates have intentionally spilled coffee on him and spat in his face. His status as a killer of children played into his treatment.
About four years ago, the last time Bordner saw him, Wilson didn’t recognize his mother. It would be best, experts told her, if she didn’t visit at all.
“He would never talk about the shooting,” she said. “Only one time on the phone, he said, ‘Mother, how in the world did I ever get myself into this mess?’ I knew that he was sorry.”
But why, Jamie? Why did you do this?
She never got the answer, and she probably never will.
Wilson’s life has been prolonged by appeals and challenges to his execution because of his mental state. His mother has little hope that he will ever be treated, that he will ever regain the capacity to answer her.
“I know what it’s like,” she said, “to lose a child.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.