Teen suicides series, Part 1: Family still struggling to understand teenager's rampage in Minnesota - Sunday, July 10, 2005

2005-10-26T00:00:00Z Teen suicides series, Part 1: Family still struggling to understand teenager's rampage in Minnesota - Sunday, July 10, 2005By JODI RAVE of the Missoulian missoulian.com
October 26, 2005 12:00 am  • 

Editor's note: This is the first story in a report on the life and death of Jeffrey Weise, the Native teenager who killed himself and nine others at Red Lake (Minn.) High School in March, and at the high suicide rate among Native teens.

RED LAKE, Minn. - His family remembers a young man who listened to Johnny Cash and John Lennon, who usually made it home before 10 p.m., who would post notes on the TV to let them know where he would be.

On March 21, he left the house. He left no note.

What he did that day will be how most remember Jeffrey Weise - a 16-year-old who gunned down classmates, school officials and relatives before killing himself in the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

More than three months later, his family still doesn't understand what unleashed the rampage that took 10 lives, including his own. Was it his antidepressants? Was he bullied too far?

Those closest to Weise remember an intelligent, non-aggressive, inquisitive and artistic teen with plans. He wanted to open a video store, add on to his grandmother's house, travel overseas and produce movies.

They didn't recognize the teen depicted in news reports after the shooting.

"I feel that wasn't the Jeffrey I know," said his aunt, Shawna Lussier. "I never held it against him. People just look at me crazy because I defended him and he killed my dad. Š We know how much Jeffrey loved my dad and how much my dad loved Jeffrey."

Daryl "Dash" Lussier Sr., Weise's grandfather and a tribal police officer, was one of the first people the boy killed on March 21.

Weise fought his depression with Prozac. But those who knew him say he typically didn't fight others - including those who teased him - at Red Lake High School, despite carrying nearly 300 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame,

"He didn't give us no grief or nothing," said Ben Young Bear, a former Red Lake High School security guard.

Weise's primary defense from teasing at school was to stay away, even though he had a few friends and confidants inside, including school counselor Ron Kingbird.

"Ron would usually call me and let me know Jeffrey was having a hard day," said Shelda Lussier.

Weise lived with Lussier, his grandmother.

"That's when I found out he was being ridiculed. He got to the point he was missing more school than he was attending."

His aunt Shawna would pick him up from school and ask him what was going on.

Oh, nothing, he'd tell her. Just having a bad day.

"If kids are saying things to you, Jeff, just ignore them," she said. "I always tried to tell him, 'Geez, it must take a lot for them to take time out of their day to think of something to say to you. You must really be special.' "

The teen rarely told his grandmother what was happening. But others told her he was ridiculed and teased.

"Kids would always say stuff about his mom," the grandmother said. "She couldn't do anything for a long time. She's just now getting back to be herself. They'd say things to him about not having a mother, about not having a dad."

It wasn't always that way.

Jeffrey James Weise's first permanent caretaker was Daryl "Baby Dash" Lussier Jr. When the boy was 3 months old, his mother, Joanne Weise, gave him to the Lussiers to raise at Red Lake in northern Minnesota. She stayed in the Twin Cities.

The boy, his father and grandparents, Shelda and Daryl Sr., lived together. The father and baby shared a bedroom.

The mother returned to claim him three years later. For the next seven years, they lived in the Twin Cities. And when he was about 8, Joanne married Timothy "Troy" Desjarlait.

Those were happier days, Joanne's mother, Rita Weise, said recently, sitting at the picnic table at her home on the Red Lake Reservation.

Those times didn't last. Baby Dash, Weise's father, killed himself when he was 32. Two years later, in 1998, his mother nearly died in an alcohol-related car crash. When Joanne could no longer care for her kids, the Desjarlait family said they would keep Weise's younger siblings. But not Jeffrey.

Joanne's husband divorced her after the accident. She lived in care centers in the Twin Cities, her mother's home and a Red Lake nursing home before returning to the city for more extensive care.

Joanne Weise moved to an assisted-living center two years ago. She walks with a cane, goes to church, has regained her speech and works part time, her mother said.

When Joanne returned to the Twin Cities, Jeffrey chose to live with the Lussiers at Red Lake, insisting on the room he once shared with his father.

He expressed himself through writing, or pen and ink.

When FBI agents arrived after the March 21 shootings, they seized all of his personal possessions, including 30 drawing tablets from his room. They also took three computer hard drives.

Weise used the Internet frequently, something that was reported on heavily after the shootings. He wrote the following on a Nazi Web site:

You encounter a lot of hostility when you claim to be a National Socialist, but because of my size and appearance people don't give me as much trouble as they would if I looked weak Š I don't try to hide what I am from anyone, if they're going to start something over it then fine. I'm not backing down; Nor am I hiding. I try not to be aggressive in most situations, I'll use force if I have to, but I'm not about to go out and pick a fight. I'm mostly defensive, I'll defend myself if someone tries something, but other than that I'm a peaceful person.

Weise also made a violent, animated video clip depicting a bloody shootout. That, too, was posted on the Internet.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Rita sat at a picnic table with a pile of photos of her favorite grandson.

"He was a regular little boy," his maternal grandmother said. "He wasn't violent. He wasn't mean. Š When you told him something, he always asked 'how' or 'why?' "

Now she's asking the questions. "I'd like some answers from how he came to this," she said, pointing to his smiling photos, "to what happened."

Inside her house, a refrigerator magnet - a faded, green paper Christmas wreath - holds a photo of Weise in kindergarten. Many of his other childhood photos are gone now, in the hands of strangers.

The grandmother holds tight to the few tangible memories that remain. Like the guestbook from the estimated 100 people who attended his funeral and wake. Teenagers left messages in the book. "Luv u! Miss you!" "I love you Jeff!"

Inside her kitchen, Rita sat next to the chair her grandson would fill when he visited. He usually wore jeans and T-shirts, not the gothic dress and makeup and body piercings reported after the shootings.

Weise did spend several months with his hair spiked into horns. And he liked black clothes, but that wasn't unusual. "There's a lot of people who dress in black at that school," said his cousin, Vanessa.

Earlier, three girls had jumped on a trampoline next door to Rita's. They wore black. One of them had magenta streaking through her black hair.

And Weise would wear a long, black jacket.

"He didn't have on any eyeliner. He didn't have any spiked hair. He just had on a black leather coat," Rita said. "He walked in the door. I said, 'Jeffrey, boy, do you ever look like your dad.' "

The coat was a gift from his other grandmother, Shelda, who gave it to him at age 14.

By then, he had lived with the Lussiers since he was 10.

About three years ago, he stopped by Rita and James' house. His grandfather asked him about school.

It's not good, the teen said. I don't go to the real classes. I go to the alternative school. I'm a year behind.

I can't be in regular school because kids are mean to me, Rita remembered him saying. They punch me. They trip me.

The boy put his head down. It was the first time Rita had heard about his troubles at school. She heard more after the shootings. At least five different people, including tribal employees, school officials and community members told her they knew her grandson was picked on excessively:

My god, they were even pulling clumps of hair out of his head, someone told her.

And this: Rita, I don't want to tell you this Š about five kids ran up to him and punched him Š the kids laughed and ran away.

"There's rumors galore out there," said Mary Kay Klein, attorney for the Red Lake School District. "How many of them are actually truthful, who knows? But I can tell you: Jeff Weise's size is not a secret. He was a big kid. Students did not bully him, but then again, that's based on my knowledge. I wasn't in school with him every day."

Mary Sumner of Red Lake recalled the half-dozen times she saw kids hitting Weise outside of the middle school when she picked up a grandchild.

"I thought it was sad he would stand there and take it."

He took it out on himself.

About 17 months before the shootings, he pulled the eraser from a pencil and scraped the metal edge into his arms, his aunt said. "I just hugged him and said, 'Jeffrey, don't hurt yourself,' " Shawna said.

Doctors prescribed him 20 milligrams of Prozac per day.

He told his family he wasn't trying to hurt himself. He was just trying to release inner pain. A follow-up visit with an Indian Health Service physician at the Red Lake Hospital led to a 20-milligram-per-day increase.

By February 2005, Weise had been taking the antidepressant for about 17 months. He was attending school, taking 40 milligrams daily, when a teacher reprimanded him - family members don't remember why. He was confined to a cubicle in the suspension room when he again sliced into his arms with a pencil's metal edge, Shawna said.

Mental health workers at the reservation hospital told his family he was not suicidal, and that his cuts were part of "a fad" seen in New York, his aunt and grandmother said.

Constance James, director of the Indian Health Service's Red Lake Service Unit, said patient confidentiality rules prevented her from commenting.

After he cut himself in school, an Indian Health Service doctor increased the teen's Prozac to 60 milligrams per day, Shelda said.

By then, nearly every local organization knew Weise. "We had every single resource you could have on the reservation," said Shawna. "We had the Indian Health Service. We had mental health. We had the police department. We had social services. We had the school involved."

Weise was acting different. He saw a bird in the house no one else saw. He moved his fingertips together in repetitive motions. He heard noises they didn't. He would ask: "What?"

"And we'd say, 'We didn't say anything,' " Shawna said.

"If people around him noticed his personality changed Š when his dosage increased, that he was more agitated, restless, that he had trouble sitting still, those kinds of things, then that would suggest that Prozac might have had something to do with it," said Dr. Leslie Lundt, a psychiatrist and author in Boise, Idaho.

A small percentage of people suffer adverse effects from antidepressants, she said. Typically, suicidal or homicidal reactions would appear shortly after the medication was taken, she said. And a 60-milligram dose is fairly high but "not outrageous," she said.

"The most impressive detail in terms of a psychological autopsy is the fact that his father committed suicide," Lundt said. "That increases your risk, no matter who you are, tremendously."

His mother's alcohol abuse - and his frequent moving - complicated his situation, she added.

"A family history of alcoholism and suicide are two of the worst things that can happen to you in terms of your future behavior. Š To me, that's more impressive than whether or not he was on Prozac or what dose he was on," she said.

Rita Weise was getting ready to drive the 30 miles to Bemidji to look for office furniture. She had her police scanner on, as did many reservation residents that Monday.

A shooting was taking place at the Red Lake High School.

Minutes later, she heard the dispatcher: Jeff Weise is the shooter.

She drove to a relative's house. Her niece was outside.

Did you hear about the shootings at the school? Jeffrey shot himself, her niece said. Jeffrey's dead.

"He's dead? I kept asking her, 'Are you sure? Are you sure?' "

Rita asked to be driven to the school, where she saw some of her cousins. She asked them if they knew anything.

He's dead, they told her. He had shot to death his grandfather and the man's companion. Then he went to Red Lake High and killed five students, the unarmed security guard and a teacher. Finally, he killed himself.

Ten people were dead.

Vanessa was outside the school.

"She was screaming," said Rita.

Is Jeffrey OK?

A police officer made everyone move away from the school. A teacher walking away from the building spoke to Rita.

I always knew he was a goddamn psycho, the teacher said.

"I looked at her and said, 'That's my grandson you're talking about.' "

Jeff Weise? He was such a nice kid.

Then two school employees approached her. Both told her what they knew about her grandson.

Rita, he was a good kid, she remembered one of them saying.

He was just bullied too much.

When Shawna Lussier arrived at the school, a police cruiser was parked in front.

"I thought my dad showed up," she said. "He's the first one on the scene all the time, whether he's on duty or not."

But nobody had seen Daryl "Dash" Lussier Sr.

Weise's cousin Vanessa had last seen him at home three hours earlier, around noon, sitting on the couch, watching TV, eating a sandwich. She looked at the clock and said she had to get back to school.

"It was a normal day," she said. "I couldn't picture nothing wrong until I heard gunshots in the school."

Rita arrived home about two hours after the shootings to a ringing phone. It was her daughter, Joanne. She had just seen a Twin Cities news report about the shooting.

For weeks, she called her mother daily.

Is my son really dead?

Jodi Rave covers Native issues for Lee Enterprises. Reach her at 1-800-366-7186 or jodi.rave@lee.net.

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