John Moffatt was on his hands and knees in the Fergus High School hallway in Lewistown when he raised his eyes and stared into the barrel of a .44 Magnum pointed at his head from five feet away.
Moffatt, the high school vice principal, had already been shot once, in the gut, by the gunman. Moments earlier the shooter, a 14-year-old freshman at the school, had murdered a substitute teacher, Henrietta Smith.
The sound of the gunshot that killed Smith reverberated through the hallways of the high school, which was new and not completely finished. The hallways were cinderblock and the floors were still concrete.
If someone dropped a book, it sounded loud as a gunshot. An actual gunshot, it turned out, was magnified to horrific proportions.
Moffatt, on his way to check on several classrooms that had substitute teachers that day, had no idea what had happened, but a gunshot wasn’t among the possibilities he considered. It was 1986, and while school shootings weren’t unheard of, they were largely limited to inner-city urban schools and involved gang warfare.
They just didn’t happen in small towns and rural schools back then, and certainly they didn’t happen in Montana. Moffatt’s thoughts ranged from an M-80 firecracker having been set off to the new boiler blowing up.
“I ran up a flight of stairs, and made the corner of a hallway that was about 40 to 50 feet long,” Moffatt says. “At the same time, a student came around the other corner of the hallway with a gun in his hand.”
He recognized the student, and the student recognized him. Both were running as fast as they could, the vice principal toward the sound and the student away from it.
By the time the pair brought their long strides to a halt, they had nearly run into each other.
The boy was already raising the gun. He fired, and the bullet struck Moffatt on the left side of his torso, at about the point where your elbow reaches if you lower it to your side. It spun the vice principal to the ground.
As Moffatt struggled to his hands and knees and looked up, he saw the .44 Magnum aimed at his head.
Kristofer Hans pulled the trigger again, from five feet away, and the third bullet fired in the high school that day began its journey.
Moffatt, now retired and living in Missoula with his wife, Maggie, relives the events of Dec. 4, 1986 – from a gun being fired three times in his school, to a priest giving him last rites – every time there’s another Columbine or Virginia Tech or Tucson or Aurora or Newtown.
So does his wife. So do their three children, now in their 30s but a sixth-grader, first-grader and kindergartner on the day their father almost died.
So, he’s positive, do the children and husband of Henrietta Smith, shot in the face at point-blank range by Kristofer Hans. And LaVonne Simonfy, the French teacher Hans, who was flunking her class, actually intended to kill.
Simonfy happened to be in the Fergus High gymnasium, in her role as cheerleader adviser, for the state Class A girls’ basketball tournament that had started that afternoon – the reason Smith was substituting for her and came to the classroom door after Hans knocked and a student answered.
Moffatt knows people who were teenagers in Fergus High classrooms relive that same day from more than a quarter century ago every time there’s another school shooting. He still hears from many of them when 20 children and six adults are massacred in school in Newtown, Conn., or a dozen teenagers and one teacher are executed at Columbine.
“The impact on kids is ongoing and heartbreaking,” Moffatt says.
Teachers who were there play back the day in their minds. Law enforcement. Parents. Probably, the Moffatts say, everyone who lived in Lewistown on Dec. 4, 1986.
For Moffatt, the most disturbing thing is that, in the more than a quarter of a century since Henrietta Smith was murdered and he was wounded, things not only haven’t gotten better.
They’ve gotten worse.
“And school shootings are just the tip of the iceberg,” Moffatt says. “It’s 34 murders a day in this country. That’s more than 9,000 murders a year. It’s like having three 9/11s every single year in America. It’s not just in schools, it’s on our streets, in our homes, in the communities where we live.
“You have to ask yourself, what’s the difference between the United States and other countries where the murder rate is so much lower? Are there broken families in those countries, like we have? Are there drugs? Do they have violent games and movies? Are there people with mental health issues in them? The answer is absolutely. So what’s the one factor that’s different?”
You can only try to imagine how loud the second shot aimed at Moffatt, from five feet away and the gun pointed at his head, was.
“I felt something pass under my chin,” Moffatt says. “It ticked one of my fingers, and ricocheted off the floor and into a beam underneath the lockers.”
That was actually the start of a series of very fortunate events.
The bullet that hit Moffatt directly, moments earlier, had exited his back and struck the cinderblock walls, where it shattered and sent bullet fragments ricocheting in all directions.
Some went down the hall, and somehow missed a teacher who had opened her classroom door to see what in the world was happening in the hallway.
Instead, the fragments ricocheted again, into the classroom, and then again inside the room, some of the fragments finally striking two students in their feet.
Elsewhere in the school, terrified students were escaping the classroom where the first bullet had been fired. A Fergus student who wrote about that day 24 years later, Michael J. Chase, recalled what his brother Randy – who was in Smith’s classroom – told him a few minutes after the shooting.
“We all had to step over her body as blood was pumping from her head like a garden hose, just to get out of the room,” Randy told him.
Meantime, in another part of the school, the gut-shot Moffatt was on the floor in front of another classroom door. Art teacher Jim Borgreen stepped into the hall just as Hans decided to take off instead of shoot again.
“I think he panicked,” Moffatt says of the boy.
Borgreen dragged Moffatt into his classroom, which had about 20 kids in it, and closed the door.
“One of the things that saved John’s life was there was a parent in the art room, a medic in the military who was home from Saudi Arabia and was checking in with the teacher on how his child was doing,” Maggie says. “He applied pressure to the wound, or John would have bled to death.”
“We still didn’t know where the shooter was,” her husband says. “The kids were screaming and it was just pandemonium.”
Some went to windows to see if the 14-year-old gunman was leaving the building. One of the students removed a screen; it made a loud popping noise when it came loose from the window, and everyone thought another shot had been fired.
Then the classroom door opened. As the vice principal, art teacher, medic and 20 students looked up, the barrel of a handgun appeared.
John Moffatt says it is past time that America got serious about reducing gun violence.
“I am not anti-hunting,” he says. “I have no problem with people having guns to hunt, to go target-shooting, to defend their homes. But there’s got to be common sense.”
The suggestion that teachers pack weapons in schools “is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Moffatt says. Are they supposed to answer every knock on their classroom door with a gun drawn? Kristofer Hans knocked before he killed.
People who are not responsible gun owners and those with mental health issues should not be able to easily purchase weapons on the Internet, Moffatt says, or skirt background checks at gun shows.
And assault rifles, he argues, should be banned.
“They are designed strictly to kill a lot of people in a short time,” Moffatt says. “Who needs it?”
That none of that might have averted the tragedy in Lewistown more than 26 years ago – the boy took the .44 Magnum, already loaded, from his stepfather’s unlocked vehicle – is not the point, he says.
That so many other shootings might not have happened if access to guns wasn’t so easy for almost anyone in this country, he says, is.
“It’s the one issue we want to ignore – easy access to almost any kind of gun,” Moffatt says. “It’s not the only problem, but it’s part of the problem. Until you look at the 800-pound gorilla in the room, you’re not going to address gun violence in schools, you’re not going to address the issue of gun violence, period.”
The handgun that appeared in the doorway of the art room on Dec. 4, 1986, was held by a local police officer who was assigned to the state girls’ basketball tournament.
Moffatt had been in charge of lining up substitutes for seven or eight teachers who would be involved with the tourney. He’d made the call to Henrietta Smith, asking her to sub for LaVonne Simonfy.
“That was one of the hardest things for John afterward,” Maggie says. “He’d kind of begged her to come in.”
“The kids loved her, and she was the only person on our substitute list who was qualified to teach foreign language,” Moffatt says.
A bullet fired at his head from five feet away that missed, and an Army medic who happened to be in an art classroom and knew what to do about the first bullet that had struck him, were just the start of John Moffat’s string of fortune.
“The doctor who did the surgery was just getting on a plane to go hunting” when he got the call that there had been a shooting at the high school, Maggie says. “One of the best internists said later that John never would have made it if he’d had to be flown” to Billings or Great Falls for the emergency surgery.
“Our priest showed up at the hospital,” John says. “I took that as a bad sign.”
“In the emergency room, the priest was giving John last rites,” Maggie says. “John looked up at me in the middle of it and said, ‘Go home and pay our life insurance policy.’ ”
They can smile about it now but at the time he was serious, Moffatt says. The premium was coming due.
The most immediate threat to Moffatt was the huge amount of blood he had lost, even with the medic applying pressure. The bullet itself had damaged Moffatt’s liver, but just missed other organs and also, as luck would have it, just missed any bone that could have shattered while it was traveling through his body.
However, it had torn through his intestines, releasing fecal matter that caused great concern and, several weeks later, more surgery.
Maggie, a licensed clinical professional counselor, was at work at Child Family Services when a secretary at the high school called her.
“She was so upset,” Maggie says. “She said John had been shot. I asked her if he was alive, and she couldn’t tell me.”
A colleague rushed her to the hospital.
“I must have been in shock,” Maggie says. “Two days later when I went to leave the hospital for the first time, I realized I didn’t know where my car was.”
The Moffatts are both Hi-Liners. She grew up in Chinook; he in Kevin and Sunburst, two tiny towns north of Shelby.
Although they knew each other before college, they started dating while both were students at Carroll College. John played football for the Saints – in fact, his last year at Carroll was legendary coach Bob Petrino Sr.’s first. The Moffatts have other football ties – their brother-in-law is former Montana State and Colorado State coach Sonny Lubick, who is married to Maggie’s sister.
Maggie was a year behind John, who stuck around Helena for a year doing substitute teaching while waiting for his wife to graduate. John’s first teaching job was in Oilmont, just down the road from Kevin and Sunburst, and a year later they moved to Maggie’s hometown of Chinook.
John taught and coached football, basketball and track there for 10 years before becoming Blaine County superintendent of schools.
Two years later, he accepted the vice principal’s job at Fergus High School in Lewistown.
He was in his second year in his new position when 14-year-old Kristofer Hans came to school with a gun.
Kristofer Hans, Moffatt says, was a bright kid from a broken home.
“He hated his dad,” John says. “His parents were pretty much diametric opposites. Kris’ father was stern. Ironically, he was a school psychologist. His mom was more relaxed, maybe more permissive.”
Some of Hans’ grades didn’t reflect his potential, including the flunking grades he was receiving in Simonfy’s French class.
He had been warned: Either he would improve his grades, or he would be sent to live with his father, who was in Wyoming.
“He was definitely worried about being sent back to his father,” Moffatt says.
Something else became known in the aftermath of the Lewistown shootings, and it’s one reason why Moffatt says that while guns must be a part of the discussion, so too must other things.
Kristofer Hans had recently read “Rage,” the first novel author Stephen King published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.
In the 1977 novel, a high school student in Maine who attacked his chemistry teacher with a wrench is expelled from school. The teenager immediately retrieves a pistol from his locker, shoots two teachers and takes a classroom full of his fellow students hostage.
“Rage” was linked to two other school shootings in the 1990s, and two incidents in the 1980s in which armed students took classmates hostage. King long ago demanded the book be taken out of print, and it was.
Although used copies can still be found online (almost $350 at Amazon) and it’s still on some library shelves, “Rage” may be out of print, but violence isn’t. Maggie Moffatt says violent movies, television shows, books and video games certainly have an impact, especially on children whose brains are still developing.
“Kids get desensitized to violence,” John Moffatt says. “There was a study that showed by the time they are 25 years old, young people, on average, have witnessed 25,000 murders on TV and in movies.”
“Something as fresh as the killings in the Aurora (Colo.) movie theater this summer, people have already forgotten about,” Maggie adds. “We’re becoming numb to these things.”
John Moffatt says he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after being shot at twice, and hit once.
There was the day he and Maggie were jogging and heard gunfire in the distance. Probably someone target shooting, Maggie figured, but when she looked over, John was gone. He had dived to the ground upon hearing the first shot.
“I had no control over how my body responded to the sound,” he says.
There was the day John overinflated a scooter tire and put it in his vehicle. When it exploded on the way home, “My head about went through the roof,” he says. And “I just about wound up in the potted plants” at a mall in Great Falls when kids ran out of a store shooting cap guns.
When they received a case of Italian wine from U.S. relatives of a foreign exchange student from Italy who was living with them at the time of the shootings, but the box had no return address, John gave it all away.
“At the time, it seemed logical that someone was out to poison me,” he says.
Worse, to John, was the effect the Lewistown school shootings and his close call with death had on his young children. None of them could sleep. Kevin and Sean, the oldest, displayed signs of anger and anxiety.
Meghan, the youngest, suffered horrific nightmares. The dream was always the same. She, Kevin, Sean, John and Maggie were all huddled in a closet by the front door in their home, hiding.
In the dream, Kris Hans had come back and entered their house, intending to murder them all.
She had the dream over and over, until about six years later, in 1992.
In 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two heavily armed seniors, killed 13 people and wounded 21 more at Columbine High School in Colorado, Meghan’s nightmares reappeared.
When terrorists attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001, they started again.
“She was at Carroll College by then,” Maggie says, “and when she called she could hardly talk. She was reliving the whole thing” from 15 years earlier at Lewistown.
Meghan, who now works at a hospital in the Denver area, was on duty on July 20 when all hell broke loose. James Eagan Holmes allegedly entered a movie theater in the area and, using a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun and two handguns, murdered a dozen moviegoers and wounded 58 more.
“She had to call parents of victims, she had to take calls from people searching for their loved ones – some of them told her she was their last hope, it was the last hospital they had to check,” Maggie says.
The nightmares started again that night.
“It keeps happening over and over,” Maggie Moffatt says. “Every time these shootings happen, we can hardly breathe – and we’re the lucky ones.”
The Moffatts never forget that the real victims in Lewistown were Henrietta Smith, her husband and their two young children.
“They suffered the real loss,” John says.
About five or six years after he was shot, John Moffatt – by then the elementary school principal in Lewistown – got a phone call.
It came from producers for ABC’s “Primetime Live.”
Would he like to meet Kristofer Hans face to face?
Diane Sawyer was planning to interview Hans – tried as an adult, and given two life sentences for the shootings on Dec. 4, 1986 – for a piece on gun violence in America.
Moffatt decided he would go.
The “Primetime Live” folks did not tell Hans that Moffatt would be there, but eventually during her interview with him, Sawyer asked Hans – then about 20 years old – if he ever wished he could speak to the vice principal he had shot at the age of 14.
Hans said yes, he did.
Sawyer then told him Moffatt was in the next room. Did he really want to?
“I had asked them to turn the cameras off at first if he wanted to see me, so it would just be me and him,” Moffatt says.
As soon as Kristofer Hans saw Moffatt, he collapsed against him, sobbing.
“Kris and I spent about a half-hour together,” Moffatt says. “Most of the time I just held him. He was expressing remorse, he said he didn’t understand why he did it. I think he was hoping I could forgive him, and he wasn’t trying to dodge responsibility for what he’d done.”
It was an important moment for Moffatt and his family.
“I was always angry” after the shootings, Moffatt says. “I thought if I could do this, it was a way of letting go of the anger and moving on.”
His children noticed the change in their father, and that changed them, the Moffatts say.
“It was about 1992,” John says. “The boys saw how remorseful Kris was, maybe saw him as a human being for the first time. For Meghan, after that TV piece came out, the nightmares stopped – at least, until Columbine happened.”
On his first day as the new elementary school principal in Lewistown, John Moffatt went to the front door to greet students and their parents for the start of a new school year.
The very first parent through the door was Kristofer Hans’ mother, with her stepson.
“She and I developed a good relationship,” Moffatt says. “For the next 18 years as the elementary principal, I had her kids in school, Kris’ sister’s kids in school, Mike Smith’s (Henrietta’s husband’s) kids in school – sometimes all in school together at the same time.”
That’s life in a small town.
In the aftermath of the Lewistown shootings, the Moffatts started a mentoring program there that matches older kids with younger kids, not unlike a Big Brothers Big Sisters model. The Central Montana Youth Mentoring Program continues to this day, and “got so big,” Maggie says, “we had to form a board of directors, hire an accountant and two advisers.”
Maggie also began a program, called High Notes for Kids, that arranges piano lessons for children who otherwise couldn’t afford them.
They are more than 26 years removed from the events of Dec. 4, 1986, but every time they hear of another shooting – be it a mass killing that garners national headlines, or a murder here in Montana – their minds zip back to that awful day.
They think about how just three bullets fired 26 years ago have impacted them and their children, and the Smiths, and LaVonne Simonfy, and students who watched a teacher take a bullet to the face, and students who watched their vice principal lay in a pool of his own blood, and the teachers and administrators who came running and the police who responded.
That doesn’t even count the impacts on Kristofer Hans’ family, and panicked students in other classrooms, and the attorney – a good friend of the Moffatts – who was appointed by the court to represent Hans, and faced the wrath of the community for doing his job.
Better than most, they can comprehend the impacts when there are 50 rounds fired, or 100, or – in the case of Columbine – more than 150 bullets released inside a school building.
“There’s this sadness, that we can’t seem to do anything about it,” John says. “It’s like we’re paralyzed to act on some simple basic steps to address gun violence.”
Kristofer Hans is now 40 years old. He comes up for parole periodically. It has never been granted.
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at email@example.com.