Trigger Effect

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Gary Gillis, then a Stockton Fire captain, pulled up to the back of Cleveland School with his men on Engine 7. The firefighters from Engine 9 had already extinguished the car fire reported by dispatch. Their driver pointed to the gap in the fence. “They went in through that gate,” he told Gillis, gesturing toward his crew on the school grounds. “And they’re gathering up kids.”

A young Cleveland elementary student, who was wounded in the chest during the shooting, receives medical attention. (Photograph by Michael Chow/Getty Images)“By then we’ve all figured out what’s going on here: That somebody randomly is shooting kids on the campus,” Gillis says today. His team retrieved their gear and followed their colleagues through the gate. They had drilled and prepared for mass-casualty incidents, but there was no protocol for responding to an active shooter at an elementary school. Was the shooter even neutralized? Were there multiple shooters? Gillis was confident that the city’s first responders would deliver on their training. He just couldn’t know at the time if they were about to become targets as well.

At 11:50 a.m.—five minutes after the shooting began—Gillis approached a police officer standing at the fringe of the playground. In front of the officer, Gillis saw a body crumpled on the ground. It was a male, wearing a bulletproof vest over a camouflage jacket, still breathing despite a severe gunshot wound to his head. “That’s the shooter,” the officer said.


Patrick Edward Purdy used to be one of them. He had started kindergarten at Cleveland Elementary School on Sept. 2, 1969—a little more than two months before his fifth birthday, and a little less than a year after his mother Kathleen married his stepfather, Albert E. Gulart, in Reno. Along with Purdy’s sister Cynthia and infant brother Albert Jr., the new family settled in Stockton. Patrick would eventually complete first through third grades at Cleveland, winding down his primary education there just as his mother wound down an abusive marriage to Gulart. The couple divorced in 1973, at which time Purdy’s mother moved herself and her three children up to Sacramento.

Shooting victim Rob Young, now a police officer, stands with one of the rifles in his gun collection at his home in Stockton. (Photograph by Max Whittaker)An October 1989 report to the California attorney general about the Cleveland shooting describes one of Purdy’s early encounters with police, when officers in Sacramento responded to a neighbor’s report of three children left home alone. The kids spent the night in protective custody; his mother faced child neglect charges when the incident repeated itself two days later. (Charges were dropped after Kathleen Gulart attended counseling.) Purdy was in the process of repeating fifth grade at Joseph Bonnheim Elementary—about a mile south of Sacramento State University and closed this past June—when his mother moved the family again, this time to South Lake Tahoe. The attorney general’s report cites “intense conflict” between young Patrick and his mother at this time. She threw him out of the house in the summer of 1978. Purdy was 13. In later psychiatric evaluations, he would describe his mother as being “good at making you feel like an ass,” a “sick witch epileptic” and “the slave driver mother dearest.”

The rest of the report maps the dysfunction, alienation and sickness that plagued the remainder of Purdy’s short life and steered him to the Cleveland campus in January 1989. When he was 14, the transient teen was arrested in South Lake Tahoe for possession of stolen property and dangerous weapons; a few months later, while living with his father in Lodi, he underwent treatment at a Stockton drug and alcohol rehab clinic. In a mental health evaluation at the time, Purdy said he hated his mother and “could chop her head off.” His counselor wrote that Purdy seemed to be “seeking a father figure to restrain him” and concluded that “if his acting out is not contained now, he will develop into a highly deceptive sociopathic character and be practically untreatable.”

At least nine other arrests preceded Purdy’s 18th birthday. Nevertheless, in 1983, the California State Bureau of Collection and Investigative Services licensed 19-year-old Purdy as a security guard. He worked less than a month as a guard for one Los Angeles firm, which was sued because of Purdy’s alleged neglect of duty at a local supermarket.

Two and a half months later, Purdy made his first recorded gun purchase. Despite his felonious weapon run-ins as a juvenile, his troubled psychological history and a record of drug and alcohol abuse so prodigious that the federal government would eventually classify him as disabled, Patrick Purdy had never been convicted of a felony as an adult. And so it was that on April 28, 1984, Purdy walked out of a gun store in Los Angeles as the new owner of an Excam Targa .25-caliber pistol.

Purdy quit another security job and returned to Sacramento, where he worked 23 days for Vanguard Security before failing probation. In August of 1984, he completed a report for the Social Security Administration that listed 12 previous jobs lasting an average of one month or less.

He grappled with his sexual orientation, confiding his growing torment and isolation to doctors. “I never seem to fit in with everyone else,” Purdy wrote on his vocational report. “They are either laughing at me, calling me a gay boy, talking behind my back, or something. I guess I’m just not good enough.” In a subsequent disability report, he confessed: “I’m gay and in the recent past I had some bad drug problems.” In two separate psychological evaluations in October and November 1984, doctors characterized Purdy as a drug addict with “borderline intellectual functioning” and being “moderately confused.” He was diagnosed with substance-induced personality disorder and determined eligible to receive Social Security disability benefits.

On April 14, 1986, a drunken Purdy sought treatment at the Sacramento Mental Health Center for alcoholism and “occasional suicidal ideation.”

On July 3, 1986, he bought a Davis .22-caliber pistol in Modesto.

That autumn, returning to the Sacramento Mental Health Center, Purdy told counselors, “I’m not thinking the way I should be thinking.” Purdy broke into tears, saying his mother abused him and that he felt “lonely and unloved.” He said he identified with a postal employee who shot his co-workers and that he heard voices urging him “to do things.” A doctor prescribed Thorazine and asked Purdy to return a week later. When he came back on Oct. 7, Purdy appeared to have improved.