Minnesota Killer Chafed at Life On Reservation
Teen Faced Cultural Obstacles And Troubled Family History

By Blaine Harden and Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page A01

RED LAKE, Minn., March 24 -- In the months before he killed his grandfather, his classmates and himself, Jeff Weise painted an utterly nihilistic -- and often eloquent -- word portrait of life here on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

He described the reservation in Internet postings as a place where people "choose alcohol over friendship," where women neglect "their own flesh and blood" for relationships with men, where he could not escape "the grave I'm continually digging for myself."

In his dark and self-pitying depictions of life on the reservation, Weise appears to have drawn from his troubled personal history: When he was 8, his father committed suicide on the reservation after a standoff with police. About four months later, his mother suffered severe brain damage in an alcohol-related car accident.

Before that accident, while Weise was living with her in the suburbs of Minneapolis, his alcoholic mother often locked him out of her house and her boyfriend locked him in a closet and made him kneel for hours in a corner, said his grandmother, Shelda Lussier, 54, in whose home on the reservation the boy had lived since age 9.

In an interview outside her home, Lussier said that Weise, a hulking boy who stood 6 feet 3 inches tall and was almost always dressed in black, tried to hurt himself 14 months ago by jabbing his arms with a pen.

With his self-professed loathing of reservation life and burdened by the psychopathologies of his parents, Weise on Monday joined the ranks of America's schoolhouse mass murderers. The 16-year-old killed nine people -- his grandfather, his grandfather's female companion, a school guard, a teacher and five schoolmates -- before killing himself.

Still, Weise was not all wrong in his assessment of Red Lake. Like many Indian reservations, especially the poor and isolated ones in and around the Great Plains, this can be a dangerous, soul-crushing place to grow up.

Compared with the tidy Denver suburb where two teenage boys went on a well-armed rampage at Columbine High School, killing 13 people and then themselves in 1999, Red Lake exists in a distant and exponentially more dismal dimension of the American experience.

"I'm living every mans nightmare," Weise wrote online in January. "This place never changes, it never will."

If that sounds like teenage overreaching, Sister Sharon Sheridan, 73, principal at St. Mary's Mission School on the reservation, said this of the shootings: "You can't condone what happened here, but you sure can understand it."

Warning Signs

In Washington this week, the director of behavioral health for the Indian Health Service, which provides health care here and for hundreds of other reservations, said the complex behavioral problems that have scarred several generations of Weise's family are all too common.

"This is a tragedy that I have seen the potential for in so many other places in Indian country," said Jon Perez, who is also a psychologist for adolescents. "I am worried about making sure that this doesn't have to happen again."

As the months, weeks and days ticked by before Monday's shooting, Weise was sending clear signals -- what Joe Conner, a clinical psychologist and expert on mental health care for Native Americans, described as "huge red flags and baggage everywhere" -- of serious adolescent mental illness.

Twice in the past school year, he stopped attending Red Lake High School -- and received home tutoring -- because he became severely depressed and was unable to handle teasing from his classmates, his grandmother said. She said the last time he had been at school -- before he stormed in with guns blazing on Monday -- was about five weeks ago.

The last time he saw a mental health professional at the Red Lake hospital was on Feb. 21, she said. She remembers the date because it was the same day he refilled his prescription for 60 milligrams a day of Prozac, which he had been taking since last summer.

Online, he seemed to be reaching out in strange directions, especially for a Native American kid. He wrote sympathetically about Hitler and grumbled about racial interbreeding among tribal members.

But there appears to have been no one in the school or on the reservation who saw the red flags.

Ethnic Hardships

A bleak mountain of federal research suggests the extraordinary risks and hardships of growing up Indian, compared with growing up as a member of any other ethnic group in the United States.

The annual average violent crime rate among Indians is twice as high as that of blacks and 2 1/2 times as high as that for whites, according to a survey last year by the Justice Department.

Indian youths commit suicide at twice the rate of other young people, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The overall death rate of Indians younger than 25 is three times that of the total population in that age group.

Compared with other groups, the commission found, Indians of all ages are 670 percent more likely to die from alcoholism, 650 percent more likely to die from tuberculosis, 318 percent more likely to die from diabetes and 204 percent more likely to suffer accidental death.

And despite considerable income gains in the past 15 years, some of it because of Indian gambling operations, Native Americans remain the poorest ethnic group in the country, with about half the average income of other Americans.

When it comes to young Indians, the statistical picture here on the Red Lake reservation, home to about 5,000 tribal members, is even bleaker than the national average. A third of teenagers on this reservation are not in school, not working and not looking for work (compared with 20 percent on all reservations), according to census figures.

A survey last year by the Minnesota departments of health and education found that young people here are far more likely to think about suicide, be depressed, worry about drugs and be violent with one another than children across the state. At St. Mary's Mission School, an elementary school student recently painted a poster for her father: "Dad, don't do cocaine any more."

The state survey of ninth-graders found that at Red Lake High, 43 percent of boys and 82 percent of girls had thoughts about suicide, with 20 percent of boys and 48 percent of girls saying that they tried it at least once.

Three months ago, Weise wrote online about suicide: "I'm starting to regret sticking around, I should've taken the razor blade express last time around. . . . Well, whatever, man. Maybe they've got another shuttle comin' around sometime soon?"

The Region's History

Compared with other reservations in Minnesota and across the country, Red Lake appears to have had an especially toxic history of violence, drug problems and gang activity. The curriculum now includes courses in anti-gang training, anti-bullying training, drug and alcohol abuse prevention, and instruction in fetal alcohol syndrome.

School Superintendent Stuart Desjarlait said a gang shooting at the high school in 1996 prompted federal funding for metal detectors, security cameras and security guards. The security system, however, proved all but useless when Weise showed up at the high school on Monday, driving a police cruiser he had stolen from his slain grandfather, wearing a bulletproof vest and armed with three weapons. Police responded quickly, but it took only about 10 minutes for Weise to kill seven people and himself.

Across the reservation in the past 30 years, there have been periodic outbreaks of violence that caused fatalities. During a riot over tribal leadership in 1979, two teenagers were killed and several buildings were burned as scores of tribe members, many drunk and carrying rifles, took over the tribal police station.

The tribe's geographic isolation here in the northwest corner of Minnesota has been exacerbated by a long tradition of self-enforced isolation. For more than a century, the tribe has resisted federal programs that would open up the reservation to private land ownership. "We have just not ever been too crazy about white people coming around the reservation," said Lee Cook, a former member of the tribal council.

Portrait of a Boy

Weise was born in Minneapolis but spent most of his first three years with his father on the reservation, his grandmother said. His parents never married, she said, and his mother took the boy back to Minneapolis when he was 3. This shuffling from reservation to city is common among Native Americans, as two-thirds of them now live in and around cities.

The boy was often unhappy with his mother. According to Gayle Downwind, a teacher on the reservation who knew Weise and whose son, Sky Grant, was one of his best friends, he was often tormented by his mother's problems with alcohol.

"When he was younger, he said he would run out of the house because there would be yelling and alcohol," she said. "He wasn't sure where he would be going. He ended up at a police station."

He did not like being on the reservation, said his friend Grant, who had Weise at his home for sleepovers nearly once a week for seven years. He refused to participate in powwows and avoided all traditional Indian activities, Grant said.

At school, he was an indifferent student. Peers teased him about his black outfits and his ungainly bulk (well over 200 pounds), and he often became agitated in class. He failed eighth grade and was required to take a nonacademic class, making wigwams, growing wild rice and doing other traditional activities. His friend's mother, Downwind, was his teacher. "He wasn't doing any work," she said. "He didn't function academically. He just sat there and drew pictures."

Grant called all of Weise's drawings "dark," saying, "He drew pictures of war, people getting shot."

Seventeen days before the shooting, Weise brought a videotape of the movie "Elephant," based on the killings at Columbine High, to Grant's house and insisted that they fast-forward to the shooting scenes. "He liked the gore," Grant said.

When the gory part was over, Grant said, Weise got up and went to his grandmother's house. He said he was going home to get his medication and gave the impression that he would be right back. He never came back, and that was the last time Grant saw him.

Whatever the trigger might have been for Weise to turn fantasy in action, it was not apparent to the people he lived with -- his grandmother, an aunt and a 15-year-old cousin.

At noon on the day of the shootings, his grandmother returned home for lunch and found Weise sitting on the couch in the living room, eating a turkey sandwich and drawing. When she came home again at 3 that afternoon, he was gone. He did not leave a note.

Staff writers Ceci Connolly in Minneapolis and Sylvia Moreno in Red Lake and special correspondent Dalton Walker in Red Lake contributed to this report.

2005 The Washington Post Company