Eric Zorn discusses the Laurie Dann School shooting, what’s changed, what hasn’t changed, and what we can learn from the case that could help us stop the violence and restore peace in our schools.
Eric Zorn is an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune, specializing in local news and politics. He and his...
On May 20, 1988, Laurie Dann, a babysitter with a history of disturbing behavior and deteriorating psychological health, shot 6 children in a second-grade classroom in Winnetka, Illinois, killing one and severely wounding the others. The hostage situation and police stand-off that followed ended with Dann taking her own life. At the time, before school shootings were common, the incident rocked the country and dominated the news cycle for weeks. But what seemed unthinkable in 1988 has become tragically commonplace today—a school shooting now occurs every single week in America. In this edition, co-hosts Jonathan Amarilio and Jennifer Byrne are joined by Chicago Tribune journalist Eric Zorn for a look back on Dann’s life, tragic crimes, and legacy. They discuss what’s changed, what hasn’t changed, and what we can learn from the Dann case that could help us stop the violence and restore peace in our schools.
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The Murder of Innocence Edition: A Look Back on the Laurie Dann School Shooting with Eric Zorn
Jon Amarilio: Hello everyone and welcome to CBA’s @theBar, a podcast where young and young-ish lawyers have unscripted conversations with our guests about legal news, events, topics, stories and whatever else strikes our fancy.
I am your host, Jon Amarilio of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, and co-hosting the pod with me today is our venerable and ever-vigilant executive producer, Jennifer Byrne of the CBA. Hi Jen.
Jennifer Byrne: Hey Jon.
Jon Amarilio: Jen, we are joined today by a pillar of Chicago journalism, Eric Zorn. Eric is a longtime op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune, where he has been working since 1980, covering local news and politics.
Eric is also the coauthor of the book ‘Murder of Innocence: The Tragic Life and Final Rampage of Laurie Dann, the Schoolhouse Killer’, later made into a made-for-TV movie.
Everyone in the Chicago area in their mid 30s and older will remember Laurie Dann’s shooting spree and many in the wider nation as well. If it wasn’t the first school shooting in modern America, it was the first widely covered school shooting.
We will hopefully discuss some of the details in a bit, but just to refresh memories, on May 20, 1988, Dann, a divorce babysitter, aged 30, in the affluent Chicago suburb of Winnetka, delivered arsenic-laced food to numerous students, children, and families.
She then drove to an elementary school where she attempted, but failed to detonate a homemade firebomb. She then drove to another elementary school, where she shot five children, ranging in ages from 6 to 8, killing one and wounding 4 others. She only stopped when a teacher attempted to disarm her and her remaining pistols jammed. A manhunt ensued with schools placed on lockdown all over the northern Chicago suburbs.
Dann then took refuge with a nearby family, bursting into their home and claiming she was raped and running from her attacker. The family became suspicious when she refused to call the police. The family’s son, an all-American swimmer at the University of Illinois attempted to disarm Dann, at which point she shot him in the chest. He would thankfully later live.
With the police soon closing in on the house, Dann took her own life, ending the day’s violence, but sparking a debate that continued on. Dann’s case spurred discussions on gun control policy, on mental health treatment, on school safety and on civil liberties, all the topics that have some 30 years later become an almost weekly part of our national conversation.
This wasn’t the first school shooting in the country’s history, but it was one of the most widely covered and talked about, arguably starting what has a few decades later become a tragic trend.
Eric is here to talk with us today about Laurie Dann, about his experience with the case and about what that case can tell us about what’s happening in our country today.
Eric, welcome to @theBar.
Eric Zorn: Nice to see you guys both.
Jon Amarilio: So I don’t know where to begin or really if we have bitten off more than we can chew with this whole topic. There is a lot of ground to cover, but I thought we could start with discussing Laurie Dann’s case in your book, which is by far the most extensive detailed and gripping account of that terrible day and the events surrounding it.
How did you come to this topic first?
Eric Zorn: Well, when this happened I was a columnist in the suburban bureaus for the Tribune at the time and my coauthors were general assignment reporters downtown. Two of them had been up covering what was going on outside the home where she was holed up with the Andrew family up there, and after — we were good friends, three of us were good friends and we got to talking about how interesting it was that this had happened and how inexplicable it seems, like you have this young woman who was raised in privilege and suddenly she goes off the deep end and does all these things here. I think she also went to a home where she used to babysit the kids and tried to burn the place down.
Jon Amarilio: Right.
Eric Zorn: I mean it’s actually hard to keep track of all the stuff she did that day.
So how did this happen, the question we began asking? So the three of us proposed to the Tribune Magazine staff that we do a year later review of what went on, because there were still so many questions, there was a lot of stuff that was written about gun control and about school safety and mental health and so on, but nobody really knew what her sickness was and how this had happened.
And so what we did is we just went and — the three of us went and we just like went to every police department like in Highland Park, Glencoe and Winnetka, because she moved around up there and went through all their files about her. She also lived in Madison for a while, we went through — went up there, talked to the police there, talked to students there; she lived in student housing there.
And we just like sort of pulled that all apart to try — and the basic idea of the magazine article was how did this happen, how does — we talk kind of glibly I think about, this is a mental health problem, it’s mental illness, but what kind of mental health issue is this, and how does it resolve? I mean a lot of people have mental illness, a lot of people are on medication, a lot of people — it’s not an uncommon thing, why does one person go and shoot somebody and how could it have been stopped.
And that was sort of our motivation, and we did this and we ended up, we wrote I think like 6,000 words, something like that and we just felt like we had just barely scratched the surface in what we had. So we approached an agent in New York and said hey, look, this is a great story, remember this story, because it had been all over the news.
I mean this was — you think now, okay, one kid dies in a school shooting, it’s a sad story, but it’s a one or two day story in 2019, back then it went on for weeks, especially around here, and it was — part of it was that it was in Winnetka, okay, and Winnetka is, for anybody who doesn’t know who is listening to this, I mean Winnetka is one of the wealthiest suburbs in the area, maybe the wealthiest suburbs in the Chicago area. And how does this happen in a place like that.
And Laurie Dann came from wealth. She was raised in Highland Park and she was the only child of a wealthy accountant, and so it’s like okay, so she is raised in privilege and she lives in one of the nicest places in the country, and so all of these things kind of came together to make it a really big story.
And so the publishers — we got — Warner Books gave us a nice contract to write the book, and so then we just basically put together all of our notes. And we had over time gotten the confidence of the family of the victim, the boy who was killed and they talked to us at great length.
And of course victims, they are good for some background detail and to make the reader feel and understand the pain of the loss, but they come in really at the very, very end of the story. The person who was most helpful to us was Russell Dann, Laurie’s ex-husband. And he trusted us and I think we repaid his trust. I mean I am still friendly with Russell after all these years that he trusted us with everything, he opened up every file he had, every letter he had, every photo album he had.
Jennifer Byrne: And you can tell that this book is — I mean first of all, I picked it up and read it within 48 hours I think, because it’s such a page-turner and I say that as a compliment to you and your coauthors, but also it’s true crime, but it’s just so fascinating I think, particularly as a resident of the Chicago land area, people nationwide would be interested in this, because for the reasons you said, this is the least likely person and place for something like this to happen you would assume.
Of course I am being stereotypic when I say that, but I mean she is a wealthy woman from one of the wealthiest suburbs in the United States of America. She had every opportunity for excellent education and schooling, although that never materialized into much for her.
And as a mother reading this, you are so terrified thinking, you try to provide the best for your kids and put them into the best community and the best school, etc. and that’s still not protecting them from something so tragic from happening potentially.
Eric Zorn: Of course that was the other aspect of this, which was that it could happen anywhere and that was what was so terrifying about it. But again, since that time, places like Columbine and Parkland, those places, or Sandy Hook, those are all really nice places; they may not be the richest suburb in the world, but these are places where people have means, where people do not expect this kind of thing to happen.
Jon Amarilio: Right.
Eric Zorn: That’s one of the reasons why it was such a shocking story and why I think we were able to get so many people interested in it right away, and I really think that — I am glad you liked the book a lot. It was the level of detail that we were able to get. We started off, basically we made a master timeline starting with Laurie’s birth basically and everything we could find, every yearbook, interviewing every friend from school, and we just like put it together just in complete chronological order, the entire narrative was in a huge chronological order. And then we said okay, now, we have to tell a story.
Jon Amarilio: And there was a lot there, she had years and years of deeply disturbing behavior, right?
Eric Zorn: Right, there was a lot of — we found her old boyfriends, we found people she dated, we found her roommates, it was people she had grown together with.
Jennifer Byrne: But at the same time you say that Jon, I would actually say that as I was reading it, my mind kept shifting and changing about this person, because you know what the end of the story is, but some of the behaviors, while may be creepy, if I had just learned about it in isolation, I wouldn’t assume, oh, this person is going to go on a murder rampage around and kill a bunch of kids or attempt to kill a bunch of kids.
I mean some of the clinginess with the boyfriends and some of those things as you are moving along through the story, you could imagine that someone who might have mental illness or be slightly unhinged would do this. So from your perspective, were there any specific accounts from her past that tipped you?
Eric Zorn: Yes. I think one of the really key moments in this case was when — or in this story I should say is when Russell Dann, after they had split up and Russell Dann woke up one night and there is an intruder in his apartment, he got stabbed in the heart with an ice pick, and he knew it was Laurie, didn’t see her, because the person ran out, but he knew it was Laurie, it had all the hallmarks of something Laurie did. He called the police and they were like well, it sounded like — and they thought well, maybe he had faked it, that he had — because it didn’t kill him, it had just punctured his chest, but it didn’t go into his heart or anything like that.
And Russell told the parents about this and he let people know about this, and then subsequent to that, her psychiatrist, when she was up in Madison, wanted to institutionalize her. He thought that she was becoming a danger to herself and others because of all of her troubling behavior. He called her father and he asked, are there behaviors that would make you think that she is dangerous to self or others, and he said no.
And so there is an element of this story that goes beyond mental illness, that goes into denial, and I think we came down in the end pretty hard on her parents, her father in particular. Her mother I think was a very weak person and her father was a strong person, but he was ill-equipped let’s just say to deal with this kind of problem, and he kept denying it, and I think part of that is also part of this milieu.
I mean I think we need to look at, when you live in wealth, you grow up in wealth and all these kids around you are going to Ivy League schools and they are succeeding in all kinds of different ways, and then you have this daughter, who is kind of a weirdo, who has no self-confidence, who engages in this kind of odd behaviors, and so they like — they gave her —
Jon Amarilio: Let’s describe some of those for our audience. She would ride elevators for hours at a time.
Eric Zorn: She used to hoard raw meat. She would babysit for people and like hack up the furniture and then she would say, oh, I let some guy in to use the phone and then he leaves the phone and then when I came out he had gone and he — it was just — the stuff didn’t make any sense.
Jennifer Byrne: She was stealing frozen food from the people that she was babysitting, like lots of food, not just like one thing.
Eric Zorn: Yeah, like huge garbage bags.
Jennifer Byrne: Like bags full of food.
Eric Zorn: They discovered like a freezer had been emptied and stuff like that. I mean this was very sort of troubling and weird behavior that went beyond just kookiness. I mean she started off kind of kooky, but you have to remember that, one of the things — I thought it was — I thought it was interesting that her parents had her get a nose job and her parents had her pin her ears back, because she had ears that stuck out and her parents did that. So I think for them it was all about sort of trying to have this perfect daughter, and they didn’t have a perfect daughter and they didn’t know what to do about it.
And so they didn’t get her into the kind of care she needed, and then when she needed more care they would just like say oh, go see this doctor, go see this doctor, and then when the doctor said okay, we need to put her into an institution, because she needs a greater level of care, they were like no, no, no, no, we are not going to do that.
So it was I think a combination of some mental condition, and in retrospect they thought that she — her big problem was obsessive-compulsive disorder that would explain some of her really repetitive behaviors and she would wear the plastic gloves or rubber gloves so she wouldn’t have to touch doorknobs and things like that.
Jennifer Byrne: But yet some of the things seem to go beyond the scope of that.
Eric Zorn: Oh, way beyond that, way beyond that.
Jennifer Byrne: The raw meat thing being one of these.
Eric Zorn: Right, which some doctors told us was symptomatic of schizophrenia.
Jennifer Byrne: Right.
Eric Zorn: Other doctors said that the way her mood changed, the way her affect changed was more symptomatic of manic depression, but there are people with schizophrenia who are not dangerous, there are people with manic depression who aren’t dangerous.
The other thing that was going on was that, because of where she was living and how she was — how this was being coordinated, she was seeing a doctor in Madison, she was seeing a doctor here in the Chicago area, they were prescribing her — one guy was prescribing her lithium for depression, another guy was prescribing her Anafranil for OCD and the interaction of these drugs. And then she was also taking massive quantities of birth control pills for reasons that — why you would take more than one I don’t know, but that’s part of some issues that she had.
So she has like a chemistry experiment in some ways going on and no one is really overseeing this. She doesn’t have one doctor, and the one doctor who tried, Dr. Greist up in Madison, was rebuffed and she just stopped showing up to appointments there.
So we talk about what’s the — one of the things that we really were looking for is like what’s the lesson here, what do you pull out of a story like this, what do you — how can you say well, what could have been done differently? It’s fairly obvious to me that you needed somebody who was going to be quarterbacking her situation, someone who was not ashamed of her and who could make sure that she was getting the right treatment and getting the right kind of support and she wasn’t getting that, and so she was left to drift.
And why you would have someone in her condition living up in Madison, in student housing when she wasn’t a student, when everyone thought she was the weird elevator lady, then why you would then move her into a dorm at Northwestern when her parents lived 15 minutes away from there or so, I don’t know.
Jennifer Byrne: Well, before we sat down for this interview we had a little prep call and you during that conversation essentially brought up this issue of the parents being the ones to, I don’t want to say to blame, but were the ones that were empowered to do something and failed to, but it got me thinking about how many interactions she had with different facets of our society.
Eric Zorn: With law enforcement.
Jennifer Byrne: Law enforcement.
Eric Zorn: The local police.
Jennifer Byrne: With the court system during the divorce proceeding, with the universities themselves. I mean security was alerted to the behaviors, the thefts, the break-ins at Northwestern, I recall at least. I know that the university was at one point alerted to the behaviors at Madison, but I am not sure where in the chain of events that occurred.
Eric Zorn: Yeah, she was living in private housing up there, at one of those student high-rises that —
Jennifer Byrne: But I recall the incident where she was found in the garbage facility wrapped in a garbage bag and so there were outsiders that saw and were alerted to the problems, even concerned citizens, the families that she was babysitting for, some of them reported the thefts and the behaviors to the police. The father even paid restitution to one of the families at a point I remember.
But it got me thinking okay, so not everybody has parents, right, not everybody has someone in their corner. There are a lot of mentally ill people, any of whom could potentially reach a breaking point. Where does our society drop the ball? Where do these institutions drop the ball? I mean I don’t know if that’s a question we can answer today, but it did get me thinking about, could there have been interventions at any of these other points throughout her story?
Eric Zorn: Oh yeah, there could have been, and one of the things that I find interesting about this was that the police, who I think had a decent handle on her up in the North suburbs, still often thought of this as being like a divorce got bad. I can say I have gotten to know Russell Dann pretty well, at the time certainly got to know him pretty well, and he is a cocky guy and I think he comes off as a little brash and maybe a little bit condescending. I am not sure how the police reacted to him, but he just had this — he has this certainty about himself that you could probably also see in not an abusive husband, but someone who is a manipulative person. And I don’t think he is. I think he is a really genuine person, who was genuinely concerned about Laurie, but no one would — people weren’t listening to him.
And the police are limited in their — because it’s like things are sort of itemized up in one department, another department, they are not like getting together and talking about crazy ladies with meat when they have regional meetings, they are talking about car theft rings and so on and so forth.
Jennifer Byrne: Well, first of all, if the genders were reversed, if the roles were reversed, right, I mean — I think unfortunately or in this circumstance the presumption is that maybe a woman isn’t as capable or isn’t as likely to take it to the degree, and so when you hear of a woman being victimized in a domestic or divorce case, maybe the police would have jumped in a little bit more.
Eric Zorn: You know, I have never thought of that until right now, but I think you are probably right. I think if this had been Larry Dann and all these things had been reversed that the police and everybody might have reacted differently. She is not buying guns, right; her father would have known if she was buying guns.
Jennifer Byrne: Well, if you think about, I mean if this were a husband in a divorce; I mean I was a divorce practitioner before coming to work for the CBA so I have some firsthand experience with going into domestic violence court and so forth and just seeing people plead for a restraining order, for example. And I feel that even the most even-minded of judges are predisposed to give more sympathy to a woman who is an alleged victim in a circumstance like this. So if the roles are reversed, I don’t know if it would have gone to this point.
Eric Zorn: It’s interesting you should bring that up, because it never occurred to me, but as you bring that up, yeah, I think that’s probably right, that if you sort of think about all these situations, you think a man behaving in that way would probably seem to have a lot more menace and would draw more attention from police, would draw even more attention from the parents, and people will say like this guy, he is out buying guns and he is hoarding meat and slashing furniture, this guy needs to be locked way. But Laurie was, she was like 5’3”, 100 pounds, mean she was like —
Jennifer Byrne: A 30 year old woman.
Eric Zorn: She was kind of tiny and so I think a lot of people dismissed her as kooky, eccentric.
Jennifer Byrne: People were still letting her babysit for their kids.
Eric Zorn: Unbelievable, isn’t it?
Jennifer Byrne: Yeah.
Eric Zorn: Unbelievable that that was happening. So there is something to that and I never really thought about it until right now, so just 30 years too late, but yeah.
Jon Amarilio: And I imagine those predispositions would only be reinforced rather because she was claiming that her ex-husband sexually abused her and that she was the victim of abuse and that could explain from an outsider’s perspective some of her stranger behaviors.
Eric Zorn: Some, yeah, yeah, she was, and she had this sort of victim mentality and she carried these grudges against people. Like in her extended family, her in-law family, she was like making all these prank calls and harassing calls and, again, this seemed like annoying behavior, but I don’t think anybody thought that she was going to shoot up a school and try to poison a bunch of college kids and try to burn down a house and set off bombs in schools and so on.
Jon Amarilio: So to that point, didn’t the FBI get involved shortly before the shootings? I thought I read, it was either in your book or maybe in the PEOPLE Magazine article, when they covered it shortly after, that the FBI shortly before the shootings had informed local police that she should be considered armed and dangerous.
Eric Zorn: Yeah, but it was one of those — I think it was more pro forma than something like all — at all points or anything like that. It clearly didn’t rise to the level of anybody — and she actually thought that she was going to do all the — create all this mayhem and then get in her car and drive up back up to Madison and no one would know who it was.
Jon Amarilio: So how do we know that?
Eric Zorn: Oh, well, I think we know it because she still had a place up there and she got turned around — she was going — she wanted to head back out Tower Road and she turned left too soon and she ended up on this court, which is where the house was; it was like sort of a cul de sac and in trying to turn around, her car got stuck.
Jon Amarilio: This is the — for our audience, this is the house where she eventually kept herself.
Eric Zorn: This was the Andrew house, yeah, where Phil Andrew, the college swimmer was there, and we assume that. I think we don’t — we really don’t know what her game plan was, but she had left enough tracks around, people knew who she was, and she had been to the house where she set the fire, people knew that she had been there, so they would have figured it out pretty quickly I think, but clearly she wasn’t thinking straight.
And she went to Hubbard Woods, it’s not clear that she had Hubbard Woods in mind, she had no connection to that school and she didn’t know what — she wasn’t going after any particular kids. We think she chose classroom 7 because 7 was her lucky number and she went into classroom 7 after she had found this kid in the bathroom.
And then she wants — the hero of the story is the substitute teacher who refused to herd the kids. She said get all the kids together in the corner and the substitute teacher wouldn’t do it, and if she had, you might have had — we had one kid killed, but you could have had six, seven, eight, nine kids killed because she was ready to go. So it was lucky in that respect.
But we don’t know the method to her madness, so to speak. She was going after — some of the things made sense, some of the fraternities where she left poison treats or poison juice boxes or juice pouches, she had had bad dealings with them, but other things, no one was ever able to figure out, like what is the connection, why did she have a grudge against these people, and it wasn’t because she didn’t leave any writings that would have shed much light on that.
Jon Amarilio: And there was no suicide note.
Eric Zorn: I don’t think she thought she was going to kill herself.
Jon Amarilio: Right.
Eric Zorn: But I think when she got cornered, then she decided she was going to do that. And you think — I really wonder what would have happened if Phil Andrew had really realized what was going on and disarmed her when he had the chance, because he didn’t, and he talked about that with us, that there were plenty of times — what happened, just to refresh.
She burst into this house, wrapped in a plastic bag that she had in her car and says I have been raped and I shot my assailant and I am really concerned, and they said well, let’s call the police, and she says no, no, no, no, no, we can’t call the place, for some crazy reason.
Well, let’s call your mom, and so she calls her mom and talks to her mom and tells her she has done something terrible and she is really sorry, and Phil is standing nearby and he knows this woman has got a gun, but he feels that she has been traumatized.
Jon Amarilio: Right.
Eric Zorn: She has been sexually attacked so he doesn’t want to like grab her and take the gun away, but if he had, if he had realized what was going on, then we might have had a lot more answers to what was going on, of course that we now do, because she then shot him in the chest and he fortunately survived, and then she went upstairs to one of the girl’s bedrooms and shot herself in the mouth and that was it.
And we didn’t — nobody knew what had happened because the police hadn’t even arrived there yet, and she might have lived, she might have been there for an hour or two, or she probably — we figured she probably just went up there and shot herself, but her father came and was outside with a bullhorn, begging her to come out.
And at this point, as the story was just unfolding in the Chicago media, we were all thinking, oh my God, this poor family, this poor father, and Russell, her ex-husband was out there too and everyone was — it just looked like, who could have possibly seen anything going on here, who would have known that this had happened.
And of course as it developed later, there were a lot of things that people could have seen, could have done, should have done, and again, I don’t — I do think that Russell himself raised a lot of alarms and this isn’t just because he gave us all this time. He did talk to us a lot and gave us a lot, but even independent interviews with the police and so on, that they were pretty clear that Russell had been saying, this woman is big trouble and yet a lot of people were saying yeah, yeah, you know, you don’t like your ex-wife.
Jennifer Byrne: And again, coming from the perspective of being involved in divorce cases, every single client that comes in says, my situation is totally unique and you have heard it a million times, and police officers, it’s that and then some. I mean they are jaded at that point with having heard it before and so they don’t presume that it’s any special situation. It’s just someone that’s going through a nasty divorce and having an acrimonious proceeding and they are throwing blame back and forth and it’s really not that serious. I could see that happening certainly.
Eric Zorn: Yeah. So I think that was really a big element of this, which was this combination of the fact that they were a divorcing couple and people were having that feeling like, oh yeah, you guys and your accusations and counterclaims and so on.
Plus, like I said, Laurie’s parents just weren’t taking it seriously enough and where that all goes — they never talked to us and we tried a lot. We went down to Florida and knocked on their condo door down there to try and get them to talk to us, because we really wanted their side of the story, but we weren’t trying to ambush them. It was like tell us, fill in all the gaps in this real story. But I think they realized that — as they looked back on it how culpable they were, how much they had neglected to take it seriously enough clearly.
Jennifer Byrne: It seems like they just weren’t there that much.
Eric Zorn: That was really the impression that we got, yeah.
Jennifer Byrne: They were in Florida a lot. I mean even during this stint in Madison, A, why was she there like you said; and B, I mean they weren’t visiting her, there wasn’t — they just weren’t in contact other than to have these sort of like oversight calls with the doctor every so often it seems like.
Eric Zorn: Yeah, I have seen that — this is sort of haunting to me is the marriage between Russell and Laurie was really deteriorating and he was trying to support her while still getting out of the marriage. He felt kind of — he felt guilty about what was going on, because he knew that she was really lost without him and so he was trying to help her out, and she would call her parents in Florida; they spent most of their time in Florida.
And finally when the marriage was actually dissolving, she called and was just brokenhearted talking to her mother and saying Russell is moving out, our marriage is ending, and her mother says something like well, hang in there, we will be home in a few weeks. And to me that is such a crisis moment. I mean if that — God forbid that would happen to my kids, I would be on the next plane. That is a horrible thing, especially for someone as fragile as Laurie and especially given that they were in Florida, they were wintering in Florida, it’s not like he has got some — like we can’t possibly break away and her mother didn’t work, so she could have gotten on a plane and come up, but it never happened.
And you just think, someone without that kind of support, which is why when I think about Laurie Dann and living with her, so to speak, when we were doing this book for so long, my feelings for her — I mean I ended up feeling a great deal of pity for her and sympathy in some ways.
I mean I think she was just in way, way over her head. I would never use the word “evil” to describe her, even though she did evil things clearly, and was sort of seemed like possessed by evil impulses and instincts, but I just felt if you look at her whole life, look at how she was with the things that happened to her and you think like, yeah, she had a lot of opportunities to her. She had a lot of opportunities in life, and didn’t take advantage of them, but she was sick. She was a sick person and she wasn’t given the treatment that she needed, and this is what happened.
And then of course your heart completely breaks for the Corwin’s, and also I wanted to add that one of the things that we found this in reporting the story was that, that it was really, really hard to get people in Winnetka to talk to us. So the police in Winnetka were really good, they talked to us, but the citizens of Winnetka did not want to talk about this.
Jon Amarilio: Why is that?
Eric Zorn: They just don’t. If you ever covered like a crime in the city, neighbors will come out and talk to you, they’ll come out and family members will come and they’ll talk, you see it on TV all the time. Somebody’s shot and here’s the mother, here’s the sister and they talk, I mean, they’re standing in front of a bunch of balloons and stuffed animals and talking about what they know. The Corwin’s talk to us but other families did not talk to us. They wanted to talk to the kids who were in the classroom, with the kids’ families to see how the kids were doing, no one, they would hang up on us. They would not talk to us. This was something that they just wanted to put behind them.
There was even a controversy in Winnetka a couple years later about whether they were going to rename a park for Nicky Corwin, because they thought this was going to just remind people of this terrible incident that happened, they ended up doing that.
But I did want to say that a couple years ago I heard from one of the kids, he’s now 40, I guess, and he just wanted to talk to me. He had written a long manuscript about his experience about what it was to be a victim and how he had lived with this for so long and had not been able to talk to people about it. And he’s now a social worker at Rush, and so I did a long column on him and like linked people to his website and he talked about the fact that this is not — to us we see the immediate people who are affected by it.
We see the kid whose family dies and then we see the obvious main characters, but then you have these secondary characters and even I’m guessing there are tertiary characters too, kids who weren’t shot but were in the classroom that day who watched —
Jennifer Byrne: Witnesses, right.
Eric Zorn: — watched their friend die. And some of the police officers who responded to the scene, who had to carry these kids out including a dying boy, and if you think about what that must have been like at places where it was so much more horrific, like Sandy Hook, or you have — and those people and all the families who were there, the survivors, the first responders, all of these people and they carry this with them and Peter Monroe got in touch with me. Like I say, back then he was 38 when he got in touch with me. So it was one of those things were, and he was still really carrying around a lot and probably still is, it was couple years ago. So he probably still is.
So the other thing to think about when you are thinking about these school shootings is that they happened for us and in a little bubble, in a little news event bubble, we watch the coverage and we read about it and then it kind of just fades away.
Jennifer Byrne: But the ripple effect —
Eric Zorn: The ripple effect is —
Jennifer Byrne: — touches all walks of society outside of the immediate victim.
Eric Zorn: Yeah, as I say that, it’s also true of a lot of other violence too, and if you ever read Alex Kotlowitz’s book, but Alex got a new book out about violence in Chicago, and he talks a lot about this, which is like you have the original players, but then you have the families and you have the other, the friends and the mentors and everyone else who’s affected by violence, which is why it is such a serious thing, the tough thing to deal with is that it’s not just like the people we write about but it’s all the people around them, which is certainly an aspect of this story that we didn’t get into much because we tried, but we just didn’t — we couldn’t get to those people.
Jennifer Byrne: You got to a lot.
Eric Zorn: Got to a lot, but there’s a lot more we wanted to get. I don’t know how much longer they would have wanted the book to be, so what we did.
Jon Amarilio: So that raises a question about maybe some of the differences between how the press covered this murder spree then and how press covers school shootings now, certainly school shootings are much more frequent and unfortunately they just — they almost lack the shock value that they must have had back then.
I remember this incident vaguely as a child I was in school in Evanston. I remember this school going unlocked. I remember something happening, something scary happening with your parents showing up.
But now it seems like school shootings are — well, it doesn’t seem like they are a weekly event. In the last 47 weeks there have been 46 school shootings across the country, most of those school shootings in 2019 were in high schools and elementary schools. They generally involve handguns. They are generally committed by people age 14 and 19, the vast majority of them with sharp spikes around age 16 and 17. And I guess that reasons a number of questions about what’s causing all this, but I think your angle is particularly unique because you covered this then and you’re also experiencing it now.
What are the differences between how you personally would approach a story and perhaps broadly how the press approaches it as well?
Eric Zorn: Well, I do think that some of what’s going on right now is a copycat phenomenon that you — when you have someone like Klebold and Harris and Columbine, and the coverage that they got, the trenchcoat guys going into school and something like that, then you saw a lot — other school shootings where the shooter or shooters were sort of mimicking that, where they were thinking like, oh, we’re going to get a lot of attention and this is a way to get back at my bullies and so on. And so I think that one of the things that we deal within the media now is do we name the perpetrator, and do we pay the kind of attention that we pay to the perpetrator that Joel and George and I did in this book.
Jon Amarilio: Because it arguably glorifies it.
Eric Zorn: It arguably glorifies the matter. I mean, I like to think that if you read this, it’s not at all, it doesn’t glorify her, but the truth is you look at the cover of the book and there’s a picture of her and her name is on the cover and you’re thinking if you’re someone who thinks, well, I’m going to go out in a blaze of glory, I know they will be books written about me, Laura is on the cover of ‘People Magazine’.
Jennifer Byrne: It’s notoriety.
Eric Zorn: Yeah, it’s notoriety and so we have scaled back, a lot of these organizations have scaled back on naming the shooters and so we will maybe name them once, but we don’t do this kind of exploration, this kind of biographical look at them because we don’t want them to become heroes, become folk heroes in a way, because some of them actually do become folk heroes, and I don’t know the name because the name wasn’t repeated often enough but the Orlando nightclub shooter. Did he become a folk hero to some people? I guess, he shot up gay nightclub and I was like, yeah, it’s good and appealing.
Jon Amarilio: Right.
Eric Zorn: So there is that, like you can get your own sick community around you and so on.
Jon Amarilio: Alex Jones and the Sandy Hook denial community.
Eric Zorn: Yeah, all those people, yeah, and as I say here now, I can’t tell you the name of the shooter in Parkland, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I don’t know the name because whoever I mean that kid has been written about but not nearly to the extent that I think we went into the life of Laurie Dann and I don’t think that we inspired any copycats, but I don’t think that a book like this could be or would be written today for just that reason, like we don’t want to have a whole book, essentially a biography of a mad woman who killed somebody, because we feel like that glorifies her. And so the risk that we have is that we then don’t understand what happens.
Jon Amarilio: Are you being like those parents in Winnetka?
Eric Zorn: Are you being — yes, it’s a good question. By turning away from these people by not giving them the attention they crave, are we not giving the problem itself? So we go when we talk about gun control and we talk about other issues, and we talk generally about mental health, but we don’t generally try we — we try to pull apart and find answers, but again, we don’t — I think we don’t do it as deeply as we did in part because there’s so many of them. If you wrote — if you wanted to devote — I mean if he’s 46 school shoot, no one is going to read 46 books in 46 weeks about school shooters.
So I think there’s some way in which we become numb to this and there’s some way that we’re not maybe asking all the questions that we could or should be asking about it. Some of it is frustration.
Jennifer Byrne: Well, like I said earlier as I was reading it I was identifying, oh, here was an area where someone could have done something differently.
Eric Zorn: Yes, so many places.
Jennifer Byrne: Yeah, there were so many places and if I hadn’t read it, it wouldn’t have sparked that thought process for me and so I see both sides of it, but I do see some value in analyzing the life of someone who devolves to this point because there will be others there have been others and we’re failing to put an end to this, and we haven’t learned enough from —
Jon Amarilio: Well, not just failing and put an end to it, but it seems to be increasing exponentially.
Jennifer Byrne: Right, exactly, we failed to put an end to it and it’s getting worse. So what are we allowing to cultivate in our society that we’re not uncovering enough, I don’t think.
Eric Zorn: Yeah, although, I’m not — yeah, I mean, you look at each story and it may be unique or it may just be that you have these kids who — or kids in many cases you say the average age is what, teenagers, right?
Jon Amarilio: Yeah.
Eric Zorn: 14 to 19, that there is a disaffectation that goes on, that these kids feel lonely and bullied and insignificant, and they feel like this is a way to make a statement, and there’s some nihilism going on, and I don’t know what causes that.
I think kids have always been picked on, kids have always felt lonely and they’ve always felt like the teenagers are really hard and yet before the 80s, you didn’t have these kids bringing guns to school and making a big final last hurrah display.
And so there’s a real question in my mind is how much of this is — it happens all the time that it’s going to happen more because there’s nothing that is arresting it and I am not sure what that would be because these kids often don’t.
How many times you read a story about this where — the thing about Laurie was — there were so many signs. A lot of these kids, you read us say like, oh well, he was on the track team, he didn’t have a lot of friends, but he seemed like a normal kid, but you’d never say it about Laurie Dann, I mean Laurie Dann was —
Jennifer Byrne: But has anyone looked into with a finer toothcomb the way you did with Laurie into those interactions?
Eric Zorn: I don’t know.
Jennifer Byrne: I mean, because — I mean your book goes into, obviously Russell Dann was the linchpin to getting that much detail but like you’re inside their marriage, you’re inside their home, you’re inside their closets.
Eric Zorn: Yes.
Jennifer Byrne: I mean, you know what’s going on and you’re getting a sense and a flavor for like what is this dangerous cocktail that’s being made and you don’t hear that when we’re not going through the details with these other shooters, with these other perpetrators.
So, I don’t know. I don’t know, if you can get that detail about every person who does this because perhaps there’s no one there bearing witness to it or there aren’t parents that are paying that close of attention but —
Eric Zorn: Yeah, occasionally they do leave trails on social media, you’ll see, you go back and retrospect and read their social media feeds and go like, oh well, those were all the warning signs.
Jon Amarilio: Yeah, see their 4chan or 8chan or whatever chan they are up to now.
Eric Zorn: Whatever chan they are up to now, yeah, but they will have left some clues, and of course, then you’ve got the situation, well, if we can’t stop the problem there, like we can’t find these kids in their homes and say, okay, this kid is planning, can you, using school security keep the school safe or can you somehow manage to keep firearms out of their hands.
And I gave up on gun control actually after Sandy Hook. I mean, if Sandy Hook didn’t move Congress to enact stricter — at least something on gun control then nothing will, and so at that point, I said, well, I’m not going to listen to people. When these things happened I said, well, we’ll just need to pass more gun control.
I think we do and I think it’s possible to do that while still respecting the Second Amendment, but I’m so tired of that argument because it just feels like it never goes anywhere. I think you need to — I understand why schools are now doing things like have you seen this, there’s a school design where like the hallways are curved now so the shooter doesn’t have a nice long shot and they’re like little cubbies that people can — walls that stick out so you can hide behind the walls. They are trying to do it with school design and school security to decrease the possibilities for mayhem, but you take it out of the school building, it’ll end up in the parking lot or in the football stadium, they will find ways unfortunately to do that.
Jon Amarilio: And it seems like all that goes back to exactly what you were talking about at the beginning of the hour which is that people said when this happened this wasn’t supposed to happen in Winnetka, but you don’t hear people saying that anymore. Kids expect this to happen these days. They are almost —
Eric Zorn: The active shooter drills.
Jon Amarilio: There are active shooter drills on a monthly basis in school, say, there is nothing unusual.
Eric Zorn: And even a lot of school — but most schools every, school I think now has locked down. If you try to go to an elementary school, they are all locked and a lot of schools — I think the high schools have metal detectors. My kids went to Chicago public high schools and they walked through metal detectors every day.
But it’s interesting to think that you go back to 1988, Laurie Dann just walked in to the school.
Jennifer Byrne: Oh, she was walking the halls for a significant period of time.
Eric Zorn: Yeah and —
Jon Amarilio: Several schools.
Eric Zorn: And nobody — yeah.
Jennifer Byrne: And walked into the classroom and sat in the classroom observing the students with the teachers sitting next to her and the substitute teacher assumes she was what? A student teacher?
Eric Zorn: A student teacher — felt she was a student teacher, yeah.
Jennifer Byrne: So another red flag too if a man had done that, would people have reacted the same way? But I will put a pin in that for now.
Eric Zorn: I think you are right. You are making a point here.
Jon Amarilio: So that reminds me of something that we talked about when we had our call last week to kind of flush some of these subjects out, which is, you said something, I thought was a really poignant. You said that the Laurie Dann shootings are both relevant and nostalgic.
Eric Zorn: Yeah.
Jon Amarilio: What made you say that?
Eric Zorn: Well, I mean, it’s nostalgic because of the times that had happened in. It was so much more of an innocent time that the idea that it couldn’t happen in Winnetka was very prevalent that people really didn’t think it could happen there, so that the schools were not locked, so that the kids would — people would — adults could walk into the school, parents could walk in, it was just — it was a totally different time.
Yet it’s relevant because we have to take seriously. When someone is doing things like making the kind of threatening calls that she was making and buying guns and so on that we have to be able to put all these things together and then be able to intervene. So if there’s a sense that when we review this story and people say, like hey, I see some real warning signs here and we have to take steps.
We have to really take this seriously and not say, oh, this is just quirkiness, this is somewhat an oddball, zany young woman collecting mates or slashing up furniture and all the things that she did that you have to really realize that these things are in fact warning signs.
Now, as far as I know, we haven’t seen anything that comes close to actually replicating this particular form of violent madness on our part. There hasn’t been like — and in fact, just about all these shooters are men, right? Well, one thing that’s really unusual is that it’s a woman and that it’s probably part of — another part of the reason why this was such a big stream at Jennifer’s point.
If this had been a guy, if this had been Larry Dann, I’m not, it wouldn’t might not have been nearly its biggest story even then, even in 1988. It might not have been its biggest story, but when you have — I don’t think we’ve seen a situation where someone has shown as many warning signs and has gone on to kill kids, random kids like that.
I don’t think we’ve seen that and I don’t see every mayhem story in the country but I don’t think that’s happened. So it might be that this has served as a little bit of a warning to people somewhere. I don’t know if someone says, oh, this sounds like that woman in Winnetka who we needed to step in and take away her guns because if she didn’t have guns, she was so ineffective.
You think about all the number of people she planned to kill or if she wanted to kill, I mean it was in the dozens.
Jennifer Byrne: That’s a memorable passage in the book where you talk about her intended victim count if she had been “successful” at detonating the bombs at poisoning all of the individuals that she had intended to, the death toll would have been much more substantial.
Eric Zorn: It is actually stunning as you look at it that only person died. She said tried set fire to the house, tried to poison all these people, nobody went for it. She had a gun in a classroom of all these kids and she just — I don’t — it is a miracle that only one kid died that really is, and it is she was so ineffective at everything she ever did including this, thank goodness, right?
Jennifer Byrne: Right.
Eric Zorn: So, yeah, it was a — and as you look at anything, what the body count could have been here? What she wanted the body count to be was horrific, so.
Jon Amarilio: And on that note, we’ll take a break.
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Jon Amarilio: And we’re back. So we like to close each episode out with a game we call Stranger than Legal Fiction. Eric, the rules are very simple. Jen and I have done a little research, found a strange law that’s still on the books somewhere but probably shouldn’t be. Made another one up. We’re going to quiz you and each other to see if we can distinguish strange fact from fiction. Are you ready to play?
Eric Zorn: It sounds fun. Let’s go.
Jon Amarilio: Jen, why don’t you lead us off?
Jennifer Byrne: All right. First, potentially real potentially fake law. In Galesburg, Illinois there is a Statute stating that no person may keep a smelly dog. Real or fake?
Second option, in Kentucky it’s against the law to declaw your cat before it’s one-year-old. Real or fake?
Jon Amarilio: What do you think, Eric?
Eric Zorn: I think Kentucky. I think the Kentucky law is real. The Galesburg law is false.
Jon Amarilio: I agree. Why are you thinking that?
Eric Zorn: I’ve read stories recently that there is a lot of concern about declawing cats.
Jon Amarilio: How is that right?
Eric Zorn: A lot of people think it’s a really bad thing to do. I don’t have cats, so I don’t have a dog in the fight, so to speak, but I think that the Kentucky law is real.
Jon Amarilio: That sounds right. It’s just a more extreme form of animal cruelty rather than not bathing your dog.
Jennifer Byrne: And you would both be wrong.
Eric Zorn: Oh no.
Jon Amarilio: Oh no, really?
Jennifer Byrne: The real law is in Galesburg, no smelly dogs allowed apparently, and the Kentucky one, I literally just made that up. I don’t know where I came up with it but —
Jon Amarilio: Sounds good.
Eric Zorn: You probably saw the same articles I did about declawing cats.
Jennifer Byrne: I made that, yeah. I feel like it’s kind of mean to declaw a cat, but —
Eric Zorn: So here is my question, counselor, how do you — what does smelly mean?
Jennifer Byrne: That’s — so — so let me say —
Eric Zorn: I mean every dog at that point —
Jennifer Byrne: When I pulled this, there was an entire discourse about that very like how would we ever determine — how you define smelly and so forth.
Eric Zorn: Yeah.
Jennifer Byrne: I don’t know, but I am sure —
Jon Amarilio: Was that in a health code or where was it?
Jennifer Byrne: No, I don’t know, I just found an article that was highlighting fake and real things in Illinois, and I went with that.
Jon Amarilio: Well done.
Jennifer Byrne: So I’m assuming it’s in the health code. What else would it be?
Eric Zorn: We had a gassy dog for a long time and she would not have been welcomed in Galesburg.
Jennifer Byrne: Next episode, I will come with my citation.
Jon Amarilio: All right. Thank you.
Jennifer Byrne: For this one.
Jon Amarilio: You are a lawyer, Jen, it’s expected.
All right. Round two. Option one, in Texas it is legal to open-carry a handgun in the State Capitol Building.
Option number two, in Texas public universities and colleges are required to allow their students to open carry on campus.
Jennifer Byrne: Second one real.
Eric Zorn: I would say the second one is real. Yeah, that sounds very Texas to me.
Jon Amarilio: Yeah.
Eric Zorn: They’re required to allow them to.
Jon Amarilio: Required to allow them to.
Eric Zorn: Right, and I don’t — and I think that generally my sense of this is that when it comes to things like carrying guns that lawmakers are happy to have people carry them anywhere but where they are and where they’re doing their business, so I will go with the campus, and —
Jennifer Byrne: Agreed, agreed.
Jon Amarilio: So I would say that this is one of the few examples where the lawmakers are putting their money where their mouth is, you can open carry in the State Capitol. Public universities are required to allow their students to conceal carry.
Eric Zorn: Conceal carry.
Jon Amarilio: Not open carry.
Eric Zorn: So —
Jon Amarilio: Yeah. That was a tricky one.
Eric Zorn: So I don’t go home with a prize.
Jon Amarilio: I think your instincts were right. So we will give you a CBA banner.
Eric Zorn: If I was going to win the car, don’t know.
Jon Amarilio: And that’s going to be our show for today. I want to thank our guest Eric Zorn of the ‘Chicago Tribune’ for this interesting and informative if saddening conversation.
The book is ‘Murder of Innocence’. I have to say it’s 30-years-old but it remains a must read, and I highly recommend it.
I also want to thank my co-host and our Executive Producer, Jen Byrne, as well as Ricardo Islas on sound, and everyone at the Legal Talk Network family.
Remember, you can follow us and send us comments, questions, episode ideas or just troll us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @CBAatthebar. Please also rate us and leave us your feedback on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you download your podcast, it helps us get the word out.
Until next time for everyone here at the CBA, thank you for joining us and we will see you soon at the Bar.
Young and young-ish lawyers have interesting and unscripted conversations with their guests about legal news, events, topics, stories and whatever else strikes our fancy.
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