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Brenda Ann SPENCER

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Homicide
Characteristics: Juvenile (16) - School shooting
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: January 29, 1979
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: April 3, 1962
Victims profile: Principal Burton Wragg, 53 (Principal) and Michael Suchar, 56 (Custodian)
Method of murder: Shooting (.22-caliber rifle)
Location: San Diego, California, USA
Status: Pleaded guilty. Sentenced to 25 years to life in prison
 
 

 
 

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On January 29, 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Spencer killed two people and wounded nine when she fired on San Diego's Grover Cleveland Elementary School with a .22-caliber rifle from her family's house across the street.

The two victims were Principal Burton Wragg and custodian Mike Suchar. Eight students and a police officer were wounded. Spencer, the original high-school rampager, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. When asked why she did it, she said the often quoted: "I just don't like Mondays." At the time she also told negociators, "It was a lot of fun seeing children shot."


The Cleveland Elementary School shooting took place on January 29, 1979, in San Diego, California. Shots were fired at a public elementary school. The principal and a custodian were killed. Eight children and a police officer were injured.

A 16-year-old girl, Brenda Ann Spencer (born April 3, 1962), who lived in a house across the street from the school, was convicted of the shootings. She was tried as an adult, and pled guilty to two counts of murder and assault with a deadly weapon. She was given an indefinite sentence and remains in prison.

During the shooting, a reporter phoned houses near the school looking for information about what was going on. He reached Spencer, who freely admitted that she was the one doing the shooting. When asked why she was doing what she was doing, one of the things she was said to have told him was: "I don't like Mondays." The alleged comment was widely publicized; Spencer later said she did not recall making the remark.

Brenda Ann Spencer

Spencer lived in the San Carlos neighborhood of San Diego, California in a house across the street from Grover Cleveland Elementary School, San Diego Unified School District. Aged 16, she was 5' 2" tall, unusually thin, and had bright red hair; a classmate described her as "pretty crummy looking".

Acquaintances later said Spencer expressed negative attitudes toward police, and had talked about shooting one. Teachers described her as introverted; sometimes they inquired if she was awake. Later, during tests while she was in custody, it was discovered Spencer had an injury to the temporal lobe of her brain, attributed to an accident on her bicycle. Spencer excelled in photography, winning first prize in a Humane Society competition.

After her parents separated, she lived with her father, Wallace Spencer, in virtual poverty; they slept on a single mattress on the living room floor. Police later found half empty alcohol bottles throughout the house. In 2001 she accused her father of having drunkenly subjected her to beatings and sexual abuse. He said the allegations were not true. Spencer is said to have self-identified herself as "having been gay from birth."

In early 1978, staff at a facility for problem pupils, which Spencer had been referred to due to truancy, informed her parents that she was suicidal. That summer Spencer was arrested for shooting out the windows of the Cleveland Elementary with a BB gun, and burglary. In December a psychiatric evaluation arranged by her probation officer recommended Spencer be admitted to a mental hospital due to her depressed state, but her father refused to give permission.

For Christmas 1978 he gave her a Ruger 10/22 semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle with a telescopic sight and 500 rounds of ammunition. Spencer later said: "I asked for a radio and he bought me a gun." When asked why he might have done that, she answered, "I felt like he wanted me to kill myself."

Shooting

On the morning of Monday, January 29, 1979, Spencer began shooting from her home at children who were waiting outside Cleveland Elementary School for principal Burton Wragg to open the gates. She injured eight children; Burton Wragg was killed while trying to help the children. Custodian Mike Suchar was killed while trying to pull Wragg to safety. A police officer responding to a call for assistance during the incident was shot in the neck as he arrived.

After firing thirty rounds of ammunition, Spencer barricaded herself inside her home for nearly seven hours. While there she had a telephone conversation with a journalist who reported that she had said: "I don't like Mondays." She later also spoke with police negotiators, telling them those she had shot made easy targets, and that she was going to "come out shooting." Spencer has been repeatedly reminded of these statements at parole hearings. Ultimately, she surrendered. Police officers found beer and whiskey bottles cluttered around the house, but said Spencer did not appear to be intoxicated at the time of her arrest.

Spencer was cited as the inspiration for the song "I Don't Like Mondays," written by Bob Geldof for his band the Boomtown Rats, which was released later that year. I Don't Like Mondays was also the title of a 2006 television documentary about the event.

Imprisonment of Spencer

Spencer was tried as an adult, and pled guilty to two counts of murder and assault with a deadly weapon. She was sentenced to prison for 25 years to life imprisonment. In prison Spencer was diagnosed as an epileptic; she has received medication to treat epilepsy and depression while at the California Institution for Women in Chino, California.

Under the terms of her indeterminate sentence, in 1993 Spencer became eligible for hearings to consider her suitability for parole. She has been unsuccessful at four Board of Parole Hearings. In practice, very few of those convicted of any murder obtained parole in California before 2011.

At her first Board of Parole Hearing Spencer said she had been a user of alcohol and drugs at the time of the crime, and that the tests showing she did not have drugs in her system when taken into custody must have been falsified. At a hearing in 2001, Spencer said her father had beat and sexually abused her. The parole board chairman said that, as she had not previously told any prison staff about the allegations, he doubted whether they were true.

In 2009 the parole board ruled Spencer would be denied parole, and would not be considered for the next 10 years. She will become eligible to have a Board of Parole Hearing in 2019.

"I Don't Like Mondays"

Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats had a major hit with a song inspired by the events, written and performed soon after news of the shooting in San Diego. Titled "I Don't Like Mondays", it spent 4 weeks in the UK's #1 slot and was also popular in the United States, although local radio stations in San Diego refused to air the track for years after the shooting.

Follow-up

Almost exactly 10 years later there was another shooting at another school named Cleveland Elementary, this one in Stockton, California. Five students were killed and 29 were injured. The event was a "grim reminder" to survivors of the 1979 shooting, who described themselves as "shocked, saddened, horrified" by the eerie similarities to their own traumatic experience.

San Diego's Cleveland Elementary School was closed in 1983, along with a dozen other schools around the city, due to declining enrollment. In the ensuing decades it was leased to several different charter and private schools. The site currently houses the Magnolia Science Academy, a public charter middle school serving students in grades 6-9.

Other female perpetrators

Laura L. Lovett, a founding co-editor of the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth and an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, argued in a CNN opinion essay that the San Diego shooting was overlooked by society because the perpetrator was a female. Lovett said that society can learn from cases of attacks instigated by women.

Wikipedia.org


San Diego Sniper Is Denied Parole

Brenda Spencer, who killed two adults at a school in 1979, can ask again in 2009.

By Lance Pugmire - Los Angeles Times

September 28, 2005

A state parole board on Tuesday rejected a bid for freedom from Brenda Spencer, who killed two adults and wounded eight children in a 1979 sniper attack on a San Diego elementary school.

Spencer, 43, was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in 1980; this was the third time her bid for parole has been rejected. The two-member parole board at the California Institution for Women in Chino ruled that she could not request parole again until 2009.

"It's a very good result and we're very happy," said Richard Sachs, the San Diego County deputy district attorney who argued for Spencer's continued incarceration.

Spencer was 16 on the morning of Jan. 29, 1979, when she fired 36 shots from a .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle that her father had just given her as a Christmas present.

Spencer fired her rifle, fitted with a scope, from her home in the San Diego community of San Carlos across the street at Cleveland Elementary School, just as students were arriving for class.

When Principal Burton Wragg, 53, ran to tend to a wounded child, Spencer shot and killed him. Custodian Michael Suchar was killed trying to assist Wragg. A San Diego police officer was wounded.

When contacted by a San Diego Evening Tribune reporter by telephone during the six-hour police standoff, the freckle-faced Spencer said: "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day." The comment later was the inspiration for a hit song by the Irish rock band the Boomtown Rats.

The San Diego County district attorney said Spencer had told prison officials she felt unwanted, and envied children who had someone to protect them.

At Tuesday's hearing, Spencer apologized for the shootings and said the board should consider a history of sexual abuse. Spencer said in a 1993 parole hearing that she was under the influence of drugs, although prosecutors say toxicology tests showed otherwise.

"She expressed remorse, but she came across as fragile, someone who's not all together," Sachs said. "She says she doesn't remember the crime and she provided no insight into what happened."

Sachs said Spencer mutilated herself by branding her body with a heated paper clip after her breakup with another prisoner.

"That demonstrates she can't handle the bad things that happen to her," Sachs said.

Attorney Carrie Hempel, who represented Spencer at the hearing, did not return phone messages seeking comment.

Wragg's widow made a videotaped plea seeking to stop Spencer from being paroled, and Charles Miller, a 9-year-old student on the day of the shooting and now a San Diego County probation officer, testified how being shot had altered his life.

Miller "spoke of losing his sense of security and well-being seeing his principal and custodian gunned down, and then feeling himself being shot, and his body going numb," Sachs said.


Woman Imprisoned for '79 School Slayings Withdraws Parole Request

Crime: Brenda Spencer acts just minutes before hearing. She killed two and wounded nine in San Diego sniper attack when she was 16.

By Tom Gorman - Los Angeles Times

January 21, 1998

CHINO, Calif. She won worldwide notoriety in 1979 when, as a freckled 16-year-old proclaiming, "I don't like Mondays," Brenda Spencer sprayed a San Diego elementary school playground with .22-caliber semiautomatic sniper fire.

Spencer's onslaught, as she crouched in her parents' home across the street, left the school's principal and janitor dead and eight children and a police officer wounded.

On Tuesday--just minutes before a parole board hearing at which she would have been confronted by one of her victims--Spencer withdrew her request for prison release. Instead, she settled in for at least three more years behind bars.

Her state-appointed attorney, Keith Stanton, said outside the California Institution for Women that Spencer was remorseful for the killings, but was "adjusting well" to prison and decided to waive the hearing "for tactical reasons" he declined to detail.

A San Diego County prosecutor was prepared to tell the parole board, meeting here at the prison where Spencer is confined, that the 35-year-old remains a public threat.

"She knew she would be denied [parole]. There's nothing she could say at this time to sway the board," said San Diego County Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrea Crisanti. "We think she should still do life. She killed two people. How can she repay that? How could we take that risk [of killing] again, if she were released?"

For Spencer, who is 18 years into her prison sentence of 25 years to life, the next opportunity for parole will come in 2001.

Among those who planned to argue against Spencer's release Tuesday was Charles Miller, who at the time of the shooting was a 9-year-old fourth-grader. He recalled being dropped off at school by his mother and, moments later, seeing the principal and janitor lying on the ground before he blanked out--after being shot in the chest.

Miller, who today is a San Diego County probation officer, said he still suffers emotional pain from the shooting. "It's very vivid in my mind," he said, talking to reporters outside the prison.

"It's not really hatred," he said of his feelings about Spencer. "But she should remain in prison for life."

The hearing was Spencer's second opportunity for parole; she was rejected in her first effort five years ago.

At the 1993 hearing, she contended that she was under the influence of drugs when she began firing on Cleveland Elementary School in the San Diego neighborhood of San Carlos. Toxicology tests proved otherwise, Crisanti said.

Spencer's surviving victims were not informed about the 1993 parole hearing and none attended.

Amid the shooting spree, Spencer unwittingly was reached on the telephone by two reporters from the San Diego Evening Tribune who, while attempting to call neighbors, hadn't realized that they had reached her house.

She told them that she had opened fire because, "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day."

Her comment inspired the Boomtown Rats, an Irish rock group, to write the song "I Don't Like Mondays."

She finished the interview by announcing, "I have to go now. I shot a pig [a police officer], I think, and I want to shoot some more."

Armed with 200 rounds of ammunition and a rifle that she had received the previous month from her father as a Christmas gift, Spencer opened fire about 8:30 a.m. Jan. 29, 1979, just as students were arriving for class.

The sound was mistaken for firecrackers or caps until bodies fell to the ground. Principal Burton Wragg, 53, was shot and killed as he ran toward one of the wounded children, and custodian Michael Suchar, 56, was struck and killed as he ran to Wragg's side.

Spencer surrendered to SWAT officers 6 1/2 hours later--after firing about 40 shots and telling negotiators that the children were "easy pickings . . . like shooting ducks on a pond," Crisanti said. "She said she liked to watch them squirm after they were hit."

At the women's prison in Chino, Lt. Bob Sebald described Spencer as a well-behaved inmate who is learning how to make electrical repairs to small appliances.

"Of course she's been good," Crisanti said. "She's in a confined setting."

Cleveland Elementary was closed in 1983 because of dropping enrollment. A plaque memorializing the victims remains at the site.


Victims of San Diego School Shooting Are Forced to Cope Again 10 Years Later

By Michael Granberry - Los Angeles Times

January 19, 1989

Christy Buell was "shocked, saddened, horrified" by the headlines.

Tuesday, a killer walked onto a schoolyard in Stockton and opened fire on children, killing five and wounding 29 with bursts from a semiautomatic rifle. A teacher was also wounded in the assault, which lasted only three to four minutes.

For Buell, the news was a grim reminder, an ugly blast of history repeating itself. She was one of eight children wounded Jan. 29, 1979--almost exactly a decade ago--when teen-age sniper Brenda Spencer opened fire on schoolchildren in San Diego.

Part of the creepy flashback for Buell was learning that the school in Stockton bears the same name as the one in San Diego--Cleveland Elementary.

"I was scared for those people," Buell said Wednesday, adding that she was "shaking" just in having to discuss the incident in an interview. "I felt really sorry for them, because I know exactly what they're feeling . . . . I went through the same terrible thing."

Buell, 19, was then a 9-year-old fourth-grader still coping with the death of her mother, who lost the battle to leukemia when her daughter was 2. Buell said the grief her father felt--losing a wife, almost losing a daughter--was unimaginable.

Buell now works at a day-care center not far from where the shootings occurred. Her work with children has made her wonder all the more why someone would ever want to harm them. Buell was shot twice by Spencer--in the abdomen and in the lower back. She was hospitalized for a month and spent 18 months recuperating.

"There's no other way to say it," she said with a quivering voice. "I'll just never get over it."

She suffers no physical repercussions, only the psychological fallout, which she compared to a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome, not unlike that experienced by some veterans of the Vietnam War. The same can be said not only by victims but also their parents.

Lee Selvig is an attorney, a family law specialist in San Diego. His daughter, Monica, now 18, was shot in the stomach, the bullet exiting her back close to the spine. She suffers no lasting physical effects, although Selvig asked that Monica not be interviewed; he would speak for her.

"I'm not going to deny the trauma," he said. "Even before yesterday (Tuesday), the incident was constantly on the minds of the family. We haven't been able to shake it. I heard Michael Mantell (a San Diego psychologist) interviewed on radio this morning, and he pointed out something really beneficial. He said families must emphasize the positive at a time like this. I have to say it improved our family's relationships, drew us closer together. It \o7 had \f7 to. It also impressed upon us how fragile our lives really are. It woke us up to our own mortality."

Selvig said the school's bearing the same name carried an eerie afterglow that was almost indescribable.

'Happening All Over'

"It's strange, but that alone made it seem the nightmare was happening all over again," he said. "It made \o7 our \f7 incident close and all too frightening."

Selvig sees as one of the saddest tragedies Monica's losing of an illusion. Much like children in Belfast or Beirut, he said, those wounded at Cleveland Elementary in San Diego 10 years ago were shocked into the world of adult reality without being allowed to make the transition gradually.

"A child has the right to grow up feeling that they're out of harm's way," Selvig said. "They have a right to a childlike aura of invincibility. Brenda Spencer took that away from Monica forever."

Julie Robles, 20, suffered a gunshot wound to the side that day in San Diego. Doctors marveled that the bullet that struck Robles passed right through her--almost hitting her kidneys but striking no major organs and leaving her with only a minor injury.

The psychological wound was greater.

'Terribly Upsetting'

"The Stockton thing was terribly upsetting and disturbing," she said. "I was very upset by the date being so close to the 10th anniversary of our shooting and the name of the school being the same."

For a decade, Robles has been traumatized by news accounts of snipers or gun-wielding psychopaths walking into a public place and opening fire. She wrestles with the feelings for days, and, just when it seems she's over it, she hears about a Stockton.

Thoughts seem to leap out of nowhere that tear at her spirit and toy with her equilibrium. She actually thinks about Brenda Spencer from time to time, wondering if the woman is safely locked up--she is, in the California Institution for Women in Frontera--and whether she will ever return to do Robles harm.

Informing Friends

From time to time, she has the strange task of informing a new friend that once, on a school ground in San Diego, she was shot in an incident that made the national news.

"I tell them, and they just look at me stunned," Robles said. "Their reaction is one of total disbelief. They say, 'No \o7 way\f7 , Julie.' They just can't believe it."

For Christy Buell, the saddest memory is that two men she knew--good men--were slain that day. Spencer murdered Principal Burton Wragg and custodian Michael Suchar.

"The loss of two men that put their lives in danger to save children . . . that's the hardest part for me," Buell said, "the part no one will ever undo."

 

 

 
 
 
 
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