Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

School shooter Laurie Dann only killed one, but her crime was memorable for other reasons, too

In the wake of the shootings in Newton, Connecticut two weeks ago today, experts have tried to find clues in the dozens of school shootings over the last three decades. They've found that 60 percent of the shootings happened in small towns. And almost inevitably, the culprit has been a troubled young man. Except in one case: Laurie Dann, who shot up a school in 1988, was from my home town.

She was definitely from a small town: Glencoe, Illinois, where members of my family have lived for almost 150 years, has never had a population that topped 10,000. In the '80s, that population included Laurie Dann, a thirty-year-old babysitter with a history of mental illness who was living off and on with her parents.

Here's how her crime went down, according to a report on the Chicago NBC affiliate on December 14, the day of the Newtown shootings:

In May 1988, the Chicago area witnessed its own horrific tragedy involving a killer stalking elementary school students.

Laurie Dann, a 30-year-old baby sitter with a history of mental illness, engaged in a violent spree on May 20th that left one elementary student dead and five others wounded. It could have been much worse.

Dann began that day by delivering arsenic tainted Rice Krispie treats and arsenic tainted juice boxes to a number of families for whom she had baby sat. She made more deliveries to a group of Northwestern University fraternity houses -- Dann lived on campus for a time but never enrolled in school. She was known to date some fraternity members. Many believe Dann was trying to exact retribution against individuals she felt had wronged her.

After her visit to Northwestern, she drove to the home of a family in Winnetka where she once had baby sat, the Rushes. Dann picked up the two youngest Rushe children and drove them to Ravina Elementary School in Highland Park, had them wait in her car while she entered the school and detonated a weak fire bomb in the school hallway.No one was hurt at Ravinia, and the fire was quickly extinguished.

She drove the boys back home, herded them into the basement with their mother and set fire to the home, using gasoline as the accelerant. The family escaped harm.

Next, Dann drove to Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka armed with a .22 caliber Beretta pistol and a .357 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver. That's where she did her most damage.

Dann wandered the elementary school with the weapons accosting students. She shot a boy in the stomach in a school lavatory and then shot wildly into a second grade classroom, where she killed 8-year-old Nicholas Corwin and wounded five others.

Dann fled the school, crashed her car, and, wearing only a garbage bag around her waist, entered the home of Phillip Andrews, 20, and held the Andrews family hostage for six hours.

Ultimately, Philip Andrews convinced Dann to let his family go. He then tried to disarm her and was shot in the chest.

Dann retreated to the upstairs of the Andrews home, placed her revolver in her mouth and pulled the trigger.

You don't hear about Laurie Dann when experts start talking about the horrific shootings of the past four decades. That could be because her body count was so small, compared to the terrifying numbers of people who've been killed in other crimes, including the 26 at an elementary school in Newtown. But it also could be that, hard as all the other crimes are to comprehend, this one defies categorization.

Over this holiday season, though, my family has been talking about Laurie Dann. My father remembers how it shook up the town, and still resonates in the area -- even if it doesn't make the national lists of school-shootings. My sister, the same age as Dann, looks at her children and wonders who -- male or female -- would intentionally go to a school and shoot kids.

There's still no answer.

From the archives: "James Holmes: Inmate's strange tale of "confession" and suicide efforts."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun