February 19, 1997. If you lived in Bethel on that day, you would remember exactly where you were and what you were doing, even though it was twenty years ago.
That’s the day Evan Ramsey took a 12-gauge shotgun to school and opened fire in the lobby, just before class started.
The shooting rampage at Bethel Regional High School lasted only 15 minutes. The principal, Ron Edwards, and a student, Josh Palacios, were carried out on stretchers, but did not survive their wounds.
Ramsey was 16 years old then, a student with a troubled family history.
In October 1986, his father, Don, went on a similar shooting spree at the Anchorage Times Newspaper. Don was angry because the publisher pulled his political attack ad. He stormed the building with a high powered rifle and smoke grenades, but no one was hurt in that shooting.
After Evan Ramsey’s father went to prison, his mother Carolyn’s alcoholism grew worse, and Ramsey and his two brothers were in and out of foster homes.
Just before the shooting, the superintendent of the Lower Kuskokwim School District became Ramsey’s guardian. Teachers thought he was doing well in his new home, but Ramsey had a hard time coping with teasing at school. Two weeks before the shooting, he drew up a hit list with the help of two friends who also taught him how to fire the gun.
Today, Ramsey is no longer a teenager with pimples on his face, but a 36-year-old with streaks of grey hair.
We spoke with him recently at the Goose Creek Correctional Center, about a 90-minute drive from Anchorage.
“There’s a part of me that will always be sad,” said Ramsey, “sad for what I did. But the small amount of sorrow that I have, others feel more.”
Ramsey says he’s sorry for his crime and wishes he had known then that his high school years would pass quickly, and his frustrations over bullying would be over.
But for Claudia Palacios, who lost her son Josh, the pain of her loss never ends.
Palacios left Bethel after the shooting and eventually returned. She now manages the Bethel hospital’s registration desk.
She says she still hasn’t been back to the high school, where she’d like to see the memorial in the lobby for her son and Ron Edwards, but she just can’t.
“I see people wearing Warrior colors and a Warrior cap,” Palacios said. “Josh so loved the game. It’s really painful.”
Palacios was a popular high school basketball star, known for his big smile.
“I live it every day. I wish you could shut the door on it,” said Palacios, who believes there are lessons to be learned from this story of a teenager who was so damaged by his upbringing that he turned his rage on an entire community.
Palacios has been a foster mother many times over, and says her son, Josh, often brought kids who needed a safe place to stay to their home. She wishes Evan Ramsey had been one of them. Then, maybe, he wouldn’t have brought a gun to school.
“I live in my faith, and my faith is what keeps me sane,” she says. “God wants me to help others, and there was a part of me that just had to forgive him.”
And while she’s forgiven Ramsey, she hasn’t forgotten.
“I wanted to know why,” Palacios said. “That is the question you ask all these years. Why me? Why Josh? Why?”
But recently she’s changed her mind.
“When I was asking the question, I thought it mattered. But it doesn’t matter,” Palacios said.
What matters, she says, is that it doesn’t happen again.
But it has – over and over. Pearl, Paducah, Columbine, Sandy Hook, and many other school shootings followed the Bethel tragedy.
“I’m sorry,” Evan Ramsey said recently. “I wish I could change what happened. I understand my apology will probably not mitigate anything.”
Ramsey was recently moved to the Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai. He will be eligible for parole when he’s 82.
Editor’s note: Rhonda McBride was one of the first reporters to cover the Bethel shooting tragedy, along with Lillian Michael. Both worked for KYUK. McBride is currently the host of KTVA’s Frontiers weekly public affairs program. In collaboration with KYUK, Frontiers will revisit the shooting on its program next Sunday, February 26 with more interviews and insights into a crime with ripple effects that continue today. Frontiers airs twice on Sunday. Watch at 4:30 and 10:30 p.m. on KTVA, Channel 11.