Feeling scars at Red Lake, 10 years later

Jeff May
Jeff May at his home in Redby on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

Jeff May has a scar running from his jaw line down past his collar bone.

It's 8 inches long, the remnants of a wound that made him a national hero. It's 10 years old now and turning white.

It could go away with a few skin grafts. Doctors suggested this, but May said no.

Red Lake Reservation
The Red Lake Indian Reservation encompasses nearly 800,000 acres across northern Minnesota with four primary communities: Red Lake, Redby, Little Rock and Ponemah.
William Lager | MPR News

"I want to keep it," he said, "as a souvenir."

On March 21, 2005, a troubled 16-year-old named Jeff Weise walked into Red Lake High School in northern Minnesota with a shotgun and a Glock pistol. He'd already killed his grandfather and his grandfather's girlfriend that morning, and he had killed another man, security guard Derrick Brun, by the time he reached the room where May sat.

The day has rippled across the Red Lake Indian Reservation since then. Today, about 6,000 tribe members live on the reservation, and just about every resident in those miles of stark landscape lost a friend or a family member, a loss that continues to sting.

At the time, it was the deadliest school shooting since Columbine, and it remains the largest mass homicide in Minnesota history. Including Weise, 10 people died. More, like May, were wounded, and many more saw things they can't forget.

Seven Clans Casino
Seven Clans Casino on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

The legacy of the shootings for the reservation and the state is complex and perhaps impossible to grasp from the outside. But for four individuals there that day, the scar remains palpable.

Jeff May: Dreams vanished; $750,000 gone

May limped into the Seven Clans Casino on the southern edge of the Red Lake Nation. It was a Monday morning a month ago and the place was mostly empty. The lobby echoed with country western hits and the jingle of a handful of occupied slot machines.

May had to call his cousin for a ride. He arrived late, moving slowly.

"I have a truck," he said, "Heck. I just couldn't get it to start this morning."

Jeff May's home
Jeff May lives alone at his home in Redby on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

May lives in a small house in Redby, on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. He's 25 and single, and he lives mainly on Social Security disability checks. This is not what he had planned when he was 15.

Ten years ago, May was tall and strong and just getting to the age when people take you seriously in the Red Lake Nation. He played football and basketball, and he lifted weights in his free time.

Alicia White
Alicia White
Family photo

By 18, he figured he'd have a real shot at a football scholarship, and a ticket off the reservation.

And he was in love. He planned to marry Alicia White, a girl in his class.

On the third Monday of March, his life shifted. Jeff Weise came into his classroom and shot five students and a teacher. May saw Alicia die. He saw his friend Dewayne Michael Lewis drop and then he charged Weise with a pencil, and was himself shot in the face. The bullet cut downward, ripping through nerves and lodging by his spine.

The last thing he remembers, he was on the floor with blood in his mouth.

Months later he wheeled himself from a hospital in Fargo. The strength in his left side was gone, along with 100 pounds of muscle and his chances at a football scholarship. His mother had suffered a stroke just weeks after the shooting that put her in a nursing home for good.

May was alone except for his older brother, returning to a somber reservation with a face changed by Weise's bullet.

But fame and money awaited May in Red Lake.

He'd conducted himself well under pressure, rushing toward the shooter instead of hiding behind his desk. The tribe looked for a hero and settled on May.

Thomas O Ryder, Jeff May
Red Lake High School student Jeff May, center right, the Reader's Digest "2006 Hero of the Year," was honored at the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange on April 7, 2006.
Mel Nudelman | AP 2006

Reader's Digest wrote an account of his actions, naming him Hero of the Year. Letters of praise and gratitude flooded in from dozens of states. For a while, Jeff May was a household name, especially in Indian Country.

In the midst of the attention, the school started paying out settlements to injured students. May was awarded just shy of $750,000 for the bullet he took, and that money attracted a lot of new friends.

"It wasn't about the kids," he said. "It was about that money. That money came, and everybody worried about that money, and everybody lost their way."

He bought a house, and he bought some cars, and by 2010 May's settlement money ran out. April of the next year saw him in a mental health facility in Duluth recovering from an attempted suicide.

Jeff May's notebook
Jeff May said he copes with his past by writing down his thoughts in a notebook and then burning the pages.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

When he got out, he started going to sweat lodges and disappearing into the woods for longer and longer walks. The sounds in those woods, he said, keep his mind from revisiting bad places.

Last spring he spent seven days out there, by a river not far from his house with no food or water.

"I prayed," he said. "It seemed to help me a lot. Shortly after that I got the will to get up and go forward with my life again."

May still spends his days in Redby, by himself or with a few close friends. He stokes the wood fire in his furnace and lip-syncs to music to keep the scar tissue in his face flexible. He still wakes some nights to the gunshots he heard 10 years ago, but he's not wandering anymore.

He just got a job at Red Lake Foods, bagging groceries a few hours a day for firewood money. He hopes to go back to college in the next few years, and maybe start a business with his cousin. These are new ambitions for May.

Missy Dodds: A teacher leaves the classroom

The last time Missy Dodds saw Jeff May, he was in a hospital bed. She came to visit him a week after the shooting. His face and neck were bandaged. He couldn't speak, so he wrote on a whiteboard.

"I thought you were dead," he printed.

Missy Dodds
Missy Dodds in the bedroom of her Bemidji home, where she retreated 10 years ago in the days after the shooting at Red Lake High School.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

In the midst of his shooting rampage, Weise had trained his gun on the ninth-grade math teacher's head. He pulled the trigger, and the hammer snapped down with no bullet in the chamber. May made his rush as Weise reloaded. If he hadn't, Dodds likely would be dead, but May didn't know he saved her life until she walked into his hospital room.

"I remember feeling relief," she said, recalling the sight of May's whiteboard. "That I wasn't dead."

Ten years after the shooting, Missy Dodds is a full-time mother of three. In a Caribou Coffee shop in Bemidji, she smiled easily in conversation, her Arkansas accent sounding out of place in the Minnesota winter.

Her husband works while she buys groceries at Walmart, and keeps the children in line. It's a life led by many in Bemidji, but Dodds couldn't always manage the everyday tasks.

Dodds was leading study hall the day of the shooting. She can remember only bits and pieces of what happened — gunshots cracking in the hall, Weise peering through the classroom window and the look in his eye when he realized he could shoot his way through it.

Hours later, John Egelhof, an FBI agent in charge of the initial investigation, asked her to come back into her classroom and identify the bodies of her students.

"I remember asking," she said, "'Well, is it going to look like CSI?'"

But for Dodds, these memories don't seem real.

"To me, it's a dream," she said.

The dream ended six months later in a hospital room. Her sister had just given birth. A nurse put the newborn in Dodds' arms.

Missy Dodds
Former math teacher Missy Dodds at her home in Bemidji, Minn. She's a full-time mother of three and no longer teaches high school.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

"I didn't feel anything," she said. "So then I freaked out."

A newborn, she figured, should inspire some emotions. When none came, she checked herself into a treatment program for post-traumatic stress. Feelings she'd been holding back shook loose.

The next three or four years she spent sleepless nights racked with guilt over her dead students, dragged from her home only for court appearances.

About a dozen teachers, including Dodds, were suing the Red Lake School District for workers' compensation payments. State law didn't cover the post-traumatic stress left in the wake of the shootings, so teachers went to court.

Five years of psychological evaluations and legal proceedings ended in 2010. The teachers got their payments. Amounts were never released, but Dodds said the money wasn't worth opening old wounds for so long.

"It was two separate incidents," she said. "There was the 90 seconds that happened in my classroom, and that's one thing to get over. And then I think the court was another thing I had to get over."

She no longer holds frozen racks of bacon to her chest as makeshift body armor during grocery shopping expeditions, and fire alarms don't spark the panicked flashbacks they once did, but Dodds is still very aware of her surroundings.

She recounted all this sitting in the back of a coffee shop, facing the door. She has to sit that way, with her eyes on the entrance.

"Even today, right now, I know what I'll do if the shooter comes in," she said. "I'll try to go into the bathroom first."

She pointed to the door of the men's bathroom, an arm's length to her right.

As a child, Dodds set her dolls up in a pretend schoolroom, imagining herself at the front of the class. Now, at 40, she hasn't taught in a decade.

Someday she plans to teach a few college classes. College students are older, she said, and less vulnerable than the ninth graders she saw die 10 years ago.

"Nobody has ever blamed me," she said. "But those parents sent me their babies, and I didn't send their babies home to them."

Ashley Lajeunesse: Motherly instinct and drugs

In her home west of the town of Red Lake, with her child watching cartoons on the living room floor, Ashley Lajeunesse pointed out photos from her 10-year-old high school yearbook.

"That's me," she said. "I'm actually pretty drunk in that photo."

Ashley Lajeunesse
Ashley Lajeunesse at her home just west of the town of Red Lake. In the background are her daughters, Sierra Roy, 8, and BriAnne Roy, 3.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

It's the full ninth-grade class photo, taken a month before the shooting. Jeff Weise is in the back corner with his hair gelled into horns. It's the photo news outlets blew up and cropped after the shooting — the one that makes Weise look like a devil. Lajeunesse is in the front with her best friend, Alicia White.

"Bacardi Superior," she said. "That's what the bootleggers always sold."

Ten years ago, Lajeunesse was just getting used to being back in Minnesota. She'd been living in California with her mother just a few months earlier. Fearing violence in the big urban schools out there, her mother moved the family back to Red Lake, just in time to put Lajeunesse in Missy Dodds' ninth-grade study hall the day of the shooting.

She wasn't hit by Weise's gunfire, apparently because he was interrupted by the arrival of tribal police. Today she bears no physical scars, but her life since has been fraught with pain and addiction.

Lajeunesse with her son
Ashley Lajeunesse with her year-old son, Jonathan Roy, at her home just west of the town of Red Lake.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

Her recollections, like those of many in that room, are cloudy. She remembers seeing Weise on the floor after he shot himself and tribal officers cuffing his limp hands with zip ties. She remembers running from the school, drenched in someone else's blood.

The next few weeks came with a flood of funeral ceremonies and grief counselors brought onto the reservation. She saw her friend Alicia White buried and then saw her again later, in her dreams, missing both eyes.

One day, she was in the woods burning her bloodied clothes in a traditional ritual. The next, a Christian counselor from off the reservation told her to take comfort in Jesus.

Instead, she took comfort in Tim Roy, her boyfriend.

"Without him, I might not be alive," she said.

By sophomore year, she and Roy were having their first daughter. She forced herself to finish high school, then went to Northwest Technical College in Bemidji and got a job at a nursing home in Red Lake.

"All my motherly instincts came to me," she said. "I didn't worry about my problems."

The flashbacks faded. The dreams stopped.

And then, four years to the day after the shooting, Ashley went out with some friends. They bought a bottle each of Hot 100 Schnapps and drank to the memory of their classmates. Her mother told her later she'd called from the party, crying and saying Jeff Weise was there with a gun.

"I was reliving it," she said.

On the way home, her friend fell asleep at the wheel and crashed the car into an electric pole. At the hospital, a doctor prescribed Lajeunesse hydrocodone for pain in her leg and lower back.

It killed the pain in her body, and did something else, too. "When you take a pill," she said, "it just chills you out completely, makes you forget about everything."

Anxiety that had been growing since she fled that classroom four years before was gone for a while with each dose.

Within a few months, she was taking a dozen pills a day. Over the next few years, she had two more children with Roy, quitting the pills cold-turkey during each pregnancy and getting back on shortly after each birth. Other drugs followed.

Ashley Lajeunesse looked at the picture of her freshman class in her high school yearbook.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

In her kitchen, Lajeunesse flipped to another page of photos in her ninth-grade yearbook. She pointed one by one down a row of portraits, naming the types of drugs each person uses.

"This one's into a holy mess-load of drugs," she said, pointing to one smiling face.

In November, Lajeunesse quit cold turkey, she hopes for the last time. She's working in the Red Lake court system now, and Roy is in treatment with a job lined up. Very few of their old classmates come around anymore.

"And there's me," she said, pointing at another photo in her yearbook, this one a grinning high school portrait of herself. "I'm doing well now."

John Egelhof: 'I learned kids are capable of anything'

John Egelhof wasn't in the room when Jeff Weise started firing. He didn't see the look in Weise's eye like Dodds or take a bullet like May. His clothes were never covered in blood, but Egelhof saw the violence more clearly than anyone else. He had to watch events of that day repeated dozens of times on security camera footage.

Egelhof was an FBI agent stationed in Bemidji at the time of the shooting. He was the first federal agent on the scene and worked the case for months afterward.

The experience left Egelhof with a different frame of mind.

John Egelhof
Former FBI Agent John Egelhof at his home outside Bemidji, Minn. Egelhof was the first federal agent on the scene after the shooting at Red Lake High School.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

"I learned that kids are capable of anything," he said, "that they're capable of planning."

Egelhof lives with his wife in an old farmhouse south of Bemidji. They have horses and some dogs and cats. He's mostly retired, working as a private investigator and playing bagpipes in his free time.

Separated by a decade from the Red Lake shootings, he sipped coffee at his dining room table, surrounded by furniture he built. He's easygoing, relaxed. Ten years ago, he was neither of those things.

"I was angry," he said.

For Egelhof, the tragedy at Red Lake started with a phone call. A tribal police officer called him just minutes after Weise finished his shooting spree.

"We've had a Columbine," he said, words that sent Egelhof speeding north on Highway 89.

By the time he got to the school, the place was almost abandoned. Just about everyone was at the hospital, hoping to find loved ones alive. A few officers guarded the only classroom that wasn't empty: Missy Dodds' room, where seven people lay dead.

Most of them were students without identification, and Egelhof needed names.

Dodds was still hanging around the school in a daze. She knew her class better than anyone else, so Egelhof asked her to identify the dead students. It's a decision he still thinks about.

Police and investigators' vehicles
Police and investigators' vehicles sit in front of the Red Lake Senior High School on March 22, 2005, the day after the shootings.
Jeff Haynes | AFP/Getty Images file 2005

"To have some FBI agent lifting up a kid so she could see the face," he said. "These kids have been butchered. I felt very bad about that later on."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs and FBI took over the case, setting Egelhof and a crew of other investigators to work for 35 straight days. He watched security footage over and over, looking for signs of conspirators. Instead, he saw Weise putting two 12-gauge slugs though Derrick Brun, an unarmed security guard Egelhof considered a friend.

Weise's belongings were seized and pored over for clues about his motive. His notebooks were illustrated with scenes of exactly the violence he carried out. His computer documented a trail of conversations going back more than two years — efforts to recruit other boys to help with the shooting.

"To hear Weise talking about doing a shooting, and how funny it would be," he said. "It was disheartening to see that kids could be so cold."

Daryl Lussier, Weise's grandfather and first victim, was a tribal police officer. Brun, a security guard, had been a cop. Egelhof considered both men working comrades. Their death made him angry in a way he hadn't felt before.

"I lost two friends," he said, "and for what? So an Internet-addicted kid could try and make a name for himself."

Derrick Brun's grave
Derrick Brun's gravesite in Bemidji, Minn.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

After the shooting, Egelhof was asked to lead seminars on school shooting response techniques. But reliving that anger took its toll. Once, he broke out the old security tapes at a seminar, the ones he'd watched so many times, and played them for a roomful of cops. He wanted them to see the reality of it, like he had.

The move got him in some hot water, and looking back he figures it was a mistake.

Egelhof had a heart attack a year after the shooting and retired in 2009. He's been asked since to lead more shooting response seminars, but he said no. Thinking about that case, he said, can be toxic.

Instead, most years around this time he drives out to a cemetery by the Bemidji mall and leaves flowers on Brun's grave.

"I take a funny attitude toward it," he said. "I was proud to watch him. He died like a warrior."

A complex legacy

The Red Lake Nation is a different place since the shootings. Ten years later, just how different is tough to nail down.

Jeff May described the reservation of his youth as place where kids passed their afternoons shooting hoops and people knew each other by name. He said people are more suspicious of each other now.

Floyd Jourdian Jr., right
Floyd Jourdian Jr., right, addressed the media on March 22, 2005, alongside U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger, center, and FBI Special Agent Paul McCabe to talk about the shootings at the high school.
Jeff Haynes | AFP/Getty Images file 2005

Lajeunesse said many in her generation dull 10-year-old traumas with alcohol, violence and illicit drugs. But these things were problems long before Weise brought his grandfather's guns to school. Cocaine and youth violence brought Egelhof to Red Lake nearly every day, years before the shooting.

Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki said drugs are a major problem in Red Lake, but he didn't want to speculate on the cause. The Red Lake Police Department did not return calls for comment about the shootings' aftermath.

High school graduation rates were always chronically low in Red Lake. After the shooting, though, the bottom dropped out. In 2013, graduation rates dipped below 15 percent. In 2014, only one in five students was proficient on basic tests.

At the direction of the tribal government, school board officials refused an interview.

At the time of the shooting, Anton Treuer, executive director of Bemidji State University's American Indian Resource Center, called the violence "not just a tragedy but an opportunity to reach out to a generation searching for a place to belong." It's not clear anyone took that opportunity.

Tom Heffelfinger was the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota 10 years ago. He worked the Red Lake case closely, and said at least in the short term, the reservation got a lot of help. Therapists and back-up law enforcement flooded in, along with money for the school system. But that outpouring of support didn't last long.

"It didn't take very long," he said, "and it went right back to Red Lake being overlooked."

The view from Ashley Lajeunesse's driveway on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

The high school is more hospitable these days. Former Tribal Chairman Floyd Jourdain said the barbed-wire-topped chain-link fences that ringed the school before the shooting have since been taken down. It looks less like a prison now, but the halls and classrooms where students died, he said, are largely unchanged.

Spiritual leaders on the reservation have stepped up their effort to reach young people, Treuer said. There's a language immersion program in its early stages. The youth, he said, are embracing their culture, a trend he hopes will lead to healing.

"A lot of people are trying really hard," he said.

Ten years after the shooting, May stood in the empty casino and rolled back his shirt sleeves.

"Let me show you my tattoos," he said.

He had to use his right hand — the fingers of his left still curl numb into his palm. The word "Pain" covers his forearm, inked there after his stay in Duluth. A grizzly bear, the spirit guide revealed to him in one of many sweat lodge ceremonies, is tattooed on his shoulder blade. And on his neck curls that white scar from the day that started it all.

"I can still imagine it," he said. "I can still hear. I can still taste the blood."

Red Lake: 10 years later

Ten years ago, on March 21, 2005, 16-year-old Jeff Wiese shot his grandfather, his grandfather's partner and seven of his classmates at Red Lake High School before shooting himself.

The victims

How the day unfolded

From the MPR News archive

What happened at Red Lake? A documentary

Survivors talk about the shooting, days later

Explaining tribal sovereignty

Full coverage of the 2005 shootings