The photo above was taken on March 10, 2017, at the annual fundraiser for the Laura Wilcox Scholarship Fund. Sponsored by SRYCL, this quiz show  draws hundreds from throughout California, where we have fun, honor Laura’s memory, and raise funds to support young college students, who, like Laura, have a passion for environmental activism. Here, Nick and Amanda Wilcox greet the contestants as Michael Melendez (left) and I look on from our Lunar Lightcap team table. Photo by Mike Maginot.

This year’s Brains of Nevada County Quiz Night program. Photo by Mike Maginot

One of our team’s contestants from out of town asked me about Laura Wilcox and the event that indelibly shaped our county sixteen years ago. I pulled this essay out of a manuscript I’m working on. I wrote this in the wee hours immediately after the shooting, and I share it with you now. It’s important to remember. And as Utah Phillips said, to protective our collective “long memory”.

Shooting Spree

January 11, 2001

I had stopped by my work at our tiny community college campus when it started to come down. It was a cold, blustery day, and I had all three kids in tow. I’d just taught Jess how to keep his hands in his pocket, and I was enjoying—despite the cold—watching him trudge along in his Christmas jacket. Levi wore a matching one, and Forrest was busy convincing him not to get too close to the pond on such a cold day. My biggest worry at the moment was rounding the three of them up and into the little back room of the admin building so I could reserve my office space. Suddenly Sharon, the unofficial mother of the college, is standing in the wind saying, “CC get inside, there’s been a shooting at Lyons and we have to lock down.” Suddenly the kids are so far away, and it’s hard not to alarm them. In an absurd attempt to explain things to the younger boys, I say, “Get inside, there’s a bad guy somewhere.” Levi, 3, gets it. Forrest, almost 11, gets older.

Scott Harland Thorpe’s rampage began in Nevada City, where he killed Laura Wilcox and a caregiver named Pearlie May Feldman. He then traveled to nearby Grass Valley’s Lyons restaurant, where he killed the manager and wounded a cook. He believed they were poisoning him. He was ruled unfit for trial and remains in the Napa State Hospital.

Probably because they don’t know how bad it is, they let us go to our car a few minutes later. The campus has been secured, so there’s no immediate danger. The security guard tells me to stay away from a blue truck or van with a ladder on top of it. On the community radio station, news bulletins about the shootings are dispersed, ironically, within a syndicated show about the American public’s immunity to violence. Once we’re home Levi watches the storm through the picture window. “If that oak tree falls, tell me, Mom,” he mentions casually on his way to the bathroom. Forrest crawls in my lap, no easy feat. “I’m freaking out, Mom,” he says softly. “I’ll make bread,” I offer, thinking split pea soup in my head. The Joy of Cooking says, “Try this on a cold, rainy day.”

Just then the county superintendent of schools is on the radio, announcing the lockdown of all schools in our area. Minutes later my best friend is on the phone, sobbing so hard she can barely talk. She was on her way to the building where the shooting occurred, twenty minutes earlier she would have been there. Now she can’t get her boy. I look at my three, starting to take in a video, and feel my throat disappear in a thickness of tissue. As practical as the lock down is, I hear myself say, “It’s never okay to tell parents their children are inaccessible to them. It’s philosophically reprehensible.” Then she tells me people are dead—people she just saw yesterday. “They were so nice to me, so positive,” she sobs.

Laura Wilcox, 19, was home from college for the summer and working at the HEW Building in Nevada City when Scott Thorpe shot her down. She’d helped my best friend the day before.

Although my husband, a government worker, was also on lockdown, he gets to come home. The school lockdown ends and the busses roll. Absurdly, the county superintendent requests parents do not pick up their kids early “so that instruction may continue.” The board of supervisor’s spokeswoman says that the kids “weren’t told what was going on.” Obviously these folks haven’t hung out in a classroom recently. Children of all ages have an intuitive barometer tuned for disaster. Homeschooled Forrest says he’s sorry, he can’t do his second set of math or take his test. He can’t believe someone is dead at a restaurant we frequent. Mostly numb on shock and alcohol, I tell him it’s not a math day.

Somehow dinner is made, and I go to bed early with the baby, who didn’t nap. At 11 my husband and Levi wake me up, Levi dancing around my body on the mattress, wearing only his jeans. “They got him! They got him! We’re safe,” they tell me. After they’re asleep I find myself up, cracking a beer (not my usual midnight m.o.) and then another, rambling around the house blind, not able to put in my contact lenses, feeling that ridiculous “gotta do something” writer-band-aid thing. The mom in me spinning. They got him. We can go out tomorrow. On the counter is a note from Forrest. “I will go with you tomorrow, now. Please wake me up early for a shower.” Tomorrow the coping and healing begin after a shooting rampage in a small, safe town. Tomorrow people begin looking for answers. Tomorrow our neighbors and friends begin planning to bury their dead. For a few days people will refuse to be petty, will be sensitive to violence. The wisest among us will remain inherently, irrevocably changed, More importantly, will demand change.

Nick and Amanda Wilcox hold a photo of their daughter Laura. Since Laura’s murder, they have become nationally known lobbyists. “Laura’s Law” allows California counties to court-order outpatient treatment for mentally ill persons who may be a threat to themselves or others. The Wilcoxes have also lobbied extensively for gun reform in the context of mental health. Photo by Sacramento Bee.