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By MARA BOVSUN
Brenda Ann Spencer, 16, lays down a .22-caliber rifle as San Diego Police SWAT team officers aim sawed-off shotguns and high-powered rifles at her, ending a 6-hour siege at her suburban San Carlos home, Jan. 29, 1979.
Monday mornings are tough for everyone, but on Jan. 29, 1979, a freckle-faced red headed teen found a unique way to sing the beginning-of-the-week blues.
The first note of her displeasure — a rifle crack — came at around 8:30 a.m., just as a bell rang to signal the start of classes at Grover Cleveland Elementary in San Carlos, Calif., a suburb of San Diego.
Children waiting in front of the school started to fall to the ground, bleeding. The sounds of gunfire continued.
It took a few shots before the pupils, parents, and teachers realized what was happening. A sniper, somewhere in the row of houses across the street from the school, was using kids for target practice.
With children screaming and bullets flying, Cleveland elementary’s principal, Burton Wragg, 53, ran outside to help the victims and move the other children, who were paralyzed with fear, out of harm’s way. There was another pop and Wragg fell, shot in the chest.
Mike Suchar, 56, the school custodian, rushed out to help the dying principal and was also shot. Teachers and students barricaded themselves in the school, while nurses treated the wounded. Four victims, however, were still outside.
San Diego police officer Robert Robb, first to arrive at the scene, got a bullet in his neck.
The shooting continued until another officer, aided by a security guard from a neighboring high school, commandeered a garbage truck and drove it in front of Cleveland Elementary, blocking the sniper’s sightlines.
When it was over, eight children and the police officer were wounded. The custodian and the principal were dead.
On a hunch, a reporter from a local paper dialed the phone number at the address police had pinpointed as the sniper’s nest. A young girl answered. The reporter asked if she knew where the shots were coming from. She rattled off the address of her house. When the reporter pointed out that it was her own address, she said, “Yeah, who do you think’s doing the shooting?”
The next question, the obvious one, was why?
I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day,” she told him.
The girl with the soft voice, solid aim, and reluctance to return to school after the weekend was not-so-sweet 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer. She was the youngest child of Wallace Spencer, an audio-visual specialist at a nearby college, and his wife, Dot. Until her parents divorced in 1972 she seemed a normal happy child, a bit of a tomboy. She was active in several sports, an animal lover, and a talented photographer.
That bright little girl vanished after the family split up, and a judge awarded custody of all three children to their emotionally distant father. The tiny redhead, described by one acquaintance as “no bigger than a bar of soap,” became sullen, withdrawn and strange. She started hanging around with another troubled youth and became obsessed with gore rocker Alice Cooper.
Neighborhood children would tell tales of her creepy behavior — drug use, truancy, theft, cruelty to animals and a fascination with guns.
The girl, like her father, was an experienced sharpshooter. The gun she used at the schoolyard, a .22 rifle, had been a Christmas gift from her dad. He also bought her 400 rounds of ammunition.
Shortly before the rampage, she boasted that she was planning to do something that would get her on TV.
Her attack on the school took only about15 minutes. Later, after a six-hour standoff, Brenda walked out of the house, put her weapon on the lawn and quietly surrendered to police.
Prosecutors considered trying her as an adult because of the seriousness of her crimes, as her defense attorneys probed the possibility of an insanity plea.
The case never came before a jury. Brenda pled guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon. Her sentence was 25 to life, with a possibility of parole after 25 years.
Brenda’s explanation for her actions, that she didn’t like Mondays, inspired Bob Geldof to pen a song for his group, The Boomtown Rats. The song, “I Don’t Like Mondays,” topped the U.K.’s music charts the summer after the rampage.
Other than that bizarre comment, though, Brenda was silent about what might have provoked her. Then, 14 years into her sentence, she gave a TV interview in which she said she was high on whiskey, angel dust and pot and that she started hallucinating. But this was not backed up by the 1979 toxicology report, which found that she was clean. Later, she also claimed her father had abused her.
Life behind bars agreed with Brenda. She was a model prisoner. In her 2005 bid for parole she denied having any memory of the event, and said that, if freed, she’d become a productive member of society, pursuing a job as forklift operator.
The parole board decided to keep her locked up. She becomes eligible again in 2019.
Her crime is seen as a turning point in American history, the first of its kind in the country. Brenda would become known as the mother of such schoolyard massacres as Columbine and Newtown.
In a 2001 statement, she acknowledged her possible role as the inspiration for later generations of angry young monsters. “With every school shooting, I feel I’m partially responsible,” she said. “What if they got the idea from what I did?”