Will teen maniac who ‘didn’t like Mondays’ soon walk free? Girl, 16, is up for parole 40 years after she opened fire on her school to ‘liven the day’, killing two and inspiring the Boomtown Rats’ hit
- Murderer Brenda Spencer opened fire at a San Diego elementary school from a window in her home, leaving two dead and nine more shot
- Famously told reporter her motive was that she ‘didn’t like Mondays’
- Jailed in 1979, lawyers claim she might make parole after rehabilitation progress
- Inspired Bob Geldof to write UK No 1 hit I Don’t Like Mondays – Which he now regrets because ‘I made her famous’
17-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer leaves the courthouse in Santa Ana, California, escorted by sheriff’s deputies
Waking on the single mattress she shared with her father in the living room of their squalid suburban California home, Brenda Spencer remembers starting that day by taking her epilepsy medicine, washed down with whisky.
The diminutive 16-year-old with bright red hair then armed herself with the .22 rifle and telescopic sight that her father, Wally, had given her for Christmas and started firing shots from a window.
Her target was Grover Cleveland Elementary School, just 150ft away across the road, where — at around 8.30am — a crowd of young children were waiting patiently for their head teacher to unlock the gates.
Pandemonium ensued as staff charged out of the school in San Diego to help terrified and injured children, shouting at parents to drive on as they arrived to drop off more pupils.
After a 20-minute shooting spree, eight children and three adults had been hit, among them a police officer who was shot through the neck. Two were killed, including the head teacher, Burton Wragg, who ran outside and was hit as he tried to help injured children, and the school caretaker, who had tried to rescue the head.
The death toll would have been far higher if a policeman hadn’t blocked Spencer’s line of fire by parking a rubbish lorry in the way.
This was a Monday morning in January 1979. At the time, mass shootings were rare in America, although there had been occasional gun attacks on school premises.
But this marked a terrible development in the country’s violent history, triggering an era of school massacres in which children were ready to blast away at fellow pupils.
Brenda Ann Spencer was the killer who started it all.
40 years after the horrific killing spree at Grover Cleveland Elementary School, Spencer, now 56, could be in line for a successful parole according to lawyers monitoring her rehabilitation progress
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As she continued shooting, SWAT officers surrounded the house and evacuated the school from the rear. Spencer told police negotiators she had shot the children and staff because they made such easy targets.
Eventually, officers persuaded her to come out — offering her a Burger King meal as an inducement, it was reported — and found she had another 200 rounds of ammunition.
During the six-hour stand-off, a newspaper reporter rang up her neighbours to try to get eyewitness testimony. By chance, one of the numbers he called was answered by Spencer herself. So, realising he was speaking to her, he asked what her motive was.
‘I don’t like Mondays,’ she told him. ‘This livens up the day.’
Brenda Spencer’s name is largely forgotten now. But that is not true of her shocking explanation for the mass shooting — for it inspired Bob Geldof, lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, to write I Don’t Like Mondays after he read a report of the tragedy.
News reports from 1979 show teachers and police officers assisting school children in evacuating the elementary school as a six-hour standoff ensues
The song became No 1 in the UK singles chart and was backed by an eerie video in which the band performed the piano ballad to a classroom of young children.
Its chorus of ‘I don’t like Mondays, I want to shoot the whole day down’, along with lines such as ‘The silicon chip inside her head gets switched to overload’ refer specifically to the twisted mind of Brenda Spencer.
The song never mentions her name and Geldof admitted that most fans thought it was about how having a hangover made Mondays unbearable. But the link with the San Diego shooting was soon spotted by Spencer herself.
Bob Geldof of The Boomtown Rats was inspired to write I Don’t Like Mondays after hearing Spencer’s motive for the shooting. The single went to Number One in the UK charts
‘She wrote to me saying she was glad she’d done it because I’d made her famous,’ Geldof said years later. ‘Which is not a good thing to live with.’
He added: ‘Not liking Mondays as a reason for doing somebody in is a bit strange. It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it.’
Spencer subsequently pleaded guilty to two counts of murder. And because she never had to be cross-examined in court, her facetious remark about hating Mondays remained her only explanation for the shooting.
A teenage friend indicated it had been a planned attack, telling police that, days beforehand, Spencer warned him she was planning to do something that would get on TV on Monday.
She often spent her time copying out the lyrics of violent punk songs.
Survivors of the shooting who attended court recall a bespectacled Spencer staring at them blankly. It was also revealed that she had told a police negotiator during the stand-off that she ‘liked to watch [the children] squirm around after they had been shot’ and that she had targeted anyone wearing blue — her favourite colour — and those in featherdown-filled coats because she liked to ‘see the feathers fly’ as the bullets hit them.
Spared the death penalty because of her age, Spencer was sentenced to two terms of 25 years to life in prison, running concurrently and with the chance of parole.
Today, she is 56 and still behind bars at the California Institution for Women. A few weeks ago, she marked her 40th anniversary in prison after successive parole applications had been refused.
Now, however, Spencer’s freedom may be in sight. Some lawyers involved in the case believe she will soon succeed in a parole application.
Geldof said that Spencer (pictured in the 1990s) wrote to him saying ‘she was glad she’d done it because I’d made her famous. Which is not a good thing to live with’
They cite the considerable progress she has made in rehabilitating herself in prison. And with so many U.S. school shootings since, Spencer’s crime has lost its once unique awfulness and, with it, the notoriety that helped keep her behind bars, they told me.
An epidemic of gun crime has shocked America, particularly with school massacres at Columbine (in 1999, 13 dead) and Sandy Hook (in 2012, 26 dead).
As Spencer acknowledged at one of her parole hearings: ‘With every school shooting, I feel I’m partially responsible. What if they got the idea from what I did?’
Many are convinced the other killers were inspired by her.
‘She hurt so many people and had so much to do with starting a deadly trend in America,’ said San Diego Country deputy district attorney Richard Sachs. He is one of many opposing her release on grounds that she remains a risk to the people of his city.
He recently pointed out that she cried frequently at her last parole eligibility hearing, in 2016, demonstrating what he called her continued ‘emotional instability’.
Supporters, though, say she would not have shot anyone if her emotional problems had been addressed.
Spencer — who says she was ‘gay from birth’ — lived with her university technician father from the age of nine after her parents broke up. He was an antisocial loner who lived in poverty in a house strewn with empty beer and whisky bottles.
A hunting enthusiast, he had enough ammunition in the house for ‘a small army’, according to one of his daughter’s classmates.
Spencer, an introverted and scrawny tomboy, had a history of petty theft, drug abuse and school truancy. She showed little interest in her studies and hated authority.
Even so, her former English teacher, David Barrett, recalled that she ‘seemed pretty harmless’ and even won first prize in a photography contest run by the Humane Society.
Police were told she had fantasised about being a sniper and would hunt birds around the neighbourhood.
Her behaviour — including telling a friend she wanted to kill someone, probably a police officer — became increasingly disturbing.
A year before the shooting, school officials told her parents they believed she was a suicide risk but her father ordered them to leave his family alone. In the same year, she burgled the school where she would later kill pupils, vandalised classrooms and shot out some of its windows with a gun.
A psychiatric evaluation in December 1978 concluded that she should be put in hospital as a danger to herself and others — but again, her father resisted.
Instead, he gave her a Ruger semi-automatic rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition for Christmas. ‘I felt like he wanted me to kill myself,’ she said later.
At various parole hearings since the first in 1993, she has blamed her father and also the influence of drugs for the shooting.
Contradicting police reports that found no evidence of drugs or alcohol in her system, she said she had been taking both and was hallucinating at the time of the shooting. She didn’t realise she was shooting at schoolchildren, mistaking them for birds. At another hearing, she claimed she had opened fire because she wanted police to kill her.
In 2001, Spencer accused her father of physically and sexually abusing her (he denied the allegation) and forcing her to share a bed with him. Her claims were treated with scepticism, given that she had never mentioned them before.
Yet her father, who died in 2016, was by all accounts a very odd man. Oddest of all, he married his daughter’s 17-year-old prison cellmate and brought her to live in the house from which Spencer had shot at the school. They later had a daughter together.
The cellmate looked so much like Spencer, even local police officers believed Brenda had been released early from prison. Spencer’s absent mother, Dot, claimed she suspected father and daughter had an unhealthy relationship but insisted she couldn’t afford a lawyer to fight for custody.
Successive parole hearings have heard powerful testimony from those who say their lives were permanently scarred by Spencer. Cam [Charles] Miller was seven when she shot him in the back. The ambulance rushing to get him to hospital took a sharp turn and the dead body of the school caretaker had rolled on top of him.
As a boy he had nightmares in which Spencer popped up out of a bathtub to finish him off. Even as an adult, he was gripped by an abiding fear of leaving his back exposed — in restaurants he always sits with his back to the wall. However, lawyer Michael McGlinn, who defended Spencer at her trial, told me he continues to believe she will never reoffend.
When he first met her, she was ‘like a total zombie — pale, ashen and with no recollection of what had occurred, and she stayed that way for some time’. Defence experts from Yale University who examined her said she had been in a ‘disassociated state’, he said.
He showed me a neatly hand-written letter she sent him in 2015 in which she wrote that she appreciated ‘what I did was horrible so I don’t really complain about the amount of time I’ve done’.
She kept busy behind bars by learning Latin ‘just for the fun of it’, she said. A model prisoner, she wants to be a forklift truck driver if she ever regains her freedom.
Mr McGlinn says such a ‘troubled young girl’ should never have been allowed near guns and believes her claims that she was hallucinating under the influence of drugs and alchohol. ‘I never got the impression from her that she was interested in trying to hurt kids,’ he said. He blames ‘total negligence and unbelievably bad parenting by her father in giving her the gun’.
At least one of Spencer’s victims agrees. Mary Rintoul — aged nine when she was shot in the attack — has mixed feelings about letting her out. But after 13 years of working in a psychiatric hospital, she said she ‘can understand why she went down the road she did… she never got the help she needed’.
Yet she wonders whether Spencer could ever adapt to the outside world and if ‘she will snap again’. Or as Wilfred Suchar, son of the murdered school caretaker, put it at a parole hearing: ‘My question is, will there be another boring Monday for her?’
For all his ex-client’s notoriety, Michael McGlinn insists the day she is released is ‘getting close’. Every new school shooting by a teenager reinforces the argument that she was not uniquely wicked or crazed.
‘People are recognising that today’s young are capable of doing anything,’ he said. ‘Including shooting each other in school.’
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