The Shootings at Grand Rapids High School

Wednesday, October 5, 1966

As the 40th anniversary the Grand Rapids High School shooting approached, I received an e-mail from Survivor Kevin Roth.  He asked me to post the following news story so that you, my visitor, can see how being a Survivor of a school shooting is something you don't outgrow.  I hope his words help us all to see what it is like to be a school shooting Survivor.  The news story was written by John Welbes of the Pioneer Press and first published on Sunday, November 2, 2003.


Published on 11/02/2003

Byline: By John Welbes, Pioneer Press

Each time Kevin Roth hears of a school shooting, it sends him back to a place he can't put in the past.

The day is Oct. 5, 1966. Roth, age 14, is standing outside Grand Rapids High School smoking with friends on a cold morning. He looks up to see a classmate approaching, gun in hand. Seconds later, he's staggered by the pain of a bullet tearing into his chest.

Roth's parents were told he would likely die. A priest at the hospital said last rites. But it was the day's other victim, an administrator who rushed to help, who took the second bullet and became the first to die in a Minnesota school shooting.

The Grand Rapids shooting is sadly similar to the one five weeks ago at Rocori High in Cold Spring , Minn. In each case, 15-year-old boys, reportedly teased about their looks, pulled the trigger on a .22-caliber handgun, shooting two people.

The stories may end very differently in the justice handed down. The Grand Rapids shooter was sentenced in 1966 as a juvenile and paroled after five years in prison. But the law has a harder edge in 2003. Prosecutors in the Cold Spring case convened a grand jury, which can indict on first-degree murder charges, and indicated they intend to try John Jason McLaughlin, the suspected shooter, as an adult. If found guilty of first-degree murder, he would face a life sentence.

However that turns out, Roth's story from 37 years ago shows it may be a long time before the Cold Spring families find any peace. Roth is still looking.

A few days after Cold Spring, he talked briefly to the parents of Seth Bartell, 14, one of the victims who has since died. With each school shooting he hears of, Roth also questions his role in the teasing that led to the 1966 tragedy.

A few months ago, Roth contacted corrections officials in Minnesota , hoping to find David M. Black Jr., the student who shot him. The call was fueled by "the internal hurt I've dealt with," Roth said. He was unsuccessful. "If he can hear from the victim that I forgive you, maybe he can learn to forgive himself. I don't know why I feel that way. I've been told by many people that I shouldn't."


The Grand Rapids shooting has its roots in teasing that probably had been going on for years, Roth said. And in the summer of 1966, David M. Black Jr. appears to have reached a breaking point.

"I didn't know him at all. I knew who he was, but I had not really had any contact with him," Roth said. He remembers seeing Black at hockey rinks years earlier, when grade school kids from Black's neighborhood would talk about him while Black watched hockey practice from the sidelines.

But in the summer of 1966, one friend from Roth's neighborhood north of Grand Rapids, Mark Lebeck, was also hanging around with Black, who lived on the town's west end.

"David was maybe 4-foot-9. He could have shaved twice a day and he was very heavy," Roth said. "Because of that he was ridiculed all his life."

Black told Lebeck stories -- he had been to a mafia convention, he had a pilot's license, he had a still out in the woods. When Lebeck relayed those stories to his other friends north of town they laughed it off and told him Black was lying.

Lebeck told Black. With his stories being questioned and constant ridicule coming his way, Black apparently decided to act.

"David was pushed into a corner. Just like any wounded dog, he's going to bite back. His response wasn't rational," Roth said, but added that none of the teasers knew what David was experiencing. The parents of the boys involved also didn't know the details of the teasing, and weren't keeping tabs on the boys, Roth said.

Roth and his friends did have some advance warning. The day before the shooting Black brought bullets to school, showing them to the boys and telling them he intended to use them. The teasers didn't believe he was serious.

The next morning, "Our bus came in at 7:30 a.m., and there were lots of cigarettes being smoked before school with the older boys," Roth said. The group of seven or eight boys finished smoking and wandered with Roth over to a spot near the middle school, waiting for the bell to ring. That's when they saw Black across the street, walking toward them, flashing a pistol.

The boys scattered. But Roth froze. Black was maybe 40 feet away when he pulled the trigger, shooting "like from a western movie, from the hip," Roth said.

The bullet hit him almost dead center in his chest, went through Roth's lung and his liver, and lodged in his back. His sense of shock would soon multiply. As he hobbled away to get help, he found out that not everyone had heard the gunshot.

"I didn't drop," Roth said. "I kind of went crouched knees and ran over to a teacher. I said, 'Help me, help me. He shot me, he shot me.' She said, 'Why don't you grow up?' " He then walked another 40 feet, entered the school building and fell down, where another teacher found him.

"There have been rumors that he kicked me," Roth said. "It was a nudge with his foot. He told me to get up."

Roth was seeing triple. As he opened his hands grasping the front of his chest and looked down, he saw why people weren't reacting. There was no sign of his injury, no external bleeding.

Moments after shooting Roth, Black turned the gun on Forrest L. Willey, a school administrator who had arrived on the scene. He was shot in the abdomen. Black then ran across the street where he surrendered eventually to police.


Internally, Roth was starting to bleed to death, the bullet having passed about an inch from his heart. He remembers lying on a gurney in a hallway, next to Willey, who was conscious. Roth told Willey he was sorry. "He didn't answer me, but he was looking at me," Roth said. News accounts of the incident make clear that, at least initially, Roth was thought to be the more seriously hurt of the two. Willey died eight days later.

Roth survived surgery and spent six days in intensive care. When he came to, he complained of pain in his arm and shoulder. On the surface of his back, just below his shoulder blade, he could feel the bullet that doctors had been unable to find. A doctor gave him local anesthetic and pulled it out. The doctor asked him if he wanted to keep the bullet. He said no.

As he viewed his wound he saw the incision in his chest closed with large stitches, spaced about 1.5 inches apart. "I asked the doctor why would somebody stitch me up that way. He said they were mortuary stitches."

Roth's guilty feelings about the shooting surfaced again just after he left intensive care. A nurse came into his room and said, with an edge in her voice, "Did you hear? Mr. Willey died." Then she walked out. He started hearing that some school administrators were saying Black didn't show signs of being a bad kid, that he must have been pushed.

Once home, Roth slept with a loaded shotgun at his side, even though he knew Black was in jail. "That was that tough-guy mentality of the guys I hung out with," he said. "It had to do with peer pressure."

No one ever told him directly that he was at fault for the 1966 shooting, but he came to feel that way. When he returned to school several weeks later, he was on his own as he tried to get back into his old routine, he said. He thanks one teacher, Robert J. Elkington, with helping him get readjusted.

Elkington, now 79 and still living in Grand Rapids , remembers going out of his way for Roth. "He was one of my favorite students," Elkington said. He says Roth was trying to avoid the aftermath of the shooting altogether, but he encouraged him to face it.

He told Roth he needed to get involved in school life again and convinced him to be in a school play he was directing. "I wanted to help him," Elkington said. "I know Kevin thanked me when the whole thing was done."

Roth never forgot what Elkington did for him. He turned to him again a few years back, still trying to deal with 1966. "He called me, probably in reference to the Columbine shooting," Elkington said. "We had quite a good discussion. He was a good kid."


Black's trip through the justice system was swift. He originally pleaded innocent and his case was moved into adult court. But in December 1966, just days before a jury trial was to begin, he pleaded guilty.

He was sentenced under the state's Youthful Offender Act. That act was removed from the books in 1980, when new laws were passed and the state enacted sentencing guidelines. Black received a maximum 25-year sentence for the Willey murder and a concurrent 10-year sentence for the aggravated assault of Roth, said Shari Burt, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

In late 1971, after five years at the state prison in St. Cloud , Black was put on a work-release program, likely living at some sort of halfway house, Burt said. He was paroled in April 1972, when he was 21.

At that time, there was a 25th birthday review for juvenile offenders. So, in 1976, when Black's birthday rolled around, the Youth Conservation Commission -- which was the paroling authority in those days -- heard his case. The commission discharged his sentence, meaning he was out of the corrections system and on his own.

"The purpose was to rehabilitate them," Burt said. "If by their 25th birthday they had shown a good institutional adjustment, the sentence could be discharged."

Despite being eased back into society over a five-year period, Black's new life outside the corrections system quickly went wrong. In August 1976, four months after getting his sentence discharged, Black was arrested for molesting a young boy. While working at a south Minneapolis hobby shop, Black had taken a 5-year-old boy into a back room of the shop, had him remove clothing and touched him. When police investigated, they uncovered a second, similar incident with a 5-year-old girl just days earlier.

Black pleaded guilty to second-degree criminal sexual conduct and served four years in prison. The Minnesota Department of Corrections hasn't heard from Black since he was discharged from the Lino Lakes facility in March 1980.


In Stearns County , John Jason McLaughlin faces potential trial in adult court for the Sept. 24 shooting that killed Aaron Rollins, 17, and Seth Bartell, 14.

In 1995, state law was rewritten to include a process known as extended juvenile jurisdiction. It is a successor to the law that Black was sentenced under, said Barry Feld, a law professor at the University of Minnesota .

Extended juvenile justice gives adult sentences to juveniles but treats them in the juvenile system until their 21st birthday. If the offender doesn't commit other offenses or violate other conditions set by the judge, the adult sentence is stayed.

Both laws "recognize that we need some intermediate authority, because juvenile courts aren't necessarily designed for the most serious offenses, and adult courts are clearly not equipped to deal with young offenders," Feld said.

McLaughlin's trip through Minnesota 's justice system, 37 years after Black's, appears less likely to follow such a route.

Prosecutors have indicated they will ask the court to try McLaughlin as an adult. If he's found guilty in an adult court of first-degree murder, the sentence is life in prison with a mandatory minimum of 30 years.

The Grand Rapids case, Feld says, "suggests the way in which we could deal with those kinds of cases when it was not in the full glare of media sensationalism." He added: "Treating a 15-year-old as a moral and criminal equivalent of a 25-year-old flies in the face of reality."

As for Black's return to prison within months of his 1976 discharge, Feld believes it "doesn't tell us anything about anything other than his case. Not every treatment program works for every offender, no more than every visit to a doctor works for every patient. That doesn't mean we don't try to treat them."

Since the Black sentence in 1966, "I think our system has gotten a lot harsher for 14-, 15-, 16-year olds," said Susan Gaertner, the Ramsey County attorney. "I'd be surprised if that kind of outcome occurred now."

In any juvenile case, she said, the court has to decide if the juvenile can be rehabilitated within the time the youth is held. "If not, public safety may require that a youth be tried in adult court and face a more lengthy sentence." Each juvenile's case, she said, has to be individually evaluated, including looking at the defendant's psychological make up, criminal history and the seriousness of the crime.

"For a case of this magnitude, even though (McLaughlin) is a very young offender, adult court prosecution is certainly a viable consideration," said Jim Backstrom, the Dakota County attorney.


During the 1980s, Black lived in apartments in Bloomington and Fridley , according to Minnesota driver's license records. Sometime in the mid-1990s he moved to Lincoln , Neb.

His sister, Barbara Ahlm, lives near Lincoln and says she has a difficult time getting in touch with David. He doesn't have a phone. She declined to speak at length about her brother or his life since 1966.

Attempts by the Pioneer Press to contact him were unsuccessful.

Black's last landlord still remembers him. About eight months ago, Black walked away from his squalid apartment in Lincoln , leaving behind practically all of his possessions. Jason Byrns, the landlord who also lives in the building, described Black as a "pretty secretive" tenant who he didn't see much.

Black lived there for at least six years, and Byrns thinks he worked nights at a hospital in Lincoln , possibly in a custodial position. Black didn't have a car. After Black slipped out of his apartment earlier this year, Byrns went in to clean up.

"I cleared out garbage there with a snow shovel," he said.

As he looked through Black's things, he got the impression that a parent had recently died. He found seven "giant boxes of fishing tackle." It had to be from his dad or a relative, Byrns said, because Black wasn't an outdoorsman. Black's father died in Grand Rapids in 1998. His mother died years earlier.

"His note said to take what you want. He didn't ask for his security deposit," Byrns said.

Black's sister, Barbara, says that he is still in Lincoln and that he left his old apartment to find a place that's less expensive.


After Black was convicted in 1966, Roth's family filed a civil suit, in part to help meet hospital expenses. They settled out of court for $3,000, Roth says. He later used half of the settlement to go to Europe and study art.

The events of October 1966, though, continued to linger. Mark Lebeck, who had been caught between Black and his other friends, committed suicide a couple of years after the shootings. "I don't know why," Roth said.

Roth went to college and taught physical education and art in public schools for a few years. Later he switched to a career in sales and currently works for a printing business. He's been married since 1975 and has two adult children. As he watches his children now, he said, he believes they're the reason his life was spared.

On trips back to Minnesota , Roth would frequently check phone books for a listing for David Black but never found him. When Roth contacted Minnesota 's Corrections Department, officials only had information on Black's whereabouts up until 1980.

While Roth now knows more about Black and would still like to talk to him, he has some reservations about the person he might run into after all these years. Roth, for instance, is only comfortable identifying his home as being in the southern United States .

Roth says he hopes the Grand Rapids incident and more recent school shootings will convince parents they have to be more involved in their kids' lives and that students will think about what someone who is teased is going through. And he still hopes that someday he can offer Black forgiveness for the shooting.

"Something good has to come out of all of this."

Welbes can be reached at or 651-228-2175.


-- The National School Safety Center ,, is a nonprofit group with information on how parents, teachers and others can keep schools safe.

-- The National Association of School Resource Officers has a site at that includes a survey showing the concerns police officers have about safety in their schools.

-- The Minnesota Attorney General's Office "Safe Schools" survey from 2000 has data showing how safe children from elementary to high school feel in their schools and the incidents they've witnessed. Go to and search for "safe schools."

Illustration: 3 photos: Richard Marshall, Pioneer Press
Kevin Roth survived after being shot in 1966, at the age of 14, outside Grand Rapids High School . "I feel a tremendous guilt over being part of a bad thing that happened, and a man died because of it," said Roth, referring to school administrator Forrest L. Willey, who was fatally wounded at the same time.

2) Kevin Roth and his daughter, Alyson, 24, talk with each other on their front porch about their day at work. Alyson, an elementary school music teacher, is paralyzed from the waist down after an auto accident three years ago. "God spared me for a reason, so I could father a beautiful young lady who survived a massive tragedy and still came out smelling like a rose," Roth said. The Roths live "in the South."

3) "The more you talk about this, the more you'll be able to put it behind you," said Jane Roth to her husband, Kevin, who survived after being shot at age 14 outside the Grand Rapids, Minn., high school.

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