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From: A Bus to Nowhere
This is a case that might well have come out of a bad dream. It demonstrates how little control humans have over their own destinies, and how disaster sometimes comes while we are involved in the most mundane pursuits. Along with a million other people, I watched it unfold on my television screen. But don't jump to conclusions; this is not a review of the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, although the motivation behind the two incidents are, perhaps, almost identical. Rage and resentment hidden beneath a bland facade can explode in ways we might never imagine, and sometimes that kind of hatred can smolder for a very long time, even for decades.
On the day after Thanksgiving, 1998, I was cleaning my kitchen, which, for me, was playing hookey from writing. Like many moms with big families, I had spent all the day before cooking and this seemed a good time to try to create some kind of order in my kitchen drawers and cabinets. This was my idea of a holiday, polishing silver, lining cupboards and washing dishes while I watched daytime television.
But I was snapped out of my reverie when I heard the announcer cut into Oprah with a news bulletin; his voice had a nonprofessional edge to it that gave away what was clearly his own shock. I looked up at my little kitchen TV set to see an image there that made no sense at all. I recognized a familiar bridge, but everything else was a jumble of crushed metal, emergency vehicles, victims with bloody clothing, and sobbing bystanders. For the next three hours, I watched, transfixed with horror.
We all tend to think that really bad things are not going to happen in the town where we live -- that we are somehow protected by the law of averages, fate, and even angels. The classic quote from bystanders who cluster around a murder or a multiple fatality accident is always, "Things like that don't happen in our town." Television reporters seem to love that quote, no matter how predictable it has become. But sometimes, terrible things do happen right down the street from where we live. The tragedy that occurred in Seattle on the day after Thanksgiving, 1998, was like that, and the reasons behind it made for an unfathomable puzzle at first.
I set out to try to find some answers. What I eventually discovered was shocking. More than any case I've written about to date, this one demonstrates that there are people who live and breathe and move among us who live in a completely alien world. In Seattle, on the day after a holiday that traditionally signifies warmth and love, one of those people brought untold pain to perfect strangers. I had to know who he was, what he looked like, and, most important, what drove him to do what he did. You couldn't really tell who he was from the statements of almost forty eyewitnesses; he might have been a dozen different men.
And no one knew who really lived behind his handsome, pleasant facade.
The Thanksgiving holiday, 1998, was no different from any other holiday, although Thursday, the day itself, was fairly quiet. Most residents of the western half of Washington State were grateful that the week's tumultuous weather had tempered just a little, and that there was power to roast their turkeys, since a storm packing 70-mile-an-hour winds had swept in on Monday and knocked power out in 200,000 homes. Ten inches of snow fell in the Cascade Mountains and the first gully-washing rains of what would prove to be a winter of record rainfall had begun. Thanksgiving Day itself was mostly cloudy, a little rainy, but the gale-force winds had diminished to only breezes. Friday was the same. That was fortunate for anyone living along Puget Sound or Elliott Bay; high tides of over twelve feet were expected and 70-mile-an-hour winds would have taken out a lot of docks and bulkheads and carried away boats and buoys. That had happened often enough over the Thanksgiving holidays of the past.
There are no holidays in a homicide unit; there are only detectives who have the day off, detectives who are on call, and detectives who are on duty. When something catastrophic happens, the whole police force is, of course, available. Those in the first category in the Seattle Police Department's Homicide Unit can breathe easy on a holiday, but the next two are either listening for their pagers to beep or working on open cases. Holidays tend to breed homicides; people who manage to avoid each other -- and are wise to do so -- the rest of the year are thrown together, with sometimes fatal results. They drink too much, get too little sleep, are worn out by travel, and generally tend to behave badly if they have a propensity for badness in the first place.
Detectives Steve O'Leary, John Nordlund, and Gene Ramirez were only on call on November 27, and thankful for that. They figured they were through the worst of the weekend by Friday. Steve O'Leary and his wife were having a delayed holiday dinner with her grandmother at a restaurant called Claire's Pantry in the north end of Seattle that afternoon. Between his turkey and his pumpkin pie, O'Leary happened to glance up at the television set placed there in deference to football fanatics. "When I saw what I saw," he recalled, "I wondered why they hadn't called me. A moment later, my pager sounded. And that was the beginning of it."
Traditionally, in every city in America, the day after Thanksgiving is the kick-off of the Christmas shopping season. Die-hard shoppers have barely digested their turkey dinners before they are up and headed to the malls and downtown. That was true in Seattle on November 27, too; most of the shoppers drove private cars, but hundreds of them took advantage of the Metro Transit park-and-ride lots located on the borders of the city. They rode the bus -- no parking hassles that way.
Forty-four-year-old Mark McLaughlin was well into his twentieth year as a bus driver for the Metro King County bus system, and he was a familiar and cheerful presence on the Number 359 daytime route from Shoreline in the far north end of Seattle to the downtown area. Mark was a big man with broad shoulders, a deep chest and a comfortable belly. He was six feet, two inches tall, and weighed over 250 pounds, and his partially white beard made him look a little older than he really was. Many of his regular passengers felt that he was a good friend and they looked forward to his kidding, just as his fellow drivers and the mechanics at the bus barn did. He could wrestle the huge articulated buses with an ease a smaller man might envy. McLaughlin loved his job, and he was a complete professional in a career that required a driver to be not only skilled behind the wheel, but adept at dealing with the problems, complaints and eccentricities of the passengers who hopped on board and took a seat behind him.
Driving a transit bus has never been an easy job in Seattle. Three decades or more ago, the buses got their power from overhead electric wires. They were half trolley/half bus, and their connecting rods were forever detaching and swinging free. Drivers had to stop, get out, risk getting a shock as they struggled to get their rig back on track. Later, Metro went to regular buses, but when the transit company purchased sixty-feet-long, forty-thousand-pound, articulated buses, everyone eyed them with suspicion. These buses had an accordion-like midsection that connected one ordinary-size bus to another. Articulated buses could carry twice as many passengers, and slide around corners like a Slinky toy. At first the concept didn't seem natural -- or even safe. But some of the drivers, including Mark McLaughlin, were willing to give them a try. Before long, the behemoth buses were taken for granted.
Mark McLaughlin lived away from the city in Lynnwood, halfway between Seattle and Everett. He was divorced and had custody of his two sons, who were sixteen and thirteen. His seventy-eight-year-old mother, Rose, lived nearby, and he had brothers and a sister close by, too. After Mark graduated from Ingraham High School in 1972, he married his first wife, a local girl. He enlisted in the Army and trained to be a medic.
When his Army stint was over in 1979, he went to work for Metro. His first, young marriage ended and so did his second marriage, but he didn't give up on the possibility of finding someone who would be right for him. He raised his boys, drove the big buses, and hoped for a happier future. He found it in what had become his world -- on the bus. Sometime in 1990, Mark was driving through the suburb of Bothell when he met a young woman who was a regular passenger. She was pretty and petite with long blond hair and she always got on with two small children, a baby carrier and a jumble of bags that held diapers, bottles and other baby paraphernalia. Mark always got out of the driver's seat and helped the young mother get settled. The sight of her struggling with her babies and their gear touched his big heart.
Her name was Elise Crawford. When the bus was nearly empty during off-peak hours, Elise and Mark talked. He learned that she was alone and he told her his second marriage had ended. After months, he asked her out and she said yes. Inevitably, perhaps, they fell in love. They became engaged and joined their families, moving into a modest three-bedroom house in Lynnwood. Mark welcomed Elise's children; he was such a natural father that he had been awarded custody of his second wife's son by her earlier marriage. Now, Mark and Elise had four children -- his two, her two.
Mark and Elise had wedding plans for the spring of 1999. They were going to marry at his mother Rose's home, and his sister Debra was helping Elise with the plans. It wouldn't cost a ton of money, but they would have spring flowers, bridesmaids in pastel dresses, and a great buffet. Mark and Elise had each known lonely days, and this marriage was going to be forever.
When he wasn't driving a bus, Mark McLaughlin was an avid fan of the Seattle Sonics and Seahawks. He loved the outdoor opportunities in the Northwest, and he was a hiker and an amateur photographer. Elise worked as a nurse at Virginia Mason Hospital, and she took a second job clerking at a J.C. Penney store on the weekends. Mark was driving extra shifts, and it seemed only fair that she help, too. With four kids and a wedding coming up, they needed extra money. Their big dream was to buy their own home together, someplace with bedrooms enough for everyone. There was no reason to think they wouldn't be able to realize that dream.
Where they lived didn't really matter to Elise. After being alone with her small children, often being afraid of sounds in the night, she felt so safe with Mark. He was a big bear of a man who looked after everybody. "He was a wonderful man," Elise recalled of their happiest days. "We had just started to make it. I was never afraid of anything with him here."
As a nurse, Elise worried sometimes about Mark's weight and urged him to cut back on his appetite. But he seemed healthy, and he had boundless endurance.
Mark and Elise had a perfect day on Thanksgiving; they went to his mother's house for a turkey dinner along with the rest of their relatives. One of Mark's favorite cousins drove down from Vancouver, B.C., for the weekend. He and Mark planned to take the kids on a hike on Saturday, but first Mark had a shift to drive for Metro. He started at 11:30 on Friday morning, driving Number 359. He would be home in plenty of time to eat leftovers and watch a few of the games during the football marathon that weekend.
Mark worked out of Metro's North Base located at Interstate 5 and 165th; he'd been there since it opened in 1990. It was close to his home, and daytime runs were usually pretty easy when it came to trouble from passengers, even though his route was one of three in the Metro system with the most incidents involving violence. You could never guarantee that there wouldn't be a drunk or some druggies on the bus, but there were certainly fewer than during late night runs. Drivers all over the city had had their problems with "gang bangers" and other riders who seemed to have more potential for trouble than the average passenger. On some routes, it seemed that the transit drivers had to spend more energy maintaining order on the bus than they did driving. County-wide, Metro was averaging about ten incidents a day. Some were only minor altercations among or between passengers, some were over fare disputes, and, in rare instances, the drivers themselves were assaulted. But, considering that 217,000 people rode the bus every day, the average wasn't bad.
A lot of the hassles were over fares, so Metro's policies dictated that drivers were to request that a fare be paid, but to back off if a passenger was combative. Keeping the peace was the most important thing.
Mark McLaughlin's easy manner and ready grin helped him defuse potential trouble most of the time. When he had to stand up and be heard, he was fully capable of doing that. But the day after Thanksgiving was a happy day. It was his last day of work before a week off.
Even the weather seemed to be a good omen. Suddenly, where there had been rain, wind, clouds, snow and sleet, the skies parted in the early afternoon and the sun burst forth. It was November, but it seemed almost like April. For an hour or two, it was shirt-sleeves weather, and neighborhoods along McLaughlin's route were alive with people taking advantage of a beneficent warm wind, and nowhere more than in Fremont.
The Fremont neighborhood is located in the center of the north end of Seattle. It was once a staid middle-class enclave, but it reinvented itself and became innovative, funky, colorful and much to be desired by those with open minds. Brazenly calling itself the "Center of the Universe," Fremont has shops with items found nowhere else. The statuary here ranges from someone's inherited life-size rendition of Lenin to the Fremont Troll. The Troll is a creation of artist Steve Badanes, a hulking monster three times larger than any human, who holds a hapless life-size Volkswagen bug in one mighty claw. Hunkering down under the north end of the towering Aurora Bridge, The Fremont Troll, fearsome as he looks, is also considered lucky and tourists and locals alike often meet at the cement monster.
At three on Friday afternoon, several young people left their small apartments to hang out near the Troll under the bridge, which runs parallel and close to the soaring Aurora Bridge, both spans crossing the Lake Washington Ship Canal which cuts the landscape between Lake Washington, Salmon Bay, and Shilshole Bay. The young people below the overpasses could hear the rumble and thunkety-thunkety sound of tires overhead from the small and large bridges, but the noise was so familiar they unconsciously lifted the level of their voices, laughing and talking without really being aware of the traffic above.
Mark McLaughlin headed south toward the center of Seattle on Aurora Avenue North. Along the way, he would pick up some thirty-three passengers, as diverse in age and errand as any busload of people could be. The only thing that they had in common, really, was that they happened to be on the same bus at the same time. Some of them were going downtown to start their Christmas shopping, some were going to work, some to visit friends, and some were headed home. A few recovering addicts were headed for a rehab center. Although all schools and most offices in the Seattle area were closed that Friday after Thanksgiving, the bus would surely be at least half full by the time they reached the Aurora Bridge.
Jerome Barquet, forty-seven, got on the bus at Aurora Village sometime between two and three and chose a seat just in front of the bendable midsection on the right side. He peered out the window as they picked up other passengers and turned back onto the main thoroughfare, Aurora Avenue. Bill Brimeyer, twenty-three, sat about four seats in front of Barquet. Gary Warfield, also forty-seven, sat down close to Barquet in the fourth row of seats, and immediately began reading the textbook he carried. He was studying for a final exam, and needed to cram as much information as he could before his test.
Lacy Olsen was thirteen; she got on at Aurora Village with her friend, Brandy Boling, sixteen. They sat near the articulated divider in the middle of the double bus and began to talk and giggle as teenagers will. Brodie Kelly also boarded Number 359 at Aurora Village. He sat in the first section of the coach, but near the accordion divider. He had his earphones plugged in and was listening to his portable CD player.
Alberto Chavez and his cousin got on the bus at 145th and Aurora and took a seat close to the midsection of the double coach. Alberto looked out the window as they headed south. Barbara Thomas hopped on near the drivers' license bureau at North 132nd.
Jennifer Lee was sixteen, and a high school junior. She worked in the afternoons at a retirement home in downtown Seattle. She enjoyed her job and she was a breath of fresh air for the seniors who lived in the complex. She bounced down the aisles, oblivious to the driver and the other passengers. Regina King, twenty-eight, caught the bus at North 130th. She worked at a theater and she had already done some heavy-duty shopping that day. Her arms were loaded with packages. She found an empty seat, arranged her shopping bags on her lap and fell asleep, lulled by the sunshine through the windows and the hum of the engine.
Shawn Miller and his sister, Leanna, took seats in rows two and three near the front door on the right side. They didn't notice the man who sat in the first seat facing the driver until Leanna looked around, studying her fellow passengers. The man looked to her to be in his thirties, and he wore a dark jacket. It was his sunglasses that caught her attention. They had some kind of "shade" coming down on the side so that his eyes were completely hidden. She wondered if he was coming from an optometrist's office and if the sun was bothering him. He sat silently, staring at the bus driver.
Francisco Carrasco, thirty-one, had been visiting with friends in the north end of the city, and he paid his fare at 80th and Aurora. "I sat on the second seat behind the back stairs in the 'trailer' part of the bus on the driver's side."
Jeremy Hauglee was nineteen, and he headed as he usually did toward the rear of the bus, sat down and immediately put on his earphones. Soon he was lost in his own world.
Judy Laubach, forty, worked in the financial division at the downtown flagship Nordstrom's store. She had a flexible work schedule that allowed her to go in as early as nine a.m. or as late as noon, depending on her workload. It was very rare for her to head downtown so late, but on this afternoon she had debated going in at all. Finally, knowing she had some work to catch up on, she left home shortly before three, catching Number 359 near the Presbyterian church at Green Lake. She sat on the right side just behind the handicapped section -- in the first seats that faced forward. Deep in thought, Judy was only peripherally aware of the man who got on the bus a few stops before the Aurora Bridge.
Herman Liebelt, sixty-nine, caught the bus, as always, near Green Lake. He had finished his weekly three-mile walk around the scenic city lake, had gone to visit an old friend, and was headed to the Urban Bakery for a cup of coffee before heading home to a senior citizens housing building downtown. Liebelt was alone in the world except for some stepchildren in California, but he wasn't a lonely man at all; he believed in getting out of his apartment and talking to people. When the weather was good, he loved to sit on a bench at Green Lake and discuss life and the world with strangers who paused to chat. He never lacked for someone to talk to; people seemed to be naturally drawn to him.
P. K. Koo was seventy-six, and spoke virtually no English. He took his seat three back from the front on the opposite side from Mark McLaughlin. He watched what was going on around him, and saw a number of people get on at various bus stops. Idly, he noted the tall white man who got on three or four stops before the big bridge.
Aurora Avenue North used to be one of the major thoroughfares in Seattle, but with the advent of the Interstate 5 freeway, it is now only a surprisingly narrow street lined mostly with businesses that saw their good years in the fifties and sixties. Passing decades-old landmarks like the trumpeting elephant sign and the Twin Tee Pees, the number 359 runs through neighborhoods, past motels and restaurants, the Washelli cemetery, the sweeping park with a walking track that surrounds Green Lake, and past the zoo at Woodland Park before it heads into downtown.
At Woodland Park, Mark McLaughlin detoured off Aurora to pause at bus stops along Stone Way North. And then at North 38th, he wrenched the wheel hard and headed up onto the southbound ramp that led back onto Aurora over the long bridge that crosses the Lake Washington Ship Canal. At its highest point, the Aurora Bridge arches 175 feet above the water.
It was a few minutes after three p.m.
Shortly after the long bus lumbered up the ramp, something happened, something that seemed almost surreal to those passengers who were alert to what was going on around them. They watched it happen almost without comprehension, the way the eye fixes on a magnified blow-up of some everyday item which, enlarged, looks foreign. It takes a few moments to recognize what one is actually seeing. The passengers could not compute what they were seeing.
There wasn't even time for panic or for anyone to stop what they watched. And, like many eyewitnesses, later they could not agree on the precise details of what they saw. The only thing they would be in consensus about was that a man got up, and walked silently up to the bus driver. Before they could wonder why he was getting up, since there was no stop on the bridge, many passengers heard a series of loud noises -- "pops," "bangs," "firecrackers."
Some who were familiar with guns knew they were hearing gunfire; some were puzzled. And, then, within a matter of seconds, the 20-ton bus began to veer left.
Later, some of the thirty-three passengers on that bus would try to make some sense out of what had happened to them.
"Moments after I got on," Judy Laubach recalled, "I remember a gentleman getting up and walking past me. He had on a blue, horizontally striped shirt, and he walked up past the people sitting in the front of the bus. I didn't see the gun, but I heard two gunshots -- BOOM! BOOM! -- and I said to myself, 'He just shot the bus driver!' The bus went across the center lanes. I recall a couple of bumps and the bus came to a stop. I remember praying. I heard some gurgling -- something -- I don't know if it was me or a body next to me or what. Then I remember sirens and a rescuer coming to help. I remember looking up at a rescuer and some glass was falling in my face, and I remember him telling me to look down so the glass wouldn't get in my eyes. The next thing I remember I was in an ambulance, and the bumpy ride to the hospital."
Judy Laubach wasn't sure if she'd stayed inside the bus before it came to a stop, or if she'd been thrown out.
P. K. Koo tried to find the words to describe what had happened. Koo, whose English was so spotty that he needed an interpreter, said he had had a clear view of the gunman. "He said nothing at all. The man didn't do anything," Koo recalled as he tried to explain that there had been no fight, no argument, no incident on the bus. "He just got up and went to the driver. I heard two shots. He was about forty, tall, slim -- a good-looking man. He had a jacket on and some sunglasses."
Henry Luna had been reading the manual that had come with his cellular phone. He heard the "pop-pops," followed by a second burst of sound. "People started yelling 'Gun! Gun!' I got down on my knees. I didn't even know the bus had been in a wreck until some people pulled me out..."
Francisco Carrasco didn't see the shooting. "I was talking with someone when I heard what sounded like a backfire," he said. "I remember the bus hitting something and I was thrown into the rear stairwell. I covered my head with my arms and grabbed hold of a bar, but when I looked, the whole right side of the bus was gone. If I would have been thrown another foot or two, I would have been gone, too. Diesel fuel was spilling all over me, soaking my clothes and head. I thought it was going to explode so I walked off the bus where the doors in the right side were missing. I remember the ground I got out on was asphalt. I walked across the street, dragging my left leg. There were people who tried to help."
When Regina King woke up, it was to screams and the sense that the bus had crashed against something. She heard no gunshots and no disturbances.
Thirteen-year-old Lacy Olsen saw it happen. She heard the "pops," and saw two bright flashes spit from the gun in the man's hand, and then scarlet blood that erupted, staining Mark McLaughlin's uniform shirt. Try as she might, she could not remember the man who'd held the gun in his hand. But she knew she had seen the gun, and the muzzle flash. "It happened really quick. I thought the man with the gun was sitting down."
Lacy couldn't remember anyone shouting or any angry words. But after the gunshots, the bus took off like a roller coaster. First there was a big bump as it hit something on the bridge, and then there was an awful sense of free-fall as the bus left the bridge. Lacy didn't know what was down below and she wasn't even sure that they weren't still bouncing in the air over the bridge itself.
Copyright © 1999 by Ann Rule