“Are you ready for this?” Longtime Oklahoman photographer Jim Beckel asked me this question as we rolled up to a houseful of mourners. Cade Poulos, 13, had shot himself in the head in the hallway of Stillwater Junior High School that morning. On a last leg of an 80-plus-mile journey, down a winding dirt road in rural Oklahoma, near Stillwater, we thought we’d missed the address we somewhat desperately sought. Then we noticed three cars were behind us, which didn’t make a lot of sense this far out in the country. The next bend in the road opened up and revealed the mobile home overrun with grieving friends and family.
“I’m never ready for this,” I said. The people there were bringing in bags of food. Trading hugs. Just being together. I got out of the car and walked toward the party I wasn’t invited to. Never ready, but never mind that. It was time to start asking uncomfortable questions.
Everyone reacts differently when asked to talk after they lose someone suddenly, violently. For some, the opportunity is a pleasant distraction. For others, a slap in the face. The man we encountered didn’t mince words when I told him I was a reporter for The Oklahoman, here to see if a friend or family member might share information on Cade’s life.
“You’re reporters?” asked a stocky, gray-haired man in jeans and a T-shirt.
“Sorry for your loss, sir.”
His eyes, his stance, projected one thing alone: “You’re going to leave this property.” I didn’t blame him. It was in all likelihood the worst day this family has ever had to face. He returned to the crowd and handed out hugs. I left a sympathy note and my contact information in the mail box. Handing him a business card, in that moment, seemed somehow unrealistic.
Five hours earlier, I had started the morning with little more in my head than the thought of both procuring a high maintenance latte and getting to work on time. On the way in, I heard a news brief that there had been a school shooting in Stillwater. Reporter stealth mode ensued.
I left the office with Beckel soon after arriving. When we got to Stillwater, a college town of roughly 46,000 northeast of Oklahoma City, we immediately got lost trying to find a strip mall students had been bussed when the junior high was evacuated following the 7:50 a.m. shooting. By the time we found the strip mall, students were long gone.We caught wind of a press conference hosted by the school district and headed there instead. The tragedy seemed to draw every media outlet in the state. A stressed-out looking TV man snipped at his cameraman. Another reporter yelped out a desperate plea for a camera battery. They were about to go live for noon broadcasts but I had a little more leeway. I sent out a few Tweets and called into the newsroom to tell my editor more information would soon be en route. We knew little then, other than that a student had died at the school from a self-inflicted gun shot wound.
Stillwater Public Schools Supt. Ann Caine and Stillwater police Capt. Randy Dickerson provided more information on the events that morning. Poulos had shot himself in the head in front of other students. Neither of them had experienced anything like that in decades on the job. It was superhero day as part of a cancer awareness week and many students were dressed up. They didn’t know what Poulos was wearing (jeans and a button down shirt, I was told the next day). They could not verify reports of bullying. Counselors were already on hand. I rushed the captain right after the conference to get a short iPhone video relaying the basics.I ended up in another reporter’s TV shot. Sorry about that. Who am I kidding, not really. I called the newsroom.
We had everything we needed. Everything but a student who had been there. We found one at random, while driving around a neighborhood near the junior high school. She was standing in her yard with her mother and little sister. At 14, Joli Moffitt had just seen her first dead body. She wanted to talk about it. She messaged me a pictured of Cade from a glitter-encrusted iPhone. She did not know him well, but he walked by her table at lunch the day before, looking happy. We sat down on their porch, out of the heat and away from the prying eyes of other news reporters prowling the neighborhood, looking for the same thing as me. I felt a little like a piranha, but at least I’m a good-natured and fair piranha, I thought to myself. Plus Joli had a lot on her mind. She did not see the shooting but wasright around the corner when it occurred. She froze when she saw his body, and the blood. When she realized there could be someone after other students on the property, she ran into a classroom. For Joli, the terrifying ordeal was over two hours later, when her mother picked her up from the strip mall. It won’t stop playing over and over in her mind.
I heard the boom, the bang sound. I heard that and then I go and look and I see his body on the floor. And I see a puddle of blood around him…
What the heck’s happening? What just happened? Who would do such a thing to this poor boy?
Here are the stories, video and photos we gathered from the day’s events: