The Atlanta and Boulder shootings led me back to a 99-page report on the 1989 Stockton schoolyard shooting that killed five Southeast Asian children. It was the most notorious school massacre before Columbine ten years later. Having downloaded this document a few years ago, I finally read it in entirety this week.

The shooting occurred in January and the report was completed in October at the behest of California attorney general John Van de Kamp, a Democrat serving under Republican governor George Deukmejian. The California Department of Justice spent considerable resources to investigate the shooting and especially the shooter, Patrick Edward Purdy, a white man of twenty-four years old. There were five authors, including chief deputy attorney general Nelson Kempsky. Besides the 30-page main report are six appendixes.

The first appendix is a 15-page psychological autopsy by Richard Yarvis: chief psychiatrist for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, director of mental health for the Sacramento Medical Center, and (later) director of the division of forensic psychiatry at UC Davis medical school. Gary Binkerd, the supervising deputy attorney general, wrote the next appendix. It is a 10-page compilation and analysis of Purdy’s extensive rap sheet of some 40 charges that began from the time he was thirteen to his suicide at the massacre eleven years later. Bureau of Investigations agents Allen Benitez and Phil Yee compiled the longest appendix at 24 pages about the shooter’s life history. It shows that he attended Cleveland Elementary School, the site of the shooting, between kindergarten in 1969 and third grade until moving to Sacramento in either 1972 or 1973.

LET’S START WITH MENTAL ISSUES. Purdy’s childhood was one that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. Absent father. Abusive stepfather. Neglectful mother. “Throughout his life [and] with justification, he believed he had been abandoned and rejected by his mother,” who threw him out after he punched her when he was thirteen years old. There was no stability whatsoever in his life. Child Protective Services intervened a few times on behalf of Purdy, slightly older sister, and younger brother. “By the end of childhood,” states the report, “he was already manifesting some of the attributes of a disturbed child in the form of destructiveness, lying, and stealing at home.”

His adolescence was “as problematic and chaotic as was his childhood.” He lived variously in foster homes, a juvenile hall, a group home, with an older man, with his father, with relatives, and on his own. He lived for brief periods, especially in 1988, in other states: Oregon, Nevada, Florida, Tennessee, and Connecticut. Otherwise he lived mostly in California: Los Angeles, Sacramento, Lodi, South Lake Tahoe, and of course Stockton. Besides the time at Cleveland Elementary, he lived at a Stockton recovery house for two months in 1981. Most of his last sixteen months was also spent in Stockton.

For a time he resorted to prostitution for survival and was arrested by an undercover policeman. Other arrests involved illegal drug possession, vandalism, burglaries, and driving under the influence. There were also charges of unlawful firearm discharge. The last ones were relevant to the shooting in the long run. The Binkerd appendix concludes, “Although every available effort was undertaken by law enforcement and judicial authorities to evaluate his mental health, the matter was ultimately treated as a criminal justice matter.”

Purdy was variously diagnosed with depression; emotional and sexual immaturity; substance-induced personality disorder; antisocial personality disorder; and borderline personality disorder “with poor judgment and poor impulse control.” He was also suicidal at times. When filling a form at the Social Security Administration, he stated he liked working but “I never seem to fit in with everyone else.” SSA determined he was eligible for disability payments. At several times he was placed in drug and alcohol treatment programs. The Yarvis appendix analyzes Purdy partially from the context of the development of self-esteem. His mental issues stemmed from the absence of such development in childhood and adolescence.

TURNING TO RACE AND RACISM. According to the report, Purdy believed that “Asians, Arabs, blacks, Hindus, and Hispanics were all getting ahead unfairly and at his expense.” He appears “to have been ecumenical in his hatred for minorities directing vilification at virtually all minority group members at one time or another.” The main report includes three and a half pages on racial motives. It allows for “no conclusive information,” likely because Purty did not leave a written or spoken record about his motivation towards the murderous action. Nonetheless, it states that “the evidence strongly suggests that Purdy deliberately sought out a concentration of Southeast Asian children as his targets.”

Not all interviewees spoke about Purdy’s views on race, but many did. One acquaintance in southern California said he used the N-word about black Americans. Two relatives “confirmed Purdy’s strong anti-black attitudes.” The same relatives also confirmed “his expressed attitudes that people who came to this country should speak English.” An acquaintance in Stockton said he felt threatened by Southeast Asians and did not think they should be in the US. About a year before the shooting, he “expressed to co-workers in Stockton that he did not like competing against the Southeast Asians for jobs.” He added the US “was letting all the Vietnamese and communists into the country.” Having taken vocational courses at San Joaqin Delta College, he said there were five Vietnamese to every white student in the class. A friend in Oregon recalled that Purdy said Southeast Asians didn’t work but received governmental benefits. He also expressed dislike of Arabs, Pakistanis, and Indians.

Two weeks before the shooting, he was at a bar and spoke about Vietnamese getting benefits and “boat people” trying to take over everything. When leaving this bar, he further said, “You’re going to read about me in the papers.” On the day of shooting, he left the motel at 10:50 AM and had a brief conversation with another guest in the parking lot. This person said to Purdy, “You know how the Hindus are; they want you out by 11:00.” He responded, “The damn Hindus and boat people own everything.”

For some context, Stockton’s history was closely tied to immigration. The city’s founder was a German immigrant. Five years after the founding, it became the fourth largest city in the state then one of the most industrialized by the end of the 19th century. Racial demarcation characterized many developments. In the early 20th century, for example, family farms became agricultural “factories.” They were owned mostly by white migrants from other parts of the US, and German, Italian, and Portuguese immigrant families. This change was not possible without cheap labor from Asian and Mexican immigrants during the 19th and 20th centuries. Labor shortage could be a big issue to the white growers, who sought to circumvent labor unions by pitting one minority group against another, among other means.

In any event, Asian immigration had long characterized the history of Stockton. For a time after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, its Chinatown became the largest in the state. Vibrant were Japantown until Pearl Harbor and Little Manila from the 1920s to the 1970s (as well detailed in the late historian Dawn Mabalon’s monograph). Still, their percentage remained small in comparison to whites, who made up 90% of the city population in 1940 and 80% in 1970. Asian population was largely the same during the same period: 7.6% in 1940 and 7.9% thirty years later.

The end of the Vietnam War, however, led to the resettlement of a large number of Southeast Asian refugees during 1975-1990. City censuses show that the percentage of African Americans went down slightly from 11% in 1970 to less than 10% in 1990. Much more significantly, the percentage of whites shrank to 57.5% while Asians made up nearly 23% of the population. Latino or Hispanic population (terms used in censuses) also grew from 17% to 25% during the same period. In short, racial demography was shifting rapidly.

The information above comes from elsewhere but the report sure makes note of demographic changes: one out of six residents had been born in Southeast Asia. Utilizing bilingual resources, the school district designated Cleveland and two other schools to focus on immigrant children. Seventy percent of Cleveland Elementary students were Southeast Asian.

HOW ABOUT GUNS? Rap sheet and mental issues aside, Purdy bought them legally in part because all of his convictions were misdemeanors. (The only felony arrest became a misdemeanor after plea bargain.)

  • 1984 – .25 caliber pistol in LA
  • 1986 – .22 caliber pistol in Modesto + 9 mm pistol in Sacramento
  • 1987 – 9mm pistol in Stockton
  • 1988 – Norinco 56s rifle (AK-47) in Sandy, Oregon

Between July and December 1988, he was employed then terminated or laid off in a series of mechanic jobs in Oregon, Tennessee, and Connecticut, usually within days of hiring. The exception was his last job in Windsor, Connecticut that he quit on December 12. On the same day, he went to a shop in Westerly, Rhode Island and bought five boxes of ammunition and ordered two magazines for the rifle. Three days later, he picked up the magazines and bought more ammunition. He went back to Stockton and checked into a motel the day after Christmas. Two days later he bought a Taurus pistol that required a 15-day wait. He picked up the pistol on January 13, and also met his half-brother and talked about killing people. During this period he was seen at least once near Cleveland Elementary and twice next to the Lincoln High School, which also served as a Cambodian Cultural Center with some 700 Cambodians present each day for classes and other activities.

On January 17, Purdy left the motel as mentioned above. Inside his vehicle were a rifle, a pistol, ammunition, containers of flammable liquids, fireworks, and a metal pipe bomb. At 11:40 AM, he parked near Cleveland Elementary and walked towards one side of the school. At least 300 children were at the recess. He fired 66 rounds into the crowd then ran to another side of the school and fired 39 rounds before killing himself with the pistol. He also set up the bomb to blow up his vehicle during the shooting.

This post is based mostly on the report to the attorney general, and we can definitely benefit from further research. Nonetheless, the available evidence about Purdy indicates that mental illness and racism could co-exist. His case wasn’t either-or but both-and.

In any event, 30 children and one teacher were injured in addition to the dead. Here is the racial breakdown among the victims. Remarkably, the ratio of the dead and injured Southeast Asian students (69%) was just about identical to the overall ratio of Southeast Asian students (70%).

  • 21 Cambodian (58%)
  • 4 Vietnamese (11%)
  • 9 white (25%)
  • 1 Hispanic (3%)
  • 1 Native American (3%)

Here are the names and ages of the deceased: four Cambodians and one Vietnamese; all girls except for Rathanan Or.

  • Sokhim An (6)
  • Ram Chun (6)
  • Oeum Lim (8)
  • Rathanan Or (9)
  • Thuy Tran (6)

Click here for an article from Sactown magazine on the 25th anniversary of the shooting.