Angels in the Classroom

'Clearly, he knew there was no way his demands could be met and had intended all along on using his bomb...'

Reprinted with permission from Angels on Earth, a Guideposts publication.

Ron Hartley

In the spring of 1986, I was a sheriff’s investigator for the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office in Cokeville, a little ranching town nestled in the craggy mountains of western Wyoming. On May 16, at approximately 1:30 p.m., a man with a bomb--a warped criminal genius named David Gary Young--seized the Cokeville Elementary School and threatened mass murder if his bizarre demands were not met. Among those he held hostage were my four children, including my six-year-old son, Nathan.

Nathan Hartley


After lunch, strange things began to happen at school. All of us kids and the teachers were herded into Mrs. Mitchell’s first-grade classroom. Somebody said something about a safety demonstration and a big surprise. I thought, Cool, no more class today!

Then I saw him--a raggedy man with wild eyes and a gun. He had shaggy hair and a red beard. A plain-looking woman was with him. She acted as his helper. The man growled orders at us. There were a whole bunch of rifles and guns lined up under the blackboard at the front of the room. The man threatened to shoot anyone who gave him trouble. Pretty soon everyone was jammed shoulder to shoulder in the room. It was stuffy and there was a strong smell of gasoline in the air.

What was really frightening, though, was a shopping cart he had--the kind you use at the supermarket. It was full of wires and metal and was attached to him by a string. Notebooks were strewn across the floor. When he and the woman finished piling up the notebooks, the man waved his gun and shouted at us, "I am a revolutionary! I am the most wanted man in the country!"

David Gary Young was no stranger to Cokeville. Some years earlier he had been appointed town marshal. Soon, however, it became disturbingly clear that he fancied himself another Wyatt Earp. He swaggered around town, recklessly twirling a pair of loaded side arms. He was given to irrational outbursts. In a matter of months his erratic behavior got him summarily dismissed. When he married a local woman, a would–be café singer named Doris Luff, and roared off on his motorcycle, the townspeople thought they’d seen the last of him. Now he was back.

The shopping cart was filled with deadly explosives. Young had attached the bomb’s trigger mechanism to his wrist with a short length of twine. If anything happened to David Gary Young, the whole school would be blown sky-high with him.

Eventually, Young sent out his demands to the police officers who had surrounded the school. He wanted $300 million in ransom for the 167 hostages he held--students, teachers, school workers, and a UPS driver, nearly a quarter of Cokeville’s population. He also wanted a personal phone call from the president of the United States.

Some of the kids started crying after the man with the red beard said he was the most wanted man in the country. Some of us started to pray quietly. I don’t know why but I wasn’t that scared. I knew it was a very dangerous situation, but I didn’t think about being hurt. But the smell of gasoline! The fumes were overpowering. Some of the kids started getting sick. The man wouldn’t let anyone leave the room so the kids threw up in wastebaskets. Then he ordered the windows opened.

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Ron and Nate Hartley
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