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.
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.
After an hour or so, a lot of the kids were getting fidgety and some of the real young ones started to edge around the man with the shopping cart. This made him even angrier. Finally he asked a teacher to take some masking tape and mark off a square around him on the floor. “Cross this line of death,” he warned, “and I’ll start shooting the grown-ups. I’ll shoot everyone if I have to!”
Another hour passed with all of us crammed into Mrs. Mitchell’s classroom. The man was acting more and more nervous, like he might explode. Sweat dripped down from his face and his eyes got wild. Then he carefully transferred the string from his wrist to the woman’s and headed toward the bathroom. “I’ll be right back,” he muttered.
Negotiations dragged on. Clearly, Young knew there was no way his demands could be met and had intended all along on using his shopping-cart bomb. He had combined one jug of gasoline with loose ammunition, powerful blasting caps, flour and aluminum powder. The string attached to his wrist led to a spring-loaded clothespin. If Young pulled the string, the clothespin would snap shut, triggering a battery-operated detonator.
The initial explosion would launch the flour and aluminum powder into the air, igniting the gasoline and triggering a second explosion. In the middle of this deadly hell, hundreds of rounds of ammunition packed into the shopping cart would be set off, sending shrapnel flying in all directions. Admittedly, it was a fiendishly ingenious design, a bomb constructed to inflict maximum terror and bloodshed. But the bomb was as unstable as its maker.
I was sitting in the classroom playing with a toy when something made me look up. That’s when I saw the angels. They were shiny, with flowing white robes. Some were holding hands. They glided down through the ceiling, then hung in the air for a second. I felt totally safe. Everyone seemed to have an angel. They came down next to us. My angel was a beautiful shining woman. It was almost as if she landed on my shoulder. She said, “Don’t be scared, Nathan. Get up and go to the window. The bomb is about to go off.” I did just what she said. Other children started doing the same thing. Just then something startled the lady at the front of the classroom. She whirled around.
There was a horrible explosion. Everything turned black. People screamed. Something went off, sounding like a giant string of firecrackers exploding. There were flashes of light and a whirring filled the room. Somebody pulled me down; it was my sister. A teacher helped me crawl through the window. Another teacher caught me and put me on the ground and told me to run away as fast as I could. A crowd of police and others had gathered and I raced across the playground and found my mother.