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.
On the morning of the fateful day in Cokeville, I had been out of town on assignment. I returned in the afternoon, unaware of the terror unfolding at my children’s school. But as I entered the town I knew something was wrong. My stomach twisted. Cars were backed up and a civil defense worker was directing traffic. I asked what was wrong.
“A bomb went off at the elementary school twenty minutes ago,” she said. In panic and shock I sped to the school. Smoke thickened the air. Everywhere people were weeping. I pushed my way through the throng of cops, townspeople and media folk, looking for my wife, Claudia, and our four children. The local sheriff saw me and told me the kids were fine, but that Claudia had taken them to the hospital to be checked out.
Of the 167 hostages--150 children and 17 adults--quite a few had burns and cuts; Nathan was one of them. Miraculously, none of them had been killed. The same could not be said for David Gary Young and his wife. Both had perished. When the bomb went off, Young had charged from the bathroom, wielding a .45 caliber pistol and a .22 caliber pistol. He fired the .22 at a teacher, John Miller, wounding him in the shoulder. He then raced to the burning classroom, where he found Doris engulfed in flames. Pitifully, she staggered toward him, arms outstretched. Young raised the .45 and fired, killing her. He then went back into the bathroom, pressed the muzzle under his chin and pulled the trigger.
For months I examined the evidence and Young’s numerous diaries--the notebooks he had stacked in the classroom. They told the ghastly story of his madness. After blowing up the school, he believed Doris, the children and he would be reincarnated into a new world where he would lead his charges in paradise.
When my investigation was finally over and all the parts of the awful puzzle had been found, I couldn’t help feeling that a few pieces didn’t fit. For instance, how could so much ammunition go off in a packed room without fatally injuring anyone? Furthermore, the second explosion could have killed everyone instantly. Yet the bomb didn’t explode as intended, even though Young, a man with a high IQ, had rigged it with several blasting caps. We found that one of the lead wires had been inexplicably cut.
Two weeks before the explosion, an unexplained short in the school’s fire alarm system kept setting it off, initiating numerous unplanned fire drills. The children became highly proficient at emergency evacuations.
But for a hard-nosed investigator like me, the angels were the most difficult part to accept. I grilled Nathan about his story, but he never wavered. In fact, two other children said they too had seen angels. They told of glimmering robed figures descending from above, warning of the blast and directing them safely to the windows. Children who had not discussed it among themselves told similar stories.
As I said, I deal in facts. And one hard fact stands out above all the others: 167 people escaped with their lives when the odds against even a fraction of them surviving the cunning wrath of a desperate madman were slim. The conclusion we have all reached in Cokeville is that God sent his angels to rescue our children and keep them from harm.