Terrance Heath

After Aurora: The Shooting I Remember [Part 4]

Filed By Terrance Heath | August 15, 2012 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: gun control, gun violence, guns, shootings

Gun violenceI have not yet had time to read all the details about the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, let alone process all of my thoughts about it. I have still more - much more - to say about the Aurora shooting, but I haven’t been able to find the time to do so. And if I do, it’s likely there will be another shooting the put into context before I finish writing a post - maybe even before I finish writing this one.

But I don’t want to write about the Wisconsin shooting, the Aurora shooting, or any other shooting right now. I want to write about the one I remember. I want to write about the one I was present for, twenty-five years ago. I want to write about the moment I looked down the barrel of a gun.

What prompted me was a Daily Beast post compiling readers’ memories of U.S. shootings. The Daily Beast posted an interactive map of U.S. gun violence since 2005, and invited readers to email additions to the database, along with their memories of the shootings and they were affected. My shooting happened too long ago to be included on the map, but I haven’t forgotten it. I daresay it still affects me.

That shooting has been on my mind for the past week or so. It’s not a moment I’ve ever forgotten or ever will. I was not the the shooter’s target, and was probably out of his range. But that’s not what you think about when there’s a gun pointed at you, even for a second. That’s certainly not what you think about when you’re 18-years-old.

That’s how old I was on Friday, April 10, 1987. I’d turned 18 about a month-and-a-half earlier. I know the date now. I can be more specific than I was last night, when I recounted the story to my husband, because I spent a few minutes poking (after ponying up for a one day pass) around in the archives of The Augusta Chronicle, my hometown newspaper. I read an article in the Chronicle about the shooting day after it happened, but quickly pushed it out of my mind.

I had other things to think about. After all, I was finishing up my senior year of high school, considering what to do about the senior prom, and nailing down my post-graduation plans. In the years that followed, the details grew hazy. When I remembered and tried to recount the story, I got a lot wrong -- the year, the day of the week, the time of day, etc. I even forgot the names of the shooter and his victim.

Maybe I didn’t want to remember. At 18, I didn’t want to think about it. At 43, however, I realize I’ve probably never stopped thinking about it. So, this morning I dove into the Chronicle’s archives. A few minutes later, all the forgotten details were filled in, and that day came vividly back to life.

It was the evening of Friday, April 10th, 1987. I know it was Friday evening, from the Saturday morning Chronicle article about the shooting. As I remember, it was a nice, sunny evening. Just to be sure, I checked a weather history site, and confirmed that the temperature in Augusta was about 79 degrees, the winds were only up 4-13 mph, and precipitation was zero.

It was April, so school wasn’t out yet. I don’t remember the school day at all, but I know that I went to work afterwards. Given the time of the shooting, my shift probably started at 5:00 pm. So, I probably came home, grabbed some dinner, chilled out for a while, and then drove myself to work.

turtlesmusic.pngAt the time, I was working at Turtle’s Records & Tapes (part of a long-gone regional chain of music stores), located in Richmond Plaza, on Wrightsboro Road, just across from Augusta mall.as I recall, what I really wanted at the time was to have a job in the mall. Somehow, I thought, it was just “cooler” than working in a shopping center. But I was already an avid music lover at that time, and was glad to get the employee discount. My parents were somewhat exasperated, however, with how much of my paycheck I gave right back to the store.

I remember getting to work a little early, in order to find out what was going on that day. We were probably doing inventory. There were no major releases that week. We were recovering from the previous month, when U2 released The Joshua Tree, and Prince had released Sign “O” The Times. A couple of weeks before I left for college, Michael Jackson’s Bad ;and REM’s Document ;would be released right on top of each other, and I would spend an an entire weekend in the store listening to those records over and over again. (The manager had us play them all weekend, in hopes of increasing sales.) ;

But the closest thing to a major release that week was Susan Vega’s Solitude Standing, which sold pretty well on the strength of the single, “Luka.” It was a quiet Friday afternoon, and that meant we were probably doing inventory ;-- going through the bins, counting how many of each CD, cassette and/or album we had in stock. Weekends were an easy time to do inventory, and we got an early start on it that Friday evening. When the occasional customer made a purchase, whoever was closer to the front would go to the register and ring them up.

The register was at the front of the story. I don’t know where the picture above was taken, but the Turtle’s at Richmond Plaza was pretty much the same as any other strip mall shop. The front of the store was all windows, and overlooked the parking lot. If you were at the register, you were standing with your back to that window. At that time, the window faced a construction site in the Richmond Plaza parking lot. A bank was being built, all the way at the other end of the parking lot, directly across from the front of the store.

My dad, from whom I probably inherited my love of music, and whose record collection informed by very early musical taste, was out shopping that afternoon, and dropped by the store about half and hour after I’d gotten to work. I probably looked up from my clipboard and greeted him when he came in. I think, based on the Augusta Chronicle article, that my dad probably arrived at or around before 6:00pm. ;

What happened next unfolded in about ten minutes. It felt much longer

A customer stepped up to the register to make a purchase. I was closest to the register, so I went up to the front of the store. A couple more customers, my dad among them, began to form a line at the cash register. It was just a few people, so I waved off my co-worker when she looked up from her clipboard and non-verbally “asked” if I needed help.

I’d just finished ringing up the first customer, and my dad was the next in line. I was about to close the register when I was startled by a sudden, loud noise. It wasn’t a sound I’d heard before, and I had no reference point to guess what it was. So, my first thought was that someone was knocking very ;hard on the window right behind me; maybe a the customer who’d just left got the wrong item and was trying to get my attention. Anyway, I turned around to see what the matter was.

There wasn’t anyone at the window. As I wondered what was going on, I saw heard people screaming, and saw people running from the parking lot. I saw parents grab their children and run into stores. A few ran into ours. I was still trying to figure out what was going on.

Behind me, I heard my dad - a veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam wars - start to ask “What in the hell...”

And then I saw it.

I saw the gun, pointed at me. And for a moment, my view seemed to narrow down to the gun barrel. I didn’t see the people still running through the parking lot. I didn’t even see the man holding the gun.

But now, thanks to some research, I know his name. Jerry Wayne Taylor. That was the name of the man holding the gun. He was 22 years old. Just four years older than me. He was a construction worker on the site in parking lot. The article I found in the Chronicle ;includes a grainy, black and white picture of Taylor lying hand

The sound I’d heard before I turned around was the sound of the shots he fired into David Gean Odom. How many shots Taylor fired, I don’t know. But the article says that police confiscated 25 empty cartridge cases at the scene, along with a rifle and a handgun.

According to the article, here’s what was allegedly unfolding across the parking lot. At about 6:10 pm. Taylor and Odom had an “altercation” of some sort. One of the police officers who arrived on the scene, Taylor approached Odom with a pistol, and Odom took the pistol from Taylor and hit him with it. Taylor sustained a cut to his head, likely from that blow.

At that point, Taylor went to car, got a “30-caliber carbine” and fired several shots into Odom. Police said there was no indication that Odom fired any shots at Taylor. ;

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A moment later, I looked down the barrel of Taylor’s gun. It was all the way across the parking lot, but it might as well have bee right in front of me. I didn’t know what kind of gun it was, if he was going to fire again, and if its range was far enough to hit anyone in the store.

It happened that I looked up at the precise moment that Taylor finished shooting Odom, and apparently looked up and saw where he was and what was going on around him. In doing so, he swept his gun in an arc across the the parking lot, and the windows facing the shopping center. I don’t know if he was aiming, or if his finger was on the trigger. From where he stood, he had a clear shot at me, and any number of a dozen people in the parking lot. It wouldn’t have taken much for add a few of us to the body count.

Instead, Odom put down his gun, laid down on the pavement, and wanted for the police. ;The police arrived soon after, having been called by any number of people, including myself. ;

The minute I saw Taylor’s gun, I yelled to everyone in the store, “Get down! There’s a guy outside with a gun!.” I ducked down behind the display that blocked the lower half of the window, and from there reached up to grab the phone and dial 911. I remember the operator told me there were police on the way and that several calls had been received about a shooting. ;

When I stood back up and looked out of the window, I saw the police cars, and the ambulance outside. The police arrived, to find Taylor and Odom lying on the ground. Odom was dead. The article says Taylor was screaming that he had been raped. ;

I only found two more articles about the shooting, not counting Odom’s obituary. About four months after the shooting, on September 9th, Taylor was indicted for Odom’s murder. He was one of 26 people indicted that day.

Apparently, Taylor was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1989. From then until March 1991, he remained in the state mental hospital. At that point a judge decided to let Taylor out for a six month supervised visit. At the end of that six months, the judge would decide whether or not to release Taylor at the end of that six month period.

According to testimony at the hearing, Taylor fired more than 30 shots at Odom. Medical testimony also indicated that Taylor suffered from schizophrenia. Yet two psychiatrists from the hospital testified that Taylor was eligible for release, the he performed well at the hospital, an no longer needed medication.

The judge ordered Taylor to reside with his parents, get a job, see a counselor once a week, and also visit a psychiatrist. Taylor was ordered to return for a reassessment at the end of the trial period, at which time the judge would decide whether or not to release Taylor.

Revolver.jpgTaylor then disappears from the news for about five years. One thing I do know is that at some point Taylor must have been released. In the middle of writing this post, I did another search for Taylor. He turned up again in the Savannah Morning News, in an article headlined “Suspect in slaying dies of wounds.”

Taylor was the suspect. I know it was him because the article identified him as “A Columbia County man who avoided prison with an insanity plea following a fatal 1987 shooting.” According to the brief article, Taylor, who was 31 by this time, died at the Medical College of Georgia Hospital.

On Tuesday, April 16th, Taylor shot and killed 33-year-old Thomas Eugene Schweitzer outside of an auto supple store. Witnesses said Taylor appeared outside the store, and asked Schweitzer to come outside. Once Schweitzer went outside, Taylor shot him for times with a .38 caliber revolver. Taylor then walked across the parking lot, reloaded the gun and shot himself in the mouth.

Police said that a romantic relationship between Taylor and Schweitzer may have been the motive for the shooting. Investigators found letters to Schweitzer from Taylor in Schweitzer’s car, and another arrived at the auto shop the day of the shooting.

I came across Taylor’s name just two more times, both in Chronicle articles. A 1997 article titled “Dying at Work,” made a brief mention the Schweitzer shooting.

Thomas Eugene Schweitzer, 33, was shot four times April 13 while on the job at a 13th Street auto supply store. Police said the killer, who turned the gun on himself, had been involved in a romantic relationship with Mr. Schweitzer, and family said the man was mentally ill.

Another article, titled “Background checks becoming common,” about the increasing use of background checks by potential employers mentioned that Taylor was working at a grocery store at the time of the shooting, and included a quote from his mother.

Although more employers are doing criminal background checks nowadays, convicted criminals and dangerous people still get jobs working with the public.

Jerry Wayne Taylor shot a man several outside a Richmond County shopping center construction site in 1987. After being released from a mental institution, Mr. Taylor killed another man and then himself outside another Augusta business in April. He had been working at a local grocery store before he killed the second man and himself.

“Jerry was never able to take stress; he’d come apart,” his mother, Betty Taylor, said during an interview after the shooting. “I was so happy when the people at the store took a chance on him and gave him a job.”

The store that hired Mr. Taylor wouldn’t say whether a background check was done before Mr. Taylor was hired.

Taylor’s mother’s words echo the words of the district attorney after the Schweitzer shooting.

In 1989, Taylor was found not guilty by reason of insanity of firing 30 gunshots and killing David Gean Odom, 21, outside a Richmond County Plaza construction site where they both worked, Richmond County District Attorney Danny Craig said. That shooting happened April 10, 1098, and Taylor told police he shot Odom because he had sodomized him, his attorney said.

In 1991 Superior Court Judge Albert M. Picket released him from a state hospital with conditions, Craig said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind he should not have been released,” Craig said. “there is no reason we should release a person who has had violent propensities. Unfortunately we don’t realize it until a tragedy like this happens.”

I can’t help thinking about the irony. The article on background checks is concerned with mental health, and the DA’s remarks focus on whether Taylor should have been released due to his mental health. Neither had anything to say about whether Taylor should have owned a gun, given his mental health, or whether a background check should have been required. (If it makes sense to run a background check for a job working with the public, it makes sense to require the same for a gun purchase.)

Twenty-five years ago, for a brief moment I stood at the intersection of gun culture and mental health, looking down the barrel of Jerry Wayne Taylor’s gun. A lot has changed since then, but has not.

That moment changed me. Until then, I’d never thought much about gun control. (What eighteen-year-old does, or did back then?) In that moment, I did not find myself wishing that I had a gun. I did that the disturbed man at the other end of the parking lot did not. I didn’t wonder why nobody else in the parking lot seemed to have a gun. (How many more would have died in the crossfire that day, given the conditions, if multiple people started firing in response to Taylor?) I wondered by the man at the other end of the parking lot did.

I absorbed the reality that simply going to work now meant the possibility that I might find myself staring down the barrel of someone’s gun. But I didn’t accept it. I still haven’t.

It’s easier to get a gun today that it is to do many other things, like voting, buying Sudafed, buying a cell phone, getting a credit card, or even a hunting license. You can just buy them on the internet. Hell, thanks to the increasing practice of businesses running credit checks on potential employees, bad credit can cost you job -- making easier to get a job than it is to get a gun; at least theoretically. And you’re no more likely to have to pass a mental health screening than Jerry Wayne Taylor was twenty-five years ago.

Today, the next Jerry Wayne Taylor would probably be wielding an assault rifle. Instead of firing 30 shots, he’d probably fire more than a hundred, and have the capacity for fire thousands more. He’d buy it all -- weapons and ammo -- online, and have it all shipped to his workplace (provided he passed his employers credit check) without so much as a question about his mental health.


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