Bethel, Alaska, a small town of only 5,000, was thrust into the national spotlight when on February 19, 1997, Bethel Regional High School became the site of a mass shooting. That morning, sixteen-year-old Evan Ramsey boarded his school bus while smuggling a 12-gauge shotgun in his pants. Once there, he walked into the commons area and began shooting. He shot fifteen-year-old Josh Palacios, a popular basketball player, in the stomach. Josh later died at the hospital.
Reyne Athanas, the school’s art teacher, heard the shots and ran into the commons area. As the shooter pointed the gun directly at her, she begged him to surrender. Instead, the shooter turned and walked away, returning moments later and killing fifty-year-old Principal Ron Edwards and injuring two others. The shooting ended with Ramsey surrendering to police.
After the shooting, it was revealed that the shooter had lived a difficult childhood—one plagued by abuse and abandonment. His father, Donald Ramsey, was imprisoned for ten years after taking a rifle into the Anchorage Times office and attacking publisher Bob Atwood and his daughter. His mother sank into alcoholism shortly after, and the shooter was bounced between foster homes. The shooter has also said he was repeatedly bullied by his peers.
In a recent interview with ABC News, Ramsey, now thirty-six and serving a 210-year sentence, said he told two friends about his plans for the shooting, and that those friends even helped him obtain the gun used in the shooting. Ramsey claims these boys encouraged him. “They said ‘that while I'm at it, I might as well go shoot this person and that person and that person,’ Ramsey recalled. One friend ‘brought up the idea of bringing in a camera and taking pictures so he could save the memory, if you will."
The murders shook the small community of Bethel. Like most of Alaska, hunting and sustainability is a way of life and requires guns to be in most homes. Some communities nearby have no law enforcement, and rely on their firearms for gathering food and self-protection. For this reason, the town focused on bullying prevention and mental health intervention as a way to prevent another shooting. Today, a memorial to Josh Palacios and Principal Ron Edwards hangs in the lobby of Bethel Regional High School, which is now located at One Ron Edwards Memorial Drive.