The June 14 shooting at a baseball practice for a Congressional charity event brings back many memories, including one of a violent event I covered as a young reporter. Here is a slightly-revised story I wrote several years ago about that event in Grand Prairie.
It was a hot August morning in 1982 when I crouched behind a pile of lumber with several frightened, distraught and concerned workers at a warehouse in Grand Prairie, unsure whether a gunman who had killed and wounded several people was still lurking, menacing the area.
The day was Aug. 9, 1982, and John Felton Parish was on a killing spree, shooting and killing six people and wounding at least three others at two warehouses. I was a reporter at the Grand Prairie Daily News and literally seconds after I arrived at the office that day, we heard over the police scanner about a shooting at a warehouse on the north side of town. I, along with our education reporter, rushed to the scene, not knowing whether we were heading to a false report of a shooting or a simple domestic dispute. By the time we got there, police sirens wailed throughout the city. So we knew it was the real deal, though we had little idea we were rushing to the scene of what was considered the worst shooting spree in Dallas-Fort Worth up to that time. When we arrived at the warehouse, it looked like the world was exploding. It was.
Parish’s rampage involved two locations and he eventually led police on a high-speed chase that ended when he drove a hijacked truck through a police barricade and crashed into a building. He was then killed by police in a shootout. It was all over in less than 30 minutes, though time seemed to stand still for me and many others. Thirty minutes? It seemed like hours. Tension was ever present and adrenaline rushed through our bodies as we tried to make sense of a chaotic, topsy-turvy scene of destruction.
You would think it would be a day I would never forget, but until tragedies like Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., occur it rarely crosses my mind.
I do often think about one decision I made. When we arrived at the scene and I saw people crouched behind the lumber (it may have been wooden pallets, I’m not sure), I instinctively ran to them to find out what was going on and whether anyone there was injured (I proudly carried my Red Cross certification at the time). Why did I do that? Youthful arrogance? Adrenaline? Who knows?
I also won’t forget the woman crouched behind the lumber with me who had witnessed one of the killings. It sounds cliché, but the horror was written on her face.
After we gathered information at the scene, one of the police vehicles tore off in a rush. Another police officer told me that Parish had crashed on Main Street. We headed there and gathered as much information as possible. As we interviewed witnesses, another incongruous moment occurred. The manager of the Whataburger there brought food out for the police officers and emergency personnel. The manager then came over and motioned for me to get some coffee. I demurred, saying it was for those working the scene.
“You’re working hard, too. Have some coffee,” he said, more of an order than an offer. The coffee in the Styrofoam cup tasted like the finest wine in a high-toned restaurant. Maybe it was his simple act of humanity in that most inhuman of moments, but I never forgot his kindness. Anyone saying anything bad about Whataburger gets an argument from me to this day.
Our goal was to beat the Dallas Times Herald, at the time the afternoon paper in Dallas. We were owned by the Dallas Morning News, so beating the competition was key.
We did beat them, but not without making several errors. The one I remember best was that we had the sequence of Parish’s attack wrong. We corrected it the next day, but we didn’t have the Web at the time to update what was still a breaking story at deadline. Our mistake was etched in stone.
The story was big. Our editor did an interview with The New York Times and the local news stations provided reports to the national news media, which at the time were CBS, NBC and ABC. For a while Grand Prairie looked like it would be the center of attention for weeks as reporters scrambled to uncover reasons for the attack. But, perhaps to the relief of the local Chamber of Commerce, attention soon turned to other issues. Parish’s attack was the beginning of a particularly bloody, violent week in Texas.
As Joe Stroop, then with The Associated Press, reported at the time, in five days authorities learned of 42 deaths from mass murders in Texas, starting with the Grand Prairie attack. The TV stations took their cameras to other killing fields and the reporters put their pens in their pockets and headed for bloodier pastures.
Our goal as reporters was to answer the key questions as to what happened – who, what, when, where, why and how. We did a good job of answering all but the “why.” That’s not unusual.
We tried though. Parish had some issues at work when he took an M1 carbine, a .25-caliber semi-automatic pistol and a .38-caliber revolver to begin his killing spree. But by all accounts he was a good guy with an easy smile and kind words for those he knew and those he met. He had a run of bad luck, however. A sister died and a brother needed a kidney transplant. He lost custody of his son to his ex-wife. Did the dispute at work set off this normally affable, friendly man? No one knows for sure. A year after the massacre, a fellow reporter spoke to Parish’s neighbors and family. Everyone remained shocked by Parish’s actions. Why did Parish do it? That may be one of those questions to ask St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. Parish probably took the answers to the grave, if he even knew himself.
If you read Dave Cullen’s excellent, disturbing and instructive book on the Columbine High School shooting, you will see that both authorities and the news media make mistakes when events like this take place. The book, titled simply Columbine, is the most horrifying and meticulous work I’ve ever read. Does it answer the key question, “Why?” No, but it comes close. And for reporters, it’s instructive to keep in mind that mistakes will be made and those mistakes can become etched in concrete.
When you’re caught up in a maelstrom of events, you’ve got to do the best you can, whether a police officer, an emergency worker or a reporter. Are you ever really prepared? No.
But the key question, “Why”? Like trying to grasp finely-grained sand, it remains eternally elusive.
Robert Francis is editor of Fort Worth Business Press