Ray Duckler: 30 years ago, a CHS student took hostages and was killed by the police

Last modified: 4/13/2015 12:03:28 AM
Pat Lena wondered if the gun was real.

Scot Hayes did, too.

So Louis Cartier showed them the cartridges inside, cracking open his double-barreled shotgun into the shape of a jackknifed truck, then snapping it shut with a tight click.

“Does it look (f------) real to you?” Cartier asked, according to Lena.

Soon, Concord cops were close by, guns drawn, backs sliding against corridor walls at Concord High, before anyone had ever heard of Columbine or Sandy Hook. Cartier was killed by the police, while Lena and Hayes, both of whom still live in Concord, escaped unhurt.

It happened 30 years ago, on Dec. 3, 1985, and school tragedies – kids roaming hallways, bursting into classrooms, killing people – have continued.

In fact, they’ve grown more deadly ever since.

I got the idea to revisit the event upon learning that former Concord High English teacher Merle Drown will sign copies of his new book, Lighting the World, at 7 p.m. Thursday at Gibson’s Bookstore.

It’s a novel, Drown’s third, but its foundation is built on this shooting. Teachers like Drown and Harvey Smith heard the warnings by the police and the gunshots that filled the first-floor hallway like the grief that followed.

Drown says he wrote the book because seven weeks after Cartier died in the hospital, Christa McCauliffe, a Concord High teacher who was supposed to be the first ordinary citizen in space, died in an explosion over Florida.

By then, Cartier was long gone, pushed further into obscurity after the Challenger disaster. The national media, already interested in Christa’s story, became obsessed with it.

‘A human being’

Meanwhile, Drown thought, Cartier deserved to be seen as more than a stereotypical killer who had lost his way.

“The issue is, this is a human being with a heart, soul, a mind, and that is not predictable,” Drown told me recently over coffee. “We make assumptions, and to treat people based on those things is to violate the individuality they come with.”

Drown portrayed his protagonist, Wade Rule, as a kid who cared about people, who had a few friends, and who loved a girl, a classmate. He did well in school when he applied himself.

But while deflecting the generalizations we form about school shooters, Drown also had the ingredients that often surface: loner, drop out, bullied, abused at home.


I asked the two hostages. They’re both in their late 40s now, married fathers, with jobs, mortgages and, when asked, memories of that day 30 years ago.

Yes, Lena said, Cartier was bullied. He had chubby cheeks, and that didn’t go unnoticed during gym class.

“They would call him Chippy,” Lena, who works at a local auto body shop, told me at a local coffee shop. “They would say, ‘CHI-pee, CHI-pee.’ ”

And there were rumors, of harsher abuse by classmates. Lena said he’d heard about a football player who shoved toilet paper into Cartier’s mouth in the bathroom.

“But we don’t know,” Lena said. “That was stuff we heard afterwards, but these were kids, 16 years old. All second hand.”

Unlike Lena, Hayes, the service manager at a Rochester car dealership, never saw Cartier bullied firsthand. He heard things, though.

“I heard rumors of someone who used to pick on him,” Hayes told me by phone. “And knowing that person, I would not doubt that, but I honestly never saw it.”

Both said Cartier was a nice enough guy. A loner with friends, quiet but approachable, blending in while never fitting in.

In other words, a boy with no single way to define him. His home life was a mystery to Lena and Hayes.

“One of those kids who really stuck to himself and every now and then you’d get a smile, but not very talkative,” Lena said. “He seemed to have his own thing going on that were demons obviously lurking in his head, but I don’t know why no one picked up on them. Who knew he was capable of going off the deep end?”

“He was a decent kid,” Hayes said. “He had a few friends. I don’t think he had absolutely no friends.”

Harvey Smith taught reading and coached tennis back then. Cartier was quiet, Smith confirmed, with few friends. But Cartier had the fire to learn and grow.

“He did his work for me,” Smith said by phone. “He worked on a daily basis on reading and study skills. An average student who was below average in reading skills, but we worked to upgrade them. He had a good attitude in my class.”

Somewhere, a girl was involved. She had broken up with Cartier and moved away. Cartier dropped out of school and brought his father’s shotgun to Concord High.

During the mid 1980s, in areas more rural than Concord, high school kids drove pickup trucks with guns on gun racks, and no one thought twice about it.

And school shootings were not yet part of society’s vocabulary. As Hayes told me, “Back then there had never been a school shooting that you’d ever heard of.”

Added Lena, “This is the original situation.”

Into the school

That’s why school officials thought Cartier presented no immediate danger when he entered the main office that morning. Perhaps his gun was a drama class prop, or maybe something for show-and-tell.

Why no one thought it strange that this gun-carrying student was someone who’d recently withdrawn from school is unclear.

But administrators such as Principal Charles Foley, his assistant Mark Roth and other staff members realized the danger soon enough.

Lena and Hayes, though, knew nothing when they entered through the Fruit Street door, looking for classmates and the bus that would take them on a field trip to a local courthouse.

The hallway was empty, the school in lockdown, a term that had not yet entered the mainstream in the world of education. Cartier approached the two boys.

Was he preparing for a hunting trip, they wondered? Was the gun even real?

That’s when Cartier split the shotgun open. It was real, loaded and ready to go.

“We were the only ones there, and we didn’t see anyone else around,” Hayes said. “The cops started showing up in the main hall and stairway down to the back and stairway across the hall down to front of school. The police began showing up at both doors, yelling to him.”

Smith’s class was nearby. He hesitated when I asked what he remembered about that day, so I figured he was searching his mind, trying to visualize the standoff clearly.

I was wrong.

“I’m remembering, and a lot of it is pretty vivid,” Smith told me. “My room was in the main hall right across from the administrative offices and I saw a lot of it unfold. That’s why I’m hesitating here. It’s tough to go through.”

He saw Cartier holding the gun, saw the police closing in, saw Lena and Hayes unable to run away as Cartier pointed the gun at them, sometimes lowering it.

From here, accounts from old newspapers and my sources differ. To carry extra ammunition, did Cartier wear a bandolier, slung sash-style across his chest, or a belt around his waist? Did football coach Don LeBrun approach and offer to trade himself for the hostages, or was it Mark Roth?

All parties agreed on some points. The police shouted as loud as they could. “PUT THE GUN DOWN, LOUIS! PUT THE GUN DOWN!”

Lena coaxed Cartier into letting him move to the main office, where Lena said he’d secure a ride so Cartier could visit his girlfriend.

“I meant it,” Lena told me. “My genuine idea was let’s get him to where he needs to go.”

The police shot Cartier, hitting him in the ammo belt, spilling pellets on to the floor. That’s when Hayes ran into the office, opened a window and jumped.

Then came more gunfire, from a police shotgun and Cartier’s, perhaps in a reflexive action. The noise was described as booming, like a cannon, and crackling, like a firecracker.

Cartier lay on the floor, bleeding from a wound to his head, his life over the next day. The Monitor reported that Sgt. John Clark, who has since retired from the Concord force and still lives in the area, and officer Mike Russell, now an investigator for the Merrimack Country Attorney’s Office, fired their weapons at Cartier that day.

Retired Concord police Chief John Duval and Lt. Tim O’Malley of the Concord Police Department said they’d reach out to Clark and Russell and ask them to call me, but I never heard from either.

No surprise, really. Tough topic.

Making sense

Since then, we’ve all tried to make sense of school violence, instances where students and teachers have been gunned down.

Profiles of the killers emerge, of troubled backgrounds, of the glorification of violence in movies and video games, of outcasts angry over never fitting in.

We listen to talking heads on cable news shows who try to make sense and explain why these things happen and how we can guard against it in the future.

And yet the shootings continue, far more deadly than anyone could have imagined following that day 30 years ago.

“All the shootings that have gone on since the Cartier event remind you of the disaster it could have been,” Smith said. “He had a chance to do some damage, so there was something inside that kid, a certain goodness that prevailed.”

That’s the way Drown prefers to remember Cartier.

That’s why he wrote his book.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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