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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Yesterday's Crimes: The Tragic Schoolyard Shooting Linked to Jonestown

Posted By on Thu, Dec 3, 2015 at 10:22 AM

click to enlarge RANDY HEINITZ/FLICKR
  • Randy Heinitz/Flickr

Editor's Note: This is the third installment in a multi-part series exploring post-Jonestown life for former Peoples Temple members in the Bay Area. You can read parts one and two here. 

Tyrone Mitchell was a member of Peoples Temple in 1978, but he didn't make it to Guyana. His fiancée, Marylou Hill, had problems with her passport, and Mitchell stayed behind with her. His entire family had already joined Rev. Jim Jones at his Jonestown Agricultural Project, carved out of an unforgiving tract of South American jungle.

Mitchell's parents, his four sisters, and a brother all died at Jonestown on Nov. 18, 1978. They were among the mass of bodies captured in aerial shots on network news and in Time Magazine.

Mitchell was already a disturbed man before the Jonestown Massacre. He became even more so after it.

Hill later told the New York Times and other outlets that her husband suffered "a nervous breakdown" after the Guyana tragedy.

"He was never the same after that," she said to the Los Angeles Sentinel.

After Jonestown, Mitchell rented a room in a two-story Victorian in the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood that he grew up in — and started buying guns.

He had an AR-15 assault rifle with a banana clip that held 30 rounds, as well as several shotguns. His room was across the street from the 49th Street Elementary School. He had a great view of the playground from his front window.

Roderick Martin, who grew up with Mitchell in South Central, told the Los Angeles Sentinel that Mitchell "had this fixation about guns."

"He would take a Daisy air rifle and shoot at buses," Martin said. "He would shoot over in the playground after all the kids had gone home from school. He would shoot at people's windows and just up in the air."

On Friday, Feb. 24, 1984, Mitchell fired on the school from his front window. It was 2:23 p.m. The final bell had just rung, and children flooded the playground that Mitchell's room overlooked.

Mitchell's barrage lasted 10 minutes — enough time for him to fire 60 rounds from his AR-15, plus several shotgun blasts into the schoolyard as teachers ushered screaming students back into the school. The children who couldn't make it into the building sought cover behind trees and trash cans.

Shala Eubanks, 10, was shot dead that day. Ten other children and two adults were injured from gunshots and shattering glass. Carlos Lopez, 24, who was shot twice while walking past the school at the time of the shooting, died eight weeks later from his wounds.

A SWAT team sealed off the neighborhood. Officers trained to deal with standoff situations was brought in to coax Mitchell out of the house. They were unsuccessful. After four hours, the SWAT team lobbed 16 canisters of teargas into the house and stormed inside.

They found Mitchell dead from a self-inflicted shotgun wound.

Presaging later mass shootings in America, the news coverage of Mitchell’s schoolyard attack triggered calls for increased mental health services rather than serious inquires into how Mitchell amassed his home arsenal.

In 1985, to mark the anniversary of the shootings, the Los Angeles Times published an article entitled “County to Assist Police with Mentally Ill,” which detailed a plan to train cops in how to approach mentally ill suspects — a plan that officials hoped “[would] prevent similar tragedies.”

"This will give us a better chance of spotting Tyrone Mitchells beforehand and preventing some of them," Commander James Jones of the LAPD said at the time.

He added, "We won't catch all of them, but if we can prevent just one incident like the school shooting…” Commander Jones trailed off.

Unfortunately, 30 years later, preventing just one mass shooting isn’t enough anymore.

"Yesterday's Crimes" revisits strange, lurid, eerie, and often forgotten crimes from San Francisco's past. 

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Bob Calhoun


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