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Nicholas Leigh Hunt revisits the Grover Cleveland school shooting with new book

The “trial by media” notoriety kept growing with the Boomtown Rats’ song “I Don’t Like Mondays.”

Nicholas Leigh Hunt, true crime writer and former San Diegan.
Nicholas Leigh Hunt, true crime writer and former San Diegan.

I.

“Everyone around San Diego at that time has a memory of the shooting,” Nicholas Leigh Hunt tells me. Hunt, to whom I spoke remotely at his home in Buckinghamshire, grew up in San Diego (“paradise for British people”) and is the author of the recently published I Don’t Like Mondays: The True Story Behind America’s First Modern School Shooting. He says “it was the first time anything like this had happened, especially in a small town. San Diego was a small town then — it was a shock.”

The bullets Brenda Spencer fired at Grover Cleveland Elementary killed two adults at the school, wounded eight children and a police officer, and left psychological scars on countless others. “Since the moment she picked up a rifle,” says Hunt, “America has had a phenomenon of school shootings — so many, so often, that it’s not considered that unusual when you read about them in the newspaper.” To approach this story, then, is to approach the beginning of those intermittent horrors that punctuate our news cycle — most recently in Uvalde, Texas.

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As a 10 year-old child, Hunt not only heard and saw what was on the news, but also got perspective from his father, Bernard Hunt, then Assistant City Editor for the Tribune, who told him that people in the newspaper office had spoken directly to the killer over the phone. She seems to have stopped her shooting in order to answer the call.

The Cleveland Elementary tragedy began Hunt’s “lifelong obsession” with true crime, an obsession he has pursued avocationally, but with passion and consistency, while laboring in other fields. (He worked in radio in San Francisco, owned a few bars in London, and now works in IT for the railway.) He has spent much of his research time on a different sort of crime material: “I studied serial killers and the geography of dump sites. I know this sounds creepy, but I toured all around the United States and a lot of Britain, looking at places where criminals would dump their victims”.

He didn’t really want “to go the school shooting route as a writer,” he says, but when he was about 50 years old, he said to himself, “No one’s really written a book about Brenda, or about why she did it or what she did, and it had a real impact on my life and family”. His daughter was turning 16, the age that Spencer was at the time of her shooting, which added an element of vividness for him when considering the young shooter. Hunt wrote to Spencer as he was beginning the project, and she wrote back. “We struck up a — I wouldn’t say a friendship — but we do communicate every few weeks by email.” She talks to him about Top Ramen and the commissary, balloons and animals and aspects of her life in prison. After the book came out and he sent her a copy, she told him that the only thing he got wrong was the location of the bedrooms in her house.

He felt good about that, and he also felt good when all of the police officers he spoke to validated the accuracy of his account. That mattered to Hunt, especially when dealing with an event that has had many legendary accretions and much gossip attached to it. He says they told him, “Good job Nick; you’ve told it as it is.”

II.

Given its subject, no reader would be surprised to find I Don’t Like Mondays disturbing,. I certainly did. But for me, the disturbance arose in some unexpected ways. As Hunt’s account progresses from the shooting and rescue efforts, to the arrest, to the aftermath and legal dimensions of the case, I found myself struck along the way by the misery of the stories adjacent to Spencer’s. How she was not the first adolescent killer in her neighborhood at the time, and also not the first killer in the ‘70s named Brenda Spencer. How her path crossed those of other murderous women infamous in California history (Betty Broderick and members of the Manson family). The nauseating trajectory of her father’s relationship with her former juvenile hall cellmate. The numbing array of bad decisions, divorces, drugs, and deaths that popped up throughout the story all around the main narrative.

After the crime, there are the expectable but still unsavory dimensions of a “trial by media” and the notoriety that comes with it. That notoriety led to, and then kept growing with, the Boomtown Rats’ song “I Don’t Like Mondays,” which by now may be more famous than the story that inspired it. Then there’s the panoply of proposed psychological and neurological causes that wind up casting little light on the crime. Considerations of epilepsy, schizoaffective disorder and other psychiatric diagnoses, drugs, abuse, neglect, mysterious biorhythms, and Alice Cooper were not, for me, ultimately illuminating.

And the psychological material is only part of what remains opaque in the story. (The opaqueness is not Hunt’s fault; he tries to be both thorough and clear in his account. It’s just the way this is.) Spencer, “an empty shell all her life,” according to her own lawyer, feels impossible to grasp as a character in this tragedy. She also does not seem clear or consistent herself about her motives, about which she has spoken in various ways at various times. Beyond that, she even seems at one point to have a badly distorted sense of what actually happened in the shooting. Years after the event, she proposed a conspiratorial version of the event that put the blame for some of the bullets that struck the victims on the police.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, there is the sad truth that, in Hunt’s words, “we are no closer to understanding why she did it” 43 years after the fact.

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Nicholas Leigh Hunt, true crime writer and former San Diegan.
Nicholas Leigh Hunt, true crime writer and former San Diegan.

I.

“Everyone around San Diego at that time has a memory of the shooting,” Nicholas Leigh Hunt tells me. Hunt, to whom I spoke remotely at his home in Buckinghamshire, grew up in San Diego (“paradise for British people”) and is the author of the recently published I Don’t Like Mondays: The True Story Behind America’s First Modern School Shooting. He says “it was the first time anything like this had happened, especially in a small town. San Diego was a small town then — it was a shock.”

The bullets Brenda Spencer fired at Grover Cleveland Elementary killed two adults at the school, wounded eight children and a police officer, and left psychological scars on countless others. “Since the moment she picked up a rifle,” says Hunt, “America has had a phenomenon of school shootings — so many, so often, that it’s not considered that unusual when you read about them in the newspaper.” To approach this story, then, is to approach the beginning of those intermittent horrors that punctuate our news cycle — most recently in Uvalde, Texas.

Sponsored
Sponsored

As a 10 year-old child, Hunt not only heard and saw what was on the news, but also got perspective from his father, Bernard Hunt, then Assistant City Editor for the Tribune, who told him that people in the newspaper office had spoken directly to the killer over the phone. She seems to have stopped her shooting in order to answer the call.

The Cleveland Elementary tragedy began Hunt’s “lifelong obsession” with true crime, an obsession he has pursued avocationally, but with passion and consistency, while laboring in other fields. (He worked in radio in San Francisco, owned a few bars in London, and now works in IT for the railway.) He has spent much of his research time on a different sort of crime material: “I studied serial killers and the geography of dump sites. I know this sounds creepy, but I toured all around the United States and a lot of Britain, looking at places where criminals would dump their victims”.

He didn’t really want “to go the school shooting route as a writer,” he says, but when he was about 50 years old, he said to himself, “No one’s really written a book about Brenda, or about why she did it or what she did, and it had a real impact on my life and family”. His daughter was turning 16, the age that Spencer was at the time of her shooting, which added an element of vividness for him when considering the young shooter. Hunt wrote to Spencer as he was beginning the project, and she wrote back. “We struck up a — I wouldn’t say a friendship — but we do communicate every few weeks by email.” She talks to him about Top Ramen and the commissary, balloons and animals and aspects of her life in prison. After the book came out and he sent her a copy, she told him that the only thing he got wrong was the location of the bedrooms in her house.

He felt good about that, and he also felt good when all of the police officers he spoke to validated the accuracy of his account. That mattered to Hunt, especially when dealing with an event that has had many legendary accretions and much gossip attached to it. He says they told him, “Good job Nick; you’ve told it as it is.”

II.

Given its subject, no reader would be surprised to find I Don’t Like Mondays disturbing,. I certainly did. But for me, the disturbance arose in some unexpected ways. As Hunt’s account progresses from the shooting and rescue efforts, to the arrest, to the aftermath and legal dimensions of the case, I found myself struck along the way by the misery of the stories adjacent to Spencer’s. How she was not the first adolescent killer in her neighborhood at the time, and also not the first killer in the ‘70s named Brenda Spencer. How her path crossed those of other murderous women infamous in California history (Betty Broderick and members of the Manson family). The nauseating trajectory of her father’s relationship with her former juvenile hall cellmate. The numbing array of bad decisions, divorces, drugs, and deaths that popped up throughout the story all around the main narrative.

After the crime, there are the expectable but still unsavory dimensions of a “trial by media” and the notoriety that comes with it. That notoriety led to, and then kept growing with, the Boomtown Rats’ song “I Don’t Like Mondays,” which by now may be more famous than the story that inspired it. Then there’s the panoply of proposed psychological and neurological causes that wind up casting little light on the crime. Considerations of epilepsy, schizoaffective disorder and other psychiatric diagnoses, drugs, abuse, neglect, mysterious biorhythms, and Alice Cooper were not, for me, ultimately illuminating.

And the psychological material is only part of what remains opaque in the story. (The opaqueness is not Hunt’s fault; he tries to be both thorough and clear in his account. It’s just the way this is.) Spencer, “an empty shell all her life,” according to her own lawyer, feels impossible to grasp as a character in this tragedy. She also does not seem clear or consistent herself about her motives, about which she has spoken in various ways at various times. Beyond that, she even seems at one point to have a badly distorted sense of what actually happened in the shooting. Years after the event, she proposed a conspiratorial version of the event that put the blame for some of the bullets that struck the victims on the police.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, there is the sad truth that, in Hunt’s words, “we are no closer to understanding why she did it” 43 years after the fact.

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