Worst-ever school killing could have been here


To the people involved, it was a miracle on May 16, 1986, when a Wyoming school-bombing attempt failed, sparing 154 students and teachers.

Cokeville is a sleepy little town on the far west border of the state next to Idaho. It is a predominantly Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints town where crazy things are never supposed to happen. 

It is nestled between the towns of Afton and Kemmerer in Lincoln County. It was always believed to be the safest place possible to raise children. The schools were considered good and the teachers excellent. 

But all of this serenity changed 32 years ago this month. With little warning, a nutty couple took over the school with guns and bombs and promised to start killing people.

Books have been written about the event and even a movie called “The Cokeville Miracle” was made in 2015. The State Historical Society’s wyohistory.org has compiled amazing data on the event. Jessica Clark’s article at wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/cokeville-elementary-school-bombing includes a dozen oral histories by people who were there.

One of the best books is “Trial by Terror: The Child-Hostage Crisis in Cokeville, Wyoming” by Hartt and Judene Wixom. Much of the following information is from their book.

The perpetrator of all the danger was the town’s former lawman named David Young. He and his wife Doris entered the town’s elementary school with a grocery cart full of guns and gasoline bombs. Nobody saw such a threat coming. This was decades before schools all over the country started keeping their doors locked.

Young had been the town’s marshal in the 1970s. He was let go after his six-month probationary period. He had recently married Doris Waters of Cokeville, a divorcee who was a waitress and singer in a local bar. 

After their wedding, they moved to Tucson, where David became more reclusive. He came up with a scheme called “the Biggie,” and acquired some investment money from friends.

His big plan was to invade the Cokeville school, hold the kids for a ransom of $2 million apiece and then use the money to create what his friends said he called a Brave New World

David, his wife Doris and his daughter Princess from his first marriage entered the school that Friday at 1 p.m. and took the entire school hostage. They herded the 154 students, teachers, and other staff into one room. It was a room that had a capacity for just 30 students.

According to the “Trial by Terror” book, Young set himself up in the center of the room with his guns and bombs while Doris rounded up more folks. She told most of the younger students they were needed for a school assembly. 

Once everyone was in the room, he told them he was leading a revolution. He passed out copies of his philosophy, called Zero Equals Infinity.

Young had also sent copies to the president of Chadron State College (where he graduated), President Ronald Reagan, and various media.

The teachers tried to keep the students calm, especially the younger ones. They watched movies, played games and prayed. Suddenly at 4 p.m., the bomb exploded. People in the room later said that just before the explosion, David had connected the bomb to his wife. Then he went to the restroom, which was next to the bigger room. 

Doris accidentally set off the bomb by motioning to the hostages with her arms. The explosion covered her in flames and burned some nearby children. In the chaos, David returned to find Doris thrashing in agony. He shot her dead and then saw music teacher John Miller trying to escape. He shot Miller in the back. Then he returned to the restroom and killed himself. The danger was over. 

This tragedy ended with just two fatalities — the perpetrator and his wife. Miller survived his injuries.

This potential tragic story became a feel-good story across the country. 

But in Cokeville and the larger Mormon community it took on a different theme — it was a miracle. 

Many survivors recalled seeing angels during the crisis. Prayer circles had been formed all over town and over the West during the hostage situation. 

In the 2005 book “Witness to Miracles” by the Cokeville Miracle Foundation, Kameron Wixon, son of the authors of the original book, wrote: “I didn’t have to see angels, hear them or even think that their presence might be required. God did deliver our salvation that day. I’m living proof.”

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books. His coffee table book series has sold 30,000 copies. You can find them at www.wyomingwonders.com.

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