On a chilly Tuesday morning, late in the fall of 1985, a student told his teacher he saw a kid walk by the classroom with a gun. English teacher Merle Drown, on hall duty at the time, checked the hallways and boys bathroom. Seeing nothing, he assumed the student had been wrong, that what they’d seen had been something as ordinary as a janitor with a broom. Then Drown heard muffled yelling in the stairwell, and an announcement came over the loudspeakers: “We are holding bells. Do not release your students.” It was 8:35 a.m. and classes had just begun.
Drown, who was on the third floor, looked down the stairwell. Armed police officers had taken positions below him. Maybe it wasn’t the janitor carrying a broom after all, he thought.
“Put the gun down!” shouted the police at someone Drown could not see. “Put the gun down!” The piercing repetition bore up the stairwell.
With master key in hand, Drown instinctively began locking all classroom doors. Within minutes, the 1,300 students of this New Hampshire school were gripped with fear and confusion, as rumors spread about what was going on. It was December 3, 1985, and long before the word was ever coined, the school was under lockdown.
It’s been more than 40 years since the first modern school shooting — a 1974 incident when a student brought guns and homemade bombs to his school, set off the fire alarm, and shot at emergency and custodial personnel responding to the alarm. Despite countless studies conducted on the phenomenon, terms like “school shooting” and “school shooter” still have no unanimous definitions. The Tuesday morning that 16-year-old Louis Cartier brought a shotgun to Concord High School was an early example of something we now see as a pattern: the distraught teenage boy from a placid town of middle-class white people, roaming the hallways and rattling locked doors, gun in hand. As the era of school shootings continues today, his footsteps echo still.
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Nineteen eighty-five was a totally rad time for high school students who sported big hair, broad shoulders, narrow pants, and pointy-toed shoes. “Miami Vice” made neon colors cool the year before, and that summer “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and Live Aid concerts were all the rage. By the end of November, the song “Burning Heart” from the “Rocky IV” soundtrack, performed by Survivor, had been played over and over on the radio.
Concord High School sat, as it still does, in the capital of New Hampshire, a quiet, liberal town of middle-class residents “where everyone mostly looked out for everybody else,” says Concord High School teacher Jane Voth-Palisi.
At seven a.m. on the morning of December 3, Cartier and his mother arrived at the dry cleaners where they both were employed. When Cartier refused to discuss an earlier incident at work, his boss, Mr. Targett, sent him home. Cartier’s mother looked to join him but Mr. Targett talked her out of it, telling her to let the boy handle his own problems.
According to school guidance counselor Edward Zehnder, Cartier then stopped by his office, announcing his recent decision to drop out of school.
“I’ve had it with school,” Zehnder remembers him saying. “I’m going hunting.”
Short, thin as a rail with chubby cheeks, and marked with acne, Cartier was an introvert, the sort who worked hard to be invisible. But Zehnder knew him from the year before as a good student — an avid reader who had performed particularly well in biology.
Cartier had moved to Concord from Franklin, New Hampshire, a once-thriving mill town of 8,000 that gave way to unemployment and poverty. Cartier grew up the only child of his father, Louis, Sr., who always said what was on his mind, and his mother, Thelma, who was described as “slow” following a car accident in her youth.
The teenaged Louis had told his family he wanted to be a game warden or a Concord police officer because he loved the outdoors. In his spare time, he enjoyed metal detecting in the backyard and going hunting with his father — a mechanic at a nearby power plant — and his half-brother, Tony Cartier. Louis, Jr., listened to a mix of country and rock music and enjoyed the movies. Voth-Palisi, who taught him biology in his sophomore year, says he had a dry sense of humor, liked science, and understood her sarcasm.
But Cartier was also described as a loner in school, who repeatedly wore the same clothes, was quiet, and mumbled softly when spoken to. Fragile, some would say.
“He’s the kind of kid I would be very careful not to publicly call on because he was just day-dreamy or just didn’t know the answer or just couldn’t say it,” says Voth-Palisi. “I didn’t get the sense from Louis that he had a lot of hope.”
“We all got the sense that Louis went home to an empty house and a dog, and we all may have really read into it but he seemed to be a person who was navigating the teenage stuff by himself,” she says. At some point, Cartier even lost his dog, a German shepherd named Smokey, who died around that time.
During his sophomore year, Voth-Palisi recalls, he would often retreat into her classroom during lunch, staying behind to feed lab animals, clean equipment or talk to his teacher.
“He was a hard kid to know. But not a hard kid to like,” she says.
Cartier was caught stealing a bicycle, and had fought with a student who picked on a girl he had a crush on. The girl, who also worked with Cartier at the dry cleaners, was referred to only as Paula in case documents filed after the incident. She wasn’t his girlfriend, but that’s what Cartier told friends. One day, he told Paula about his weird dreams.
“About like hurting his parents, cutting them up with a chainsaw and stuff,” she said in her statement to police after the shooting. “I just thought it was weird. That’s why I didn’t let him come over my house no more.” She observed him push a needle through his earlobe because he was “bored,” and almost a year prior, she said he wished he was dead sometimes.
According to a police report, Cartier told his next-door neighbor and friend John, whose last name was redacted, on multiple occasions that he wanted to kill his mother. “I don’t know if he means it or not,” John told police.
The night before the incident at Concord High, he hung out with John and showed him his father’s guns on a stand: a double barrel, a shotgun, and a .38.
“His father bought Louis the guns, and his father bought them back,” John told police. Thelma told police that her son wanted a rifle for Christmas that year.
Three months into his junior year in 1985, Cartier was struggling, and his attendance had been poor.
“Dropping out is not that simple,” Zehnder told Cartier in his office that Tuesday morning in December. New Hampshire law at the time only allowed students who were under 18 to drop out with parental permission. Cartier did not have his parents’ approval in writing, and he didn’t seem to care.
He left the guidance counselor’s office in good spirits. Nobody can be certain what he did between leaving the guidance counselor’s office and showing up with a gun, but sometime that morning, according to witnesses in town interviewed by the Concord Monitor, Cartier was seen carrying something concealed under two plastic garbage bags before heading to the school’s main office.
Cartier arrived at the office with the shotgun drawn. He wore an ammunition belt, purposefully pulled around the front for quicker access, said police, and carried a wicker jug of Pink Catawba wine. In a town where hunting was popular, it was common to see pickup trucks adorned with gun racks, but to see a gun inside the school was stunning. Assistant principal Mark Roth asked Cartier to hand over the gun, and when Cartier pulled away, Roth closed the door to his inner office and paged his secretary.
“We have a student with a gun,” he told her. “Call the police.”
By the time he opened the door, Cartier was gone.
Before the lockdown, one floor up, Tom Herbert was teaching sociology — a class Cartier had dropped out of eight weeks prior. The doorknob rattled, but the door did not open. Herbert had locked the door to late students, and when his class told him Cartier was trying to get in, he didn’t bother to look up. Later that day, and for years to come, rumors circulated that Cartier was trying to get into class to confront one of his bullies, a football player.
Down the hall, Lynn Moody Lassonde was in study hall when she spotted Cartier walking by, resting his shotgun on his hip, “like a hunter would go walking through the woods,” she says.
“A kid just walked by the door with a gun,” she exclaimed to her class. Her teacher didn’t believe her.
Fellow student Matt Pappas said in a recent interview that it spooked him at first. “But you listen to what a teacher says and the teacher’s like, nobody comes to school with a gun,” he says.
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Sophomores Scot Hayes and Patrick Lena were late to school that day. By the time they entered, the classrooms were all locked, and the empty halls made them worry they had missed the morning field trip. Then they saw Cartier exit the east stairwell with a gun.
“He seemed very casual about it,” says Lena, “which is why we weren’t alarmed.”
Cartier offered them a hit of his bottle of wine.
“Fuck that, no,” said Lena and Hayes.
A teacher emerged from the auditorium and yelled, “Put that down!” Lena told police a couple hours later that Cartier swung around, pointed the gun at the teacher, cocked it, and said, “back off.” (In my initial interview with Lena for this story, he told me Cartier did not point the gun directly at the teacher coming out of the auditorium, but that the gun swung around with his body as he turned.)
When the teacher retreated into the auditorium, Lena wondered about the gun.
“Is that a real gun and is it loaded?” he asked Cartier.
“Does this look fucking real enough to you?” Cartier said, showing them the cartridges inside. Then, he snapped it shut.
Outside, the police had arrived and were advancing into the school. No shots had been fired, and decades before the advent of active shooter training, they had no idea what to expect.
Responding police officers entered from the stairwells on either side of Cartier with guns drawn. “All kinds of cops started coming around,” Hayes told police a day after the shooting. He added that Cartier “said that we were hostages, me and Pat.”
(Lena repeatedly told me he was never taken hostage, and didn’t feel as though they were in much trouble until the police showed up. However, he also admitted: “It was such a long time ago; it would be hard to recall all that stuff with a certain degree of accuracy.”)
“What is it that you need?” Lena asked Cartier as police closed in. Cartier said he wanted a ride to a nearby town to his girlfriend’s house, and Lena convinced Cartier to release him to the office, where he planned to call a friend who might be able to give him a ride. When he got there, the office staff pulled him down behind the counter.
The police officers began to shout: “Lewis Palmer, put the gun down! Lewis Palmer, put the gun down!”
From one of the stairwells, student Hans Mumm yelled back, “There is no Lewis Palmer! That’s Louis Cartier!” he yelled back. “You’re yelling the wrong name at the kid. He’s not going to know what’s going on!”
Coach Don LeBrun, who had taught Cartier driver’s ed, entered the hallway and approached Cartier and Hayes. Hayes bent over, muttering, “Oh fuck, oh fuck.” LeBrun stopped 40 feet away, and tried to persuade Cartier to stop.
“Louie, what are you doing? You’re scaring the hell out of him. Why don’t you let him go?” he said. “How about I come take his place?”
As Cartier considered this, one of the police officers, who had crawled underneath the trophy case to LeBrun’s right, whispered to LeBrun to get ready to duck out. Then Cartier moved his gun.
Zehnder, who was watching from a doorway a few feet from Cartier, said that the boy simply shifted his gun. “I still see Louis standing by the staircase cornered by the police, totally confused,” he said in a recent interview.
LeBrun, however, remembers Cartier lifting the shotgun toward him. LeBrun ducked to his right, and Hayes made a run for it, sprinting through the main office and leaping out the window.
Then, everything sped up.
According to news reports, Officer Michael Russell fired the first shot, fearing Cartier was going to shoot LeBrun. The shot hit Cartier in the ammunition belt. One of the shells in his belt broke open, spilling nine metal pellets on the ground, crackling like a firecracker.
“What did you hit me for?” Cartier allegedly said.
A second shot hit Cartier in the chest, fired by Sergeant John Clark.
More gunfire, and Cartier was shot in the head. Possibly a reflexive response, Cartier pulled his shotgun’s trigger, grazing the sleeve of Officer John Duclos. In total, the police fired three times.
When it was all over, Cartier lay motionless on the floor, bleeding from his head and torso. He was taken to Concord Hospital in critical condition where his father and half-brother Tony rushed to see him.
“There was no indication that this was going to happen or anything else,” says Tony. “He seemed like a regular kid to me, going through the normal struggles of being a teenager. That’s what it seemed like anyway.”
As students began questioning the police response, the preliminary investigation into the shooting was wrapping up that afternoon. Attorney General Stephen Merrill and Concord Police Chief David Walchak determined the two Concord police officers acted properly when they shot Cartier.
The next day, Cartier died at 2:22pm.
* * *
Nobody knows Cartier’s motive. One theory is he came to show off that he was quitting school to go hunting. Others theorized that he had come to take revenge on his bullies.
“I did hear a group of people that included Scot [Hayes] calling him chubby cheeks, chipmunk cheeks,” says Mumm.
Other former students also remember hearing about a football player who shoved toilet paper into Cartier’s mouth one day in the bathroom.
“I was a jock jerk but I would never pick on kids like Louie Cartier,” says the football player, who asked to remain anonymous. After skipping class and looking to inject himself into the drama, he joked to a group of students, “Louis was probably looking for me that day” and thus began the rumor, he says.
Cartier’s maternal step-grandfather told police that Cartier was very proficient with firearms — an excellent shot who had taken courses with the N.R.A. to get his hunting license. Had Cartier found the “big kid” at school who bullied him, someone Cartier vowed revenge upon, according to his step-grandfather, he would have “blown his head off.”
Another theory is that Cartier really did come to school looking for a ride to visit a girl, possibly Paula, who had rejected him after he wrote her a love letter. She wasn’t the only one. The beginning of summer in 1985, another student at Concord High School who asked to remain anonymous said she received a letter from Cartier.
Describing Cartier as mild-mannered and happy, she was friendly with him in gym class during the end of her sophomore year, after which she moved to Vermont. In his two-page letter to her, he said he wanted her to be his girlfriend.
“It said if I didn’t go out with him, he’d drive his car off a bridge,” she says. “It was really alarming…but I didn’t think he would do that.”
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Days after the shooting, reminders were still visible. The bullet holes in the wall. The bloodstains on the hallway carpet, where the custodial staff had to clean up the mess. Years later, some are still angry with the way the police handled the situation.
“Even in the war zone, we give people an opportunity to drop the weapon,” says Mumm, now a retired Army intelligence officer. “Can you imagine the kid’s heart rate? I’ve been to combat. You can’t hear. Everything goes pinpoint black. Your life changes. Your world, perspective, all changes.”
Some of the reminders aren’t so tangible. For Voth-Palisi, who remembers Cartier every December 3, “there are hundreds of Louies everywhere,” while LeBrun still has nightmares about the shooting. Zehnder, now in his 80s, still gets emotional about Cartier’s killing. “I will carry this image with me for the rest of my life,” he says. “I always thought there was no justice done because he came from a poor family.”
Every time there’s a school shooting, former students share their anxieties and memories in a private Facebook group. But for the family who never understood why Cartier took his gun to school that day, or why they didn’t receive any answers from the police investigation, emotions are closer to the vest. Cartier never had a public memorial or funeral. Goodbyes were private. And in an undisclosed part of the Lakes Region in New Hampshire, Tony visits the spot where he and his father, who struggled with the loss of his son until his own death in 1997, spread Cartier’s ashes next to Smokey’s and eventually their father’s.
“I’m still baffled to this day why it all happened,” Tony says.