WASECA, Minn. – David LaDue sat on his front stoop, sleep-deprived and fighting back sobs as he questioned himself aloud about the signs he might have missed.
It had been an agonizing nine days. His 17-year-old son, John LaDue, was in jail, charged with creating a Columbine-style plot to kill his family and massacre as many people as he could with bombs and guns at the local junior and senior high school in this small town in southern Minnesota.
The father was still struggling to make sense of the dark and violent thoughts that apparently clouded the mind of his son, an honor-roll student. He still couldn’t believe the teenager would have carried out the murderous plan.
“I understand everyone wants to know and try to make sense of it, and it’s real easy if we could … give it a simple answer like ‘he’s a maniac.’ Or ‘his parents just bought him [stuff] and ignored him,’ ” LaDue said. “It would really be nice if it was that simple. … I wish it was that simple.”
John LaDue is scheduled to appear in court again Monday. Prosecutors will seek to try him as an adult. His father was careful not to say too much out of fear that he might hurt his son’s case. But he agreed to an interview because he wants other parents to be aware of the darkness that exists in the world, and the reality that sometimes they don’t know what’s going on inside their kids’ heads.
That’s something he and his family are still trying to grasp, he said, as they search for answers to what may have led John LaDue to the brink of violence.
Guiding, not pushing
David LaDue’s parenting style was shaped partly by his own trouble in childhood, he said.
He was expelled from grade school in the Twin Cities and once put under observation at a hospital. But he straightened out, found God, became an industrial mechanic and got married nearly 21 years ago. He said he and his wife did their best to raise the couple’s two children in a stable, loving home, and it seemed things were turning out all right. Both of his children, he said with pride, are better students than he ever was.
Remembering his own rebellious formative years, LaDue said he had tried to be careful as a parent to toe the delicate line of guiding his children and not pushing them too hard.
“I don’t believe you can force opinions onto people, but you try to be an example,” he said.
Though he found comfort in spirituality, he also tried not to preach, he said.
It concerned him in recent months when his son came to him questioning obscure Bible verses, interpreting them to mean that God was unjust or cruel. Twice, David LaDue said, the verses he cited focused on the punishment of children. Another time, he said his son announced that he was an atheist. “I could tell he was leveling with me, so I let him, and then I just calmly continued to talk with him.”
The Bible verses were so little-known and interpreted so darkly, David LaDue said, that he assumed his son was being “fed” the material from somewhere, probably through writings or videos on the Internet. Still in some ways, he felt it was natural — even healthy — for a teenager to be questioning. “And yes, we did look at his browsing history and stuff, but he must have been covering his tracks.”
Authorities contend the younger LaDue had plenty of tracks to cover. He was arrested April 29, after a citizen saw him suspiciously enter a storage locker and called police. When authorities approached him, he told them of his plans:
He would kill his parents and sister with a .22-caliber rifle, then go to the countryside and start a fire to distract police and firefighters. He’d then go back to school with pressure cooker bombs, firearms and ammunition, setting off explosions in the cafeteria, shooting the school liaison officer and killing students. A 180-page notebook outlining his plans contained an entry dating to July 2013.
John LaDue told police that he intended to kill “as many students as he could” before being killed by a SWAT team, according to charging documents filed in Waseca County District Court.
Prosecutors have charged him as a juvenile with four counts of attempted murder, two counts of first-degree damage to property and six counts of possession of a bomb.
If convicted of one count of first-degree attempted murder as an adult, he could serve up to 18 years, according to state guidelines. If convicted as a juvenile, however, he could be released from detention when he turns 21.
The teenager told police that he had an SKS assault rifle with 400 rounds of ammunition, a 9mm handgun with ammo and a gun safe with more firearms, all in his bedroom at home.
Authorities found seven firearms and three completed bombs there. Another three bombs, along with chemicals and other materials, were found in the storage unit. He also had 60 pounds of metal ball bearings.
Court papers say the teen described researching and buying some of the items online, using a PayPal account. Other scenarios in the charges include him stealing ammunition from a relative, buying a gun on his own and attempting to burglarize a home to obtain another firearm.
Looking back, David LaDue, blue eyes peeking out from under a cap, said he feels he failed the boy by giving him more free rein than he should have:
John, a deer hunter, was allowed to keep some of his father’s guns in a safe in his own bedroom closet, partly because he was trusted to watch out for the family when his father worked overnights in the Twin Cities. John also was allowed to practice throwing Tomahawk knives at an old pine tree in the front yard — one that his father delayed cutting down because of the cardinal’s nest it cradled, he said.
David LaDue also gave his son the OK to walk to a friend’s house after the town curfew once, a decision that led to a citation for the boy, the elder LaDue said.
“I tried to indulge him in every way that I thought was harmless,” David LaDue said, adding later: “I feel responsible for everything other than his fantasies or imaginations that I was unaware of.”
David LaDue didn’t regularly rifle through his son’s bedroom because he felt he had no reason to. John was a good student, taking pre-calculus as a junior. He had friends. He had a job at the Hy-Vee grocery store. The family never heard of any bullying issues or fights or drinking or drugs. John was close to his sister, who is just 15 months older. He didn’t appear to be living in a shell. He was chatty about some things, though not typically about heartfelt issues. He seemed like a typical teenager.
“We’ve never had what I felt was a concrete reason to really be concerned,” David LaDue said. He said he knew of no storage locker or bomb-making materials or test blasts. He knew of no diary or shooting plan.
As David LaDue continued to reflect, dark clouds rolled in over his neighborhood, which is not far from Waseca’s downtown. A U.S. Postal Service truck pulled up to the curb and a mail carrier jumped out, greeting the grieving father and handing him a small stack of envelopes. There were advertisements, a bill and a graduation invitation. And there was a supportive card from a local family — one of many the LaDues have gratefully received.
“It’s kind,” David LaDue said. “Considering how horrible it sounds, I’m a little amazed that people are still reaching out even though I’m sure there’s fears and concerns or maybe even misunderstandings.”
The LaDues have visited their son in a juvenile facility in Red Wing, but they haven’t asked him many questions.
He’s still not sure how his son gathered the chemicals and materials for bombs. His son had a job and a debit card. He said John would often be the first one to see the mail after school, and could have hidden anything ordered online before his parents came home.
“I haven’t wanted to grill him over things. There’s going to be plenty of time for that,” David LaDue said. “As far as his thoughts and feelings, he feels very responsible for everything.”
David LaDue doesn’t think his son hated anyone or that anyone hated his son. In the end, he said, he doesn’t believe his son would be capable of doing everything he fantasized about, though he acknowledges that it seems his son wanted people to believe that he could.
John LaDue had targeted April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School school massacre in Littleton, Colo., as the date that he planned to carry out the attack, authorities said. But that fell on Easter Sunday, postponing plans. Authorities believe he was going to act in the next few weeks.
“I believe there would have always been a reason for him to delay … until he got caught,” his father said.
Despite the threats to the family, David LaDue said he’d feel comfortable going hunting with his son again and walking in front of him as he carried a loaded gun. But he knows after everything his son wrote and said, other people see it differently. He knows his son’s fate is now in the hands of the law. “There’s a few more things that I’m aware of now, that I think are important, but I gotta …” he hesitated, stopping himself from saying too much about the case.
The only solace in everything is knowing that no one was hurt.
“I don’t know what the proper punishment is for what he’s made it look like he was going to do,” David LaDue said. “If he … actually intended to carry out the things that he says he intended to carry out, I don’t see how that’s forgivable.”
But, he added: “I can’t believe that he actually intended to do it. I really can’t. But I don’t expect anyone to believe that.”