Trying to escape
shadow of dread
John LaDue seemed to lead an ordinary southern Minnesota life, until he was discovered planning a mass killing. Now he wants his life back — but unsettling questions about his case may never be answered.
He has stopped paying attention to the surprised stares or nervous glances when he walks in town.
When he goes to the library to drop off a book, or to a restaurant to have dinner with his family, people don’t usually say much.
But they know who he is.
John LaDue was 17 years old when police found him in the spring of 2014 holed up in a storage locker here on the edge of this small city on the southern Minnesota prairie. He was surrounded by bomb-making materials, and he had plans to kill his family, fellow students and police.
LaDue spent almost two years locked up in juvenile halls and jail while lawyers, judges and psychologists debated what to do with him — the teenager who spent months planning a school massacre, but never carried it out.
Then, a year ago — to the surprise of many — LaDue was allowed to return home. He came back to a family struggling to understand what had happened, and a community worried that he didn’t get the punishment he deserved or the help he needed. Some questioned why he was allowed to quit probation as well as stop therapy sooner than mental health professionals recommended.
“It’s not our community’s burden to trust we will be safe around you,” one man wrote to him online. “It is your burden to prove.”
In the past year, LaDue has worked to rebuild his life. He went to community college, learned a trade, and started working full time. He read self-improvement books, pledged to make friendships a higher priority, and dated a woman.
Now 20, he has steadfastly tried to assure people that he’s better, no longer a danger to anyone.
But he has remained guarded, too, careful not to draw attention to his past as he moves forward.
“There’s really … no reason to worry,” he said while relaxing in his childhood home during one of a series of interviews and visits he granted the Star Tribune over the past year.
“I have no desire to hurt other people.”
Before his arrest, LaDue seemed to lead an ordinary life in Waseca, a community of fewer than 9,500 residents about 75 miles south of the Twin Cities.
He earned good grades and worked at the grocery store. He played video games and guitar and spent time on his computer. He hung out with a few friends.
His parents, David and Stephanie LaDue, moved here from the Twin Cities in 1995, a couple of years after they married. It seemed a better place — less expensive and safer — to raise a family. They eventually settled in a neighborhood near downtown, buying a two-story fixer-upper and decorating the walls with family portraits and keepsakes.
Stephanie stayed home with John and his older sister, Valerie, when they were little. She took the kids to early childhood family education classes and volunteered at their elementary school, helping students who struggled to read.
David worked full-time as an industrial mechanic. On vacations, they packed up the kids to go camping and hiking at favorite state parks.
David and Stephanie remember their son as a caring boy. In fourth grade, he donated his entire savings — at least $200 — to a fundraiser for a schoolmate whose father and brother had been killed by an intruder, their murders a shocking and emotional blow to the entire community.
He had “an insatiable appetite for learning,” his father said, devouring shelves of books — everything from Edgar Allan Poe to “Geometry for Dummies.” He collected stamps and coins and rocks, dabbled with chemistry in the backyard.
“He didn’t like not knowing things,” David said. “I thought that was very refreshing.”
The teenage years had produced some rough patches for their children, but Valerie had emerged a bright high school senior, headed for college.
Stephanie — by now a drug and alcohol counselor — said she wasn’t too surprised that her teenage son didn’t want his parents to be as involved in his life as they once were. She said she gently questioned him to make sure he was OK, but was careful not to push.
“All I got was, ‘I’m fine, Mom,’ ” Stephanie said.
Still, the LaDues tried to keep tabs on their kids, checking internet histories and phone logs. They knew their son had been toying around with fireworks. David indulged his interests in shooting and hunting, even letting him store guns in his room to protect the family when David periodically worked overnight.
They trusted him.
Then came police, knocking on their door that spring night in 2014, handing them a search warrant and telling them that their lives were in danger.
The LaDues couldn’t believe it. They had never seen their son exhibit rage or show a desire to harm anyone.
Stephanie drove to the juvenile facility where John was being held. When guards led him into the tiny visiting room, he wouldn’t look at her.
“Give me your hands,” Stephanie remembers telling him, reaching across a small table, his head bowed. He brought his hands up to meet hers.
“John, I don’t know what happened. I don’t understand what’s going on right now and that’s OK,” she told him. “I just want you to know that I love you and I will always love you. Whatever happened … We’ll get through this together.”
John still didn’t look up. But his mother saw his tears as they fell to the table.
It was an unusual glimpse of emotion from a boy who seldom expressed his feelings.
“I saw what looked to me like remorse and regret,” she said. “I felt love.”
POLICE STOP STUDENT PLAN FOR DEADLY ATTACK ON WASECA SCHOOL
‘Everyone was on the list’
The next day, a Waseca police captain stood before a throng of reporters and cameras and delivered the shocking news: John LaDue, a local high school student, had been plotting a Columbine-style massacre. An alert citizen had called 911 after seeing him act suspiciously while entering a storage shed near her house.
“Unimaginable tragedy has been prevented,” the captain said, his voice cracking with emotion.
In an instant, the teenager’s darkest thoughts were laid bare to the world.
David and Stephanie were wary of talking with their son about it all while he was still in custody, with criminal charges pending. When he got home, they chose not to overwhelm him with questions.
But LaDue, who had spent countless hours alone in jail cells and halls surrounded by troubled teens, had a lot of time to consider what had gone wrong.
He set impossible standards for himself, he explains now, and grew frustrated and depressed when he invariably failed to meet them. It bothered him that his German teacher knew more about the language than he did. If Mozart composed music at age 5, why couldn’t he master a guitar riff?
He stewed when disruptive classmates interrupted his learning. He wanted respect, and imagined fear and surprise on the faces of his victims as he pointed his gun at them.
“I just wanted to hold their lives in my hand,” he explained.
LaDue planned carefully and told no one about his destructive desires. So when police yanked open the door to the storage locker, he stood dumbfounded amid the cache of ball bearings, a pressure cooker and chemicals.
He bristled at first, asking police what right they had to be there. Then he described his plans in chilling detail.
He would use a .22-caliber rifle to “dispose of” his mother, father and sister. He would set a brushfire outside of town to occupy first responders. Then he would head to Waseca Junior/Senior High School, plant a couple of pressure cooker bombs, and wait for students to stream out between classes. He would remotely detonate the bombs before walking through the school, guns blasting. He would shoot locks off classroom doors and toss small bombs into rooms filled with his frightened peers.
When police arrived, he would confront them, too. He assumed he would die from their fire.
LaDue had already set off some small explosives months earlier, he told police; there were guns in his bedroom at home, along with ammunition, some small explosives and a 180-page notebook where he had been working out the details of his attack for nearly a year.
He told police he would have tried to carry it out before the end of the school year.
“Everyone was on the list,” he said.
Looking for a diagnosis
Prosecutors charged LaDue with a dozen felonies, including four counts of attempted first-degree murder. They urged a judge overseeing the case to try him as an adult.
If convicted, he could spend much of his life in prison.
MOST SERIOUS CHARGES DROPPED FOR WASECA TEEN
But his parents grew convinced that authorities were blowing things out of proportion, choosing to portray their son as evil, rather than a disturbed teenager who desperately needed help.
LaDue hadn’t hurt anyone. He had never threatened to harm the friends, classmates or teachers who frustrated or annoyed him. How could they prosecute him for his thoughts?, his parents wondered.
“I thank God that he was interrupted or caught and this was brought to our attention,” David LaDue said a couple of months after his son’s arrest. “It’s not like we want John to come home and pretend nothing happened … We want him to become a responsible and contributing person.”
The LaDues felt vindicated when courts ruled that their son hadn’t taken substantial enough steps to warrant the most serious charges against him, including attempted murder.
After those charges were thrown out, a judge heard testimony from three psychologists who evaluated LaDue, trying to figure out how dangerous he really was and to determine the best course for his future and everyone’s safety.
Their conclusion: LaDue suffered from autism spectrum disorder — what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome — coupled with an unusual fixation on violence.
“He didn’t demonstrate any emotional response, even in talking about very serious subjects,” testified Katheryn Cranbrook, a senior clinical forensic psychologist who works for the state judicial branch.
Psychologist James Gilbertson told the court that LaDue had been stuck in “grievance-oriented thinking,” focusing on retribution of people and institutions that he believed had been dismissive of him, treated him unfairly and failed to appreciate his greatness.
“He viewed some of his peers as stupid and immature and not having the right to live,” Gilbertson said.
JUDGE SENTENCES WASECA TEEN TO TREATMENT AND PROBATION
They recommended that LaDue undergo specialized therapy, which he couldn’t get at the juvenile facility where he was confined. Some advised that he be monitored into his mid-20s, when the brain reaches full maturity. He was 18 ½ years old by then, and keeping him under the court’s “extended juvenile jurisdiction” until age 21 wouldn’t be long enough, some said.
A judge certified him into adult court, and a month later LaDue agreed to plead guilty to a single felony count of possessing an explosive device under the age of 18. He would voluntarily serve up to 10 years of probation, including mental health treatment at a residential facility. If he completed it all successfully, the felony would stay off his record.
At the sentencing in October 2015, Judge Joseph Chase pleaded with the Waseca community to not treat LaDue as a pariah, but to interact with him even if autism meant that he might not show a typical emotional response.
“He is not at fault for having this condition any more than one can be at fault for having diabetes or asthma,” Chase said.
A change of plans
Within weeks, the probation plan unraveled.
A treatment center in Georgia declined to accept supervision of LaDue for “bureaucratic” reasons, his attorney said at the time. Officials in Minnesota scrambled to find another place while he remained in the Waseca County Jail.
Finally, in late January 2016, the state moved LaDue to an apartment close to the Twin Cities where he underwent further evaluation.
The diagnosis this time: LaDue was not on the autism spectrum, but had instead suffered a major depressive episode. He had narcissistic personality disorder and unspecified personality disorder with obsessive compulsive traits. The risk for long-term violence and imminent harm were low, the report said, but, “It is imperative that Mr. LaDue stay in treatment with a skilled therapist who is able to process his resistance to treatment.”
At the end of April 2016, a judge agreed to let him live at home with restrictions, including regular meetings with his probation officer, monitored internet use and regular therapy.
LaDue returned to Waseca on a sunny spring day. News camera crews greeted him and his dad from the street outside the family’s home.
“What happened to our garden?” LaDue asked as he set foot in an overgrown backyard.
PARENTS WELCOME SON HOME, BUT SOME FIND MASSACRE PLANS HARD TO FORGET
Restricted from seeing some of his old friends and with his sister now off at college, living in another town, LaDue spent hours alone in his first weeks at home.
He sat on his parents’ overstuffed sofa and cuddled Buster, his favorite of the family’s three tabby cats. He played guitar, his fingers shredding Metallica and Slayer songs on a curvy red electric Jackson that he’d nicknamed “Janet.” He painted his room. He read one book after another. He called an old buddy, and was relieved when the friend welcomed him back.
He envisioned a simple future: A decent job and a small house or apartment, preferably in a small town. He would spend his days reading, playing guitar and working on hobbies, he said.
“I want to learn a few more languages. I want to learn how to play the piano. I’ve got plenty of things to do,” he said.
He didn’t imagine that he’d ever marry, or have a family.
But as summer wore on, LaDue reconsidered his decision to accept up to 10 years of supervision. He’d already served the jail time for his crime, and he wasn’t convinced — as he once was — that a felony record would keep him from landing a high-demand, skilled manufacturing job.
Felon or not, he knew a simple internet search would likely have him explaining his past for years to come.
WASECA TEEN OPTS FOR FELONY CONVICTION OVER 10-YEAR PROBATION IN BOMB PLOT
His mandated weekly therapy appointments seemed like a waste of time, too, LaDue said.
“Last time, all we were talking about was my cat Sam” avoiding the litter box, he said.
Three months after going home, LaDue returned to the Waseca County Courthouse and told the judge he had changed his mind. Forget probation. He would take the felony.
He walked out of the courtroom a free man. No more check-ins with a probation officer, no more appointments with a therapist, no more monitoring of his internet use.
LaDue concentrated on restarting his life. He got his driver’s license. He bought a car — a 1990 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme — with $1,000 that a family friend had donated to him. His dad helped him fix it up.
“It’s a grandma’s car,” David LaDue teased, as the car’s boxy chassis sat atop blocks in the backyard.
“Fine by me,” his son said with a grin.
He researched careers and decided on welding, then signed up for fall classes at a local community college. His instructor demanded precision, but LaDue relished the challenge. He strove to understand the metallurgy, reading entire textbooks instead of merely skimming them to find test answers.
He got to school early, often with a notebook full of questions from his homework the night before, and stayed late to practice his welds. His instructor, who knew of LaDue’s past before the semester started, said LaDue joked with his classmates and they had no issues with him.
“He was a really good student. He’s smart. What he doesn’t understand he’s willing to try to find the information,” said teacher John Smith. “He was willing to work hard, and that goes a long way in my book.”
Outside of class, LaDue got a job working nights and weekends. On a Friday evening shift, he scurried to wipe tables and collect trays at a local fast-food restaurant.
“What can I get you?” he asked quickly and cheerfully, taking a woman’s order at the front counter.
At the end of fall semester, he walked out of his classroom, peeled off his welder’s protective gear and packed his scorch-marked work gloves into a cardboard box. His final exams almost over, he was sure to graduate near the top of the 13-student welding class.
Was he proud?
He paused and scrunched his eyes in surprise at the question.
“I wouldn’t say I’m proud. No. I’m not proud,” he said. “I may be proud if I got, like, 100 percent in each class, but I didn’t.”
He was excited and anxious, he said as he gulped a soda from a can in a student lounge. “I’m just more thinking in terms of whether I’ll be able to get a job.”
‘That was so stupid’
While LaDue was eager to pursue his future, his actions sometimes raised suspicion.
Late one summer night, someone told police they had seen LaDue flipping off traffic along Waseca’s main thoroughfare.
When officers confronted him, he corrected them, saying his middle fingers were directed only at police. He called them pigs.
“I’ll be seeing you guys later,” he told them, according to a police report. “Enjoy your doughnuts.”
LaDue said later that he knew that flicking off police wasn’t against the law and he felt like doing it.
He did it again a couple of months later, near the Waseca library. He’d had a bad day, he said later, and the sight of the police was a trigger, reminding him of the power they held over him.
But this time LaDue said he tried to apologize almost immediately, even following the officer in his car for a while. But the officer didn’t stop.
“That was so stupid,” he said. “I know they’re just doing their jobs.”
Once, he alarmed a Waseca resident too, by surprising him at his house.
After a man wrote a comment on Facebook that his father and a friend interpreted as an invitation for a face-to-face talk, LaDue said he happened to drive by the man’s house and stopped when he saw people in the yard. According to a police report, he called to them from the driver’s window and said something to the effect of: “I heard you have something to say to me?”
Someone at the house called police.
The encounter ended quietly when LaDue drove away; neither party had made direct threats, an officer wrote.
Police noted that LaDue had been wearing black gloves, odd for July. LaDue explained to them that he was wearing driving gloves because his hands get sweaty.
Early community hostility
By then, it was clear that trust wouldn’t come easily.
Even before LaDue returned home, people in Waseca weren’t happy about the prospect.
“Better not I will finish the job myself if this happens #execution,” one commenter wrote on Facebook after officials talked of sending LaDue home in January last year.
The LaDues installed home security cameras and contacted police when they felt threatened.
Sometimes, after reading internet comments, LaDue couldn’t resist defending himself.
When news stories reported that he wanted to quit probation, people vented. It didn’t seem to matter that he had already served all the jail time possible under his guilty plea.
“SCREW THAT CRAP!” one woman wrote on Facebook, “that monster should be lucky his butt isn’t in prison.”
“This guy should still be locked up,” wrote another. “If I was the judge he would be happy to maybe see the light of day.”
Another writer tried to explain the community’s apprehension: “Wanting to kill your family makes you more fearful to people it is just the idea that someone could even think about doing that in our town.”
LaDue tried to reassure them that they had nothing to fear:
“Sorry, but I have to stay here until I get a career and can live independently. All I can currently do to try and alleviate tension and unease is to just be responsible and polite, which I think I am very capable of doing. I know my statement probably won’t waver your stance, but there is nothing to be scared of. I am a peaceful person and worrying will just be a burden you have to bear.”
Others were sympathetic, urging people to give him a chance.
“I get that he is trying to move on with his life, but honestly in this town he won’t be able to not unless he changes his name/face or everyone can just possibly somewhat be civil,” one commenter wrote. “John I hope the best for you and you make more progress and continue down the correct path in life.”
It was clear he was living under a microscope.
Bored one day, LaDue and a buddy passed time by throwing small knives at the trunk of an old pine tree in his front yard. He had done it many times before his arrest, and considered it a game.
But now it frightened people. Someone called the police.
Even his fast food employer, located in another city, reconsidered a month and a half into his job. A corporate manager called and told him they had done a background check and would no longer employ him because of his felony, he said.
Recalling it all later, LaDue grinned slightly and shook his head. Why fight it?, he figured. It was only a fast food job and he had bigger aspirations.
Support, but no answers
David and Stephanie LaDue still don’t know what drove their son to map out a mass murder. They may never really know, they concede. Even the professionals gave them different diagnoses.
“If they don’t have answers, I sure as heck don’t,” Stephanie said. “Who are you supposed to believe? Does my son have autism or does he not? It’s just such a disappointment.”
Psychiatric diagnosis is not a hard science, said Peter Langman, a Pennsylvania psychologist who has written books analyzing school shooters and keeps a website on school massacres.
“You could have a kid interviewed in front of five or 10 different mental health professionals and they may all come up with a different diagnosis,” Langman said. “Diagnosis is very problematic in these cases.”
Whatever had been bothering their son in high school seems to have disappeared, Stephanie said. He doesn’t want to talk about it much anymore, either.
“Usually, when I bring up the mental health stuff now, he’ll say, ‘You know, I’m beyond that. I really don’t think about it much anymore,’ ” Stephanie said. “It seems to bother him to think about it now. … He knows it’s brought us a lot of pain.”
Her son, like her, has never been a big talker, she said. He has said, “I’m sorry” a time or two, she said, but he is not the type of person to grovel.
“Right now, he’s about: ‘I want to show you how you’re important to me by how I will live my life and how I will help you,’ ” she said. “I guess I’ve learned to go much more by actions rather than words.”
The last psychiatrist who evaluated LaDue wrote that he did not have entrenched violent attitudes. He described him as intelligent, invested in personal development and amenable to change. Family support, the psychiatrist wrote, would be LaDue’s biggest asset.
Lately, Stephanie and David have been encouraged. They see their son working toward goals and speaking of the future.
“He’s more social than he’s ever been,” she said.
They see him cleaning and helping out around the house. They see him try to comfort them when they’re not feeling well, and asking what he can do for them.
In turn, they encourage and help him, and pay close attention. If they see any signs that he is sliding back into negative thinking, they will call in help, Stephanie said.
They also believe he would seek help on his own now.
“I really don’t think he wants to go through that again. He’s learned how good life can be once he gives it a chance, that he does have talents that he can apply in a positive way,” Stephanie said. “I think based on what we’ve seen, I would be able to see differences and he would be willing to talk about those differences, too, if they did occur.”
The LaDues know that the town is watching and that their lives may be forever changed. Amid the community scrutiny last summer, David posted a “Go Fund Me” website asking for donations to help his family move out of Waseca. It was a joke, he said, but the frustration was clear.
Stephanie, meanwhile, decided to attend church in Owatonna instead of Waseca, worrying about local congregants feeling uncomfortable around her. “I didn’t want to disturb people in their place of worship,” she said.
The couple wants a normal life back, but the turmoil has taken a toll.
Late last year, Stephanie had to quit her job as a drug and alcohol counselor when she began to struggle with fibromyalgia, a painful condition that sometimes develops after significant stress. Recently, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
People will be wary of their son for years to come, they know.
Town leaders, from the mayor to the police to the attorney who prosecuted him, have declined to talk to the Star Tribune in recent months about LaDue or the outcome of his case. In a tersely worded statement, a police captain wrote, “Our department does not have any additional information or comment about Mr. LaDue’s return to the community.”
Stephanie and David LaDue remain frustrated, feeling the law wronged their son — wronged all of them — by overreacting.
Working to get better
LaDue knows what the experts have said about his state of mind and mental health in the days, weeks and months after his arrest. He’s also delved into books on the brain and asked questions of his therapists. Ultimately, he agrees with the psychiatrist who determined that he had suffered a major depressive episode.
He says he now understands that his thoughts of achieving power through dominating others were “incorrect.” He says he’s trained himself to process his feelings differently.
“I still hold the belief that if you have a problem, the first one you should go to fix it is yourself,” he said.
LaDue said he tries not to think of himself as existing on a higher plane than others. Some of that change started while he was in custody, where psychologists saw his superior attitude toward his peers begin to wane.
He still works hard, he says, but tries not to expect perfection. “It doesn’t do me any good to act like a baby, like I should be great at everything I do because, you know, it’s not reality,” he said.
He believes authorities still have the notebook where he scrawled his plan, but he doesn’t want it back. “I only had, like what, 30 spare pages left in it, so I don’t care,” he said, before quickly adding, that he’d be embarrassed by it, too.
“I’d think, like, ‘what a stupid kid,’ ” he said. “I’d think that it’s just some guy really choosing to be upset and stuck in his own gutter for no reason. It’s basically just a book full of pessimism.”
So, between 12-hour overnight shifts at a local manufacturer, he concentrates on rebuilding his life by trying different approaches to better himself, to find happiness.
In recent months, he’s read Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends & Influence People,” leading him to pledge on one of his Facebook pages to smile more, refrain from criticizing, show appreciation and lighten up. He told friends who catch him breaking any of his new tenets to confront him, and he will give them $1.
“I can’t find happiness in trying to endlessly educate myself; it’s making me feel lonely, jealous and constantly unsatisfied,” he wrote. “So, I’ve decided to make companionship my #1 priority and education/usefulness my #2.”
He and a friend are reading a book by a guitarist who hit bottom doing drugs and found his way back through Christianity. LaDue said he’s not religious, but he’s “never closed to the possibility.”
And while LaDue once dismissed the idea of getting married and having a family, he is open to it now, too, after dating gave him a taste of being in a relationship.
“Someday I’d probably go as far as be willing to say that it’s something I’d want to do,” he said.
For now, he will continue working on his social skills, he said.
If his mind ever reverts to violent thoughts he will “take care of it,” he assures; he will dig out the therapists’ cards from his Velcro wallet and seek their help.
Would he have carried out the massacre if he hadn’t been caught?
He would have tried, he said. But that was three years ago. He’s more mature. His mind is in a better place, he says.
He understands why people in Waseca might be angry, upset or afraid. He might have the same reaction if he were in their shoes. But whatever people think of him, he says, it doesn’t bother him now.
“I guess all I can really do is just behave.”