2002: UA student kills 3 faculty members

2002: UA student kills 3 faculty members

Nursing students Karin Starcher, Izaah Miretsky and Catie Manning, from left, console one another in front of the nursing school on the day after the bloody shooting spree that devastated the school. Oct. 29, 2002.

At the University of Arizona college of Nursing, a student opened fire killing three members of the faculty and then himself on October 28, 2002.

A shocked university and community mourned and memorialized the lost faculty members

From the Arizona Daily Star, October 29, 2002:

Evil, grief at UA

Student kills three on faculty, himself

L. Anne Newell
Arizona Daily Star

A man fatally shot three of his professors in the University of Arizona's College of Nursing early Monday, gunning down two in front of a room of students before apparently killing himself as people rushed from the building in hysterics.

The man was identified as Robert Stewart Flores Jr., 41, who authorities and witnesses said failed a pediatric nursing class last semester and was failing critical care - the 8 a.m. class that he barged into armed with five handguns and up to 250 rounds of ammunition Monday.

Tucson Police Chief Richard Miranda said Monday night that he had no doubt that Flores wanted to create "holy hell for this community" when he walked into the building.

Officials said Flores apparently targeted clinical assistant professors Robin E. Rogers, 50, and Barbara S. Monroe, 45, and Cheryl M. McGaffic, 44, a clinical associate professor who taught the critical care class, because they'd given him failing grades.

"This is the last place you'd expect this," said pharmacy graduate student Stephen Machatha as he stood with dozens of other students near the building after the shootings, talking quietly and struggling to understand what had happened.

Classmate Phil Kuehl said: "You don't want to expect it anywhere, or believe it can happen anywhere."

Shock waves at university

The murders sent shock waves through the UA community, which witnessed only two homicides ever before Monday. There were 20 murders on college and university campuses across the country in 2000, according to Security on Campus Inc., and none on UA property in four years.

Students and faculty members wept as they walked arm in arm near the nursing building. Dozens of others talked on cell phones, assuring relatives they were well.

"School is a place you're supposed to be safe," said Lyndsay Edwards, 21, who lent her cell phone to the first woman out of the classroom and watched as she ran down the sidewalk with it, screaming and crying.

Jamie Kearney, 21, a first-semester nursing student, said: "The worst part is knowing this person was going to be a nurse. He wanted to help people, but he murdered two teachers."

Police said Flores, a divorced father of two and a Persian Gulf War veteran who worked at the VA Southern Arizona Health Care System while earning his degree, went to the nursing building, East Mabel Street and North Martin Avenue, around 8:30 a.m.

He entered a second-floor office and shot Rogers, said spokesmen from the Tucson and UA police departments. Witnesses said Flores locked the door, then moved to the fourth floor, where he went into the classroom, displaying the guns.

Students said they thought he was playing a Halloween joke and were shocked as he asked the professors if they were ready to meet their makers, then shot them several times each. Police said each victim was shot at least two times in the upper torso or head.

The approximately 50 students dived for the floor as shots rang out, hiding under desks and trying to inch toward the exit. Students feared Flores would kill them, too, because he had so much ammunition, but they said he told them to leave, urging them not to rush.

Still, they ran from the building screaming and crying, even vomiting from fear, and helping each other as they fell down.

Police said Flores shot himself to death after they'd left.

Quick police response

University police arrived within minutes because they were responding to another incident nearby, and Tucson police also arrived quickly because they were training in Himmel Park, spokesmen said.

They began securing the building but were faced with another danger when a bomb-sniffing dog indicated possible explosives in Flores' vehicle. The dog also indicated there may have been explosives in a backpack Flores was wearing. In that backpack, police said, were ammunition and one of his five guns.

Police evacuated hundreds of students in the nursing building and the adjacent buildings housing the College of Pharmacy, Life Sciences and Basic Sciences, all in the Arizona Health Sciences Center complex. They also closed North Campbell Avenue between East Speedway and East Elm Street most of the day while they conducted a floor-by-floor sweep of the building.

University Medical Center also shut down for several hours, diverting incoming patients and visitors, a spokeswoman said.

Apartment searched

Police also searched Flores' home of about one year, in Broadway Village Apartments, 150 S. Eastbourne Ave., but found no explosives. They did find a rifle and more ammunition in the home, police said.

Flores' neighbors were surprised to hear the news, describing Flores as quiet and polite, dedicated to his black Great Dane, Bridget, and host to his now 10- and 15-year-old children last summer.

"No one would ever think anything like this would ever happen," said Peggy Martin, 73. "He was very friendly, very intelligent, always dedicated to his work and his dog. He was very courteous, very jovial, always calm and collected."

Another woman who lives in the 28-unit complex, populated by retirees, students and single mothers, said she talked to Flores almost every day, often as he left to take his dog for a walk.

"He was very devoted," said Violet Allis, 75. "If he had to crawl, he'd take that dog over to the park. . . . I can't imagine him owning a gun, let alone firing one."

Previous threats reported

Still, police said Flores had shown his dangerous side before. UA police Commander Brian Seastone said a faculty member - not one of the victims - complained to police last April that Flores made threats, and Tucson Chief Miranda said a witness told officers Flores had made a prior threat against the College of Nursing in recent weeks.

Seastone said the staff member filed a report in April 2001, noting Flores' depression. The staffer said there was concern Flores might harm someone, but police had received no other reports on him since.

Nursing school colleagues said the school - which has 60 staff members, including the faculty, and about 400 students - is tight-knit. But they said Flores didn't have many close friends because he'd been left back and joined the current senior class last year.

Court records show no other problems with the law, although on Oct. 4 his wages were to be garnisheed to pay child support for two children, who are believed to live out of state with their mother, whom he divorced in 1996.

Complaint about student

Still, McGaffic's husband, Walter, told The New York Times that his wife recently had complained about a student, presumably Flores, who was hostile and disruptive.

"Cheryl told me several times she felt threatened by him," he said in a telephone interview.

He encouraged her to report the student to school authorities, but she told him, "That won't do any good."

McGaffic said his wife said the student had a military background and was "very, very intimidating."

He described his wife as a person of deep faith and made a point of instructing her students in the spiritual aspects of health care. She'd worked as a volunteer chaplain at UMC and was considering making chaplaincy a full-time vocation.

Kind and considerate

Some students waiting expectantly in the parking lot said they knew the dead professors, describing them as good teachers who were kind and considerate. Other students waiting around said they'd run into students from the classroom, some begging for help. Some said they talked to people who'd hidden in the building until police told them it was safe to leave.

Anu Nigam, a microbiology graduate student, had just parked her car when a woman ran from the building, yelling that a man had a gun and to call 911. The girl was crying so hard that it was hard to understand her, Nigam said. Another student immediately pushed an emergency button at a shuttle stop. "The moment he hit it, we could hear the sirens," Nigam said. The woman ran into the pharmacy building, but other students ran to the parking lot.

"Running and screaming"

Jessie Mance, one of about 75 pharmacy students who were in an immunology class when the shooting occurred, said: "I heard the students running and screaming - we didn't know what to do."

Students were told to remain in their seats, knowing there had been a shooting but knowing nothing more about the gunman.

"That was the most nerve-racking part," Mance said, describing the next 10 minutes as terrifying. Many students cried. More than half took out their cell phones and called their families or close friends.

University officials took students from the nursing building and nearby buildings and offered them counseling immediately. Services also will be offered in the coming weeks, they said. Classes for the more than 1,600 students in the medical, pharmacy, nursing and public health colleges were canceled for the day, and officials were still deciding how to handle them today.

Similar situation for Likins

UA President Peter Likins was in a similar situation before - he was president of Lehigh University in 1986 when the Pennsylvania school recorded its first campus murder. Overnight, he said, Lehigh was viewed as a dangerous place.

He urged people not to think of the UA as dangerous and emphasized, along with police, that the killings were not random. However, he said it's too early to say if they will prompt security changes on campus.

He also asked for compassion for the victims, their families and witnesses to the shootings.

"We grieve for those whom we have lost in this tragedy and for their loved ones," he said. "The days ahead will be unspeakably difficult. Our prayers are with them."

Star reporters Joseph Barrios, Carmen Duarte, Sarah Garrecht Gassen, Inger Sandal, Jennifer Sterba, Eric Swedlund, Mitch Tobin and Ric Volante contributed to this story.

The day after the shootings, the Arizona Daily Star received a manilla envelope containing a 22-page letter written by the shooter and mailed the same day as the shootings.

Killer sends 22-page letter to publisher

Mitch Tobin
Arizona Daily Star

As he prepared to kill his professors and himself, Robert Stewart Flores Jr. mailed a 22-page typewritten letter to Arizona Daily Star publisher Jane Amari that tried to justify Monday's rampage as "a reckoning" and "a settling of accounts."

"Greetings from the dead. You have received this letter after a rather horrendous event," began Flores' rambling yet impassioned suicide note.

"I understand that I have committed homicide and that I have broken the laws of our society," he wrote. "I will save the taxpayers money and take care of the problem."

The letter was accompanied by a packet that included his nursing license, college transcripts, military evaluations, recommendations from employers and two birthday cards - one religious, one crude.

In his letter, Flores sketched in painstaking detail his failed marriage, poor health and perceived slights from a nursing school he claimed treated male students as "tokens."

Flores' letter mentions two of his victims by name, and two other University of Arizona staffers who were not hurt.

Flores' desperate depression permeates the text, which closes with his wish for "a well deserved rest" in suicide.

"I find no joy in the future. Even food seems to hold nothing for me," he wrote.

The portrait of Flores that emerges from his letter is that of a man pushed to the breaking point by his recent failures at school and home, someone who felt only his Great Dane loved him unconditionally.

It appears Flores wrote the letter in two stages separated by several weeks, with all but the first two pages written on the eve of his massacre.

"Tonight is my last night on this planet so I guess I will finish this letter," he wrote.

The Star offered copies of Flores' package to the three victims' families, all of whom declined to comment on its contents Tuesday night. Cheryl McGaffic's husband did not accept the materials, while families of Barbara Monroe and Robin Rogers accepted them.

Star justifies publishing letter

The package, postmarked Monday, was delivered in a plain Manila envelope to the Star newsroom Tuesday evening.

Amari, reached on a business trip to Northern Arizona, had not read Flores' package but said his decision to send it was "clearly the act of a desperate mind."

"The fact that he chose me had nothing to do with me," Amari said. "I think if he, in his unbalanced last moments, wanted to have a platform for what he was doing, the thing to do would be to send it to the news media."

Star Managing Editor Bobbie Jo Buel said Flores' letter, however one-sided, still constituted news the Star should publish.

"A basic element of any news story is ‘why.' Why were Cheryl McGaffic, Barbara Monroe and Robin Rogers murdered?" Buel said.

But former Presiding Pima County Superior Court Judge Michael J. Brown opposed the publishing of any part of Flores' essay after he was read excerpts late Tuesday.

"There's no voice for the victims - it's ‘I've been done wrong and I'm going to get my 15 minutes of glory after I've killed these people and shot myself,' " Brown said.

"I wouldn't run it because I think it aggrandizes someone who committed some terrible crimes. Why should he get space in the paper to tell about his life when he murdered three people?" Brown asked.

Brown said he was also concerned because it is unknown how many people in the community are also on the edge. "My concern is, you get copycat people from a psychological standpoint who identify with that letter or part of its contents or think similar kinds of thoughts and think ‘Gee, I ought to do that,' " Brown said.

Shortly after receiving the package, Star editors called Tucson police, who took the documents as evidence and reviewed them Tuesday night. Police found no other suicide note from Flores, said Assistant Police Chief Robert Lehner.

The letter may shed light on whether Flores, who had five guns and some 200 rounds of ammunition, planned to kill others Monday, Lehner said.

"From the physical appearance of the scene it appears his plans were much more sinister than the end result, even though the end result was pretty sinister," Lehner said.

Police Chief Richard Miranda said analyzing the letter may help prevent future tragedies.

"Any information that we glean helps us be better able to understand and comprehend what is going on with these individuals."

Shooter mentions sniper

Flores recognized the world would soon be questioning his motives, and in his letter he sought to debunk some theories he expected people will float.

"To the sociologist, it wasn't the Maryland sniper," he wrote. "I have been thinking about this for awhile."

"To the psychiatrist," he wrote, "it's not about unresolved childhood issues. It is not about anger because I don't feel anything right now."

Addressing Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, he said the gun control debate isn't relevant. "A waiting period or owner registration would not have stopped me. I have a concealed carry permit but I have never brought a gun to the University, (until now)."

Although Flores said his rampage wasn't about revenge, in the end he tried to justify Monday's murders as just deserts for an uncaring university.

"The University is filled with too many people who are filled with hubris. They feel untouchable. Students are not given respect nor regard."

Flores' letter underscores a key personality trait that he shared with others who have committed similar crimes, said forensic psychologist Paul S.D. Berg. The trait: narcissism.

"Look how self-indulgent this is," Berg said Tuesday night, after passages of the letter were read to him. "Everything is about ‘me.' "

Flores' narcissism apparently motivated him to try to control how he is viewed posthumously, through the letter, Berg said.

"That's the height of a self-centered person who will not tolerate anything but total control over his destiny and all the information that comes out," Berg said.

But it's not that unusual among people who commit similar crimes, Berg said.

"They're afraid that if they do this kind of thing and remain alive, they will then be the object of hatred. They will be confronted with evidence of how bad they were."

Berg, who has worked mostly in California, is shifting his practice to Tucson. He is married to a College of Nursing faculty member.

Berg said Flores sounded bright in the letter and that he diagnosed himself, apparently correctly, with depression.

"There's a certain amount of insight even," Berg said. "Don't you wish this was the kind of thing he had brought to a therapist instead of to a publisher posthumously?"

Among the other details in Flores letter:

His childhood

Flores' letter began with a detailed accounting of his childhood. He complained of "marginal parents at best," including a police officer father who "wasn't especially physically or emotionally abusive. Just distant" and a mother who was "a classic enabler with low self-esteem."

A former boyhood friend, Henry Weiss of Rowland Heights, Calif., confirmed much that Flores wrote about his childhood. But Weiss questioned whether Flores comprehended why he murdered.

"It's like he's trying to combine everything into one last, giant problem to justify what he was going to do," Weiss said. "But in a rational life, we can't justify what he did. There's no reason to kill other people."

His marriage

Flores complained about his wife failing to get work after they moved to Tucson from San Angelo, Texas.

In describing a "stormy" divorce, Flores said his wife "stated all the politically correct buzz words" and falsely accused him of being "cruel and abusive." "She controlled the economics of the household for ten years so she could state that I kept her in economic bondage."

She could not be reached for comment.

His poor health

Flores wrote of a severe gastrointestinal illness suffered while serving with the military in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, then blamed it on being "in the chemical downwind path when engineers blew up munitions and bunkers that had nerve agents stored in them."

He also complained of back pain stemming from a head-on car crash that damaged one of his discs, saying he couldn't sleep more than five or six hours and has trouble with his sex life and depression because of the injury.

His grudges against UA

Throughout the letter, Flores railed against the UA: "After the fact, the University of Arizona will attempted (sic) to portray me as a misanthropic, marginal student who was undisciplined and could not follow instructions."

As soon as he entered the UA's nursing program, Flores said, he felt "being a male and nontraditional student, and (shudder!) assertive was not compatible with the instructors."

He said he complained to Pam Reed, assistant dean of students, about instructors, but got nowhere. Instead, Flores wrote, Reed confronted him with the Student Code of Conduct and said he was "interfering with the conduct of the class."

Reed's husband, reached Tuesday night, said his wife had no comment.

Flores then wrote about Robin Rogers, the professor he shot first in her second-floor office. Rogers was in charge of Flores' first pediatric rotation and presented him with "four unsigned statements" from hospital staff and patients.

The criticisms "were a shock to me," he wrote, but before he could defend himself "Ms. Rogers cut me off and stated that it didn't matter what I said as the statements in themselves showed a trend and that she was failing me in clinicals because of it."

Next, Flores wrote of another victim: Professor Barbara Monroe. After a four-page, convoluted recounting of his dealings with Monroe, filled with medical jargon, Flores said Monroe gave him a failing grade.

Flores said he told Monroe the failure would make it impossible for him to pay his student loans or child support and that he wouldn't be able to renew his nursing license.

"I would be back in the same state I was in when I got out of the service, no marketable skills. Ms. Monroe stated ‘It doesn't matter,' " Flores wrote, putting Monroe's comment in boldface. "The worse insult arrived when she stated that I was unsafe. That was the biggest insult."

Witnesses to Monday's shooting reported that Flores recounted that conversation with Monroe before shooting her to death, saying, "Well, it does matter to me" and "Are you ready to meet your maker?" before firing three shots.

UA President Peter Likins said he was saddened by the brief excepts he heard Tuesday night. But, he said, they also provided some insight into violent people.

"When people do horrible things, and this man did a horrible thing, we always ask ourselves after he fact, ‘What could have been on his mind? What could he have possibly been thinking? How could he justify such atrocities in his own mind or was he so deranged he wasn't thinking at all? You ask yourselves those questions," Likins said.

The letter also clearly reveals, Likins said, that Flores lacked the mental stability needed to be a nurse.

Flores' letter also suggests he was superstitious and was striving for dramatic literary effect. He skipped from page 12 to 14, omitting Number 13. And on the letter's first page he debated whether to revise the text or to "subscribe to the Jack Kerouac method and write as the thoughts arrive for a more honest work."

The final days, ‘regrets'

Flores cited his confrontation with Monroe as the "precipitating event" to his attack, then recounted his final days.

Last Friday, "when I was basically informed that I was washed up at the College of Nursing," Flores stopped by the IGA supermarket at East Speedway and North Swan Road. He witnessed a shoplifting in progress and helped a security guard subdue the thief, he wrote in a confusing section. "For my trouble," he wrote, "I received a rip in the only pair of good slacks that I had."

The IGA supermarket confirmed Flores' story about a shoplifter with a silver claw hammer but declined further comment.

That event, Flores wrote, "underscored the dichotomy of my situation" - he claimed he was caring for others but getting only grief in return.

In his final pages, Flores portrayed his life as hopeless. He couldn't pay his bills and had no time to socialize. "I am tired, tired and weary," he wrote. "I realize that I am depressed but even with treatment it will not change my future."

Although aware of his "hallmark pearls of depression," Flores said he couldn't follow one unnamed instructor's advice to seek medical help - "it cost money and I would get kicked out of the program if I was candid."

And, after referencing the flurry of lawsuits that followed the 1999 Columbine school shootings near Denver, Flores wrote that he didn't want to give "more ammunition" to litigants who might try to change the face of education at the UA.

In closing, Flores wrote of his "regrets" - his ex-wife estranged his children from him; he'd leave behind his dog, Bridgett.

Flores’ last message

The following is a list of the contents of a Manila envelope addressed to Arizona Daily Star Editor Jane Amari. The package was received Tuesday at the Star’s Park Avenue offices. All contents were handed over to police:

1. A 22-page, typed, double-spaced letter from Flores titled “Communication From the Dead,” with Page 13 skipped.

2. Studio portrait of Flores with his two children.

3. Birthday card.

4. A second birthday card.

5. Texas Board of Vocational Nurse Examiners certificate to “practice as a licensed vocational nurse” dated 1995.

6. U.S. Army Certificate of Appreciation from Fort Huachuca, for outstanding marksmanship, 1988.

7. Letter for recommendation from an employer, 1995.

8. Letter of recommendation from another employer, 1993.

9. Certificate of attendance from a diabetes outreach program, 1996.

10. Military evaluation reports, 1985.

11. Resignation letter from Flores to an employer, 1996.

12. Letter from the UA Health Sciences Center, dated Dec. 20, warning Flores that his grades might cause him to be disqualified from the program.

13. Certificate of attendance, pediatric advanced life-support provider course, 1996.

14. Transcripts from Howard college 1992-1995.

15. Transcripts from the University of Arizona evaluating Howard College credit, 1994.

Star reporters Carol Ann Alaimo, Paola Banchero, Carmen Duarte, Stephanie Innes, Patty Machelor, Inger Sandal, Tim Steller and Enric Volante contributed to this report.

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