My conversations with a mass murderer

December 15, 2012

His Wikipedia entry identifies him as a spree killer.

I knew him as Kip Kinkle.

And I didn’t really know him. Not in person anyway.

He was a digital impression on my computer screen. A flashing cursor and a burning list of unanswered questions.

I was a 27-year-old student at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon.

And so was Kip Kinkle.

The only difference is he was serving a 111-year-sentence at MacLaren Correctional Facility for murdering his parents and for killing two students at Thurston High School in Eugene and wounding 24 others.

I first noticed his name in the roster of an online writing class. I no longer remember which class. But I still remember thinking that there could not possibly be two people named Kip Kinkle in Oregon.

Turns out there wasn’t. Kinkle was pursuing his GED by taking online courses through the community college.

I had just joined the community college newspaper staff, and I asked my advisor for some advice about approaching Kinkle for an interview.

Kinkle had been in the youth holding facilty for a few years at this point, and like mass shootings tend to do, the Thurston High shooting had faded from public consciousness by this time.

Here I was taking an online course with one of the more infamous mass murderers in recent history, and all I wanted to do was ask him what it was like to sit in prison and think about having killed his parents and the students at his former school.

A little less than a year after Kinkle went on his shooting spree, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado and killed 12 students and a teacher while injuring 27 others before taking their own lives.

And that was the difference. And that remains the difference. Kinkle was disarmed by students and arrested by the police.

One of the most gut-wrenching aspects of the recent spate of mass killings has been the fact that the perpetrators perished, often in a self-inflicted way, leaving the families of victims, law enforcement and the general public to anguish in a black hole of mystery and speculation.
I spent three months chatting with Kip Kinkle about writing stories. We discussed characters, plots and settings. But we never discussed Thurston.

My college advisor, a wonderful editor, friend and author by the name of Bill Florence, advised me not to try to pursue Kinkle as a story subject. Whether Bill knew that I was way too green to try to tackle such a high-profile subject or that such answers, even if they are given, will never be enough to bring the dead back to life or undo the pain and suffering, I don’t know.

What I do know is that on a day like Friday, a day in which so many lives were lost and so many questions go unanswered, I go back in my mind to a computer screen and a flashing cursor on a white background.

And I write this: “Kip, What happened? Where did we as a community screw up in all of this? Is there anything we could have done to prevent this?

I will never know, because my chats with a mass murderer never went beyond the rudimentaries of creative writing. I never gleaned a single detail from Kinkle.

I have no evidence of our correspondence, but everytime I hear the term school shooting, mass shooting or killing spree, I remember those moments and the advice of my advisors, and I think about my online chats with a mass murderer, and I know that answers are no more forthcoming from the living than they are from the dead. 

is the digital content editor at WBEZ. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook