Chelsea school shooter: Gun control won’t help

CARSON CITY -- Stephen Leith avoids newspapers, television and anything else that might tell him what’s going on outside these prison walls, anything that might remind him of why he’s here.

Sometimes he can’t avoid it, as when his cellmate has a TV on. That’s how he heard about the mass shootings of 20 little kids one day this past December somewhere out East. “I remember weeping when I saw those children,” he says. The names “Newtown” and “Sandy Hook” didn’t stick in his memory. What did was another shooting in another school on another December day 19 years earlier.

“My thoughts, of course, went back to 1993 and reminded me of the fact that I did that,” he says. “I caused that grief. I took a life.”

Grievance meeting leads to tragedy

Leith, who will turn 59 in May, was a science teacher at Chelsea High School near Ann Arbor when he fatally shot Superintendent Joseph Piasecki and wounded Principal Ron Mead and teacher Phil Jones. He had been reprimanded for making inappropriate remarks about a female student, and responded by filing a grievance.

At a Dec. 16, 1993, meeting in Piasecki’s office to discuss the grievance, Leith became angry and stormed out, carrying a copy of his personnel file.

“My goal was to go home and cool off,” he says.

He did go home; he didn’t cool off.

At his home, a haven he had built on 10 acres near Chelsea, he kept firearms he had begun collecting in 1986. The more guns he amassed, the more he wanted. By the day of his grievance meeting, his collection had grown to four handguns and seven long guns, including an AK-47 assault rifle he had bought because “I figured at one time they would not be allowed to be sold, and I wanted one in my collection.”

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In his kitchen, he glanced at his personnel file, and his anger grew.

“I went into this rage,” Leith says. “All I remember doing is just screaming at the top of my lungs.”

He grabbed his newest gun -- a 9-mm Browning, semi-automatic handgun he kept under his bed for protection -- and sped back to the school.

“It was like I was in a trance,” Leith says. He recalls repeating three phrases: “He has no right to do this to me. Gotta stop the pain. Gotta keep going.”

In his office, Piasecki was still meeting with Mead and Jones, a teacher and union officer there to represent Leith. As Leith opened the door, he faced Piasecki across a desk. Mead, on Leith’s right, and Jones, on his left, sat with their backs to him.

Leith pulled the gun from his pocket and fired several shots at Piasecki, and then, as Mead dove for cover, fired at him, striking him in the left leg, then at Jones, grazing his abdomen. Leith insists he did not knowingly shoot Mead or Jones – “my best friend” – but fired when he saw movement.

When he stopped firing, “it was like I was standing there looking at this mess,” he says. “I went into something like a convulsion. After I came out of the convulsion, I began to realize the enormity of what I’d done.”

That’s when his wife, Alice, an English teacher, appeared at the door. He pointed the gun at her. “Steve, give me the gun,” she said. He doesn’t recall if he did, or if he placed it on a secretary’s desk, as others recalled.

Minutes later, the police found him in his classroom grading papers. “I had to get them done for the next day,” he now explains.

‘How did I ever end up like this?’

Leith accepts responsibility for killing Piasecki and wounding the other two. But he insists that, although he was carrying a gun, he didn’t intend to shoot them. He had been seeing a psychiatrist for depression and was taking an antidepressant, which he believes clouded his judgment and sent him into a dreamlike state.

Whether that’s true or not, Leith had the presence of mind during the shootings to drop one clip and reload with another. What is beyond dispute is that he carried two things that proved deadly: an uncontrollable rage and a gun.

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“Here I was a respected science teacher,” he says. “How did I ever end up like this? I had everything going for me.”

He receives few visitors these days at the Carson City Correctional Facility. His wife died of cancer almost two years to the day after the shootings. They had no children. Most days, he rises at 5:30 a.m., showers, meditates and prays until breakfast at 7. He walks in the prison yard and then tutors other inmates from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. He writes Christian songs, plays guitar and piano and leads music during Sunday services.

As a convicted first-degree murderer, Leith cannot be paroled. His only way out is in the unlikely event of a governor’s commutation, or, more likely, death.

Murderer links violence to morals

He gives little thought – none, really – to the debate over gun control swirling outside these walls.

“It’s a hard question to answer,” he says. “My point of view is you can go ahead and control anything, and it’s not going to stop this stuff from happening. These are man-made efforts to try to correct what can’t be corrected.”

As for the proposed universal background checks on anyone wanting to buy a gun, “I wouldn’t care if there was a background check on me. I was a law-abiding citizen,” Leith says without a trace of irony.

What about arming teachers and other school employees? He pauses several seconds and rubs his hands over his eyes.

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“You’re asking me to think about things I’ve never thought of before,” he says. “I guess I’m a little hesitant, unless those persons are trained in using a firearm and deciding wisely when to use it.”

The root cause of violence, he believes, is a decline of morals. He points to abortion, homosexuality and the banning of prayer in public schools. His own life, he concedes, was on a downward spiral until, while awaiting trial in the Washtenaw County jail, he became a follower of Christ.

“If I had been focused on Christ, this would not have happened,” he says. “I would say the greater solution is not the controlling of guns. It’s getting people turning back to their God.”

He agreed to talk now, Leith says, because “I’m hoping something that I said will help prevent the loss of life like in the incident that I did. I have no agenda with the exception of that. If it will make a difference, if it will save some lives, then that’s why I’m doing it.”

Pat Shellenbarger is a freelance writer based in West Michigan. He previously was a reporter and editor at the Detroit News, the St. Petersburg Times and the Grand Rapids Press.

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Joe Dohm
Thu, 04/11/2013 - 9:23am
The headline was completely misleading. This article had almost nothing to do with Leith's position on gun control.
Gene Markel
Thu, 04/11/2013 - 9:38am
Can some one show where the word FIREARM appears in the Second Amendment ?
Thu, 04/11/2013 - 10:05am
"Gun control wont help" That is another pessimistic view and comment. It reminds of my son when he was a little boy. I was about to give him a spanking when he stopped me when he said " Go ahead, it wont do any good" It's pathjetic that those with pessimistic attitudes have very little if any feeling s for human life. Go ask family members who lost a loved one do to gun violence. The object of gun control is not to take away all the weapons as the 2nd amendment cheerleaders keep crying about but to reduce the risks involved
Thu, 04/11/2013 - 11:16am
Isn't this fellow a perfect argument for gun monitoring? He can't even say why he did it, he was in a trance-like state, guns were readily available, etc. I'd say he is a prime example of why guns need to be monitored.
peter spriggs
Wed, 05/21/2014 - 3:00am
I agree, Karla. This guy happens to be my ex wifes brother. He was a ticking timebomb for many reasons not discussed. I believe the Detroit Free Press did a 5 day expose on this guy. Long jail interviews. Find it and take a look. Crazy read, and family. Wish I could say exactly how to find those interviews, but I'm just typing this spontaniously and I'm a little lazy right now.
Jonathan Ramlow
Thu, 04/11/2013 - 12:09pm
I would be very interested in hearing Mr. Leith's account of how abortion, homosexuality, and banning of required prayer in schools contributed to his accumulation of guns and ammunition, to his escalating rage while reading his personnel report, and to his violent attack on those he blamed for his predicament. We already know that some persons holding extremely hostile and usually religion-based attitudes towards the above are just as capable of violent and murderous rage as Mr. Leith. It's likely that we will never have any evidence to support the inference that Mr. Leith's religious conversion has forever immunized him against rage and violent intent. We can, however, reasonably infer that keeping guns out of his hands will prevent him from acting on his rage and carrying out any violent intentions in so effectively murderous a way., in or out of prison. In any event, Mr. Leith's story is that of a single killer whose opinions are of questionable value with respect to the larger issue of gun violence. They are counterfactual for the most part and possibly self-serving. His thinking amounts to a kind of therapeutic nihillism with regard to public policy. Therapeutic nihilism was thoroughly discredited in medicine and public health early in the 20th century, and progress in such areas as civil rights and the social safety net are evidence against the nihilistic view in public policy. The truth about gun control is that we don't yet know if it works or not because we haven't really tried it, just as social security and medicare were of uncertain value (and highly controversial) before they were tried. Of course, most progress in social policy and social relations is accompanied by unintended consequences (e.g. the immense current cost of the social safety net), but that is no argument against taking action to diminish a social evil, e.g. gun violence, using whatever methods are immediately available and likely to be somewhat helpful, until more comprehensive remedies can be developed.
Thu, 04/11/2013 - 3:33pm
Uh huh. Christianity. That's the ticket. I think it is sad to give this person a platform.
Joe Gillis
Thu, 04/11/2013 - 5:39pm
What an absolute load of crap. "The root cause of violence, he believes, is a decline of morals. He points to abortion, homosexuality and the banning of prayer in public schools." Yeah, as though abortion, homosexuality, and prayer-free public schools are somehow NEW, and THAT'S why things seem to be getting worse? Get a clue. Things have always been lousy. But with the internet, 24/7 news, social media, etc., etc., we just know about EVERYTHING now. Every. Terrible. Thing. Common-sense gun control isn't about preventing ALL massacres or accidents; it's about minimizing the number and scope of them. We don't expect speed limits to prevent all auto accidents; we don't expect seat-belts to prevent all auto-accident deaths. But they are there for a reason, and most reasonable people understand and accept that. Common-sense gun control also isn't about taking people's guns away from them or even preventing the law-abiding from purchasing MORE guns. If the NRA or people's own paranoia about the world, about the U.S. government, about Armageddon, about gay people or atheists or gay atheists or WHATEVER it is that's DRIVING that paranoia is somehow suggesting otherwise, then the problem resides with them. It resides with that paranoia. Me, I'm not paranoid; I'm just scared. Scared of the paranoid, UNreasonable people. And yes, scared of the gun nuts. So... maybe I should buy a gun to protect myself. And maybe that was their genius plan all along....
Thu, 04/11/2013 - 7:13pm
The first step to gun removal is to find out where all of the guns are. Then they eventually take them away! Yes, it is tragic when the violence occurs.... But, let's ask the citizens in Chicago how gun control is working for them there! You are all fools to trust this government enough to allow them this much power..... Fools.
Joe Gillis
Fri, 04/12/2013 - 5:46pm
M D, you are a paranoid, ignorant fool. I pity you. (But good to see that you have an internet connection in your bunker/panic room!)
J A Reyes
Thu, 04/11/2013 - 7:20pm
This story is typical of what is wrong with Americans--the idea that they can resolve their problems by using a gun. His conscious, if he truly has one, should burn with the memory of what he did every day. Of killing people, because something didn't go his way. That anyone should ever think that a problem that s/he may have with a supervisor, a co-worker, a neighbor, or anyone can be solved with a gun is stupid and smacks of stories of the Old West, which is the way people resolved their problems back in the day. Guns exacerbate problems, they do not resolve them. And yes, we need gun control and we need to make gun collectors responsible for their gun collections and how their guns are used.
Thomas Schmidt
Fri, 04/12/2013 - 2:26pm
"He had been seeing a psychiatrist for depression and was taking an antidepressant, which he believes clouded his judgment and sent him into a dreamlike state." This one of the red flags . Ideally that could have been reported to authorities and his firearms taken at least until his treatment was over. Don't let mentally unstable people get guns and don't let them keep them if they already have them.
Fri, 04/12/2013 - 7:42pm
All the people talking about gun control from the violence from guns maybe u should stop driving your car because people kill others from driving cars drunk o wait u probably think thats different but really its not how about knifes the same time as the school shooting a man stabbed alot of people but u still dont say we need knife control or even mention anything about the stabbings
peter spriggs
Mon, 04/28/2014 - 12:18pm
I know Steven Leith and his family, and guns had very little to do with why Steven did what he did. Why is he even being interviewed is beyond me. This article clearly is NOT about gun control. Why would you give this guy a forum....
Wed, 06/18/2014 - 1:16am
I have read all comments and I understand why you all feel how you do and I agree what he did was wrong. However, he was my teacher and he encouraged me to expand my knowledge of science. Without his coaching and AP credits I may not have made it into a top college which allowed me to live the happy and fulfilled life I am now living. He is where he should be but don't forget he is human and he made positive contributions to a lot of his students. He was a very special and good teacher.
Thu, 05/05/2016 - 11:04am
Lisa, you are wise to not let his wrong actions degrade all the good that he did. People make mistakes...large and is that choice that is bad/wrong, not everything he ever did or affected.
Wed, 12/23/2015 - 5:18pm
Steven Leith is a lunatic. I can say so because I knew him. I still live in Chelsea. N Lisa, your life is good because of YOU not anything anyone else does or says. Hopefully it stays that way.
Wed, 05/02/2018 - 10:16am

This man took no responsibility for his actions in this interview, and blames medication AND....uh, gay people? He claims to have found Christ but he doesn't seem to be acting like him in any way. I don't think he's learned a thing in the last 25 years.