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.”
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.
“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.
“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.