Nowadays, Bob Geldof is remembered for putting together the Band Aid, Live Aid, and Live 8 concerts and writing the holiday classic “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Back in the 1970s, though, he was a founding member and the lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, a sextet out of Dún Laoghaire, Ireland, that had a string of Top 40 singles in the UK between ’77 and ’82 and was a one-hit wonder in the US with “I Don’t Like Mondays,” a disturbing four-minute track that made it onto Billboard’s Hot 100 in the summer of ’79.
The song was inspired by a shocking event that took place six months earlier, on Monday, January 29. Though mass shooters are almost always male, there have been a very small number of exceptions over the years, and one of those exceptions was sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer, who lived across the street from the Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California. Firing the Ruger 10/22 semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle her father had given her the previous Christmas, Brenda wounded eight children waiting for principal Burton Wragg to open the school’s gates for the day. Wragg himself was killed, as was custodian Mike Suchar, and a twenty-eight-year-old police officer who responded to the scene took a bullet in the neck but survived. After firing thirty rounds, Brenda returned to her house and hid there for several hours. A reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune reached her by phone and asked for an explanation of her horrifying actions, and the teenager responded, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”
She finally surrendered, supposedly after having been promised a Burger King meal by law-enforcement negotiators. She was tried as an adult, pled guilty to two counts of murder and assault with a deadly weapon, and was sentenced to life in prison, where she remains to this day.
As luck would have it—if luck’s the appropriate word to use in this context—January 29, 2024, would be a Monday, and in the months leading up to that date the dark corners of the Internet began to percolate with rumors that, around the country, disaffected teens were planning to “celebrate” the forty-fifth anniversary of Brenda Spencer’s rampage by re-enacting it at elementary schools in various states.
Cleveland Elementary in San Diego closed in 1983, ostensibly due to declining enrollment, but scattered across America are nine other K-5 schools named after Steven Grover Cleveland, the only person—so far, though who knows what 2024 might bring?—to be elected to two nonconsecutive terms as the president of the United States. Five of the nine are in California, plus one apiece in Iowa, Illinois, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. According to the online scuttlebutt, those schools in particular were the likeliest targets for carnage.
Which is where I come into the story. My name is Joshua Block, and I am a licensed private investigator in Erie, PA … and can we just stipulate that your response to my name is some variation on “you must be joshing me”? Believe it or not, I have heard that line before. Often.
Anyway, a few days after New Year’s I got a call from Elena Ruiz, the principal of Grover Cleveland Elementary on West 38th Street, about three miles south of Presque Isle State Park and the lake. Could I, she wondered, come and talk with her about a possible job?
Given how easy the ‘Net has made it to run background checks on prospective employees and match.com dates—which, despite what you have read in the works of the Messrs. Hammett and Chandler, used to make up about fifty percent of a PI’s caseload, the other half being scummy divorce work—I practically drooled at the prospect of a paying gig, and I made it from my second-floor walk-up office on West 8th to the school in about nine minutes.
Mrs. Ruiz turned out to be a no-nonsense disciplinarian who might have clocked in anywhere from her late forties to her early sixties, with a wrestler’s forearms and her graying hair pulled back in a bun you could have bounced a dime off. I expect the kids found her terrifying, and I’ll admit that even I wouldn’t have liked to bump into her in a dark alley.