In May of 1988, Laurie Wasserman-Dann, a 30 year old woman from a well-to-do Chicago family, shot six students at the Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Winnetka, Illinois, killing eight year old Nicholas Corwin and critically injuring five others.
The Hubbard Woods shooting was the most highly publicized school shooting since the I Don’t Like Mondays school shooting in San Diego. In that 1979 shooting, a 16 year old girl, Brenda Spencer, shot and injured eight children and a police officer at an elementary school. She killed two adults, a janitor and the school principal. The shooting was the subject of the Boomtown Rats song, I Don’t Like Mondays. The title was based on Spencer’s alleged reason for the shooting. When a reporter asked her why she did it, she replied, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”
Laurie was an introverted girl, but had an uneventful childhood. Laurie was an awkward child, but her parents had the money to make her beautiful. Her parents paid to have her ears pinned while she was in elementary school, and later paid for a nose job.
After a few unsuccessful attempts earning a college degree, she met Russell Dann, an insurance executive, at a restaurant where she worked as a waitress. They got married, but the honeymoon was short-lived. Her behavior became more erratic. She stopped going out in public with her husband, sat around all day watching TV, and wouldn’t cook or do housework. After four years of marriage, the couple divorced.
After her marriage to Russell unraveled, Laurie took the $125,000 settlement and spent her time harassing Dann, various exes, and people in the neighborhood. She started living with her parents again.
In 1985, she stabbed Dann in his sleep with an ice pick. The ice pick missed his heart by an inch. The store clerk identified Laurie as the person who bought the ice pick. Laurie passed polygraph tests, however, and charges against her were dropped.
The FBI put her under surveillance after she made death threats to an ex-flame, but that didn’t stop her psychotic behavior. Laurie got baby-sitting jobs around her parent’s neighborhood in 1987. She didn’t do anything to harm the kids, but parents would come home to find that Laurie had slashed leather sofas or damaged other property. Still, she was hired for new baby-sitting jobs.
She moved into dorm room on the Northwestern campus in the summer, although she wasn’t a student. She stuffed student mailboxes with trash and filled her room with raw meat. Students and the building manager complained, and her father convinced her to come back home.
Laurie’s downward spiral went out-of-control in 1988. Now living in a student residence at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she walked around the halls naked, and filled her room with garbage and rotting meat. Finally, a building manager found her lying naked in a fetal position on a pile of garbage in the dorm’s trash room. Although police were called, she was able to convince them that she was all right.
Now, if that incident didn’t convince the police (and her parents) that she needed inpatient care what would? This blatant cry for help, if properly handled, could have prevented the carnage that followed. Still, Laurie’s parents got one more chance to get her the help she needed.
After more death threats to her doctor ex-boyfriend, officials in Arizona contacted the FBI. The FBI then contacted Madison police and warned them that Laurie might have a gun. The local police went to the Wassermans’ home. Laurie’s father didn’t want to hand over the gun, saying she needed it for protection against her ex-husband. If he had surrendered the gun, it would have at least given the authorities more time to watch her and potentially stop the bloodshed.
Two days before the school shooting,the Arizona doctor told the U.S. District Attorney in Arizona to delay an indictment for threatening phone calls Dann had made to him. He was concerned about his family’s safety.
The Day of the Shooting
On May 20, 1988, the day of the shooting, Laurie delivered poisoned Rice Krispie treats and poisoned juice boxes at homes and frat houses. On May 22, 1988, Laurie drove to the home of the Rushes, former babysitting clients, to take their sons on one more outing before the family moved. She gave the boys tainted milk, but it tasted so bad they spit it out. She set a small fire at one school, and was chased away from a second school by an employee. She returned the boys to their home and set a small fire on the stairs. The family escaped.
The rampage continued with a shooting at the Hubbard Woods Elementary School. Laurie shot a boy in the stomach in a restroom before killing eight-year old Nicolas Corwin and wounding five other children in a classroom. She fled the school and ended up holding 20 year old Phillip Andrew and his family hostage.
Laurie used the excuse that she had been raped and had just shot her attacker. She held them for six hours, until she phoned her mother who urged her to turn herself in. Phillip and his family began to leave (Laurie had had allowed this, but Philip wrestled the gun away from Laurie and she shot him the chest.)
Laurie then killed herself in an upstairs bedroom in the Andrews’ home.
Seven people were shot, and a young boy died. No one died from the poisoned treats or drinks, although a college student and one family pet became sick. (Both quickly recovered.)
The Book and Made for TV Movie
The Laurie Dann case spawned a non-fiction book and made for TV movie, like many major crimes of the era.
The made-for TV movie Murder of Innocence starred Valerie Bertinelli in a rare dramatic role. I was surprised to see how well Valerie handled the material, since I’d never seen her act in anything other than One Day at a Time or glitzy TV movies/mini-series (I’ll Take Manhattan, etc.).
Valerie was a little too attractive to play Laurie Dann, she but she got all the mannerisms of a mentally ill individual down, from the subtle to the bizarre.
Laurie was shown to be indecisive and nervous at the beginning of her relationship with Russell Dann, but those problems are common and easily remedied for most people with proper behavioral therapy.
In an early scene at a picnic, Laurie says she doesn’t know what she wants to eat and says she’ll have whatever Russell is having. At their wedding reception, she freezes, and can’t even read a prepared statement in front of the guests.
Russell Dann coached Bertinelli for the role, which would explain why Laurie’s descent into violence was so detailed and believable.
Could Involuntary Commitment Have Prevented This Tragedy?
The shooting raised questions about committing mentally ill people without their consent. The debate still rages today, with no clear-cut answer. Even when authorities involuntary commit someone, there’s always room for error.
One problem seems to be that the people in charge of deciding who to institutionalize invariably make the wrong decision (or make the right one too late.) Sending non-violent mentally ill people to an institution and letting ones with a violent history go free, for whatever reason (family connections, clerical errors, emotional manipulation, etc.) is certainly a possibility in this system.
Russell Dann knew that Laurie had stabbed him, but the police never charged her for the reasons mentioned above.
Outsiders, the babysitters’ families, the people in the dorms, the police, the FBI, her ex-husband and boyfriends’ and their families had evidence that she was a danger to herself and others. But nothing became of these complaints.
I always found it odd that Laurie was hired as a babysitter. Back in the day, neighbors always gossiped about weirdos and stayed away from them, especially in a well-heeled community. However, there was no internet or social media then, so the gossip couldn’t travel too far.
No one listened to Russell Dann, who probably tried to help her more than anyone, because she was his ex-wife. Everyone’s ex-wife is crazy, right? So the police may not have pursued the case seriously enough. Laurie’s parents were in Florida a lot, and didn’t seem to care that she was on her own most of the time.
A psychiatrist in Madison wanted to institutionalize her, but her parents refused to listen to him. Laurie went to several doctors, and there appeared to be no communication between them. Therefore, she may have received prescriptions for contraindicated drugs. This only made her condition worse.
The book, Murder of Innocence, was originally published in 1990, and the made for TV movie was released in 1993. You don’t hear about this case anymore, except for the occasional podcast or true crime blog. At the time it happened, this type of crime was almost incomprehensible because it involved a young woman killing children in a school.
But the case was also unusual because of all the missed opportunities to prevent the tragedy. The police, the doctors, Laurie’s parents, college security, and others all saw red flags for years. Yet she was left free to do whatever she wanted.
A legal podcast from the Chicago Bar Association featured an interview with Murder of Innocence author Eric Zorn, and raised many excellent points. Would the police have taken Laurie’s violent behavior more seriously if she had been a man?
The book highlights time and time again, the parents’ refusal to institutionalize Laurie. Even though she was too much for them to handle, they responded by sweeping problems under the rug. Their ongoing denials allowed Laurie’s illness to fester until it exploded.
A wealthy or upper middle class family can use their money, not only for medical and psychiatric help, but to move the adult child around from place to place after their illness has caused problems with a particular neighborhood or school. We see this in the Dann case, but also with the cases of other mass shooters, such as the Sandy Hook shooter, who was protected by a doting mother.
A poor or lower middle class family can’t financially support, or “hide” a child with a severe mental illness. The child may be kicked out of the home to live on the streets, or sent to a group home or other public program.
I lived with a mentally ill roommate and it was frightening – and she was on medication. (As far as I knew she did take her medication as prescribed.) It was hard to tell if the medication made her better or worse.
Eventually, neighbors and friends described the situation as “Single White Female.” The movie was released a few years before I unwittingly entered this situation, and there were a few life imitates art scenarios. One evening, I was walking home from the subway, and I swear I saw my roommate directly across the street from me, wearing an outfit that looked exactly like mine.
I’m not sure what happened when I got home – I don’t remember if she was there or not, but I was freaked out for the rest of the time we were roommates. After she moved out, I choose the most sedate and conservative-looking girl I could find as my next roommate.
Of course, it’s one thing if a person is a little weird or has depression or anxiety, but stalking or violent behavior isn’t something to be ignored. The Hubbard Woods school shooting brought up so many questions in 1988 – about involuntarily committing the mentally ill, gun control, and protecting schoolchildren.
That was almost 32 years ago, and these questions still remain. School shootings aren’t an anomaly anymore, they’re practically a weekly occurrence. Many times, these shootings don’t even merit a headline on many websites. And there are more mentally ill people than ever who don’t get the help they need, many of them living on the streets in big cities. People still argue about gun control, but it’s easier than ever for criminals and people with mental problems to buy guns.
Phil Andrew grew up to be an FBI agent and currently heads the anti-violence program for the Chicago Catholic Church.
R.I.P Nick Corwin
A park in Winnetka was renamed for Nicholas Corwin in late 1988.