The Hubbard Woods School Shooting: The Bizarre and Tragic Life of Laurie Dann

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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 awkward child, but her parents had the money to make her beautiful. They 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.

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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.)

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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?

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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.

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The Disappearance of Billy DeSousa

 

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While researching the Grimes sisters story, I discovered a crime that hit even closer to home. Ten-year old Billy DeSousa attended a carnival in the parking lot of the Scottsdale Shopping Center in Chicago in June 1972. He didn’t return home, and was never seen again.  Billy was a student at a Catholic grammar school I once attended, and my family probably attended the same carnival. A massive search ensued for weeks after the carnival, but the police were unable to find Billy.

According to several news sources, the boy’s skeleton was finally found in 1975 in a tree hollow in Palos or Orland Park. For all I know, that tree could have been located near the property where someone I know now lives. Although some people surmised that the boy had been one of Gacy’s early victims, the serial killer Charles E. Pierce confessed to the murder shortly before he died. William “Freight Train” Guatney, a carnival worker in that area in the early 1970s, was another suspect, but he was never charged. Like many similar cases in the 1960s and 1970s, it was never officially solved.

According to the February 5, 1975 issue of a local newspaper:

“Two and one-half years of waiting by Donald and Isabelle DeSousa came to an end this week when the body of their 10-year-old son, Billy, was found in a remote section of forest preserve near Palos Park.

The remains were skeletal and he was identified by clothing and possessions, including a key which opened Billy’s bike lock.”

In those days, no one talked about the few crimes that occurred in the area. Neighbors didn’t leave flowers, candles, and stuffed animals at the family’s home like they do today. The disappearance and discovery of Billy’s remains weren’t mentioned in the community at all, except by parents behind closed doors. I found a message board post from a classmate of Billy’s who stated that the nuns at the Catholic grammar school Billy attended never mentioned anything about the disappearance.

Everyone in the community knew each other, although some neighbors were friendlier than others. Shop owners, teachers, policemen, and firemen lived in the same neighborhood. There was no apparent crime or danger – no street gangs, graffiti, or any visible crime, not even litter or an unmowed lawn. Children played outside unsupervised until dinnertime. In the summers, they played outside at night until the streetlights came on without fear of foul play.

That’s why Billy’s disappearance came as a shock. Such a crime was incomprehensible, and the adults didn’t know how to process the reality of it or address it.

If a kid asked why their classmate hadn’t been in school, it seemed like the kind of situation where the adult would say, “He transferred to another school” or “Mind your own business.” Even marginally unpleasant things weren’t addressed between adults, much less to children, at that time, in that neighborhood. (I think that’s still the attitude in many Midwestern bedroom communities today.)

Rest in peace, Billy DeSousa.

Here is a link to a message board discussion about the case on Websleuths.

Teen Girls Who Murdered Their Parents (1970s) – Patty Columbo

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Before the Gacy Murders and after the Speck Murders, the murders of Frank, Mary and Michael Columbo shocked the Chicago area. The Elk Grove Village, Il. police entered the family’s home on May 7, 1976 to find auto parts salesman Frank Columbo, his wife Mary, and their 13-year old son Michael brutally murdered.

Frank had been shot and his skull was crushed with a lamp. Mary had been shot and had her throat slit. Michael had almost a hundred stab wounds.

After ruling out robbery or a Mafia hit, the police arrested Patty Columbo, Frank and Mary’s 19 year old daughter and Michael’s sister. The cops arrested her lover, Frank DeLuca, a few months later.

She met Frank DeLuca, a married man with five kids, when she was in high school and he was in his late 30s. She soon began working at the cosmetics counter in the same Walgreens where he worked as a pharmacist. They carried on a seedy affair for a few years. (DeLuca was a swinger and even subscribed to a swinger’s lifestyle magazine.) At one point, Patty lived with the Delucas and had sex with him while his wife and kids were frolicking in the backyard.

She showed her classmates photos of her having sex with DeLuca’s dog. What the hell was the deal with girls and dogs in the ‘70s? Linda Lovelace did a “loop” (short film) with a dog, and half the sleazy paperbacks in the back section of downtown Chicago  bookstores were about Nazi girls and German Shepards.

Patty had amassed a few non-sexual offenses as well. She racked up thousands of dollars in charges on stolen credit cards, and her father paid them off for her. Eventually, Frank Columbo paid for an apartment for Patty. When he found out DeLuca had moved in with her, he confronted the couple in a parking lot. Frank knocked out a few of DeLuca’s teeth with the butt end of a rifle.

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Photo of Columbo home via Murderpedia.com

Shortly after this incident, Patty and DeLuca decided to off her family for her inheritance money. ( Her parents had written her out of their wills by this time, unbeknownst to Patty.) She hired some “hit men” at a bar, but they backed out of the deal, after they had sex with her and absconded with $2,000.

Patty and DeLuca snuck into the home and shot Frank and Mary. Patty stabbed her brother so many times with a scissors the first police on the scene thought he has the measles. Patty and DeLuca turned the thermostat to almost 100 degrees to make the bodies decompose faster.

The cops first entered the house to question Frank Columbo when they found his car in a bad neighborhood on the West Side. Patty and DeLuca had taken Frank’s car and deposited it in a bad neighborhood to make it look like a street gang had committed the crime.

The police were suspicious of Patty from the start, as she came to the police station with theories about who killed her family, instead of crying or asking questions about what happened. The cops sent a good-looking officer to the services to possibly ensnare the oversexed Patty and get the truth out of her. As expected, she flirted with the cop and feigned grief while throwing herself at the coffins.

A friend told police about the hit men Patty had contacted, and a few of DeLuca’s employees told investigators that they’d seen him burning bloody clothes the day after the murder. He threatened their families to keep them quiet.

Eight days after the murders, Patty was charged with three courts of first degree murder. (DeLuca wasn’t charged until a few months later.)

By the summer of 1977, they were convicted and sentenced to several life sentences. Patty and DeLuca went to separate prisons, and have had no contact since the trial.

DeLuca and Columbo weren’t finished with criminal activities even after going to jail.
DeLuca threatened to have certain witnesses killed by fellow prisoners while he was in jail awaiting trial. Columbo ran a prostitution ring in the Dwight Correctional Center in the ‘80s, and pimped out prisoners to guards. Since then, she’s been a model prisoner, and has earned a Bachelor’s degree.

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Frank DeLuca – Photo via Daily Herald.com

DeLuca and Columbo are still incarcerated as of 2019.

When Murder in the Suburbs Was a New Thing

The Columbos lived in a middle-class bedroom community, and the neighbors weren’t forthcoming with any information about the family or the murders. Petty crime was unheard of in the ‘burbs in 1976, much less parricide. Maybe today, people are willing to go viral and bask in the infamy of a local crime, but back then, most people didn’t want anything to do with such heinous acts.

My girlfriends and I were a few years younger than Patty, and we lived in the same sort of Chicago-area bedroom community, with Old-World Italian, Irish, or Polish parents. Our neighborhoods were bereft of predatory married men. We played our Led Zeppelin albums too loud and smoked pot behind the bleachers, but that was the extent of our sleazy rebellion against Mom and Dad. I don’t think most of us lost our virginity until the summer after high school. Yep, we were raised Catholic and stuck to it, at least until we graduated.

The story of Patty Columbo may just as well have occurred in Beverly Hills or Timbuktu, not in a nearby cookie-cutter suburb. We all worked at stores or restaurants, and couldn’t believe someone who worked at a Walgreens (just like some of us did) could commit murder. It all seemed so unreal.

While the investigation and trial were covered extensively by local media, we weren’t very interested in the salacious details, and concentrated instead on our albums and teen magazines. You can’t find much about the killings online today, and the only documentary I could find was on an episode of Investigation Discovery’s Deadly Women.  I found a few podcasts with mentions of the case, but they weren’t very in-depth.

Two books about the murders were published in the 1990s. (Both books are long out-of-print.)

Love’s Blood by Clark Howard (1994) traces the story from Patty’s point of view. She tells the author that she was allegedly abused by a friend of the family in his candy truck as a child. The well-written book draws you in from the first paragraph about the Columbos’ poodle guarding Mary Columbo’s body before the police uncover the murders. As the book progress, Clark interviews Columbo, and it becomes apparent that the author is somewhat infatuated with his subject.

Bonnie Remsberg’s Mom, Dad, Mike and Pattie (1992) has none of the sensationalism of Clark’s book. The book focuses more on the victims, the dynamics between family members during their lives, and the police investigation.

A few years after the Columbo murders, the police arrested John Gacy, with the excavation of his victims’ bodies covered on live TV. We couldn’t ignore the horror hidden away in the suburbs anymore, even if we changed the TV station. It was there, right in front of  us, a precursor to 24/7 true crime on the internet and cable TV.

P.S. – A drawing of Columbo (and Marlene Olive, a teen murderer turned hooker from CA) was featured in this art exhibit.

More photos from the Columbo case are posted at DailyHerald.com

1969 News Footage – Hippie Cult Arrested in Connection with Tate Murder

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I was nine years old in August 1969 when the Tate-LaBianca murders were committed, and I have a vague recollection of hearing a radio news story about it at the time. In December ’69, I watched a TV newscast about a “hippie cult” arrested in the desert. I’d always thought of hippies as these colorful, fun-loving figures, and I dressed like a miniature hippie in bright neon-colored clothes, headbands, and Nehru-collared dresses.

But the black and white news clip under this text shows a barren, grey desert, a scary, washed-out hippie girl and talk about murder. It frightened me and the barren desert  looked more like Mars than the promised land of California.

In October 1969, the Weathermen (the militant faction of the Students for a Democratic Society) organized the Days of Rage, a series of protests in downtown Chicago. They smashed windows and vandalized buildings. I asked my Dad “Are they gonna stay downtown, or are they going to come to our neighborhood?” That was the first time I’d been scared of hippies.

This talk about a hippie cult in California was so far removed from my suburban Chicago home I didn’t feel threatened, just fascinated and scared in a middle-of-the-road kind of way. Then the trial began, and I was hooked. I tuned into the news every night and saved newspaper clippings about the trial. I couldn’t believe the girls in this cult were the same age as some of my babysitters, neighbors, and teachers.

The girls were scary enough, but Charlie, well, I couldn’t even look at him.