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York County 14-year-old shoots principal, turns gun on himself

School shooting takes place in cafeteria packed with kids

Friday, April 25, 2003

By Johnna A. Pro, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

RED LION, Pa. -- As he sat on the school bus yesterday morning, James Sheets stared straight ahead, absorbed in the sounds of the alternative rock group Limp Bizkit blaring in his headphones from a portable CD player.

James Sheets and his principal, Eugene Segro, are shown in photos from the Red Lion Area Junior High School yearbook.

Hours later, after the 14-year-old football player fatally shot his junior high school principal and then turned the gun on himself, fellow students would say that his sullen, silent behavior on the bus was unusual, and even scary.

But in the early morning as the school bus made its way through rural south-central Pennsylvania, the teenagers onboard paid little attention to Sheets, unaware of the three loaded revolvers tucked away in his back pack or his deadly intention to use them.

After the bus pulled up to Red Lion Area Junior High School, Sheets made his way into the cafeteria and headed to a rectangular table where he often sat in the morning, joining scores of other students waiting for the school day to begin.

And then, without warning or any provocation, the boy stood up from his seat.

Saying nothing, he pulled out a .44-caliber Magnum and fired twice, striking Principal Eugene Segro once in the chest as he stood just 15 feet away.

It was just after 7:30 a.m.

In the two or three seconds of stunned silence that followed the first two shots, Sheets moaned loudly and looked around the room. Then he took a second gun, a .22-caliber revolver, put it to his right temple and pulled the trigger.

"I saw his face. It was too hard to describe," said Angel Williams, 14. "It was horrible."

Students who had been shocked briefly into silence ran screaming to safety, tripping over one another as they fled to classrooms or out of the school. No one else was injured.

"He just all of the sudden got up and shot," said Tonya Patterson, 14, who knew Sheets because he was in study hall with her. "There was like two seconds of silence. Everybody looked over and he shot himself."

Sheets, of Windsor, York County, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Segro, 51, of Spring Garden just outside nearby York, who had been the school principal for seven years, died a short time later at York Hospital.

Brandi Burger, a former girlfriend of James Sheets, is consoled by classmates in front of Red Lion Area Senior High School yesterday afternoon after a counseling session for parents and students. (Christopher Glass, York Daily Record via AP)

Students from the junior high were immediately evacuated to the district high school, which sits on the same campus along with Edgar C. Moore Elementary School. Students from those three schools were sent home a short time later even as Red Lion and state officials activated crisis response and counseling teams that began their work yesterday afternoon.

"This is a sad day, not only for the Red Lion community, but for every school in Pennsylvania," said Vicki L. Phillips, the state's secretary of education.

"Our hearts and prayers go out to the entire Red Lion Area School District community for this tragic loss," said Gov. Ed Rendell.

Red Lion Police Chief Walter Hughes said that Sheets apparently obtained a key to the family's locked gun safe and took the weapons. Sheets also had a .357-Magnum that police found in the book bag.

All three guns were registered to Sheets' stepfather, Arthur Baker, Hughes said.

Hughes said the cabinet was locked when police went to the home and it does not appear Baker was negligent in any way. No charges are expected to be filed against him or his wife, Angelia, the boy's mother.

"They're distraught," Hughes said.

As of late yesterday, police had interviewed more than 100 people including students, but Hughes said it was not clear if Segro was the intended target.

Both he and district Superintendent Larry Macaluso said they were not aware of any particular animosity between Sheets and Segro.

Some students, though, said that Sheets had recently been disciplined at school and that he also was upset by a breakup with a girlfriend.

"There was nothing going on when the incident went down," Hughes said. "We can say he had some issues, but whether he was mad at the principal we don't know. Nobody knew what happened, until it happened. We can't predict what people are going to do. It's a tragedy."

Hughes said police removed bags and boxes of possible evidence from Sheets' home, including a computer.

"We have a lot of items we're going through," Hughes said.

Classmates and school officials described Sheets as a quiet teen, who was pleasant but not particularly popular or outgoing. He was an average student and not regarded a troublemaker.

"It was the last thing I ever expected, for him to pull a gun on somebody," said Steve Haymire, 13, a seventh-grader who knew Sheets from seeing him in the hallways and at school dances.

Segro was an assistant principal at the junior high school for eight years before becoming principal. He was well-regarded and well-liked by faculty, students and parents.

"He always came to school with a positive attitude," said Kristy Williams, 15. "He was always happy."

Macaluso said the school does not have a metal detector and the security system is only used after classes begin to keep strangers out of the building. A police officer from the York Regional Police Department who is stationed at the campus was in the high school when the shooting occurred.

Hughes said police did retrieve a videotape from a security camera but the pictures were grainy.

The shooting at the school is the second violent incident in the district in two years.

In February 2001, a Tennessee man armed with a machete made his way into one of the district's elementary schools and attacked a group of kindergarten pupils, two teachers and the principal. He was arrested and is now in jail.

Red Lion Area School District is the largest in York County, taking in several communities surrounding tiny Red Lion Borough, a town with 6,200 people. It has nine elementary schools, one junior high for seventh- and eighth-graders and a senior high school.

Classes are canceled today in the junior high school but all other schools will be open.

Funeral arrangements were not completed for Sheets or Segro last night.

Johnna Pro can be reached at jpro@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1574.

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