Again, Student Held In Slaying Andrew Wurst Is Accused Of Killing Edinboro, Pa., Teacher John Gillette And Wounding Three.

Posted: April 26, 1998

EDINBORO, Pa. — A handwritten card, propped against the steps of Nick's Place, asked the question on everyone's mind yesterday in this quiet community south of Erie.

``Where have all the innocent children gone?'' it says.

Yesterday, Andrew Wurst, 14, was charged with fatally shooting John Gillette, 48, a science teacher at James Parker Middle School, as Gillette was chaperoning a prom for Wurst and his eighth-grade class at Nick's Place.

After Wurst shot Gillette in the head, police said, the teenager entered the banquet hall where his dressed-up schoolmates were dancing Friday to the final song of the evening, ``My Heart Will Go On,'' from the movie Titanic.

Wurst shot and wounded two students and another teacher, police said, then fled from the hall. None of the three was seriously injured.

As the 240 youngsters and teachers ran for cover - some diving into a closet for protection, singing and praying to stay calm - hall owner James Strand grabbed a shotgun and followed Wurst out the door, police said. Strand caught up with Wurst, who lives in nearby McKean, and held him until authorities arrived.

At the time of the arrest, police said, Wurst was carrying a .25-caliber handgun and a small amount of marijuana.

The shooting comes on the heels of other killings at school events during the last six months in which youths were charged. Five students were fatally shot last month at a middle school in Jonesboro, Ark.

Three students were killed in December at a West Paducah, Ky., high school, and two students were killed and seven wounded at a high school in Pearl, Miss., in October.

After the Edinboro shooting Friday, Wurst was charged as an adult with first-degree murder, three counts of aggravated assault and reckless endangerment, and various gun and drug counts. He was being held in the Erie County Jail without bond.

Throughout the day yesterday, parents and neighbors puzzled over the arrival of violence in their quiet town of 6,000, 100 miles north of Pittsburgh.

``You know it can happen. You read about it; you see it on TV. But you don't picture it happening in your community,'' said Thom Gebhardt, the chief of the Edinboro Volunteer Fire Department.

For Gebhardt, the emergency call about ``multiple gunshot victims'' at Nick's Place at 9:40 p.m. Friday had a special, terrifying meaning: His 14-year-old daughter, Shannon, was one of the prom-goers.

As he raced to the scene, Gebhardt said yesterday, ``I hoped to God my daughter wasn't involved.'' Shannon was unharmed.

Gebhardt said he found Gillette lying outside on a rear patio, shot once in the head. Gillette had no pulse.

The injured included two 14-year-old boys, one grazed in the abdomen by a bullet and the other shot in the leg. Both were treated at a hospital and released. A teacher also was grazed by a bullet but did not require medical treatment.

While most Edinboro residents knew Gillette - who had taught in the General McLane School District for 27 years, served as student council adviser, and was active in the community - few knew much about Wurst.

One classmate, Adam Sarran, 15, who was at the dance, described Wurst as a loner who often dressed sloppily.

Triston Lucas, 14, and Ben Mills, 13 - both of whom described themselves as friends of Wurst's - said Wurst talked recently of killing people and committing suicide. They also said Wurst did not know Gillette. ``He never even talked to Mr. Gillette,'' Mills said.

Both boys said that they did not take Wurst seriously when he talked about killing people and that Wurst never said specifically that he planned to fire shots at the dance. The two boys were at Parker Middle School yesterday to meet with counselors.

Donna McDowell, 59, co-owner of Bob's Gun Shop & Indoor Shooting Range, north of Edinboro, said Wurst's father and mother lived with the teenage suspect and two older sons and worked at the nearby J.J. Wurst Landscape Contractor & Garden Center.

McDowell, who has been in gun sales for 21 years, said her business didn't sell any guns to the Wursts but did sell them BBs and bows and arrows years ago when their boys were younger. ``We don't know where he [Andrew Wurst] got this gun,'' she said.

McDowell said the Wurst family had lived in a trailer behind the landscaping business until moving into a house they had built. She said her daughter, who owns a hair salon, used to cut Andrew Wurst's hair and described him as quiet and polite.

With a lawyer at her side, Therese Walter, the superintendent of the school district, read a statement. ``The sad part of this whole thing is I don't have any answers,'' Walter said. ``We lost John because he was doing what his life was about.''

Gillette, who is survived by his wife, Debbie, and two sons and a daughter, helped organize the eighth-grade dances. A former high school football coach and athlete in Erie County, he recently talked about retiring, according to band teacher and friend Dennis Kitchen.

A friend at the Gillette house yesterday said that Debbie Gillette was not prepared to make any public comments.

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