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'I wish I could have just talked to somebody instead': Former Ohio school shooter shares his experience, hopes to prevent next one

Jeff Jevnikar fired two shots inside South High School in Willoughby, Ohio on September morning in 2008.

CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio — Reporter’s note: This story contains references to school shootings and suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, we have placed links to suicide prevention resources at the bottom of this article.

When the second deadliest school shooting in American history unfolded this spring in Uvalde, Texas, Jeff Jevnikar thought about something that happened 14 years ago.

That time he was a school shooter.

“I hurt thousands of people just by doing that. I scared all those kids in the school that day. Their parents were worried for them - parents of friends. It's like a ripple effect,” Jevnikar told 10 Investigates’ Chief Investigative Reporter Bennett Haeberle.

Jevnikar fired two shots inside South High School in Willoughby, Ohio on September morning in 2008.

His plan was to kill himself in what he deemed would be a “bigger way” – a way that would prompt people to remember who he was, the pain he endured and the impact bullying can have on children.

More than 5,000 days have passed since that day, giving Jevnikar plenty of time to think about what he did:

Jevnikar: So when I was there, and I shot the first shot, it's almost like it made me realize that it was really happening and it wasn't just all an idea in my head anymore. And it scared me.

Haeberle: It scared you?

Jevnikar: Yeah. But I know I'm scaring the hundreds of other kids. But what I'm trying to say is that it almost kicked me back into reality out of that fantasy or delusional mindset. And it just hit me that I was really doing what I was thinking about doing. It wasn't an idea wasn't a fantasy anymore. I was really there holding a gun in my high school that I had shot. No going back from there.

Haeberle: At that moment you realized you were a school shooter?

Jevnikar: Yep.

Credit: 10TV/WBNS

The former school shooter (he would stress the former part of that) has never before shared his story publicly.

Following the school shooting in Uvalde that claimed the lives of 19 children and two teachers, Jeff told 10 Investigates he wanted to share his experience with the hopes that it might dissuade people from doing something similar and that his story might be able to prevent the next American tragedy.

Sept. 2, 2008

On Sept. 2, 2008, the then-15-year old Jeff walked into South High School in Willoughby, Ohio, entered a friend’s classroom and told her goodbye.

He then walked into the hallway and fired the handgun he’d stolen from his parent’s house.

The first shot hit the ceiling.

“I heard people screaming up in the office area. I remember them screaming ‘he's got a gun.’ Yeah, I guess it was just more out of frustration at myself. It might sound odd, but I was just angry at myself for what I was doing and I decided to just shoot to my side,” Jevnikar told 10 Investigates.

The second shot hit a trophy case.

In a flurry of activity and chaos between those shots, Jeff said he encountered another student.

“It happened so fast. I turned a corner as soon as I fired that first shot and I met somebody - another student - and he was like mid-walk and he stopped. I saw his eyes. I will never forget. He looked at me like ‘Oh my god.’ He was in shock. I told him ‘I am not going to hurt you, I am not going to hurt anybody.’ And I was almost like crying and trembling. And he ran…”

In the weeks and months that preceded these tense moments, Jevnikar said he had been depressed, had little self-worth and was contemplating killing himself.

He had also been conducting online research about school shootings.

Columbine had become a focus.

“I can't remember specifics, but I mean, I probably did have some ideas, you know, thinking if there was certain individuals that I hated that picked on me or my friends that possibly maybe I did want to injure them,” Jevnikar said.  “But that day, there wasn't even a thought in my head oddly enough of hurting anybody else but myself. I think just because I don't think I could do that, personally. It's thinking one thing in your head and actually acting out is a totally different thing.”

Jeff said he had become frustrated after firing the two shots, threw his bookbag and sat down with a plan to end his own life.

But he credits two school administrators – the principal and assistant principal - with talking him down and coaxing him to removing the handgun he held to his own head.

“I told them to tell my family I love them. And one of them said ‘why you don't want to tell them yourself?’ That kind of made me realize how much of a loving family I did have, how much support I had, and how I if I would have ended my life I would have never got to see them again.”

Jeff put the gun down and as he sat on a bench near the cafeteria watched as the lights and sirens from police cars approached South High School.

It was over.

One of the administrators was crying, Jeff said. He told Jeff what would likely happen next. That the police would put handcuffs on him and take him away.

This is the headline and photo that appeared the next day in the News Herald newspaper showing Jeff walking out as armed police officers raised their guns in his direction.

Credit: Courtesy of the News Herald

Outside the school, an oddly familiar scene in America developed – as parents and students gathered with concerned looks on their faces as the school was evacuated on account of Jeff’s actions.

Ultimately, no one was hurt.

But Jeff would spend the next 18 months in a juvenile detention center after being sentenced. It was there at a facility in Sandusky, Ohio that Jeff says he got counseling, finished high school and set out on a course to learn from his actions.

The other school shootings that have followed in America – including those Newtown, Connecticut and Parkland, Florida - Jeff says have been re-triggering.

Haeberle: When you see the things that have happened in the past few months? What goes through your mind?

Jevnikar: I can't even imagine what those people are going for. Parents that lost kids, I can't even imagine the pain. Agony there. It's terrible. It's just it's more than terrible. There's not even a word for how disturbing, terrible it is. There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about (what I did). It is life-altering to say the least.

Haeberle: When you do think about it, what do you think about?

Jevnikar: A little guilt? I mean, I feel first off, I feel sorry for all the people that I hurt back then. And I feel bad for my parents. Just because their most loving parents and I didn't know what was going on in my head. Really. Yeah, but it's just it's more so just reflecting on the terrible thing that I decided to do back then.

Jevnikar said he wanted to come forward with the hopes that sharing his experience may help prevent the next shooting.

In his view, there is no binary solution to solving the crisis in America.

“Yeah, I think something could be done,” he said. “I means some adjustments could probably be done to different gun policies and not make it so easy for just anybody to go purchase a weapon. I don't necessarily believe that, you know, taking weapons away from people will do anything because if somebody has that mindset, and they really want to go harm themselves or harm somebody, they're probably going to find a way.

I believe more so that it's the mindset of the person holding that weapon than it is the weapon itself. So I think mental health plays the biggest role. But there should be some adjustments probably to different gun policies …. more screening.”

The data 

Using data collected by the K-12 School Shooting Database, 10 Investigates identified 25 school shootings in Ohio dating back to 1970 that happened on-campus and during school hours.

Of those 25, 12 have happened since the year 2000.

The map below shows school shootings that have happened in Ohio since 1970. Those in yellow occurred during school hours and on campus.

And while there is public outcry and political division over creating stricter gun control measures or focusing more attention and resources to mental health, 10 Investigates discovered that only three of the school shooters identified in those 25 Ohio shootings had a previous diagnosis of a mental illness.

10 Investigates also found many of Jeff’s experiences fall in line with what FBI research has shown – that mass shootings could be prevented if closer attention were paid to warning signs.

The (missed) warning signs

In a 2018 report, the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit looked at more than 60 active shooter cases and found nearly half “had suicidal ideation."

The shooters also showed warning signs and concerning behaviors that those close to them may have seen but failed to act on.

“In many instances…" the FBI wrote, "the concern stayed between the person who noticed the behavior and the active shooter."

Early recognition, the FBI says, of these behaviors “may represent critical opportunities for detection and disruption."

Jeff said his mother knew something was wrong, but others missed the warning signs.

“I just told them no, I'm fine. I'm fine. I just I knew probably deep down that something I was not fine. Something was very wrong with my thought process in my mind. But I didn't want anybody to know I was scared of the consequences if I had told them that I was really thinking,” Jeff said.

Jevnikar: Yeah, I would like to say (things to friends) like ‘I should probably bring a gun to school’ and it was almost like me trying to tell them in a way and I remember one friend even the week before it happened, like two days in a row he saw me in the hallway and said  ‘You bringing the gun to school?’ - like joking around,” Jevnikar said. “So yeah, there were definitely warning signs. If somebody's talking like that. I think it should definitely be reported or we're told regardless of if you're afraid if they're just joking.

Haeberle: When you were saying this to friends, were you hoping someone would say, ‘Hey, what are you talking about?’

Jevnikar: It was almost like I was hoping deep down that it would lead to somebody stopping me what I was planning on doing.

Each school shooting in America is jarring – but for Jeff and his family – it prompts a re-living of the tragedy that was averted 14 years ago.

“I just wanted to share my perspective how terrible of a thing it was that I did and the consequences that I had to endure. How not worth it was and how I wish I could have just talked to somebody instead."

If you or someone you know is in a crisis or having thoughts of suicide, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. The lifeline can also be reached at its former number 1-800-273-8255 or online at 988lifeline.org. You can also text HELLO to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. A comprehensive list of suicide prevention resources can be found on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) website.

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