Tapestry

School shooter and loving parent: One woman's struggle to understand her father's violent past

Carrah Quigley was 19 when she learned her father went on an armed rampage at his school in 1955, killing one classmate before turning himself into police. After serving time in a psychiatric hospital, Quiqley's father went on to lead a life full of love and compassion. Now, she says, her father's story has changed the way she understands violent crimes and the people who commit them.

'My father was an incredible human being who did a really horrible, heinous, awful thing a long time ago'

Carrah Quigley and her father, Bob Bechtel at the Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona. (Submitted by Carrah Quigley)
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Carrah Quigley grew up thinking of her father as a loving parent: a Christian man dedicated to social justice with a love of nature and the outdoors.

But when she was 19, he convened his family in their living room in Tuscon, Ariz.

"He leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees and he said: 'You have always thought of me as a very loving father [...] And what I'm about to tell you may change the way you perceive me,'" Quigley told Tapestry.

"In 1955, I killed a classmate of mine in an act of gun violence," she recalled her father saying.

That was over two decades ago — but it changed Quigley's life forever.

I know for every school shooter there is a storyline that we could have interrupted at some time.- Carrah Quigley

One night in January 1955, Quigley's father Bob Bechtel armed himself with several guns and went into his dorm at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, intending to kill everyone there.

He shot and killed one person — 18-year-old Francis Holmes Strozier. He then left the dorm and turned himself in to the police.

Bechtel was eventually deemed not criminally responsible by reason of insanity. He spent just under five years in Pennsylvania's now-shuttered Fairview State Hospital for the Criminally Insane before being released.

Learning what her father had done, Quigley said she was struck by feelings of betrayal, anger and shame.

But over time she began to understand his story differently.

'I was always raised knowing that my father was bullied'

In 1955, Bob Bechtel killed one man when he undertook a school shooting at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. After serving time at a psychiatric hospital, he went on to live what his daughter Carrah Quigley described as a life, "brimming with love." (Submitted by Carrah Quigley)

Her father told her about being bullied from an early age, right up until college. He told her his sense of being a victim grew until it distorted his view of the world around him.

"What people don't understand is that school shooters consider themselves the hero. And we see them as the villain, but in their storyline they're the ones taking care of their problems," said Quigley.

After being released from the Fairview hospital, Bob Bechtel went on to become a successful professor of psychology, teaching at the University of Arizona.

Over the years, Quigley said, she repeatedly asked him why he wasn't able to counter his distorted thoughts on the night he perpetrated the killing.

"He said, 'because I wasn't there. I was insane. I didn't know right from wrong. I had no bearing.'"

Quigley said her father told her "he wasn't conscious" during the killing.

"He would say that he was suffering from the effects of PTSD due to his childhood trauma and years of bullying … that it had put him into a state that created this temporary insanity."

Quigley said for many years she struggled to reconcile two conflicting versions of her father: the parent she loved dearly and the perpetrator of the killing.

Working to reconcile those versions eventually led her to see school shooters, generally, with more compassion than she otherwise might.

"My father was an incredible human being who did a really horrible, heinous, awful thing a long time ago. And that doesn't erase the pain that he caused. It doesn't change what he did. But if we don't start to see these people as humans then that only shows our own lack of humanity."

'Stop, look and listen'

Carrah Quigley is a public speaker on the issues of bullying, gun violence and school shootings. (Lea Murphy)

As was the case with her father, Quigley believes many school shooters are the result of a complex interaction of psychology, life events and society.

And she believes those intentions could be avoided.

"I know for every school shooter there is a storyline that we could have interrupted at some time," she said.

Over the course of years, factors like bullying develop a perpetrator's sense of being, themselves, a victim, she said. And our society offers little in the way of help.

"We're not in a society of 'stop, look and listen.' We're in a society of, you know, 'keep charging through,' 'keep going,' 'get over it.'"

She said an uncompassionate society with easy access to guns is a disastrous combination.

"That's what's killing us. That's what's creating this problem."

Quigley is now a public speaker, raising awareness about the issue of school shooters. With her efforts, she hopes to push society to be less dualistic in the way it frames school shooters.

Rather than just seeing good or evil, she wants people to conceptually separate individuals from their violent acts.

If that happens, she believes there would be fewer violent acts.

According to Quigley, until we understand most school shooters as tormented individuals in need of help — rather than simply as monstrous criminals — the problem will not go away.

"They want to take their pain away. So, 'why are these boys in pain?' is my question. And why aren't we doing something about it before they get the guns?"

That said, Quigley doesn't want to diminish the monstrosity of their acts.

"I was always afraid if I came forward, that I would be ridiculed because people would think that I was trying to be on the side of the shooter and somehow justify what they did. And that's not at all what I'm trying to say."

Her father's story, she said, just shows there can be more to a person than the horrible things they may have done.

"I have the DNA of someone who was traumatized enough to create more trauma and to create incredible pain and to dream of horrific, evil acts. And yet I'm also a person who has the DNA of someone who overcame all of that to be able to live a life brimming with love ... someone who taught me unconditional love."

Bechtel, died just over a year ago. He was 85 years old.

Quigley says she has communicated with the family of her father's victim, but was asked by them not to discuss their interactions publicly.


Click 'listen' above to hear more of Carrah Quigley's story.