Laurie Dann (née Wasserman; October 18, 1957 – May 20, 1988) was an American spree killer who shot and killed one boy and wounded two girls and three boys in a Winnetka, Illinois elementary school. She then took a family hostage and shot another man before killing herself.
Dann was born into a Jewish family in Chicago and grew up in Glencoe, an affluent northern suburb of Chicago. She was the daughter of an accountant, Norman Wasserman, and his wife, Edith Joy.
Those who knew Dann described her as shy and withdrawn but attractive. She dated a number of her male peers as a teenager and graduated from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, in 1975. Her grades were poor in high school, but she was able to attend Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. When her grades improved, she transferred to the University of Arizona with the goal of becoming a teacher. She began dating a pre-med student, and the relationship soon became serious, but she was becoming possessive and demanding.
In 1980, with the relationship failing, Dann moved back to her parents' home. She then transferred to Northwestern University to complete her degree, but she dropped out of all her classes and never graduated.
Marriage and divorce
She met and married Russell Dann, an executive in a successful insurance brokering firm in September 1982, but the marriage quickly soured as Russell's family noted signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder and other strange behavior, including leaving trash around the house. She saw a psychiatrist for a short period, who identified her childhood and upbringing as a cause of her problems.
Laurie and Russell Dann separated in October 1985. The divorce negotiations were acrimonious, with Laurie claiming that Russell was abusive. In the following months, the police were called to investigate various incidents, including several harassing phone calls made to Russell, his family, and his friends. In April 1986, Laurie Dann accused Russell of breaking into and vandalizing her parents' house, where she was then living. Shortly after, she purchased a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, telling the salesman that she needed it for self-defense. The police were concerned about her gun ownership and unsuccessfully tried to persuade Dann and her family that she should give up the gun.
In August 1986, she contacted her ex-boyfriend, who was by then a resident at a hospital, and claimed to have had his child. When he refused to believe her, Dann called the hospital where he worked and claimed he had raped her in the emergency room.
In September 1986, Russell Dann reported he had been stabbed in his sleep with an icepick. He accused Laurie of the crime, although he had not actually seen his attacker. The police decided not to press charges against Laurie based on a medical report which suggested that the injury might have been self-inflicted, Russell's abrasive attitude towards the police, and his failed polygraph test. Russell and his family continued to receive harassing hang-up phone calls, and Laurie was arrested for calls made to Russell's sister. The charges were dropped due to lack of evidence.
Just before their divorce was finalized in April 1987, Laurie accused Russell of raping her with a steak knife. There were no physical signs supporting Laurie's claim, although she passed two polygraph tests. In May 1987, Laurie accused Russell of placing an incendiary device in her home. No charges were filed against Russell for either alleged event. Laurie's parents believed her claims and supported and defended her throughout. By this time, Laurie Dann was being treated by another psychiatrist for obsessive-compulsive disorder and a "chemical imbalance"; the psychiatrist told police that he did not think Laurie was suicidal or homicidal.
Dann worked as a babysitter, and some employers were happy with the care she provided their children. Others made complaints to the police about damage to their furniture and the theft of food and clothes. Despite the complaints, no charges were pressed. Dann's father did pay for damages in one case.
In the summer of 1987, Dann sublet a university apartment in Evanston, Illinois. Once again, her strange behavior was noted, including riding up and down in elevators for hours, wearing rubber gloves to touch metal, and leaving meat to rot in sofa cushions. She took no classes at the university, but made friends in fraternities on campus and dated some of the fraternity brothers.
In the fall of 1987, Dann claimed she had received threatening letters from Russell and that he had sexually assaulted her in a parking lot, but the police did not believe her. A few weeks later, she purchased a .32-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver.
With her condition deteriorating, Dann and her family sought specialized help. In November 1987, she moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to live in a student residence while being observed by a psychiatrist who specialized in obsessive-compulsive disorder. She had already begun taking clomipramine, a new drug for OCD, and her new psychiatrist increased the dosage, adding lithium carbonate to reduce her mood swings and initiating behavioral therapy to work on her phobias and ritualistic behaviors. Despite the intervention, her strange behavior continued, including riding elevators for long periods, changing TV channels repetitively, and an obsession with "good" and "bad" numbers. There were also concerns about whether she was bulimic.
Dann purchased a .22 semi-automatic Beretta at the end of December 1987. In March 1988, she stopped attending her appointments with the psychiatrist and behavior therapist. At about the same time, she began to make preparations for the attacks. She stole books from the library on poisons, and she diluted arsenic and other chemicals from a lab. She also shoplifted clothes and wigs to disguise herself and was arrested for theft on one occasion. Both her psychiatrist and her father tried to persuade her to enter the hospital as an inpatient, but she refused.
Dann continued to make numerous hang-up phone calls to her former in-laws, friends, and babysitting clients. Eventually, the calls escalated to death threats. An ex-boyfriend and his wife also received dozens of threatening calls. In May 1988, a letter, later confirmed to have been sent by Laurie Dann, was sent to the hospital administration where her ex-boyfriend then worked, again accusing him of sexual assault. Since the phone calls were across state lines, the FBI became involved, and a federal indictment against Dann was prepared. However, the ex-boyfriend, fearful of publicity, and concerned about Dann getting bail and then attempting to fulfill her threats against him, decided to wait until other charges were filed in Illinois. In May 1988, a janitor found her lying in the fetal position inside a garbage bag in a trash room. This precipitated a search of her room and her departure back to Glencoe.
During the days before May 20, 1988, Laurie Dann prepared rice cereal snacks and juice boxes poisoned with the diluted arsenic she had stolen in Madison. She mailed them to a former female friend, ex-babysitting clients, her psychiatrist, Russell Dann, and others. In the early morning of May 20, she personally delivered snacks and juice "samples" to other friends, acquaintances, and families for whom she had babysat, some of whom had not seen her for years. Other snacks were delivered to Alpha Tau Omega, Psi Upsilon, and Kappa Sigma fraternity houses and Leverone Hall at Northwestern University in Evanston. Notes were attached to some of the deliveries. The drinks were often leaking and the squares unpleasant tasting, so few were actually consumed. In addition, the arsenic was highly diluted so nobody became seriously ill.
At about 9:00 a.m. on the 20th, Dann arrived at the home of the Rushe family, former babysitting clients in Winnetka, Illinois, to pick up their two youngest children. The family had just told Dann they were moving away. Instead of taking the children on the promised outing, she took them to Ravinia Elementary School in Highland Park, Illinois, where she erroneously believed that both of her former sister-in-law's two sons were enrolled (in fact, one of Dann's intended targets was not even a student at the school). She left the two children in the car while she entered the school and tried to detonate a fire bomb in one of the school's hallways. After Dann's departure, the small fire she set was subsequently discovered by students, and quickly extinguished by a teacher. She then drove to a local daycare attended by her ex-sister-in-law's daughter and tried to enter the building with a plastic can of gasoline, but was stopped by staff.
Next Dann drove the children back to their home and offered them some arsenic-poisoned milk, but the boys spat it out because it tasted strange to them. Once at their home, she lured them downstairs and used gasoline to set fire to the house, trapping their mother and the two children in the basement (they managed to escape). She then drove three and a half blocks to the Hubbard Woods Elementary School with three handguns in her possession. She wandered into a second grade classroom for a short while, then left. Finding a boy in the corridor, Dann pushed him into the boys' washroom and shot him with a .22 semi-automatic Beretta pistol. Her Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum revolver jammed when she tried to fire it at two other boys, and she threw it into the trash along with the spare ammunition. The boys ran out of the washroom and raised the alarm. Dann then re-entered the second grade classroom where students were working in groups on a bicycle safety test. She ordered all the children into the corner of the room. The teacher refused and attempted to disarm Dann, managing to unload the Beretta in the struggle. Dann drew a .32 Smith and Wesson from the waistband of her shorts and aimed it at several groups of the students. She shot five children, killing eight-year-old Nicholas Corwin and wounding two girls and two boys before fleeing in her car.
Dann was prevented from leaving the area by car because the roads were closed for a funeral cortege. She decided to drive her car backwards down the nearby street, missing the iconic "tree in the road", but the road dead-ended into a private drive. Abandoning her car, she removed her bloodstained shorts and tied a blue garbage bag around her waist. With her two remaining guns she made her way through the woods and came upon the house of the Andrew family. Dann entered the house and met a mother and her twenty-year-old son, who were in the kitchen. She claimed she was raped and had shot the rapist in the struggle. The Andrews were sympathetic and tried to convince her that she need not fear the police because she had acted in self-defense. Mrs. Andrew gave Dann a pair of her daughter's pants to wear. While she was putting them on, Philip Andrew was able to pick up and pocket the Beretta. He suggested that she call her family. Dann agreed and called her mother, telling her she had done something terrible and that the police were involved. Philip took the phone and explained Dann's story about the rape and shooting, suggesting that Mrs. Wasserman come to get Dann; Mrs. Wasserman said she could not come because she did not have a car.
Mr. Andrew arrived home, and they continued to argue with Dann, insisting she give up the second gun. Dann called her mother again and this time Mr. Andrew spoke with Mrs. Wasserman, asking her to persuade Dann to give up the gun. While Dann spoke with her mother, Mrs. Andrew left the house and alerted the police. Mr. Andrew told Dann that he would not remain in the house if she did not put down the gun, and also left the house. Dann ordered Philip to stay. Just before noon, seeing the police advancing on the house she shot Philip in the chest, but he managed to escape out the back door before collapsing and being rescued by the police and ambulance personnel.
With the house surrounded, Dann went upstairs to a bedroom. The Wassermans and Russell Dann were brought to the house. At about 7:00 p.m., an assault team entered the house while Mr. Wasserman attempted to get Dann's attention with a bullhorn. The police found her body in the bedroom; she had shot herself in the mouth.
All but one of the victims wounded by Dann recovered from their injuries, including the schoolgirl who was shot and suffered severe internal injuries. The victims, school children, and parents received extensive support to help them cope with the psychological after-effects of the attacks.
In the wake of the shootings, parents and members of the community devoted many years to gun control policy. Philip Andrew gave interviews about gun control from his hospital bed, and later became active in local and state gun control organizations as the executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence; he subsequently became a lawyer and then an FBI agent.
The Dann shootings also fueled the debate about criteria for committing mentally ill people to mental health facilities against their will. Some favored the involuntary commitment of a person who is determined to be mentally ill and incapable of making informed decisions about treatment; civil libertarians like Benjamin Wolf (staff counsel for the ACLU of Illinois) opposed the idea saying, "It would be a shame if we cut back on the civil liberties of literally millions of mentally ill people because of the occasional bizarre incident."
A book called Murder of Innocence was written about the tragedy, and a TV movie of the same name was based on it.
Search for a rationale
Some blamed Dann's family for defending and protecting her in spite of the signs of her deteriorating mental health. Investigations were hampered by the Wassermans' refusal to be interviewed by police or to provide access to Dann's psychiatric records - the records were eventually obtained by court order. On the night of Dann's death, the Wassermans allowed only a very brief search of her bedroom, after which they cleaned it and removed potential evidence. The police were criticized for not sealing off Dann's room as part of the crime scene. Parents of the shooting victims subsequently sued the Wasserman family for damages.
Further criticism was directed at Dann's psychiatrists for failing to identify or take action regarding the signs of Dann's decreasing mental stability. At the time of her suicide, Dann was taking an unlicensed drug called anafranil (generic name: clomipramine). The effects of this drug were initially considered as contributing factors to Dann's mental well-being, but ultimately ruled out.
Two newspaper clippings were found among Dann's possessions after her death. One described a man who randomly killed two people in a public building. The other described a depressed young man who had attempted to commit suicide in the same way that Laurie did; he survived and discovered that his brain injury had cured him of his obsessive-compulsive disorder.
One theory of Dann's rationale was that she targeted people who had "disappointed" her in some way: her ex-husband, her former sister-in-law (through the firebombing attempts at her children's schools and daycare), her ex-boyfriend and his wife, the family who was moving away, as well as former friends and babysitting clients.
In his book The Myth of Male Power, author Warren Farrell suggested that Laurie Dann's actions were an example of women's violence against men. He claimed, erroneously, that all of Dann's victims were male, that she burned down a Young Men's Jewish Council, burned two boys in a basement, shot her own son, and alleged that she killed an eight-year old rapist. Men's rights activists, academics, and the media have repeated Farrell's errors and conclusion. Farrell later issued a correction on his web site.
References and notes
- Egginton, Joyce (1991). Day of fury: The story of the tragic shootings that forever changed the village of Winnetka. New York: William Morrow and Company. ISBN 0-688-09085-0.
- Kaplan, Joel; Papajohn, George and Zorn, Eric (1990). Murder of Innocence: The tragic life and final rampage of Laurie Dann. New York: Warner Books. ISBN 978-0-446-36002-9.
- AP (1988-05-22). "Police Still Unraveling Trail Left by Woman in Rampage". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-02-14.
- Salholz, Eloise; with King, Patricia (1988-06-13). "Falling Through the Cracks". Newsweek. Archived from the original on 2007-04-02. Retrieved 2007-07-28.
- Sources ascribe similar notes to different recipients. For example, Associated Press articles mention that a note "Love your little sisters. Enjoy" was sent to a family, while a Chicago Tribune article, and Kaplan et al. book suggests that similar notes ("Love, your little sisters. Enjoy" and "To the ATOs, from your little sisters") were received by fraternities. Similarly, a longer text "I'm going to be in Glencoe when your in town-look forward to seeing you guys. I was going to send you coffee cake, but I was making rice crispy treats for school and decided to send some. Enjoy. Love, Laurie" was sent by mail to friends according to the Kaplan et al. book, and attached to the fraternity deliveries according to the Egginton book.
- Ray Gibson and Linnet Myers, "School Killer Left A Trail Of Poison Fraternities, Homes Receive Tainted Food", Chicago Tribune (22 May 1988) 1.
- AP (1988-05-22). "Woman sent poisoned snacks before school shooting spree". Toronto Star. pp. ,. Archived from the original on 2007-02-13. Retrieved 2007-02-14.
- Hunt, Maria; Robert Enstad Steve Johnson, Maria Hunt, Ray Gibson, Dennis Odom, David Ibata and Joel Kaplan (1988-05-23). "Scared Town Comforts Families - Special Services Soothe The Pain in Winnetka". Chicago Tribune. Archived from the original on 2007-02-13. Retrieved 2007-02-14.
- Halperin, Jennifer (December 1993). "The education of a crusader". Illinois Issues
- Wilkerson, Isabel (1988-05-28). "Shootings Leave a Suburb in Trauma". New York Times. Archived from the original on 2007-04-02. Retrieved 2007-07-28.
- "School shooting remembered 20 years later". ABC local news. May 20, 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-21.
- Black, Lisa; Rubin, Bonnie Miller (May 20, 2008). "Old hurts, new lives emerge two decades after Dann shootings". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2008-05-21.
- Gibson, Ray (1988-06-02). "Winnetka Killer Treated With Psychiatric Drug". Chicago Tribune. Archived from the original on 2007-02-13. Retrieved 2007-02-14.
- "Drug Dann Used Gets FDA Approval". Chicago Tribune. 1988-06-08. Archived from the original on 2007-04-02. Retrieved 2007-07-28.
- "Tragedy in Winnetka: the answers are few". Milwaukee Sentinel. 25 May 1988. Retrieved 30 December 2009.
- Farrell, Warren (1993). The Myth of Male Power. New York: Berkley Books. p. 216. ISBN 978-0-425-18144-7.
- Equal Parents of Canada (1998-03-31). "Brief to the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access". Retrieved 2007-02-16.
- Fekete, John (1994). Moral Panic:Biopolitics rising. Robert Davies Publishing. ISBN 978-1-895854-09-1.
- "Corrections and Clarifications: Peter Raeside takes a look at the views of 'men's liberationist' Warren Farrell". Globe and Mail. 1993-09-04.
- Kay, Barbara (2007-12-05). "The last white ribbon". National Post. Retrieved 2008-01-21.
- "The Myth of Male Power". Retrieved 2011-03-22.