‘Cowboy Justice’: A first-hand account of the deadly 1991 UI campus shooting, 30 years later

University of Iowa campus security mark off a crime scene in Jessup Hall on Nov. 2, 1991, following the fatal shooting of five people by a student. — Associated Press archive

It’s Nov. 1, 1991, an ordinary Friday afternoon, the day after Halloween. I’m sitting alone in a big office on the fifth floor of Van Allen Hall, where the Physics Department at the University of Iowa is housed, when I hear a loud noise on a floor below: Pop pop pop.

That sounds like gunshots, I think. But this is many years before school shootings — any mass shootings — have become so common they’re the first thing you think of when you hear a sound like a gun going off. And so I decide that what I heard must have been a staple gun, that they must be doing construction down there. This seems plausible, especially because after the pop pop pop I hear what sounds like heavy furniture being rearranged. Later on I’ll learn that this was the sound of people scrambling to get under desks, shoving tables aside as they rushed out the door.

But at the moment I don’t have a clue what’s going on and I just sit there at my desk and continue working, printing out labels and attaching them to envelopes and folding a little pile of letters signed by my boss, Christoph Goertz, editor of the Journal of Geophysical Research, before he left for the Friday afternoon theoretical space physics meeting downstairs where he has just been shot along with two other people. When I finish sealing the envelopes I go down a long dark hallway to the bathroom where I use the facilities and stare at myself in the mirror, then stop at the water fountain outside the bathroom door and fill a little plastic tube with a removable pink sponge on the end, which I plan to use to seal the envelopes containing the letters from Chris Goertz.

As I’m wandering back down the hall to my office a young woman, a secretary I know, appears at the top of the stairs and says, Dwight’s been shot! He’s dead.

Did they catch the guy who did it? I ask her.

I don’t think so, she says. And then she says, I think it was that guy Gang Lu, turns around and heads back down the stairs.

Dwight is Dwight Nicholson, the chairman of the Physics Department, who, I will later learn, was shot in the back by the gunman while he was peacefully working at his desk facing the wall. The gunman was indeed that guy Gang Lu, a recent Ph.D. recipient who was angry his thesis didn’t get an award he thought would increase his chances of getting a job and not having to return to post-Tiananmen-Square China. After he killed Dwight he went back up upstairs to the meeting room where a few minutes earlier he shot Chris Goertz and two other people: Bob Smith, another professor, and Linhua Chan, the young man who won the award he didn’t win. Chris and Chan died immediately — Chris was the first victim, shot in the head at close range at the front of the room; in the first few seconds, before reality sank in, some people thought it was a Halloween prank — but Bob Smith was only wounded.

Two men were kneeling on the floor beside Bob when the gunman came back. Gang Lu told them to leave the room and then he shot Bob again, finishing the job. Then he left the building, walked over to the university administration building and killed Anne Cleary, the university’s grievance officer, who did not respond favorably to his complaint about not receiving the award. He also shot Miya Rodolfo-Sioson, a first-day temp worker who just happened to get in the way. She was an activist, a dancer, a beautiful spirit, as we all learned later, the only survivor and Gang Lu’s only impromptu victim. She spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down. Afterwards Gang Lu found an empty schoolroom on the second floor, took off his tan jacket and folded it neatly over the back of a chair, and shot himself in the head.

We know all these details now; they’ve been public knowledge for more than twenty-five years. They pale in comparison to the horrors inflicted by other mass gunmen in the years since then—the random slaughter of innocent children, teachers, school administrators, people in nightclubs, churches, movies, concert halls, casinos, suburban malls—the devastation of families, the trauma of the survivors. But this is only the second school shooting, the first if you don’t count Charles Whitman shooting from a tower at the University of Texas in 1966, and nobody is prepared for it or knows what to make of it—not that it would help anything if we were or did.

I go back to my office and call my friend J., who shares this job with me. Her line is busy, so I hang up and sit there wondering what to do. There is nothing to do, so I just keep working, sealing the envelopes containing the letters that will never be sent. I’m confused instead of scared. I’m too confused to be scared. I don’t close the door, I don’t do anything about the fact that there could be a murderer somewhere in the building. I seal a few more envelopes, then I get up and stand in the doorway, looking down the hall. I see a Chinese student with a backpack emerge from the stairwell and I run back into my office. Nothing happens — the shooter is over in the other building by now; he is not that guy with the backpack, although I don’t know that. I sit down at the desk and try to call J. again. This time she answers and I tell her that Dwight’s been shot and he’s dead and she’s shocked and stunned. We don’t even know yet that there are other victims, people we work with directly; she knows them better than I do — I was hired four months ago but she’s been working here for years — one of them is our boss. She tells me to close the door of the office.

I do and we talk some more. Then someone comes running down the hall, pounding on doors and yelling, “Everyone get out of the building! They’re evacuating the building!”

I hang up in a hurry, look around, and find myself in a quandary. Later on I’ll look back on this moment as evidence of what an embarrassingly obedient, good girl I was back then. It probably does show that, but it’s also further evidence of how jarring and bewildering, how mindboggling it is to be lifted suddenly out of ordinary life and thrust into a life-threatening crisis, how it takes a while to make the mental leap from one to the other. My quandary is, I can’t figure out whether to turn off the business machines. It’s Friday, I think, they’ll be running all weekend and probably longer, maybe they’ll overheat or something, and I decide to turn them off.

I go all around the room, turning off the postal meter, the Xerox machine, the computer, the printer. My hands are shaking so hard I can hardly press the buttons, and that’s when I realize, the first time I realize, how scared I am. I walk down the long dark fifth-floor hallway to the elevator. All the doors are closed and I don’t see anyone, there’s no one to share this terrifying moment with. I step into the elevator and ride alone to the first floor. I hold my breath the whole way, worrying that the elevator will stop and a graduate student with a backpack full of guns will get on. That doesn’t happen, and I get out of the elevator on the first floor, where I see flashing lights beyond the exit and policemen by the door waving guns and shouting, Everyone out! Out of the building!

It’s snowing outside, large white flakes whirling madly in the air. I don’t have a car, and during my entire 20-minute walk home, up a long straight sloping tree-lined street, I feel like a murderer is following me.

When I get home I call J., she picks me up and drives me to her house, and we sit around anxiously saying the same things over and over. News drifts in over the radio. By ten o’clock we know that five people are dead and someone was wounded but is still alive. We know the shooting involved Chris Goertz’s Friday afternoon meeting on the third floor of Van Allen Hall, that people we know, people J. has worked with for years, are probably dead. But we’re still holding out hope that Chris Goertz, our boss and friend, isn’t dead. Maybe he’s the one survivor, maybe somehow there’s been a mistake. J. and I bargain. Okay, we say, Dwight is dead, we know that for sure. Bob Smith can be dead. But please, please don’t let it be Chris. The ten o’clock news comes on, they briefly tell the story and prepare to announce the victims. The first face that appears on the screen is Chris Goertz’s face.

The aftermath is more or less predictable. There are memorial services, articles in the paper and then editorials, the whole community grieves. Everybody talks about where they were when the shooting happened. Things come out about Gang Lu. He bought his gun at Fin and Feather and did target practicing for months. He wrote a long rambly letter to his sister in China, single-spaced on white typing paper, and mailed it the day of the shooting. It was intercepted by the authorities at the Iowa City post office; it says he’ll be quantum leaping through the universe (at the time there was a TV show on called Quantum Leap) and tells his sister not to be sad for him because he’s going to take a few traveling companions with him to the grave. On an old Greyhound-bus-ticket envelope the police found in his apartment, he had scrawled, “Cowboy justice is the only action against corporate crime.”

Mourners carry the body of T. Anne Cleary, University of Iowa associate vice president for academic affairs, out of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Iowa City. — Associated Press archive

People continue writing editorials, many of them speculating about why something like this happened. There’s talk in some circles about how hard life is for graduate students, suggesting that Gang Lu was pushed to his limits by the pressures of academia. A group of us forms to take action on gun control and we meet for about a year. In 2009 a movie is made loosely based on the story; it shifts the onus of the bad guy onto the graduate-advisor Chris Goertz character and casts the Gang Lu character in the role of the underdog. I write a letter to the editor of the LA Times trying to set the record straight. On the 20th anniversary of the shooting a local reporter interviews me as someone who was there. When I tell J. about the upcoming interview she tells me what I haven’t heard anyone say before: The very people Gang Lu killed in a fit of rage and madness and victim mentality, the people he blamed for causing his problems, were trying to help him. Chris and Dwight both thought he was brilliant and were sure he would get a job; Chris had written him a glowing recommendation J. found post-mortem in Chris’s desk. I say this in the interview and it gets aired on the local ten o’clock news, but it’s probably too late for it to matter to anyone but me and J. and friends and family members of the victims.

The whole story is rife with misunderstandings. Gang Lu thought Chris ignored his thesis in favor of Linhua Shan’s: Chris actually recommended both theses for the award and an outside award committee made the choice. Gang Lu told the grievance officer, Anne Cleary, that the UI space physics group had unfairly passed him over for the award; Anne Cleary didn’t do anything because Chris reported that Gang Lu had been recommended for the award. I had to rewrite this piece twice because, as I learned when I started researching, I remembered a lot of the details wrong.

What are we to learn from all this? What did I learn from it? I learned that the truth is subject to shape-shifting and misinterpretation, that the farther you are from a public event the more mythical proportions it assumes, that popular mythology — the illusion of cowboy justice, for instance — can be deadly, that there is no rational reason for murder. And that in a country where anyone can buy a gun in a store, blame, hate, distorted thinking, misunderstandings and — almost certainly — mental illness, can lead to the mass slaughter of ordinary people and innocent children.

This essay was originally published in If I Don’t Make It I Love You, a 2019 anthology about school shootings edited by Amye Archer and Loren Kleinman. Mary Allen is a local author. Her published works include the memoir The Rooms of Heaven.

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