Perry Hall school shooter left behind a chilling digital trail
Robert Gladden sent warnings, but fellow students did not alert authorities
"I am going to bring a shotgun and 21 shells, ill let your imagination do the rest," the 15-year-old Gladden said in a message sent around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 26. "And I trust you not to tell anyone about this so please don't."
The friend kept silent, according to newly released investigative documents, and Gladden kept his word. On the first day of the academic year, the sophomore smuggled a double-barreled Western Field shotgun into the school. He opened fire in the crowded cafeteria, critically wounding 17-year-old Daniel Borowy and shooting a second round into the drop ceiling before he was captured.
The text message was one of several communications in which Gladden presaged the attack. He famously posted on his Facebook page that the first day of school would be the last day of his life. But the files show that Gladden also bragged about the gun before the shooting, showing it to at least one friend.
The documents -- which include private texts, recorded police interviews and psychiatric reports -- provide the fullest picture to date of the hours leading up to the shooting. They also detail for the first time that Gladden had told several people about his plans.
Gladden pleaded guilty last month and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
As Perry Hall continues to recover from Gladden's attack and schools across the nation look for ways to head off violence, administrators -- and Borowy's family -- say the new information underscores the need for students to speak up about threats.
"You need to take the time to take it to somebody's attention," said Milton Borowy, Daniel's father. Daniel, who will turn 18 this month, spent nearly two weeks in the hospital but has since returned to school. He has Down syndrome, and his mother said it's unclear whether he understands what happened, even as others struggle to forget the horror.
In court testimony school administrator Kathleen Watkins has said several students still take their lunch in the library, afraid to eat in the cafeteria. Others shudder when a bag of chips is popped at lunch. And teachers continue to meet weekly "just to hang on."
Watkins said one of the teen's teachers told her she is racking her brain for ways she might have flagged Gladden's behavior that day, asking "How could I not see something was wrong?"
The school system has responded to the shooting by increasing security measures and encouraging students to speak up about suspicious behavior. Such measures became even more urgent following the tragic killings of 26 people months later at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.
Dale Rauenzahn, Baltimore County's executive director of school safety and security, says that schools held a "day of awareness" last fall, during which students were encouraged to report students in order to get them help, not get in trouble.
"The biggest thing is that we are very committed to planning to make sure we are prepared if an event like this happens again," he said, citing close cooperation between school officials and emergency responders. "Perry Hall kind of showed that."
TIMELINE | FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
"Bobby" Gladden passed the last day of his summer vacation in the same way he had passed much of the break: at his father's place, sleeping late and playing video games. Robert Gladden Sr. drove the boy to his mother's house.
They briefly stopped at Walmart to buy some last-minute school supplies, and Robert Gladden Sr. tried to encourage his son to apply himself in the coming school year. Gladden had already taken the shotgun from his father's basement, broken it down and tucked it away in the back seat.
His mother said in court that she did not notice anything out of the ordinary after Gladden arrived. When she first heard news reports the next day, she prayed her son was not injured.
But the investigative files show that Gladden would issue multiple warnings about his plans.
That night, Gladden mentioned the gun to the friend: "I'm either gunna go strait to mrs blakes room or wait until lunch and just shoot everyone lol," Gladden texted.
The friend indicated in texts to other teens that he did not take Gladden seriously. (The Sun is not identifying the friend or other students named in the investigative files because they are juveniles.)
The next morning, Gladden left home with a black Bob Marley drawstring backpack. The shotgun was inside, along with a bottle of peanut-butter-and jelly-flavored vodka.
He went to his first three classes before heading to lunch at 10:25 a.m. At a cafeteria table, he told friends that he had a shotgun, but they later reported to investigators that they did not believe him. Gladden opened his bag and showed off the weapon to at least one student. That student, a friend, later saw Gladden putting shells in his pocket.
He told police that he implored Gladden not to do anything with the gun. Gladden only told him to leave the cafeteria 10 minutes early.
At some point during lunch, someone threw a paper towel at Gladden's head, prompting him to turn around to a nearby table of boys. "You're dead," he told them, according to one student's account. Gladden then left the cafeteria and headed to a bathroom.
Two students who had been sitting with Gladden got up to leave the cafeteria but were stopped and questioned by two teachers, Holly Cebliak and Richard Rosenthal. One told the teachers, "I can't do this right now. I can't talk about this right now," then hurried through the gymnasium doors and out of the school.
The other student listened to the teachers and returned to the cafeteria.
Several boys from the nearby table also got up to see what Gladden was up to. In the bathroom, one boy noticed what looked like big wooden paddle sticking out of Gladden's waistband.
The shots would ring out just moments later.
VIDEO | THE CONFESSION
Several people, including guidance counselor Jesse Wasmer, told investigators that they noticed Gladden's neon green T-shirt and his long black hair that day.
Wasmer also noticed something beneath the teen's shirt. He wasn't sure if it was a real gun at first, but then he saw Gladden draw it to his hip.
"I start walking over to him and then I hear a shot and then I start running over at him. This is when my adrenaline starts kicking in," he told a detective that day, still visibly shaken in the recording. Wasmer has not spoken publicly since the shooting.
Wasmer tackled Gladden, wrapping his arms around him as several other adults piled on. The split-second confrontation was captured by security cameras, and one chilling image released to the public shows Wasmer confronting the teen, Gladden falling back while still holding the gun.
"We're all saying, `Put it down. Do you have anything else?'" Wasmer said. "He didn't actively resist." Another staff member pulled the gun from Gladden's grip.
Some students thought the first shot was just someone "messing around," one wrote in a witness statement. Another student thought it was somebody opening a can of soda or a bag of chips.
School staff member Rita Weber watched the scene unfold from near Borowy's table, yelling for students to "get down."
As she attempted to guide Borowy away from the table, Weber touched his back and found it covered in blood. Another adult pulled him to safety on the ground.
One student near Borowy wrote in her witness statement to police, "I looked to my right and I saw a student with a bloody back. ... After a few seconds I heard someone say to get out and I ran out of the back door."
"All I see are students running like crazy people and some people hiding under tables," another student wrote.
Students had abandoned half-eaten lunches and left backpacks stowed under the tables. Outside, photos show that the crowd knocked over trash cans. Somebody lost a pair of black Nike sneakers in the rush; someone else left behind leopard-print ballet flats.
English teacher Susan Gerber heard the shots in her classroom and saw several students run past her door. Three more passed her classroom and she told them to come inside, then locked her door and turned out the lights.
She told investigators she thought she was overreacting -- until she heard a "code red" announcement over the intercom. Perry Hall High School was on lockdown.
"You never think something like this is going to happen in your school," Gerber wrote in a statement.
Inside the cafeteria, school resource officer Gary Gephardt had handcuffed Gladden.
"Can I get the death penalty for this?" the teen asked, according to Gephardt's court testimony. "Because I wanted to kill him."About 1,700 students streamed out as police secured the building, and news of the shooting spread quickly throughout the community. Baltimore County dispatchers began to receive frantic 911 calls from parents desperate for information.
"My son is at that school, do you know anything?" one parent asked, according to recordings released by police.
Some students called or texted their parents; others posted on Facebook.
One thread cited by investigators includes posts from a student who says he was seated at Gladden's table. "At lunch, Bobert showed me the gun, it was a double barrel."
Another poster wrote, "didn't you think it was odd he had a gun in school? You might have been able to stop a shooting if you told someone."
Others quickly found Gladden's ominous post from early that morning: "first day of school, last day of my life."
When he was arrested, Gladden had several shells in his pants pocket. He was also carrying a note, marked at the top with "SUICIDE" written in jagged letters. In it, the teen thanked his father for giving him access to the gun. To his mother, he said, "I really don't have anything to say to you."
He closed the note -- included in the investigative files -- by saying, "Lifes just not something I enjoy, I hate people. I was just gonna off myself but then realized that, I'd rather make a point."
After several officers questioned Gladden about other potential threats in the building -- additional shooters or potential explosive devices -- he was taken to nearby police headquarters. In a narrow interview room on the 10th floor he was interviewed by Detective Eric Dunton of violent crimes.
He said in the recorded interview he wanted to kill as many as he could and then kill himself. The shooting was "to make a point. That the world is a [expletive]-up place."
Watkins, the school administrator, would later tell a detective that Gladden had pointed the gun at her with "a look of total satisfaction."
"He was happy enough to shoot it in my direction," noting that after Gladden shot Borowy he turned the gun toward her. "He was having a good time."
In Watkins' description in a recorded interview with police, Gladden appears intent on killing, at times almost gleeful. The image stands in stark contrast to the hours of court testimony at sentencing in which his family begged a Circuit Court judge to go easy on him.
During those hearings, his attorney spoke of the teen's troubled childhood, a rocky relationship with his parents and suicidal thoughts that began at a young age. Tearful relatives described a sweet, mild-mannered child who loved football and raced into his sister's room on Christmas mornings. They could never imagine him committing such an atrocity.
"At the end of the day, he did this to kill himself," said Gladden's attorney, George Psoras. "Robert obviously did not think this through. He's not an evil person,"
But Judge Robert Cahill ultimately handed down a sentence that exceeded even the harshest penalty set by sentencing guidelines. Speaking in court, the judge pointed to jail phone calls in which Gladden made light of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre. Cahill called those comments "unforgivable."
That Gladden survived to appear in court was unusual in itself; many others who have attacked educational institutions have killed themselves in the process. Cahill said he felt he had to make an example of Gladden, calling school shootings "our national modern-day plagues in this country."
"School properties in this country are or should be sanctuaries of safety and learning," Cahill said. "In school, students must feel safe and secure, as must teachers. And parents as well must feel a confidence that their children are safe and well protected."
Gunman Robert Gladden in a text message hours before the school shooting
Gunman Robert Gladden in a text message to a friend
”Gunman Robert Gladden in a note found after the shooting