Published Friday, April 14, 2000
Teenage shooter’s mom copes with aftermath
The Associated Press
Cathy Wurst’s teen-age son won’t tell her if he is getting enough to eat in prison, let alone why he sneaked a gun out of their house and killed a middle school teacher at a crowded dance.
She still encounters an uncommunicative, zombie-like son who says little about prison life, leaving her to rely on other inmates or prison officials to tell her if he is healthy, keeping up educationally or if he gets hurt.
“He doesn’t say a whole lot, so if something were to happen, I’m not sure I would know,” said Cathy Wurst, 43.
Andrew Wurst, now 16, pleaded guilty in September to third-degree murder for the April 24, 1998, shooting death of 48-year-old science teacher John Gillette at an eighth-grade dance in Edinboro.
The boy also pleaded guilty to wounding two students and threatening to shoot James Parker Middle School Principal Patricia Crist in the lakeside community of 7,000 in Erie County.
Wurst was 14 years old at the time of the shooting. Now he is serving a 30- to 60-year prison sentence and will not be eligible for parole until he turns 45.
As the Gillette family continues to mourn their loss, Cathy Wurst wonders what happened to her lively, talkative son and how to reach out to the withdrawn, seemingly dazed boy who has taken his place.
“I loved him; I nurtured him; I cared for him,” she said. “He never got into trouble. I didn’t even let him go to the mall by himself. I just miss him.”
She filed for divorce from her husband and Andrew’s father, Jerome Wurst, in November. A lawsuit against the Wurst family filed in December by Gillette’s widow, Deborah, is pending.
“It devastated my family,” Cathy Wurst said. “Still today, a lot of times it’s hard to keep everything together.”
Cathy Wurst spends most weekends in the spacious visiting area of a state prison for male adults at Houtzdale, Clearfield County, where her son is in a special unit for juveniles convicted as adults. Adjusting to being a prison mother was difficult.
“It took me forever to find support groups,” she said. “There’s not much out there for parents of juveniles locked up in adult systems. The prisons share so little information. I’ve just had to struggle through so many things on my own.”
While she doesn’t dismiss what her son did, she is quick to say he is mentally ill — as diagnosed by two psychiatrists hired by his lawyers — and he needs treatment while incarcerated.
A psychiatrist for the prosecution said Andrew Wurst had a personality disorder but was not mentally ill. The civil lawsuit filed by Gillette’s widow says the boy’s family should have known he was mentally disturbed and ensured he had no access to a gun.
Charles Longo, a Cleveland attorney representing Gillette in the lawsuit, said it is not inconsistent for the civil case to allege mental illness while prosecutors dismissed that possibility.
“If we accept the facts based on Wurst’s experts, he had longstanding emotional problems,” Longo said. “Why the parents didn’t pick up on it or take steps to make sure the public in general was protected from his indiscretions is unconscionable.”
Wurst said she did not want to believe her son was mentally ill at first. For about a year before the shooting, he became withdrawn, stopped playing soccer and sat alone in his room more often.
“My 18-year-old son did the same thing,” she said. “How do you know that there’s something going on or if it’s just a phase? I just assumed it was a phase.”
She said she did not know he had taken his father’s handgun from an unlocked dresser drawer at their McKean home to take to the dance. Nor did she know he had told a classmate two weeks prior that he wanted to emulate two boys who killed a teacher and four students at their Jonesboro, Ark., school in March that year.
But when she went to a dance hall near the school to pick him up, like many parents of the 280 eighth-graders who attended the dance, she saw police cars and terrified students.
She saw Crist, asked where her son was, and she said the principal took her inside and announced to nearby state troopers, “This is the shooter’s mother.”
“I fell to the floor,” Cathy Wurst said. “I couldn’t think, I couldn’t do anything.”
Andrew Wurst was slated to go to trial in October last year, but agreed to the plea bargain. Cathy Wurst decided to let her son take it because the alternative was life in prison if a jury rejected his insanity defense.
“I felt I didn’t want to see my son in prison for the rest of his life. Could I live with myself if that happened? Finally, the answer was no,” she said.
The Gillette family would have liked to see Andrew Wurst face life in prison for first-degree murder, but they accepted the plea, Longo said.
“From a practical standpoint, he received a very stiff sentence, which fit the crime,” Longo said.
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