Emma Courtland: Hey there, just a quick warning before we get started. This story includes descriptions of gun violence. Take care when listening.
Emma: In the story you're about to hear, there are two people named John. One is the reason we're able to tell the story, the other is the reason there's a story to tell.
John Ray: I'm—look, I'm an Austin homer.
Emma: This is John Ray.
John Ray: I literally look like Willie Nelson, right?
Emma: He's the reason we're able to tell this story. And he's right, he does look a bit like Willie Nelson.
John Ray: Like, I—I love all things Austin. My family had a very well-known restaurant there. We were involved in the arts and music scene. Well, I left when I was 19. And I've never lived in Austin since. And it took me years to realize why. It wasn't until decades later that I was driving around Austin going, "Oh, this has never felt safe since then."
Emma: For John Ray, "then" is not some bygone era. "Then" has a date: May 18, 1978. At the time, John was just 13, an eighth grader.
John Ray: It was junior high where your friends are literally the most important people in your life, right? Junior high is that age where you're moving away to discover yourself outside of the context of your family.
Emma: And that year, John became a part of a new family: an advanced English class that was part of a program called Gifted and Talented. The "GTs."
John Ray: We had a bond unlike I've ever had in any other school situation. And in literally an instant, that was blown apart.
Emma: John knew what happened, but he couldn't remember it. In fact, four years of his life had been almost entirely wiped from his memory. Starting with that day.
John Ray: My memory of that day is a pastiche. It's not linear. The outlines of the things are not clear. It is a combination of sight and smell and sound that oftentimes are out of sync with one another. I don't know how it got out of the room. I don't know how I ended up on the bus going down to the police station. I don't know how my mother got informed that I was there, and she picked me up. I remember John in the doorway, I remember the sound.
Emma: But the thing itself? Nothing. And that had had profound consequences on his life. So in 2018, John created a Facebook group, and started reaching out to the GTs.
John Ray: I knew it was gonna be around the date of the anniversary, and Facebook just seemed a natural way to get in touch with a few people.
Emma: It was more than a few people. John Ray reached out to almost everyone who'd been in that eighth grade class to help him remember what happened in Austin, Texas 40 years earlier—to help him work through it.
John Ray: And I don't want this to sound in any way, shape or form like it was altruistic. Like, here's John Ray coming to reach out and be this great guy to his friends who've suffered this trauma. No, this is John Ray just trying to figure shit out.
Emma: And wouldn't you know, his friends had some shit to figure out too.
Susie Davis: I thought that God abandoned me. And I loved him, but I didn't trust him.
Peyton Smith: That's what's hard, is your whole life trying to solve a puzzle with the key piece of the puzzle that finishes the picture doesn't exist.
Rebecca Leamon: It's just something like that, I was just never going to forget it. There's just no way I was ever gonna forget it.
Emma: I'm Emma Courtland. This is Crime Show.
Emma: For each of the people in the class, this story begins in a different place. But the story of their group—the story they share—begins in 1977 in the Northwest Hills neighborhood of Austin, Texas. That year, a strange test had been given to all the seventh graders at Murchison Middle School. The test was strange for a couple reasons. First, it wasn't tied to any specific class, so the outcome wouldn't impact any of their grades. The second strange thing was the questions it asked.
John Ray: You are given an empty can of sardines and a matchstick ...
Peyton Smith: You're on a deserted island, and you have a paper clip and a cheeseburger and, you know, a magazine. How do you find a way to get off the island with those three things?
Rebecca Leamon: You're on a desert island with an empty can of tuna fish, and what would you do with a can?
John Ray: It's a swimming pool for cockroaches. You know, it's a tiki torch for this.
Emma: It was only after that they learned what the test was for: a new and very selective gifted and talented program.
Elaine Moore: It was called "gifted and talented." I never looked at it as a gifted and talented class.
Emma: This is Elaine Moore. She'd just moved to Austin the year before.
Elaine Moore: I just always felt like we were more creative and maybe, you know, learned differently than others.
John Ray: We weren't gonna cure cancer, we weren't gonna save the world. But there's a bunch of creative kids in Austin in a very creative era in Austin's history. And we had exceptional teachers who were nurturing that.
Emma: The GT class was helmed by two teachers. Both seemed much younger than any other teachers the kids had had before—and cooler. Especially the English teacher, Mr Grayson.
Peyton Smith: We thought he was super cool.
Emma: This is Peyton Smith.
Peyton Smith: He was tall and thin and had this mustache. And most guys couldn't grow anything under one of their arms. And he seemed sophisticated. And the girls were all enamored with him.
Emma: The "girls" we spoke to did seem to be quite taken with their teacher. Here's Susie Davis.
Susie Davis: To have a man who is young and attractive and winsome come in and teach English was just unusual.
Emma: Cathy Olson agrees.
Cathy Olson: He just was so out there, and it—I thought it was cool that I could even know somebody like that.
Emma: But beyond the mustache, the thing that really distinguished Grayson was the way he engaged with this group. This was the first class he'd ever taught, and he seemed genuinely invested in their growth—not just as students, but as people.
Rebecca Leamon: He was determined to, you know, get us to think as critically as possible and, you know, question things ...
Emma: This is Rebecca Leamon.
Rebecca Leamon: He critiqued—there was a Barbra Streisand song that was very popular at the time, and he devoted a fair bit of the class to describing why it was a bad song. It's a bad song, and here's why.
Emma: Every part of the class felt fresh and kinetic. It was the first time for many of the kids that they felt like an adult really saw them.
Andre Terry: I think he kind of had each one of us kind of pegged for what we liked and what we did.
Emma: That's Andre Terry. At the time, Andre was on the football team, but Grayson was the one that noticed Andre was really into fashion.
Andre Terry: He lit a fire for me to be a designer because he knew that I liked to draw and I liked clothes. And that's when Sonny and Cher was on. And so that was like one of my favorite shows. And I remember him asking me, you know, when I walked in, he's like, "Andre, did you see what Cher had on last night?"
Emma: Grayson invited these kids to participate in their own education, and in each others'. In his class, they played music and performed skits with costumes and props. And the experience bonded them like no other class they'd ever had.
Peyton Smith: We had this, like, bizarre mix of people, and everybody got along great. We all really liked each other.
Elaine Moore: I think we all felt the same and equal. It was just our little world and our little group.
Emma: Grayson pushed the GTs hard, but they all agreed his class was a nurturing and safe space—its own little world. Which is one of the reasons why it's so hard to believe that the thing that happened, happened there. It started the day before. The day Mr Grayson was out.
Peyton Smith: Mr. Grayson had announced that he was gonna have to be out of the class for the day, and we had a substitute teacher. And the substitute teacher that came in was a sub we'd never seen before.
Emma: The students had been paired up and asked to give presentations on a chapter of the book they were reading. They'd been told that they could do whatever they wanted to do, and because there was a substitute that day, they took that a little too literally.
Peyton Smith: And that was the day that John Ray—John-John—that John Ray and John Christian were teaching their chapter. And ...
Susie Davis: For whatever reason, the Johns went crazy. That was not unusual for John Ray at all, but it was unusual for John Christian. I remember thinking, "Wow!"
Emma: Remember: there are two people in this story named John—John Ray, whose voice you've been hearing, is the reason we're able to tell the story. But John Christian, whose voice you will not hear, is the reason there's a story to tell. Of all the GTs, John Christian may have been the least likely to have an outburst. Where John Ray had a reputation for goofing off, John Christian always seemed to conduct himself like an adult, both in how he dressed and how he acted.
Peyton Smith: John, he was always very bookish, quiet, more reserved. I would say, you know, back then, the title would have been "nerdy."
Andre Terry: He didn't get involved a whole lot. I don't ever remember John talking.
Peyton Smith: I don't mean this in a mean way. He was one of those people who did not stand out. He kind of blended in with the crowd.
Elaine Moore: Quiet. Seemed more mature.
Emma: John's maturity may have been handed down to him from his parents. Not all of his classmates knew it—and the ones who did, didn't really care—but John's father had been a press secretary under Lyndon B. Johnson, and his mother was a prominent attorney in Austin. The Christians were an important family, and John seemed to fit that image—just not on that day.
Elaine Moore: John Christian's just suddenly being very funny. You know, being on the tables and standing on things.
Andre Terry: It was like he had had a shot of dope or something. It was just—it was a whole different person.
Rebecca Leamon: He said at one point, "Whoever says 'sssss" long enough will get this piece of chalk." Where I was—I was laughing, I think.
Peyton Smith: For him to be this exaggerated, this extreme, this free and unfettered, when his whole life I'd never seen him get excited about anything.
Cathy Olson: Well, a more informed adult now would say that it was a bit manic.
Peyton Smith: And at the end of the class, the sub just lost it and said, "I am so mad. Mr. Grayson's gonna be so upset." And at that point, the full weight of it hit us. So we had spotless records, never disciplined. We were very concerned about what was gonna happen.
John Ray: I just see the sub writing notes. I'm like, "Oh, damn! Like, this is not gonna be good." We walk out of the classroom, and I turned to John and I said, "Man, Christian? Mr. Grayson is gonna kick our butts tomorrow for that." And his response was, "Oh, don't worry, I'm gonna bring a gun." And I was like, "Ha ha! Yeah, I'll bring one too," you know?
Emma: There were no assigned seats in Mr Grayson's class, so the next morning, Thursday, May 18, when the first bell rang, the kids that arrived early rushed to snag the seats on the right side of the classroom furthest from Mr Grayson's stool. Peyton Smith was not one of those kids.
Peyton Smith: I mean, I'm not late, but I'm one of the later people into the classroom. So by the time I enter the classroom, there is no seating over to the right, which kind of sucked because I was excited about hiding in the back of the group. But you can't do it. No seating. There's no seating in front of me, and the only seating is over to the left near where Mr. Grayson is already seated. And I sit down. And he goes, "How are you doing today?" And I just kind of looked at him, like, oh no, this is gonna be terrible. I said, "I'm okay." I said, "Are you okay?" And he goes, "I'm not very happy with you guys." I said, "I know. I'm so sorry." And he goes, "We'll talk about it later." So the last bell rings and we start class.
Susie Davis: And I remember him chiding us for the wildness the day before with the substitute. Not in a mean way, but in a "Hey, you guys know better than this" kind of way.
Peyton Smith: And so people start saying, "Well, John and John were terrible, you know, they da da da da," and then I'm looking around and I realize John Christian isn't in the room. And Mr. Grayson goes, "Yeah, speaking of that, where is John?"
Cathy Olson: And he said, "Well, where is John?" And then someone said, "Well, there he is. And he has a gun."
Emma: The students sitting close to the window could see John outside. He was walking over the hill carrying a rifle. But nobody seemed worried about it.
Cathy Olson: I also remember—I think I said this. Again, I'm not sure. "Oh, well, maybe it's just a prop. Maybe it's for a play that he's in," you know? And so we didn't worry.
Peyton Smith: And then I saw him come through the door and he had, like, his regular clothes and a long gun of some type—it was a rifle—casually hanging at his hip. Like, he was very comfortable with this gun.
Susie Davis: It was just so weird. We're all sitting there. No one's alarmed. It's John. Why is he carrying a gun? And then ...
Peyton Smith: And Mr. Grayson said, "We're glad you're here. Glad you made it. You know, what—what's with the gun? Is that some sort of a joke? And then John goes, "Well no, the joke's on you." And then he took the gun and just fired three shots in a row without even aiming.
Susie Davis: I remember it was like—it was like it wasn't real, you know? It was like—it was like, almost like everybody held their breath. There's this moment of collective suspension because it felt—we didn't know what it was. It felt like it wasn't real. Was it a drama sketch?
Cathy Olson: I think I was probably part of the group that thought, "Okay, this is a skit. You know, actor, actor. They're just kind of putting this on."
Andre Terry: Because we all laughed even when it happened.
Emma: The whole class was living in the before time. Before they knew their lives were fragile, before their homes and schools became dangerous. Before, they'd say, over and over again, everything changed. But Peyton Smith, who'd reluctantly taken the seat next to his teacher, would be the first to arrive at "after."
Emma: Mr Grayson had fallen off his stool, and hit the floor in front of Peyton's desk. So while all his classmates were laughing at what they thought was a skit, the preacher's son leaned forward to see if his teacher was okay.
Peyton Smith: I've been a lifelong hunter. I mean, my dad took me hunting when I was young. And so I can remember when I was young, when we would find doves or quail that had not yet died but they were wounded, coming upon them and looking down at them. And just it broke your heart because they were hurting, and their eyes were so expressive, and they were panicking. And you just wanted to put them out of their misery. And so when I looked over my desk and saw Grayson, his eyes are wide open, panicking, and there's blood that is just starting to literally pour out of his ears, thick, dark, black, red blood. And at that point, I knew this wasn't a skit. But I'm the only one in the class that knew. Nobody had my perspective.
Peyton Smith: So some of the people are kind of laughing or clapping because they don't understand. I jumped up and yelled, "This is not a sketch!" I should have been fearful. I was not fearful at all. I ran right into the shooter with the gun in his hand right after he shot our teacher, and just barreled past him like he didn't exist. Brushed his shoulder in the hallway going through the door and went straight to the office. He's walking. He's not running. He is walking with the gun to exit the building.
Peyton Smith: And so I ran into the office and I said, "Call an ambulance immediately. Mr. Grayson's been shot. John shot him." And they said, "Peyton, that's not funny. We don't know what you guys are up to, but that's not funny." And remember, I'm a Southern Baptist preacher's kid, okay? I have grown up my whole life with these people, you know, not cussing, I don't do anything inappropriate. I mean, that's just the way I grew up. And I said, "Goddamnit, they've killed him!"
Peyton Smith: And for me to say that word, no. Never, ever, ever would happen. Never. I would never say that, much less those particular words if I was cussing. But I didn't know what else to do to convey to them the importance of the situation, because I'm a child in their eyes and I'm not telling the truth. But at that moment, they went, "Oh, my God!" And they immediately started dialing because they got it.
Emma: Some of the GTs had followed Peyton into the office to hide. Susie had run clear across the courtyard screaming. One kid ran all the way home. Elaine ran to the classroom next door, where she'd been scolded and told to go back to class. As for John Christian, he was nowhere in sight. For all they knew, he could be wandering the halls hunting. Nobody told them he wasn't. Nobody told them that John Christian had been spotted walking across the field toward his house, or that one of the coaches noticed he was carrying a gun and tackled him to the ground. Nobody told them anything. Instead, the GTs were rounded up and held in a room without windows, and then transported by bus to the police station to give statements.
Peyton Smith: You know, we have seen no counselor, we have not seen our parents. Nobody has calmed us down. Nobody has tried to comfort us. Nobody has said, "We know you've been in this traumatic situation."
Emma: In fact, nobody even told them that Mr Grayson had died until they got to the police station.
Cathy Olson: And I remember there were, like, four desks, and I think four of us were talking at the same time with detectives or officers or whatever, and I was thinking, "Okay, well, when can we get to the hospital and go see him? Can we all just get together? Can we be done now so we can go see him at the hospital?"
Elaine Moore: And I guess I gave my statement. I don't remember, you know, what I said or what, but at the end of it, the secretary turned around to the officer and said, "Well, how's the teacher?" And they said, "He's dead. It's a homicide." And that was, you know, how I learned that Mr. Grayson had actually died.
Emma: One by one, their parents picked them up from the police station and drove them home like it was another day at school.
Susie Davis: I remember getting in the car with my mom. She was driving my brother's blue Mustang. And I said, "Mother, if John killed him, that means he murdered Mr. Grayson." And she said, "Oh, Susie, didn't they tell you?" And I literally—I had no idea. I just wanted to fling myself out of the car. It was so unspeakably horrible to think that someone like John could have killed someone like Mr. Grayson. It didn't make any sense, and it just felt like it wrecked everything.
Emma: Over and over again, we heard different versions of this same idea: for the students in that class—even the ones that hadn't been there—that day had changed everything. And yet, the hardest part of that change was still ahead, because while they all felt their own worlds had been thrown off their axes, the world at large seemed largely unchanged. Of the students we talked to, most remember going back to the school the very next day.
Susie Davis: I wanted to see my friends who had been in the room. I needed to be with someone who knew how horrible it was. What I needed very much was just to be around the people who'd seen what I'd seen, and try to make some sense of what had happened.
Emma: But they were just 13—barely even teenagers. They didn't have the language to ask for what they needed—let alone understand it.
Susie Davis: When I met with them, it just was still indescribable and it didn't make sense. It didn't make sense. It just—and obviously, me having this kind of emotional reaction, however many years later, it still sits in my soul and it does not make sense.
Emma: There were only three weeks left in the school year, and none of the students I talked to remembered what happened in those three weeks. Least of all John Ray, who remembers almost nothing about the next three years. There is one memory John has from that day. Only one. After his mom picked him up from the police station, they drove home. And then nothing.
John Ray: And then I remember being back in our living room in my house at 8614 Willowick and so fucking quiet. Just it's still the same day, it's that afternoon. It's not even night yet. And it is absolute quiet. And it was terrifying.
Cathy Olson: We were just kind of told to deal with it and kind of move on.
Peyton Smith: You know, just that Texas gumption, you know? You've got to get up and move on. You've got to move on. You can't sit and wallow in it, you've got to move forward.
Elaine Moore: I think my big concern or worry back then was I didn't want my parents to worry about me, you know? And I guess that's where it started in my life of not minimizing what happened to me, but to just say, "Okay, go on."
John Ray: But just because life was going on, I think we were just caught up in the stream. There was no eddy made for us. There was no way to kind of pull out of the stream into an eddy and sit for a little bit and go, "What the fuck just happened?"
Emma: The GTs finished the school year, and then they got separated—scattered to different high schools around the city where nobody would know who they were or what they'd been through. The way the GTs remember it, a kind of conspiratorial quiet wrapped itself around that day in May. After that first week, they never saw anything in the paper about Murchison. Their parents never talked about it either. There was no memorial bench at the school, no tree planted in Grayson's honor. It was like what happened that day had disappeared completely, that it had been smothered out of existence—or that it never happened at all.
Emma: And for this group of 12 and 13 year olds who'd watched their classmate kill their teacher, the effect was the same: nobody knew what happened to John. He'd been whisked away, presumably to some juvenile detention facility somewhere far away and out of sight. Never, they thought, to be seen or heard from again. And for some, it began to feel like what happened to them existed as a piece of a different life. A vague kind of "from before."
Emma: So they simply kept moving. They graduated, they started careers, they got married, they had kids, and sent those kids to schools, afraid that if they stopped or looked too closely at the past, they'd be pulled back into that terrifying quiet. But for many of them, at different times and different places, the past started showing up again. For Susie, it happened at a supermarket.
Susie Davis: And I was on the cereal aisle, and I heard a voice. I heard someone say, "Hey, Susie." And I looked up and there was John Christian.
Emma: The last time Susie Davis saw John Christian, he was a thirteen-year-old kid with a rifle in his hands. She was a thirteen-year-old kid who saw what he did with that rifle. It was an image that haunted her in her sleep. And now here he was, all these years later, in the cereal aisle of the supermarket chatting with her.
Susie Davis: And literally, in my mind, all I could think was about Emily, my daughter being in such close proximity to someone who murdered my teacher. I had an initial instinctual fearful reaction when I saw him. Like, run out of the grocery store. Grab your child and run.
Emma: But Susie didn't run.
Susie Davis: The bizarre reality was we stood there and talked like nothing had happened. Like, my mind is racing, and as soon as he turned around, I got out as fast as I could. I scooped up my daughter and I rushed her to the car, and I just exploded in tears. And I remember thinking I felt like I should alert everybody that, you know, there was a murderer in the grocery store.
Emma: As Peyton Smith would discover one night in 1992, while representing his law firm at a charity gala, John Christian wasn't just free, he'd become a lawyer. In Austin.
Peyton Smith: And across the way, I'm like, "This is not happening to me." And literally, it's John in a tuxedo. He makes a beeline right towards me. You know, it's kind of those moments where it's like, "I cannot—this train is approaching. I am stuck at the station. I can't leave. I have to deal with it." And so he walks up, and he immediately sticks out his hand. "Oh, my gosh, Peyton. I haven't seen you in so long. How are you?" Talking 90 miles an hour, so excited to see me, hugs me. And I'm just like standing there. You know, he clearly was excited and animated. And whatever his demons are that I've never known, he felt like he dealt with them. And I just—I just couldn't. I just couldn't.
Emma: For Cathy Olson, it happened in a restaurant when she was in college.
Cathy Olson: I just couldn't believe it, you know, that he would just be there in the neighborhood, you know, with me and my family. And so I whispered to my mom, and kind of grimaced and was like, "You know, that's John Christian at that table behind us." "What? You know, how can that be?"
Emma: Of the seven GTs we spoke to, five had run-ins with John Christian. And all of them left those encounters with some version of the same question: How could that be? How could John Christian be out in the world? How could he be back in Austin? How could he stand to face them like nothing had ever happened? Legally, the GTs weren't entitled to know the answers to those questions. They weren't entitled to a heads-up that they might be seeing him around town. Legally speaking, they were not the victims of this crime, which only contributed to this sense that they weren't entitled to the pain they'd been feeling—which was significant. Susie and Andre had been plagued by dreams that John was coming to kill them.
Susie Davis: There was no rationale for killing Mr. Grayson. So in my mind, it made very great rational sense that he would turn the gun on me.
Emma: Rebecca, who'd been on a field trip the day of the shooting, became obsessed with understanding what happened, and was later institutionalized.
Rebecca Leamon: I think we all kind of went into hiding to a certain degree. We were all sort of forced into hiding because of this incident. It's something that you're just kind of not supposed to talk about.
Emma: Peyton, who'd been closest to the death of his teacher, started to behave like he was invincible.
Peyton Smith: Literally, no fear. And I think it's because there was no effort to aim the gun. If he had been off a millimeter, he would have nailed me. I mean, I'm right there beside him. I'm in the same line of fire.
Emma: Elaine learned to look for escape routes whenever she entered a new space. Though admittedly, for years, both she and Cathy refused to look back at what happened at all.
Elaine Moore: I also tend to kind of push things back a little bit maybe, more than some people. And not dwell too long on it. Because I think I feel like if I do, you know, I'll break.
Emma: As for John Ray, he started wandering the Earth. Across countries, across continents. Aware of it or not, he was putting more and more space between himself and this thing that happened, until it was so far in the rear-view mirror that he couldn't see it at all. And then he forgot what happened altogether, until one day, it all caught up with him. In 1999, in Fayetteville, Arkansas, John was driving his car and a story came on the radio. It was about the school shooting at Columbine. Suddenly, he had the sensation that he was floating. His fingertips tingled, and it felt like all the blood had just drained from his body. And then all of a sudden ...
John Ray: And all of a sudden I see a—I see a giant plane start to crash into Razorback Stadium, into the football stadium.
Emma: He pulled over and braced himself.
John Ray: And I wait for the sound, I wait for the smoke, I wait for the whole thing. And I realize okay, that didn't just happen.
Emma: There was no crash, but there was an impact. The news of Columbine continued to play on the radio as John sat on the side of the road, stunned.
John Ray: And that's when it just comes flooding back. Like, I've lived this. I know this. I know this story. And that's when—that's when the whole thing started of, hey, I need to pay attention to this. This wasn't a small thing. This wasn't just something that happened. Like, this was big, much bigger than I think I've ever allowed it to be. And I need to figure that out.
Emma: Over the next 20 years, in fits and starts, John Ray tried to figure that out. He went to seminary school, and started his own very John Ray-type misfit ministry for spiritual exiles and people who felt lost in their grief. But in his own grief, John Ray was stuck. He knew he needed to work through this thing, but he couldn't face what happened. And not because it was too painful—he literally just couldn't remember it. And there was only one group of people who could help him with that: his eighth grade classmates, the GTs. So John created the Facebook group. He called it "Murchison/Mr. Grayson 40 Years Later," and started reaching out.
Peyton Smith: I was at my desk and I just popped open my phone and there was a Facebook message, and I saw that John had reached out to several of us.
Rebecca Leamon: And he just wrote, "You know, I'm looking for the Rebecca Leamon who went to Murchison."
Emma: Many of the GTs had spent decades trying to avoid the memory of this event, and here John Ray was asking everyone to look directly at it.
Cathy Olson: I thought, "Yeah, no. Mm-mm. I don't need to do that."
Andre Terry: I was so mad because I was thinking, "Who in the fuck is doing this? Why would you do this? This is cruel."
Emma: Bringing this stuff up again at best felt pointlessly painful. At worst, it threatened to break down the protective walls they had built around themselves. But eventually, one by one, their hesitation yielded to curiosity, and the GTs found their way to the page.
Peyton Smith: I was curious who had—the group of individuals that had actually responded and had been included.
Rebecca Leamon: It's interesting. It kind of warmed up a bit, you know? The whole Facebook group got a bit more active, and there was more discussion.
Emma: For others, lurking was all they could handle. Even that could be too much. Here's Cathy.
Cathy Olson: Some of it I can't read because it, you know, just kind of hurts my heart, and I'll have to stop and go back and read more of it, you know?
Emma: But for the people posting, it was like saying the words out loud for the first time. They'd been told, in one way or another, their whole lives, that this wasn't something they should talk about. Now they could. Each person in their own time, began contributing memories and keepsakes that they'd held onto from that year, altogether building this comprehensive story about a single day in Austin, Texas, and the ways that it reverberated through so many lives over so many years. Essentially, they built the story you're hearing. But it was entirely for themselves. And then, one day completely out of the blue,an opportunity came along to make that story public.
Emma: See, back when John Ray was starting to reach out to his old classmates, he made contact with a guy named Robert Draper. There was a Robert Draper in the class, but this wasn't that Robert Draper. This Robert Draper was a journalist—a pretty famous one. They got to talking, and John Ray ended up telling him about Murchison. And this Robert Draper said, "I want to write that story." There would be interviews and a photo shoot, but it would happen at Murchison. Many of them hadn't set foot on campus since they were eighth graders, but it loomed large in their psyches as a place of violence, a monument to their worst memory. Still, John Ray put the question to the group: Does anyone want to do this? In February of 2020, six of Grayson's GTs returned to Murchison.
Andre Terry: Walking into the school was really hard that day.
Peyton Smith: But for all of us to be together in this Murchison hallway having our photograph made together at the school, yeah. I mean, it brought back a lot.
Elaine Moore: That was my first time back in the school since the last day I walked out in May of '78.
Andre Terry: And then we met in the cafeteria, which was where we met the first time to even take that test.
Elaine Moore: I think I still saw the 13 and 14 year old, you know? I mean, but the faces, and the faces and the personalities, the under—the underneaths were all the same.
Susie Davis: Right away, there was that instant connection with these people.
Emma: Even Cathy, who'd hesitated to join the Facebook group, found her way back to the school that day.
Cathy Olson: I was looking for comfort from the group because they had all said, you know, "No, you need to do this. And it'll be okay." But then I gained so much more once I was there, and kind of was kicking myself. Like, why didn't I, you know, feel confident enough to join in earlier?
Emma: For most of them, this was the first time they'd had a chance to really sit with each other and talk face-to-face about what happened since that day after the shooting, when they'd all been grasping at something they didn't yet have the words for. The experience of telling it—publicly, together—was affirmational. It felt healing and redemptive.
Emma: In March of 2020, Texas Monthly ran the article as a feature under the headline, "The School Shooting That Austin Forgot." The story signaled to the GTs for the first time in 40 years that what happened to them deserved space and sunlight. It also gave them something else they desperately felt they needed: new details to that burning question: what happened to John Christian? Here's what they found out.
Emma: On the morning of May 18, 1978, John Christian hid in his closet and waited for his family to leave their home. He had planned to kill himself with a .22 rifle that had been given to him as a gift. But instead, he decided to take the gun to Murchison. The reason for John's decision may never be known—John declined to speak with Robert Draper. But sources suggested that John may have been worried about receiving poor grades, or that he may have been embarrassed by his actions with the substitute the day before. Or that he didn't want to get chewed out by Grayson. What is known is that immediately after the shooting, John Christian was sent to a juvenile detention center where he was evaluated. It was determined that he was suicidal and experiencing something called latent schizophrenia. It's hard to know what exactly they meant, since at the time, schizophrenia was used as a bit of a catch-all for a bunch of other maladies. Whatever it was, the psychiatrists thought John met the criteria for insanity, which meant the court had a decision to make: either he'd be sent to juvenile detention or a psychiatric facility.
Emma: Instead of pursuing punishment for John Christian, the court chose rehabilitation. He was sent to a long-term psychiatric hospital in Dallas. And then—just 20 months later—John was released into the care of a private physician. He then enrolled in one of the best high schools in the state. He was in plays, he was the editor of the school newspaper. He graduated on time and went to the University of Texas in Austin. As far as anyone can tell, John Christian has never reoffended. He's a tax attorney and a husband and a homeowner in the same suburb where he grew up, walking distance from Murchison.
Rebecca Leamon: I guess for me, the real question is, like, what's going on with John Christian right now, and how do we all live our lives together? How do we live in the same world as John Christian?
Emma: Typically, people who've survived a school shooting don't have to worry about running into the gunman at the bank. For each of the GTs—especially those who have stayed in Austin—there's always that fear, that like Susie, they'll bump into the boogeyman at the grocery store. He's standing in front of you, your heart is racing, but he seems fine. He seems to have moved on, but you haven't. Most of the GTs we've spoken to think that the justice system worked the way it should have for John Christian. Most believe in rehabilitation, and they're glad that John appears—at least on the outside—to be doing okay. So why then, does it feel so bad?
Peyton Smith: I just wanted an answer. I just wanted an answer. You know. if you're a juvenile, and you don't have to pay for your crime, and on the heels of what happened, you go to the best high school in the country and live a very privileged life from there on out, shouldn't maybe the price of all that be an answer? Just an answer. Why? Why? Whatever it was, why? It's isn't going to solve anything, but, you know, you can't be re-charged. You can't be convicted. So just tell me why. You know, just help me process.
Emma: Underneath all the questions the GTs have for John Christian, and the frustration I hear in their voices, I hear them asking him for acknowledgement. Acknowledgement from him that it happened. Acknowledgement that he hurt them.
John Ray: I just wish I could talk to him. I wish he was part of this conversation. I don't know how that would look, and I don't know what it would do. And maybe it would be terrible. Maybe that's a terrible idea, but it feels like a missing piece of the whole conversation that I would really like to have.
Emma: We reached out to John Christian to see if he'd be open to talking. As of publication time, he has not replied. But the door is still open.
Emma: Crime Show is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. This episode was written and produced by Mitch Hansen and me, Emma Courtland. Crime Show is produced by Jerome Campbell, Cat Schuknecht, and Jade Abdul-Malik. Mitch Hansen is our senior producer. Editing by Devon Taylor. Nicole Pasulka is our fact-checker. Production oversight by Collin Campbell.
Emma: Theme song by So Wylie. Mixing and sound design by Daniel Ramirez. Original music by So Wylie and Dara Hirsch.
Emma: Special thanks to Rachel Strom, Myrriah Gossett and Permanent Record Studios. Also, this story would not have been possible without the reporting of Robert Draper and Texas Monthly. You should read their article, "The School Shooting Austin Forgot." It's great.