Brenda Spencer: The Genesis Monster

This feisty-looking young lady pioneered the modern scourge of school shootings.

When I was growing up kids brought guns to school all the time. We typically left them in gun racks in the back windows of our pickup trucks or in car trunks in anticipation of after-school hunting trips. Our driver’s ed teacher was a compulsive hunter. His name was Coach Smith. When out of earshot we called him Poach Smith. He famously kept a shotgun and a garbage bag in the trunk of the driver’s ed car in case he came across something that needed shooting. He once returned after an outing around the county with both his students and a fresh wild turkey.

At least in the Deep South there was a time when guns in school were more background clutter than evidence of the coming apocalypse.

I recall one kid bringing a 1911 pistol to show off to his pals. Somebody saw it in his locker and alerted the headmaster, himself a Naval officer who had served in the Pacific during World War 2. The headmaster confiscated the gun and put it in his desk drawer, directing the kid to pick it up after school and not to bring it back again. He didn’t even call the boy’s parents. That’s because at that time in that place it would have been literally unimaginable to shoot up a school. That all changed on January 29, 1979.

Gender Issues

Life just seems more complicated today than was previously the case.

Figuring out whether you were a boy or a girl used to seem a fairly straightforward chore. Nowadays things are a bit more opaque. However, there yet remain some fundamental differences that are empirically demonstrable between men and women. In addition to the capacity to carry a child to term, one of the two genders is just a bit more innately rotten than the other. 

The overwhelming majority of the prison inmates in America are male.

Testosterone is the most potent poison known to man. 93.3% of the incarcerated population in America is genotypically male. Were we being completely honest the quickest way to restore peace and harmony to the species would be to just lock up all the guys. Believe it or not, there are some radical feminists who have suggested just that.

School shootings are tragically commonplace today. However, they arose from some surprising places.

Despite this gross gender imbalance among the world’s criminals, when it came time for Satan to kick off the ghastly phenomenon that is the modern school spree shooting it was a woman who first squeezed the trigger. In 16-year-old Brenda Spencer, we find the genesis monster.


Brenda Spencer grew up in this nondescript home across the street from the local elementary school.

Like most true psychopaths Brenda’s origin story is sordid and broken. Born in 1962 in San Diego, California, and raised across the street from the Grover Cleveland Elementary School, by her sixteenth birthday Brenda stood all of 5’2” and sported bright red hair. Her parents were separated, and she lived in squalor with her alcoholic father, Wallace Spencer. It was so bad that the two of them slept on a common mattress in the living room surrounded by empty beer and liquor bottles.

The combination of a wretched upbringing, some sub-optimal raw material, and a childhood injury transformed this cute little kid into a certifiable monster.

As a child Brenda took a tumble on her bicycle and suffered a head injury. Though she recovered physically she was never quite right after that. Head scans later revealed permanent damage to one of her temporal lobes that likely contributed to the aberrant behavior that was to follow.

Brenda Spencer’s life just seemed cursed.

Spencer was a predictably poor student with truancy issues, but she had a talent for photography. She took first prize in a local Humane Society photography contest. However, her teachers reported that she fell asleep regularly in class.

With the crystal clarity of hindsight Brenda Spencer was obviously broken from a very young age.

While growing up Brenda demonstrated an inexplicable hatred of policemen. She also wandered the neighborhood killing birds with a BB gun. At age fifteen she was arrested for shooting out the windows in the school with her air rifle as well as burglary.

In the hands of a psychopath even a plinking rifle like this Ruger .22 can be fearsome deadly.

Her probation officer recommended that she be hospitalized for depression, but her rocket scientist dad refused to give permission. At Christmas of that year, he gave Brenda a Ruger 10/22 semiautomatic .22 rifle, a riflescope, and a 500-round brick of ammunition. Brenda later said of the gift, “I asked for a radio and he bought me a gun…I felt like he wanted me to kill myself.”

The Shooting

This is the view of the Grover Cleveland Elementary School from Brenda’s house across the street.

On Monday morning, January 29, 1979, a herd of children had gathered outside the gates of the elementary school. As 53-year-old Principal Burton Wragg walked out to open up the facility Brenda opened fire with her 10/22. As one might expect, unfettered chaos ensued.

Principal Burton Wragg gave his life saving the kids in his charge.
Mike Suchar, the school custodian, was a former Seabee and a WW2 veteran. He also died saving children during Brenda Spencer’s murderous rampage.

Spencer shot and wounded eight elementary school kids. Principal Wragg rushed into the line of fire to drag children to safety and was shot down as well. The school custodian, a 56-year-old Navy veteran named Mike Suchar, also ran to the sounds of battle. He was gunned down, too. Though all eight of the children ultimately recovered, Wragg and Suchar were killed.

A quick-thinking police officer commandeered a garbage truck and used it as cover to evacuate wounded children.

Brenda shot the first police officer to respond in the neck with her rifle. By this point, she had fired a sum total of thirty rounds. The police parked a garbage truck in the road to shield the school and evacuated the injured children to safety. Spencer spent the next several hours barricaded in her house talking to police negotiators.

People kill for myriad reasons. Brenda Spencer just wasn’t wired correctly.

A reporter from the San Diego Union-Tribune dialed random numbers in the neighborhood until he got Spencer on the phone. When queried concerning her motivations she said, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” She informed him that she had chosen the kids across the street because they made easy targets. She actually said, “It was a lot of fun seeing children shot.” She also explained that it was her intent to leave the house guns a’blazing.

Despite professional negotiators, police vehicles, and SWAT teams, it was a little BK that finally lured Spencer out of her home.

Eventually, Brenda grew peckish. She ultimately left the house peacefully in exchange for a meal from Burger King. Police subsequently described the home as littered with beer and whiskey bottles. However, Spencer’s drug and alcohol tests were all negative.

The Gun

The Ruger 10/22 is a ubiquitous American hunting and recreational rifle.

First introduced in 1964, the Ruger 10/22 is likely the most successful .22 rifle ever devised. As of 2015, there had been more than seven million copies sold. Aftermarket parts and accessories are so prolific that you can actually build a Ruger 10/22 nowadays that doesn’t include a single Ruger part. The number of young shooters whose first taste of a trigger was that of a 10/22 defies counting.

Nowadays the Ruger 10/22 comes with a wide variety of options.

The standard Ruger 10/22 features a blued finish and walnut stock, though there are plenty of factory options available. The 10/22 has been offered in .22LR, .17HMR, and .22 Win Mag variants. However, the .17HMR and .22 Win Mag versions were only available for a couple of years. The standard .22LR rifle feeds from a flush-mounted 10-round helical-feed magazine, though aftermarket magazines and drums carry fifty rounds or more. 

The 10/22 comes from the factory with a proper scope mount.

The standard 10/22 rifle comes with quality iron sights. The rear sight folds flat when not needed. Every 10/22 rifle is tapped for a scope mount that comes with the gun.

The Ruger 10/22 can be transformed into a decent facsimile of the wartime German MG42 machine-gun.
At their hearts these are both just standard 10/22 rifles.
The Archangel Nomad kit turns the humble Ruger 10/22 into something much snazzier.

Aftermarket dress-up kits span the spectrum. The modular nature of the design lends itself to creativity. The basic chassis has been adapted to emulate a crank-powered, tripod-mounted Gatling gun, a miniaturized MG42 machinegun, and even an M1 Garand. The Archangel Nomad kit is a drop-in polymer chassis that makes the 10/22 into a proper facsimile of an HK G36 assault rifle.

In addition to being much more versatile, today’s Ruger 10/22 is actually cheaper than it was when introduced.

When introduced in 1964 the 10/22 sold for $54.50. That’s about $465 in today’s money. The MSRP for the base model 10/22 today is $309. In addition to being reliable, accurate, and customizable, the 10/22 was also designed from the outset for ease of manufacture. The receiver is an investment casting, while many of the components are polymer. This helps keep the gun affordable. 

The Rest of the Story

Brenda Spencer pled guilty to the charges against her.

Spencer pled guilty to two counts of 1st-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon. She was sentenced to 25 years to life on the day after her 18th birthday. She has thus far been before a parole board four times and has been denied each time. 

Brenda alleged extreme abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father, though he vehemently denied this.

Brenda alleged that her father Wallace both beat and sexually abused her. He bizarrely married Brenda’s 17-year-old prison cellmate after her release, and they had a daughter together. The young woman eventually left him, but he lived in the same house across the street from the school until his death in 2016. The Grover Cleveland Elementary School was demolished in 2018.

Apparently inmates at the California Institute for Women eat fairly well.

In 2005 Brenda’s prison girlfriend was released and she was reported for an incident of self-harm. The report stated that she had clawed the words “Pride” and “Courage” into her flesh. When challenged she claimed the words were actually “Unforgiven” and “Alone.” She is currently 59 years old and resides at the California Institution for Women in Chino. She has been formally inducted into the “Golden Girls Club,” an organization of female inmates aged older than 55.

Bob Geldolf of the Boomtown Rats immortalized Brenda Spencer’s crime in a song just months after the shooting.

Bob Geldof, lead singer for the rock group the Boomtown Rats, read about the incident and wrote a song titled I Don’t Like Mondays that was released in July of 1979. The song was number 1 for four weeks in the UK, though it did not break the top 40 in the US. The Spencer family made a concerted effort to keep the song off the air on this side of the pond, but it received fairly extensive airplay regardless.

Bob Geldof helped give Brenda Spencer the attention she had craved for so long.

Geldof later said, “[Spencer] wrote to me saying ‘she was glad she’d done it because I’d made her famous,’ which is not a good thing to live with.”

On some level, one might hope that Brenda Spencer feels some responsibility for kicking off the sordid phenomenon of the modern school shooting.

“With every school shooting, I feel I’m partially responsible. What if they got the idea from what I did?”

–Brenda Spencer

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About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Frank April 7, 2022, 10:49 am

    Hi, Will. Thanks for another well written, informative article. One quick note regarding comments. I know you, or whomever moderates the comments, can’t be available 24-7. It’s quite unfortunate however, to let stand for 24+ hours the comment from LeRoy, without posting the rebuttals it inevitably generated from your more informed readers. When someone posts an ill advised accusation against you or your weekly audience, please allow us to respond in a timely manner. Thanks again for the article, and please keep ’em coming!

  • LeRoy Hermann April 5, 2022, 11:18 am

    I am so glad that we outnumber you. Just think of how many people have been executed and then later found to be innocent. How do you rectify that? You don’t ! I am a retired deputy sheriff and I have seen as much crime as anyone. My question to all of you is, “If you are religious at all and believe it is a sin to kill a living person, how in the world can you believe that it’s OK to kill someone under the premise that it was the law that sanctioned it!

    • Frank April 6, 2022, 2:11 pm

      Hi, LeRoy. Perhaps you should check out the first several verses in Romans, chapter 13.

  • Steve April 5, 2022, 9:44 am

    State prisons are even worse. Especially California state prisons. The house I graduated high school from looked over at San Quentin State Prison. It is actually a prison within a prison, within a prison. That’s right, 3 heavily armed gates you have to pass through to get to the prison. The stories that came out of there are epic.

  • Rick April 4, 2022, 2:12 pm

    I knew the song. I didn’t know the story. Thanks, Will.

  • jerry April 4, 2022, 12:51 pm

    Why no capital punishment? It seems the woke “western” world cares more about the rights of criminals than the rights of victims and society. In Norway in 2011, a man killed 77 people in a mass shooting. He was only sentenced to the maximum of 21 years (with the possibility of 5 years at a time being added in the future). I have always hoped that at least us Americans would have the wisdom to forgo our partisan prejudices and vote-in officials that value the rule of law and do their duty to protect law abiding citizens. We will see next year, I believe, that even a super-majority in Congress cannot force a rogue administration to obey and enforce duly enacted laws (as at the border, the Hillary debacle, the Russian hoax, Hunter-Joe, habeus corpus for 1/6 trespassers and on and on and on.

  • Old Vet April 4, 2022, 9:13 am

    Why do we continue to house and feed these animals. In the 19th century, she’d have been hanged and buried in an unmarked grave!!

  • SuperG April 2, 2022, 10:24 am

    The justice of a murderer getting life, while their victims get death, is lost on me. It should be an eye for eye and the debt gets paid. Prison should be reserved for those guilty of minor or first time felonies, where there is a chance of rehabilitation.

    • Josh April 4, 2022, 6:48 am

      Couldn’t agree with you more.

    • Tyrone Lee Greene April 4, 2022, 7:12 am

      I agree. Even though I’d be just as sad for her death as for those two men she killed and the many young’ns she wounded, it would be justice served and not delayed.

    • Jay April 4, 2022, 8:34 am

      The reason murder rises to the level of a capital crime is because you can’t restore what you have stolen–another’s life. In lesser crimes, such as stealing property, the thief can restore what was stolen, in most cases. This is known as restitution–giving back what was taken unlawfully. Not only does a murderer “steal” a life, he/she steals an entire future of life experiences, none of which can restored or given back by the murderer. Therefore, the murderer must be held fully accountable. Since he/she cannot give back that which was stolen, he/she must do the next best thing–that is forfeit his/her own life. Why? Because the “process” (accountability, repentance, and restitution) requires it. One cannot fully “repent” or be fully rehabilitated until the restoration process has been complete. This is a law that is as old as mankind itself and is not to be trifled with, but . . .

      • Ej harbet April 9, 2022, 10:08 am

        Best explanation why the death penalty for deliberate murder is not only just but the society that disregards it deserves to fall. As ours is doing quickly

    • Tim April 4, 2022, 9:04 am

      I don’t know how California’s female prisons are. I did however spend a couple of years working in a Federal maximum security Penitentiary (USP). I came to the conclusion that it all depends on how much you want the convicted to suffer. Based on the pen I was at. Death would have been welcome. In fact many inmates attempted suicide to escape the situation. Murder, rapes, gang rapes, assaults, forced prostitution, etc, etc. The average person thinks they know what it’s like behind the wall of Max Fed pen. In reality it’s far more violent and brutal than your imagination or a TV documentary could ever possibly depict.

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