One afternoon in 1978, I walked into the radio newsroom where I had my first reporting job and found myself in the middle of a huge, fast-breaking story: a multiple shooting. The killings in El Paso and Dayton have brought back memories of those times, when these awful events were still rare—and of my own brush with the shooter.
This is what we reported that day: Billy Hardesty, who was 21, unemployed, and had done time for assault and battery, shot his parents dead at their home. After putting his father’s body in a freezer, he killed two men in the parking lot of a bar, gunned down his ex-wife’s brother and wounded two others at their workplace, and held police in a standoff back at his parents’ house before being shot and captured. The state trooper whose bullet hit him was a guy I’d met at church camp during high school.
I was in the courtroom when Hardesty was arraigned. Still recovering from his injuries, he was brought before the judge in a wheelchair, a thickset kid with long, dark hair and a dazed look on his face. From that point on, the key issue in the case was whether he was mentally ill and legally insane, i.e., not responsible for his crimes.
Several months later, I covered a competency hearing in which he rambled about evil movies at the local mall, and asked to be released in the custody of Billy Graham. Not surprisingly, the judge declared he was having trouble dealing with reality and ordered him back to the psychiatric hospital where he was being held.
Afterward I was chatting with another reporter in the hall when we heard a loud noise, the courtroom door popped open, and we saw two detectives wrestling Hardesty to the floor. He’d made a break for freedom but they caught him just in time, with one of the cops hurdling benches to beat him to the door. Another second and he’d have been out, and I’d have been right in his way. I ran to the nearest phone to file the story. I had a few beers too.
Eventually Hardesty was convicted of the five murders, plus two others he’d committed earlier in California, and sentenced to life in prison. His obvious mental problems didn’t stop a judge from ruling him competent to stand trial or a jury from deciding he was legally sane.
It’s likely that no one even imagined a red-flag law that might’ve kept the gun out of his hands. But Billy Hardesty did his killing with a 1970s-vintage .22 rifle. What would have happened if he’d had a military-style assault rifle and a few hundred bullets, like the butchers of today?