SAN DIEGO, CA — On the morning of Monday, January 29, 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Spencer walked to the gate in front of her home with a fully loaded Ruger 10/22 semi-automatic .22-caliber rifle with a telescopic sight and 500 rounds of ammunition.
Putting the weapon to her shoulder, Spencer took aim right across the street from her home — into the crowded schoolyard of the Grover Cleveland Elementary School — and opened fire.
Spencer popped off 30 rounds in rapid succession, using the weapon she’d gotten as a Christmas present to seriously wound eight children and kill two adults. Principal Burton Wagg, 53, died as he frantically shielded the students. Custodian Mike Suchar, 56, took a fatal bullet while pulling a kid out of harm’s way.
After the initial 20-minute onslaught, Spencer barricaded herself back inside. She injured a responding officer and held off the police for the next six hours before finally surrendering.
When asked what her motivation could be in committing such a sudden, shocking atrocity, Spencer responded with one of the most notorious declarations in the annals of crime history:
“I don’t like Mondays.”
And with that viciously pithy explanation, then, the era of the modern school shooter came, horribly, into being.
Standing five foot two with bright orange hair and a face full of freckles, Brenda Spencer had proven herself to be a “problem child” long before she loaded that rifle. Her life, in fairness, had been one of poverty, parental abuse, and a colossal failure to be served, as a disturbed minor, by the social welfare system.
Following Spencer’s parents splitting up, the teen shared a disheveled home with her father, where they both slept on a single mattress on a filthy floor surrounded by cigarette butts and empty liquor bottles.
Calling herself “gay from birth” during the far less accepting 1970s, Spencer continuously cut classes and got into fights. She expressed hatred for authority, especially law-enforcement officers, even making noise that she might act out on those hard feelings some day.
After Spencer voiced suicidal ideation, school counselors recommended that she spend some time in a psychiatric facility to be treated for depression. Her father said no way.
In addition to vetoing any kind of proper care, Spencer’s father exhibited an ill-advised sense of gift giving. Regarding her Christmas present, Spencer later said:
“I asked for a radio, and he bought me a gun.”
When asked why her father would make such a choice, Spencer replied:
“I felt like he wanted me to kill myself.”
Instead of turning the firearm toward herself, though, Spencer’s rage began to flow even more dynamically outward. She spoke openly of shooting policemen and reportedly told friends she was going to “do something big to get on TV.”
That big thing, of course, occurred on that Monday morning. During the police standoff, Spencer spoke via telephone to a reporter from The San Diego Union Tribune when she uttered her infamous quote, stating:
“I just did it for the fun of it. I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day. I have to go now. I shot a pig [police officer] I think, and I want to shoot more. I’m having too much fun [to stop].”
Later, Spencer added:
“I had no reason for it, and it was just a lot of fun … It was just like shooting ducks in a pond. [The children] looked like a herd of cows standing around; it was really easy pickings.”
After turning herself in, Spencer pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and assault with a deadly weapon. She was sentenced to 25 years to life at the California Institution for Women in Corona, California.
The crime itself stupefied an America that could have no idea that, one day, school shootings, often on scales far exceeding what Brenda Spencer might have imagined, would become routine reports on the news. The rest of the world also took note.
Just one month after the shooting, Irish post-punk band The Boomtown Rats immortalized the event by debuting their song, “I Don’t Like Mondays.” The single rapidly hit #1 in the U.K. Spencer’s family attempted to legally block the song from getting a U.S. release, but it instantly became a staple of stateside rock radio — although San Diego stations refrained from playing it for years.
Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldoff says he’s had mixed feelings about the song’s success. Explaining how Spencer’s explanation chilled him, he stated:
“It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it. So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it. It wasn’t an attempt to exploit tragedy.”
Since getting convicted, Brenda Spencer has been denied parole on four occasions. In the meantime, she has watched school shootings evolve into an almost every day occurrence.
In 2001, Spencer told a parole board she frets about possibly having inspired this horrifically tragic phenomenon, saying:
“With every school shooting, I feel I’m partially responsible. What if they got the idea from what I did?”
Yes. What if?
For more on Brenda Spencer, watch the “Thrill Killers” episode of Deadly Women on ID GO now!
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Main photo: Brenda Spencer [California Dept. of Corrections]