On November 10, 1982, more than 15 years before the landmark Columbine High School massacre, 18-year-old James Quentin Stevens entered Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Va. intending to kill others and then himself. He began shooting erratically—into an office, down the hall, out the window—but hit no one.
“By the time I arrived at that school, I didn’t see human beings,” Stevens, who prefers to go by T. J., told Christianity Today. “I saw prey. The crazy thing is, when I shot, I shot above their heads. I don’t know why.”
He took 10 hostages, firing at the ceiling to prove that this wasn’t a drill. Police arrived, and a harrowing 21 hours of negotiations ensued.
Stevens’s story from troubled childhood to almost-shooter is recounted in a new documentary short, The Rage of Evil: Thoughts from a Former School Shooter, directed by Carolyn McCulley of Citygate Films. The 16-minute film is currently making its rounds on the festival circuit, including the 2019 Austin Film Festival & Conference on October 29.
The night before the shooting, Stevens had nearly attempted suicide in his home. He said he had been interrupted by voices—not audible voices, more like thoughts that seemed to originate outside himself. The voices told him that to find peace, he must drive to the school to kill others first. Stevens felt that to banish the evil invading his mind he either had to carry out the murders or kill himself.
At the school, hostages looked on as Stevens placed the barrel of a Mossberg hunting rifle in his mouth. Stevens recounts in the documentary that one of the hostages, a woman, “fell down to her face screaming and crying. I jerked my head over with the barrel in my mouth. She said, ‘Don’t do this, you don’t have to do this — you haven’t hurt anybody.’”
But her necklace, more than her words, caught his attention, Stevens recalls. When he heard her scream, the gold cross swaying from her neck gleamed under the ceiling light, catching his eye.
“As soon as that cross met my eyes, it confronted my sin,” Stevens, 55, said in the documentary. He then yelled at the woman to get out.
“Within seconds of that moment, I converted from darkness to light” though not yet to Christ, he told CT. He saw a vision of a robed arm reaching into his darkness, offering him a hand.
“I reached for this hand, and as soon as I did, my heart became human again,” Stevens said. “There were no more voices. I had empathy for the people around me, I could feel their pain. Even the hostages could see the change.”
Stevens began gradually releasing the rest of the hostages until police arrested him. He faced 144 years in prison but was only sentenced to 20 years.
The Journey of Three Conversions
Two years into his sentence at Mecklenburg Correctional Center in Boydton, Va., he again wanted to die. But rather than despairing, Stevens cried out to God for his “second conversion—the most important one,” screaming a confession of his sins into his pillow.
“Lord, I have shown the world and you what I can do with this life,” he prayed. “Now you take it and show the world what you can do with it.” There, in prison, he repented and received salvation.
Soon after, the prison warden confronted him. “Do you believe in God?” he asked Stevens. “Because you’re getting out in six months.”
Stevens was incredulous at first. Elaine McConnell, former Fairfax County supervisor, had spearheaded a special program for people who had attempted a heinous crime without succeeding in hurting anyone. Stevens was chosen for this program. He was sent to Haymarket, Va., to work as a roadside laborer, and, eventually, to teach children with Down syndrome to play guitar. Stevens was released after completing the program, four and a half years following his arrest.
He then began his third conversion, back to society. Today, he is a husband and father, and he found his way to What’s New Worship church in Winchester, Va., where he volunteers as a sound technician and a musician. But his Christian faith wasn’t always as strong as it appears today.
“For 30-some years, I asked God why he let me live. I even visited the graveyard in Tysons Corner where I was going to be buried,” Stevens said. And for 30 years, he didn’t talk to reporters or share his story with many people at all. He struggled with a profound sense of shame, and he wanted to keep his job and protect his family and property from threats.
“T. J.’s experience of being a school shooter is vastly different from what the culture seems to understand and define,” said Rage of Evil director McCulley. “The shame for him increased exponentially over the years, even though he paid his debt to society through prison and youth sentencing.”
McCulley first encountered Stevens’s story in a 2018 Washington Post article, published a few months after the February 14 mass shooting in Parkland, Fla. Stevens explained that when the Post reporter called, “he said something I’d been waiting to hear for almost 40 years: ‘I’ve never found anyone else your age who has changed their life as dramatically. We want to know what changed you.’” Stevens prayed about the opportunity and discussed it with his family before talking to the reporter.
When reading the article, McCulley was fascinated by the uniqueness of Stevens’s perspective — that of an attempted mass shooter who survived to serve his time and went on to live a “normal” life. She believes that he agreed to work with her despite his past reticence partly because the collaborative process of documentary filmmaking supported him in telling his own story.
During this process, they developed a relationship as McCulley established trust with Stevens. She describes him as gregarious. “Sometimes I get asked whether I feel safe with him,” she said. Her answer? “Yes! He’s a funny guy, he’s a grandfather — we talk a lot. It’s interesting how we think that people who commit this crime can’t change. He has a perspective we all need to learn from, and that’s why I decided to make the film.”
The Question of Evil
Mass shootings confound us because they’re so impersonal; they are often called “senseless,” lacking sense or reason. Yet, although shooters typically don’t know their victims, they do have a rationale for their actions, including suicidal goals, perceived victimization, or a desire for fame.
Many people agree that addressing mass shootings requires a multi-pronged approach, but often confine the problem to the realms of the clinical, the epidemiological, and the legislative. Stevens believes his experience suggests a neglected component. What about the possibility of an irreducible motive of evil?
Stevens was consumed by his rage and goaded into violence by inaudible “voices” he heard in his mind’s ear. However, he never received a psychiatric diagnosis, and his mental health didn’t factor into the leniency of his sentence.
The relationship between mass shootings and mental illness is not simple. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression account for only about 4 percent of overall violent crime in the US. At the same time, two-thirds of mass attackers have histories of depressive, suicidal, and psychotic symptoms. But many people fit the demographic and psychiatric profile of the typical mass shooter—often isolated, angry, depressed, suicidal, and male—without ever becoming violent.
Adam Lankford, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Alabama, notes that “there is no one characteristic that differentiates mass shooters” from others who otherwise fit the basic profile, though “firearm ownership seems to be the factor that differentiates us from countries” that have fewer mass shootings.
Of course, certain combinations of factors greatly increase someone’s risk of becoming a shooter, Lankford says. The most dangerous cocktail combines suicidal tendencies with rage, perceived grievances, a desire for fame, and by definition, access to a gun.
Stevens’s own rage built gradually, like a mountain growing from the bottom of the ocean until it finally surfaced. His stepfather was abusive, and over the years, Stevens’s anger and desire for revenge accumulated. The trauma he endured made him feel powerless, and he trusted no one, creating the perfect conditions “for evil to dwell and grow within,” Stevens said.
For people at risk of violence, the mountain of pain, rage, and, eventually, evil intent starts amassing in childhood, Stevens believes. “You need to reach that kid while the mountain is only halfway built. You reach him with love,” he said.
Stevens shares his story now in the hope of reaching similarly troubled people, to draw them out of their darkness and help extirpate the seeds of rage before they can germinate. He has spoken at drug rehab centers and churches, including his own, and also books Christian bands for concerts to raise money for causes from children’s medical bills to homeless outreach.
“T. J. says that when evil confronts you, you have a choice,” McCulley said, acknowledging the tremendous complexity of the mass shooting problem. “That’s basically his message. He wants people to hear that shooting is not the right solution for the problems they face.”
Taylor Schumann, a Christian and a survivor of the 2013 shooting at New River Community College in Virginia, also emphasizes the need to maintain nuance, even while recognizing a dimension of mass shootings that the broader society sometimes overlooks.
Before she was shot, Schumann held a popular belief on mass shootings: There is evil in the world and we cannot always stop it. She didn’t blame ease of gun access. After she was shot, she still believes that evil can overcome people, but also that “Christians, especially, tend to blame evil forces as a way to get out of thinking about other ways to reduce gun violence rates.”
This documentary spotlighting Stevens comes at a time when media outlets are giving less attention to shooters. Schumann believes that while the main focus in any shooting prevention initiatives should be around victims’ voices, “perpetrators are the only ones who can speak to what it was like to be in the position of carrying one out.”
She says that Stevens gives insight to what led him to such violent actions. “Everyone has a story and our stories hold power,” she said. As a survivor, Schumann hopes “Stevens has made efforts to apologize to the hostages for the pain he caused in their lives.”
Indeed, Stevens encountered a former Lake Braddock Secondary School student when he was delivering his testimony at What’s New Worship. After his talk, a 17-year-old girl tearfully told him, “I have heard this story all my life and we always wondered what happened to you. Now I am so glad to see what God has done for you.”
Behind the girl stood her mother, Bethany Searfoss, who had been evacuated from the school by a SWAT team member the day Stevens took the hostages. On stage, in front of the entire congregation, he asked for her forgiveness, which she gave him. Referring to the 4,300 students who attended the school in 1982, Stevens said that, after apologizing to Searfoss, “I only have 4,299 more students to go.”
He says he now knows why God let him live.
“My purpose is to love people,” Stevens said. “I never knew he was going to use my life this way. When I made the choice to allow evil in my life, I was already dead. Every day I have is a gift, because I was a dead man walking.”
Celina Durgin is a writer and editor living in Boston, Mass. She has also written on politics and culture for National Review.