It was a bright spring morning in the wealthy suburb of Winnetka, Ill., and substitute teacher Amy Moses’ second graders at the Hubbard Woods School were celebrating Bicycle Safety Day. The excited children had just passed their riding tests with flying colors, and Moses, 29, had herded them back inside to get them ready for the written exam. Then, quietly, a young woman in baggy white shorts and a beige T-shirt bearing the image of a skeleton wandered into the classroom. “She stood next to me,” Moses would later recall, “and I looked at her, and I said, ‘May I help you?’ and she said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Are you here to observe?’ There was a table behind me, and she took a chair and sat down. My impression at that moment was that she was a college student who had come to observe what was going on in the classroom, which is not unusual at Hubbard Woods.”
But Laurie Dann was no mere observer. A 30-year-old divorcée, she was known to police, psychiatrists and nearly everyone who had been in contact with her as a severely troubled young woman. In recent years she had committed a series of bizarre petty crimes that seemed to signal clearly that her torment was building toward some kind of explosion. Yet, somehow, no institutional hand in the charmed vale of Chicago’s suburban North Shore had attempted to stop her as she moved with mounting fury down the path to destruction. Now, on May 20, tearing through the last bonds of sanity, Dann had embarked on a violent Odyssey from which there could be no turning back. Following the dictates of some imponderable, vengeful logic, Dann had headed toward Hubbard Woods in the heat of a psychotic rage.
“She was so lifeless,” teacher Moses remembers. “Her face was so hard.” Moses handed her a copy of the test that the children were about to take. “Because I thought she was a student, I wanted to show by manner and behavior what’s appropriate. I really wanted to show her that Bike Day was a big event in these children’s lives. I wanted to pass on the enthusiasm I had and sort of spark her, let her know that teaching is energy, loving, caring.” Dann got up and, without a word, left the room. She walked into the boys’ washroom with a gun drawn, and when first grader Robert Trossman, 6, entered, she shot him in the chest and stomach and left him on the floor with the weapon, a .357 Magnum pistol. Then she returned to the classroom and shut the door. “She looked at me and said, ‘Put all the children in a corner,’ and I was confused,” says Moses. When Dann repeated the order, “I looked at her and said, ‘No,’ ” recalls the substitute teacher. “Then she said, ‘I have a gun.’ ” At that point, Dann pulled out a small handgun, and Moses grabbed her left arm. As they wrestled, Dann drew another gun with her right hand. “I don’t know exactly where she was carrying it, because she had pulled her shorts out, I think, to get it, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s not wearing any underwear,’ ” says Moses. “I don’t know why she didn’t shoot me, and I didn’t think about it. I just thought about the children. I wanted to push her out the door. I really just went on automatic pilot.”
Moses managed to get the classroom door open and call for help, but Dann broke free. At point-blank range she opened fire on a group of children clustered near the front of the room. Four were seriously wounded: Lindsay Fisher, 8, Peter Munro, 8, Kathryn Miller, 7, and Mark Teborek, 8. Nicholas Corwin, 8, was killed instantly, a bullet piercing his heart as he pushed his best friend out of the line of fire. As she saw Dann shoot at her students, Moses struggled with a sense of unreality. “When the first child went down,” says Moses, “my first thought was, ‘They’re filming a movie and they forgot to tell me. They just forgot to tell me.’ ”
After the second shot, children started screaming and running from the classroom. Dann fled through a side door. Sgt. Patricia McConnell, an undercover detective with the Winnetka Police Department, was only two blocks away when the call went out at 10:45 a.m. that there had been a shooting at Hubbard Woods; she was there within a minute. “I pulled up to the school,” she says. “It was a sunny day. There are two tiny steps that lead up to the main entrance, and there was Don Monroe, the superintendent of schools, cradling one of the injured girls, his shirt soaked in blood. Next to him was a female teacher holding another child. My heart stopped. I’ve been a police officer for 10 years. I trained in Chicago, so obviously we’re trained to deal with violence. But nothing, no training could ever prepare you for that sight. It was like walking into a war zone.”
Inside, McConnell found Moses in shock but lucid. “I said to her, ‘We’re going to try and go up and down the streets to find her. Can you come with us?’ She said, ‘Absolutely, I’ll never forget her face.’ Here is this teacher—obviously she’s a professional, but she’s not a law enforcement professional—and she was so courageous. She kept saying to me in the car, ‘My God, I wish that she had shot me and not my children.’ ”
After running from the school, Dann had jumped into her late model Toyota and headed down a dead-end street, where she crashed into a tree. Reloading her .32 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, she shed her bloodied shorts, ran into a wooded area, crossed a backyard and rushed through the unlocked kitchen door of a home belonging to Ruth Ann Andrew, 50, and her husband, Raymond, 51. Ruth Ann was in the kitchen talking with her son, Philip, 20, an All-America swimmer from the University of Illinois. Wearing a plastic clothing bag tied around her waist and wielding both the .32 and her other gun, a .22 caliber Beretta, Dann said that she had been raped and had shot her assailant and that the police were after her because of the shooting.
While Ruth Ann offered Dann a pair of clean yellow shorts, Philip tried to calm her. At their urging, Dann made two phone calls to her mother. She said she was in trouble and contemplating suicide because the police were after her. While she talked, Philip sensed trouble and motioned for his family to leave the house. He moved to grab the Beretta, which Dann was holding. After a struggle, she shot him in the chest. He staggered into the driveway and collapsed, while Dann fled upstairs. There, in a child’s bedroom, she put her .32 in her mouth and fired, killing herself instantly, according to the coroner’s report.
Meanwhile, swarms of police and rescue workers were converging on the Hubbard Woods School. Clergy, social workers and terrified parents soon followed as the news went out over the radio. Among the anguished mothers and fathers who sped to the scene was author James McManus, whose 1984 psychological thriller, Out of the Blue, about the kidnaping of a 5-year-old from the very same school, eerily foreshadowed the day’s events. Panic swept through the neighboring suburbs, as teachers at schools throughout the area locked doors and windows, pulled down shades and barricaded cafeteria windows with tables. Students were ordered to stay in their classrooms and wait for their parents. Fear that Dann was still at large did not subside until 7 that evening when a SWAT team, which had delayed an assault in hopes of capturing her alive, finally entered the Andrew house and found her body.
Dann left no suicide note, and her death ensured that wrenching questions would plague the prosperous North Shore where she had lived and died. As members of the community met to comfort one another, many echoed the words of a social worker: “It’s not supposed to happen in Winnetka.” If Dann had been identified as a human time bomb, why hadn’t she been institutionalized? With police files in three states and a record of psychiatric illness, how had she managed to obtain a permit for three handguns? And what had transformed her from a mild-mannered child of privilege into a murderous psychopath?
Even the facts of her life seemed merely to lead to more questions. The daughter of a well-to-do accountant, Norman Wasserman, Dann was raised in Chicago’s northern suburbs and graduated from Winnetka’s elite New Trier East High School in 1975. She attended the University of Arizona for four years but never graduated, returning in 1980 to the Chicago area, where she sporadically attended adult-education classes at Northwestern University. While working a summer job as a cocktail waitress at Green Acres Country Club in Northbrook, she began dating Russell “Rusty” Dann, the son of a wealthy Highland Park family. Signs of her deteriorating mental health began to show after their marriage in September 1982. Some of Russell Dann’s relatives sensed something “eerie” about his new wife, who, according to neighbors, seemed to hide fearfully inside her new $230,000 Highland Park home. By May 1987 the couple was divorced. During the proceedings, which brought Dann a $125,000 cash settlement, her lawyer told the court that the couple had made a quick profit from an investment in “soft porn.”
Following the breakup, Laurie moved back into her parents’ home in Glencoe, where she began dating John Childs, the son of a neighbor. His mother, Alexandra, remembers Dann as subdued, timid and frightened. “She seemed naive,” says Alexandra Childs. “She was a forlorn, lost little soul who never smiled and who wanted love and understanding and someone to talk to.” During the summer of 1986 Alexandra spent hours talking to Dann about music, art and literature. One of Dann’s favorite works of fiction, she says, was Lawrence Durrell’s opus on love, The Alexandria Quartet.
Though Dann gradually became more outgoing, her behavior was increasingly strange. Obsessed with hygiene, she constantly washed her hands, and “she didn’t like to be touched,” says Childs. “If a spoon fell on the floor, she wouldn’t pick it up.” John Childs broke off his relationship with Dann abruptly after a Glencoe policeman unofficially warned him in 1986 that she was psychotic.
By that time there was mounting evidence about that. In September 1986 Laurie’s estranged husband, Russell Dann, claimed he was stabbed in his sleep, with an ice pick, by an unidentified intruder in his Highland Park apartment. The wound required hospitalization, and he said later that Laurie had admitted inflicting it, but there was insufficient evidence to justify an arrest. At about the same time, a Tucson physician who had dated Dann at the University of Arizona began receiving harassing phone calls and letters from her. According to Pima County Deputy Attorney Lou Spivack, Laurie insisted she was pregnant with the doctor’s child, though she had not seen him in more than five years. She would call and say, “I’m going to move out to Tucson and always be a part of your life.” The phone calls, which included death threats to the doctor’s relatives and their children, stopped only when his lawyer sent Dann’s parents a letter asking that they restrain their daughter.
Then, around January 1987, Dann made a particularly chilling decision. She wanted to take care of small children. She posted signs at the Glencoe library and a local grocery store, advertising her services as a babysitter. A convincing liar, she masked her derangement behind a disarming innocence. Finding her “sweet and nice with the children,” one Glencoe mother, a trained social worker, used Dann three times and recommended her to friends. But after Dann’s first visit, the couple discovered that their leather sofas had been slashed, their rugs cut up and two electric garage-door openers stolen. Dann denied any knowledge of the damage, but when the couple reported the incident to Glencoe police, they were told there had been other complaints about Dann. The evidence against her was circumstantial, and no charges were filed.
Last summer Dann sublet an apartment on the Northwestern campus. When she was accused of stuffing her neighbors’ mailboxes with junk and of leaving raw meat to spoil under the cushions of their chairs, university officials sought out Dann’s father, who persuaded her to leave the apartment.
She went back to babysitting. In the ensuing months, several couples who hired her reported hundreds of dollars worth of food had been stolen from their homes. Once neighbors spotted her carrying bags of food out of a Glencoe couple’s basement. Afterward the couple discovered that their living-room furniture had also been hacked up and holes carved in the kitchen cabinets. Police said Dann’s father made an agreement with his daughter that he would pay for the damage if she would give up babysitting. Yet a few days later she was seen at a local drugstore with somebody else’s children. “Her father refused to believe there was a problem here,” says one of the men who had hired her to baby-sit. “He kept buying people off.”
A local psychiatrist, so familiar with the case that he was able to advise the police, criticizes her parents for shielding her from the consequences of her increasingly antisocial behavior. He says Dann seemed to have suffered from “erotomania”—meaning that she had a pathological attachment to men she wrongly believed to be in love with her. There was every indication, he added, that she was capable of violence. “She looked mean,” he says. “When you were with her you felt uncomfortable, and she was disarticulated from friends and family, having no emotional connections with them. She was duplicitous, clever; and a psychiatrist can only work with the information a patient presents to him.” When Dann’s former in-laws, who had been receiving threatening phone calls from her ever since the couple’s separation, approached the Wassermans and begged them to institutionalize their daughter, the Wassermans resisted. Says one former in-law: “She was crying out for help, and her parents should have realized it.”
Dann’s final descent into madness began last January when she moved to Madison, Wis., and took up residence in a 10-story dormitory near the University of Wisconsin campus, where she was enrolled as a “guest student.” Other students called her “the elevator lady” because of her habit of riding up and down aimlessly, hour after hour. She was seen naked in the hallway, and sometimes appeared in the dining room wearing pajamas and furry slippers. Evidently bulimic, she would eat, rush out to throw up in a rest room and return to the dining room for another helping. When other students crossed her path in the cafeteria, she would move backward like a robot, pacing out exactly two tile squares.
Though she was entitled to audit classes if she wished, Dann rarely left the dorm. She spent most of her time watching TV in the lounge, transfixed by cartoons, music videos or even the static of an off-the-air channel. If other students were watching when she entered the room, she would declare, “The TV is mine” in a way that discouraged argument and she would change the channel.
Other students noticed also that she had a strange aversion to touching metal—a phobia, claims one psychiatrist, which commonly afflicts people who feel themselves struggling with forbidden impulses. Rather than press an elevator button with her finger, she would use a pencil or the sleeve of her sweatshirt, and she wore gloves whenever she opened the combination lock on her mailbox.
In March, Dann was caught shoplifting women’s wigs and clothing from stores in a shopping mall. After spending the night in the Dane County jail, she was released on $200 bond and accepted into a “first offenders” program, which required that she admit her guilt and perform some community service.
Later that month two male freshmen found the door to their room ablaze. Dann was suspected, but once again no charges were filed.
In April, Laurie began making telephone death threats to the doctor in Arizona and to her ex-husband’s family. At that point Lou Spivack brought the FBI into the case and contacted the Highland Park and Glencoe police. Belatedly, law enforcement officials were beginning to realize that Laurie Dann might be more than a troublesome crank. Illinois officials prepared to charge Dann with threatening her former in-laws, while a federal grand jury in Tucson was about to indict her for harassing the doctor.
On May 13 the FBI notified the Madison police that Dann might have a gun and should be considered “armed and dangerous.” In fact she owned three pistols, legally purchased from the Marksman gun shop in Glenview, Ill. Two years earlier, after determining that she was not a felon and apparently had not been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons within the previous five years, the state of Illinois had issued Laurie Dann a permit to buy firearms.
On the night of May 14 a student acquaintance of Dann’s at Wisconsin found his clothing slashed and his books defaced. Dann was implicated. The following day marked the end of the semester and all the students checked out, but late that night a residence hall staff member found Dann asleep, covered with a plastic bag as a blanket, in a basement storage bin. Awakened, she ran out of the room swearing profusely. Police summoned to the dorm found her asleep in her room, which was in disarray. The next day, when FBI agents came to question her about the menacing phone calls, she was gone.
Four days later Dann turned up at the Glencoe home of Padraig and Marian Rushe, who had hired her as a babysitter the previous year. The couple evidently never suspected Dann’s instability, and their five children adored her. They told her, however, that they wouldn’t be using her any longer because Rushe, a bank executive, was moving his family to New York. But when Dann asked if she could take the two younger children, Patrick, 6, and Carl, 4, to a hospital fair on Friday, May 20, the Rushes said yes.
That morning, Dann began the final day of her life at 7:00 a.m., driving around the North Shore suburbs delivering arsenic-laced packets of fruit juice to at least eight area homes, some of them belonging to families for whom she had baby-sat. At 8 a.m. members of two Northwestern fraternities discovered orange drinks and paper plates piled with Rice Krispies treats on their doorsteps; both contained arsenic. By 9 a.m. Laurie arrived at the Rushe home to pick up Patrick and Carl. In the car, she gave the children tainted cartons of milk but the boys thought the milk tasted strange and took only a few sips. Dann then drove to Ravinia School in Highland Park, where her former sister-in-law’s son went to school. Dann set fire to a plastic bag filled with gasoline and ran off. She then drove to a Highland Park day-care center attended by another of her ex-sister-in-law’s children and walked up to the entrance carrying a can of gasoline, but left when a staff member chased her away.
Arriving back at the Rushe home with the boys, Dann took them to the basement where their mother, Marian, was doing laundry. Dann mumbled an excuse about leaving the house. A few seconds later, the basement stairs burst into flame. Rushe managed to get the boys out by breaking through a small basement window, then escaped herself by tearing the window frame out with her bare hands. By that time Dann was on her way to the Hubbard Woods School.
Nicky Corwin, it turned out, would be the only one to die at the hands of Laurie Dann, though that was obviously not her intention. None of those who sampled her poisoned snacks suffered any lasting effects (though a task force is still investigating the case, including the suspicion that Dann may have been connected to the Tylenol poisonings that killed seven people in the Chicago area in 1982). The wounded children and the college student are recovering, but their scars will be deep. And for the parents of her victims, the dream of a suburban cloister—a safe and comfortable world for their children—has been shaken to its roots. Trina Mohrbacher, whose daughter Morgan was in the classroom during the tragedy, voiced a common sentiment. “I am angry, and I feel violated,” she said. “Besides the tremendous sadness, I feel anger at this person who robbed my child of her innocence.”
Teacher Amy Moses, who had returned to her shocked and tearful youngsters after hunting for Dann with the police officer, thought of healing. “I just held them and talked with them,” she says. “I had an emotional need to touch base with them.” The children, of course, wondered most about Nicky, whose first instinct had been to save a friend from the deadly intruder. “He was one of those rare human beings with lots of imagination, energy and talent, scholastically and physically,” says Moses. “After Nicky died, the children said things like, ‘Now we’re not going to be able to play fairly on the playground.’ And when I asked why, they said, ‘Because Nicky knew all the rules, and he always reminded us.’ ”
On a rainswept day that lent poetic emphasis to Rabbi Robert Schreibman’s assertion that “God, too, is weeping,” Winnetka turned out about 1,500 strong to bid sweet, gifted Nicky Corwin a tearful farewell. A few miles away on the same day, Laurie Dann was buried in a memorial park called Shalom.
—By Montgomery Brower, with Bonnie Bell, Dennis Breo, Jody Brott, Judy Hevrdejs, Barbara Kleban Mills and Civia Tamarkin in Chicago, Justin Greenberg in Madison.