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School terrorist hid mentally illness

By
HENRY G. LOGEMAN

BRENTWOOD, N.Y. -- A school board president said Tuesday New York State schools had no way to prevent the hiring of deranged people like Robert Wickes who held an entire junior high school class hostage in a bloody nine-hour standoff with police.

Board President Anthony Felicio said school officials were not aware Wickes, 24, a substitute teacher's aide, had a history of mental illness when he was hired last November. Felicio called for legislation to allow background checks on school system applicants.

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Wickes, enraged because he was fired two weeks ago after a fight with a student, returned to the Brentwood East Junior High School with a rifle Monday, shot the youth and the principal and took the ninth grade social science class hostage.

The standoff ended when Wickes fatally shot himself in the head as the last student captive watched.

The school was closed Tuesday to allow students to get over the shock of the siege.

'Wickes said he had no prior physical or mental disability or history of mental illness' when he applied for the job, Felicio said.

Wickes' attorney, Gerald Lotto, said his client had twice been hospitalized for psychiatric problems and had been diagnosed as a 'paranoid schizophrenic.' Wickes also was investigated last year for making death threats against U.S. Cabinet members but was not under treatment when he applied for the school job, Lotto said.

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Felicio said Wickes was 'screened' at the time of his job application, but 'we didn't go into psychological screening.'

'We tried to get fingerprints, but we were always turned away by the state,' Felicio said. 'Our hands were tied.'

'School districts are going to have to join together to seek legislation, so that we can get more background on the people we hire,' he said.

School district spokesman Jerry Steiner said a state 'right of privacy' statute 'does not permit delving into the psychological background of job applicants without just cause.'

'The application paper posed two questions to Wickes -- did he ever suffer from mental illness and had he ever been institutionalized,' Steiner said. 'To both questions, Wickes answered 'no'.'

Steiner said Wickes' 'work references were exemplary,' noting the Town of Smithtown gave him high marks for the 18 months he worked there as a sanitation worker.

'He was a good student in the Brentwood schools, and he was a good student in college,' Steiner said. 'Based on what information on him that we were permitted to develop, it was our conclusion that he really deserved the job.'

Wickes had no previous criminal record and Steiner said the aide 'did a fine job' until May 4, when he got into a fistfight in a social studies class with Louis Burgos, 15. Wickes was immediately fired and the student suspended.

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Burgos, shot in the stomach by Wickes, had a 'fair night' at at Southside Hospital, but remained in 'critical' condition in an intensive care unit, a spokeswoman said.

Wickes also shot principal Paul Stephen Howland, 47, who went to the second floor classroom to determine why Wickes was there. Howland suffered a minor facial wound and was released after treatment.

There were 20 students in the classroom at the time Wickes barged in. After shooting Burgos, Wickes permitted Wilfred Mercado, 15, to take the wounded youth to safety.

Shortly afterwards, a third student became nauseated and was allowed to leave. A fourth student induced vomiting and Wickes let him go too.

There were 16 left when assistant principal Frank Carnese entered the room and pleaded with Wickes to release them. Wickes agreed to let eight leave, police said.

Seven of the remaining eight were released about an hour at a time after a local radio station played his requests for rock and roll records and broadcast a taped statement.

In the statement, Wickes complained that he had been treated unjustly threatened to 'paint the road with carnage.'

The remaining student, Bryant Lopez, 15, waited for Wickes to give him the signal to leave after the final record request was played. But without a word, Wickes walked to the back of the classroom, sat on a chair and shot himself.

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Police said Wickes, who tried to kill himself last year by drinking anti-freeze, autographed a copy of 'Catcher in the Rye,' which he habitually carried in his pocket, and gave it to a girl hostage when he released her.

The remaining 960 students were evacuated without incident through an exit on the opposite side of the school building, which was not visible to Wickes.

Felicio said Wickes' job was to serve as a $20-a-day 'monitor' in study halls and in classrooms during testing periods. Although he was filling in for an absent teacher the day of the fistfight, he was not functioning as a teacher.

He said Wickes had completed two years of study at Suffolk Community College, but was not attending the school at the time of the shooting and was not certified as a teacher.

Lotto said Wickes last year threatened the lives of Secretary of State George Schultz and Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger during a session with a psychologist at the Suffolk County Health Center in Brentwood.

The psychologist reported this to the U.S. Secret Service, who investigated Wickes, but did not arrest him. Lotto said Wickes subsequently filed a notice of claim for damages against Suffolk County, complaining the psychologist had breached doctor-patient confidentiality.

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