On May 20, 1999, 15-year-old student Thomas "T.J." Solomon opened fire with a .22-caliber rifle on the high school campus, wounding six students. Solomon fired from below the waist. A 15-year-old girl was hospitalized in critical condition, and the other victims suffered from non-life threatening injuries. Solomon initially faced up to 351 years of prison if convicted of aggravated assault and other charges, but in 2000 he was found guilty but mentally ill and was sentenced to 40 years in prison and 65 years of probation. A judge later reduced his sentence from 40 years to 20 years. He will be eligible for parole in May 2014. In a letter TJ expressed his loyalty to the trench coat mafia, a group of social outcast at Columbine. The letter also stated that he would be laughing at his victims as they drop to their knees praying for their lives. Three pages of bomb-building instructions were also found in his room.
He was interested in Columbine shootings, had bomb building instructions, and took a rifle and a handgun, characteristic of mass shooters.
On Thursday May 20, 1999 at around 8:15 AM Cecil Brinkley, Heritage High School's Assistant Principal, found himself in a uniquely terrifying situation for which his years in education could not have prepared him. Brinkley was face to face with a scared and desperate 15-year-old student who had put the barrel of a handgun into his mouth as he knelt on the front lawn of the school.
The student, Thomas (TJ) Solomon, Jr., was described as a pleasant 15-year old boy who attended church regularly and was a boy scout. Thomas was a sophomore at Heritage High School in Conyers, Georgia and had recently broken up with his girlfriend. Before May 20, 1999 we could have easily described him as just another typical teenager.
The course of events that led Solomon and Brinkley to this point had begun early that morning when TJ stole a 22-caliber rifle and a 357-handgun from his stepfather's gun cabinet. He rode the bus to school as usual; the only thing different was the rifle he had concealed inside his pant leg and the handgun in his backpack.
At around 8:03 AM TJ walked into the students common area where hundreds of students gathered before school began, he had a determined look that would later be described by one student as a "hate look" on his face. Seconds later shots rang out, many students mistakenly believed they were hearing firecrackers exploding. Tj continued to fire randomly into the crowd. One witness described TJ as having a dazed look on his face. The attack was described as appearing almost reluctant. TJ did not aim the rifle at anyone nor did he chase anyone, he was literally shooting from the hip and aiming low.
After firing about a dozen rounds, TJ fled the commons dropping his rifle as he exited the building. Once outside witnesses say he pulled the handgun from his backpack, dropped to his knees, and put the barrel in his mouth as if he intended to commit suicide.
Assistant principal Cecil Brinkley began to talk to the young gunman, as he did TJ took the gun from his mouth, began to cry, and repeated the words "I'm so scared" over and over. TJ surrendered his weapon and was taken into custody by the Rockdale County Sheriff's department.
In all six students were injured in the shooting, Brian Barnhardt, age 16, Stephanie Laster, age 15, Jason Cheek, age 17, Cania Collins, age 15, Drake Hoy, age 18, and Ryan Rosa, age 18. Although Stephanie Laster was seriously injured there were no fatalities.
Could this shooting have been prevented? Did anyone take Thomas Solomon Jr seriously before the shooting began? Did he give any of the warning signs that should have given away his state of mind?
After being released from the hospital shooting victim Ryan Rosa told Time "He'd be the last person I'd think would do something like this, he was normal. Just like me." Rosa also said that Jason Cheek had repeatedly picked on TJ, presumably because he was a quiet kid who didn't fit into Jason's "click". Cheek denied picking on TJ.
Donald A. Peccia, the Superintendent of the Rockdale County Public Schools, said: ''The disciplinary record would not indicate he had been any significant trouble, We had no reason to suspect this student at all.''
Other students and friends painted a different picture. One account indicates that as late as Wednesday TJ indicated that he wanted to commit suicide; he wasn't taken seriously because "a lot of kids say that". Testimony given at his trial revealed that TJ had bragged about how he could do better than Columbine and he had said that it should have happened at Heritage High School long ago.
According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation a letter written by TJ revealed teenage despair, in the letter TJ expressed his loyalty to the trench coat mafia, a group of social outcast at Columbine. The letter also stated that he would be laughing at his victims as they drop to their knees praying for their lives. Three pages of bomb-building instructions were also found in his room.
To add mystery to the Heritage High School shooting, TJ reportedly had at least basic shooting skills and knowledge of the weapons in his stepfather's gun cabinet. With this in mind the questions remain: Why did he not aim the weapon? Why did he appear to shoot low? Why did he choose the lowest caliber weapon to fire into the crowd yet save the largest for himself? Who did TJ really believe would die that day?