First published in The Record, Jan. 17, 2019
The 1963 School Shooting america forgot
The rifle he chose to shoot the children was a .22-caliber Mossberg 151k. With a narrow barrel and tapered walnut stock, the gun looked like an antique. In fact, between its light weight, its semiautomatic firing capability and the 14 bullets thumbed into its hidden magazine, the Mossberg was a precise and thoroughly modern weapon.
He raised the rifle to the second-floor apartment window. He aimed its long barrel across Union Avenue in Paterson toward the playground of Public School 14, where 50 children were playing and riding bicycles.
He spun the dial of his barrel-mounted scope. He focused on Donald Currie, who was playing basketball. Currie was 14 years old.
It was a few minutes past 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 7, 1963. Sunset approached, but the sun was still shining. America had lots of schools, and it had lots of guns. It had not yet combined those two words into this thing we now call a “school shooting.”
The gunman squeezed the trigger. He squeezed it again, firing as quickly as his finger could curl.
Joe Chapola was 12 years old. He was playing five-card poker with his friends on an upturned milk crate in front of the school when the shooting started.
“We thought it was just fireworks,” said Chapola, now 68, retired and a resident of Winter Park, Florida. “Then someone saw the barrel of a rifle hanging out the window.”
Donald Currie collapsed to the ground, bleeding. Alan Leek fell, too. He was 13.
“I was scared,” said Chapola, who was grazed by one of the bullets. “I always tell people: I was shot as a kid at a school.”
A precursor in white rage
Few people today remember the Paterson school shooting of 1963. When journalists and academics trace the history of school shootings, they usually start three years later, on Aug. 1, 1966, when a gunman killed 17 people and injured 31 at the University of Texas-Austin.
Maybe we forget the incident at School 14 because nobody died. The bullets wounded six children, however, and they nearly killed Robert Mohl, then a Paterson police patrolman who was the first to respond.
One bullet passed within inches of Mohl’s head.
Mohl and his partner arrested Ralph Best, whose prosecution on two counts of “atrocious assault” ended five months later in a mistrial.
Best walked free.
“You have to understand, it was a different era,” said Mohl, 85. “To us, this was just another job.”
It’s true. By today’s sensibilities, the way people responded to this terrifying event seems to reflect a certain pre-modern naivete.
But Best’s alleged crime was a frightening premonition of the modern crisis of guns in America.
Ralph Rudolph Best was a white, middle-aged man who apparently believed the life he deserved was lost. Best made a living engraving guns, including many revolvers and rifles owned by North Jersey police officers.
Similar to most modern mass shooters, then, Best possessed an armory of firearms.
The only thing he needed was a provocation.
Ralph Best lived in a boardinghouse at 529 Union Ave., seven blocks from Paterson's Great Falls. The old building was dilapidated, with paint peeling from the wood siding, according to a story in the Paterson Evening News.
A few doors up the hill sat Best’s shop, where he painted signs and engraved guns. He often invited schoolchildren and police officers to come inside and chat.
His visitors saw that Best possessed a small arsenal of guns.
“I knew some guys on the police force who had this Best guy engrave guns for them,” said Dennis DeMarco, a former Paterson police officer who met Best in his shop. “Best loved cops.”
Chapola hung out with Best, too.
“He was a pretty decent guy, to be honest,” Chapola said.
The neighborhood was changing fast. The old Polish and Italian families were moving to the suburbs, Chapola said, replaced mostly by African-Americans seeking jobs in Paterson’s factories.
Chapola was the only white kid hanging out in School 14’s playground, he said.
Best also had mental health problems. He had spent time in a mental institution after suffering epileptic seizures, according to newspaper interviews with a half-dozen of his neighbors. He was an alcoholicas well, with multiple arrests for public intoxication, they said.
“He used to go the same bar my father went to,” Chapola said.
From his shabby room on the second floor, Best’s bedroom window faced the basketball court across the street at P.S. 14. Kids from all over Paterson came to play, dribbling and yelling all afternoon and into the night.
“These kids were driving him crazy,” DeMarco said.
At 6:30 p.m. on May 7, Best was drunk and angry, police later said. He screamed at the 50 or so children in the playground to shut up and go home.
“We told him to do you-know-what,” Chapola said. “We were very disrespectful to him.”
About half an hour later, Best allegedly aimed his semiautomatic rifle out the window.
“Now for the showdown!” he yelled, according to police.
Donald Currie was among the first hit. The bullet landed in his thigh and broke his leg, according to the papers. As Chapola’s friends dropped their cards and escaped around the school, he dove behind a metal trash can beneath the open stairwell that still climbs the school’s façade.
“I was exposed,” Chapola said.
He ran. He heard a bullet ping the trash can. When he rounded the corner, he realized his knuckles were bleeding. A bullet had grazed his right hand.
“I was bleeding pretty good,” he said.
Robert Mohl learned of the shooting by police radio. From the red light at Union Avenue and West Broadway he turned left, drove 50 feet and stopped.
Mohl didn’t know it, but he was parked directly in the gunman's line of sight.
Mohl grabbed his shotgun. He ran onto the playground, stopping at the first wounded teenager he found.
As he knelt, Mohl felt a bullet whiz past his head.
Mohl's partner, Jimmy Natoli, ran to the boardinghouse. Best opened the door unarmed, and Natoli handcuffed him.
“We didn’t call in for backup. We didn’t call in for anything,” Mohl said. “When you were in that area, you’re pretty much on your own.”
It is unknown whether Best was motivated by race. He never said anything racist to police on the scene, Mohl said, and race was never mentioned in newspaper stories about the incident. But among the six victims, five were African-American.
Police searched Best’s apartment. They found a note dated May 2, 1963, five days before the shooting.
It read: “The life I also wanted is lost. Take a look.”
'Berserk kid hater' or premonition?
By today’s standards, responses to the shooting seem glaringly nonchalant. After filing their arrest report, Mohl and Natoli returned immediately to patrolling the streets. Chapola wrapped his wound in a white bandanna and left with his friends to play at the Great Falls.
News of the shooting appeared the next day on the front pages of the Paterson Evening News and the Morning Call. After that, neither paper followed the story until Best appeared in court. He pleaded insanity and was held on $10,000 bond.
At trial, it was discovered that the prosecutor and Best’s defense attorney had each hired the same two psychologists to diagnose Best’s mental condition. On Monday, Oct. 28, Judge Salvatore Viviano declared a mistrial.
“We never saw him again,” Mohl said.
In 1963 our judicial system was significantly different from today, and so was our understanding of gun violence. Best was seen at the time as a drunk and a “Kid Hater” who went “berserk” according to newspaper headlines.
“Just another day in Paterson,” Chapola said.
Today, any person arrested immediately after shooting six kids on a crowded playground would likely face decades in prison. Today, Best’s apparent actions would be judged by the light of everything we’ve learned in the last 52 years, since that day in 1966 when a disturbed and well-armed white man in Austin was recorded in the history books as the first modern school shooter.
Maybe the books got it wrong. We know they forgot the case of Ralph Best. Maybe they forgot a few more. Because looking back we can see that Best seems to fit a pattern. He was a white man living in a neighborhood and a city experiencing rapid demographic change. He believed he was a failure. Equipped with a stockpile of guns, he apparently chose a hunting rifle that functioned perfectly as a sniper’s rifle.
Maybe the biggest difference between 1963 and today is that Ralph Best got away.