By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
They unlocked the door of the boys' bathroom on the second floor of Southwood Middle School this past November. It was determined that enough time had passed. Except for a few laggards, the last of the students who'd attended the school at the time of the incident had now graduated. A lot of teachers were relieved. The bathroom had been painted and remodeled and was barely recognizable. It was better to move on, they said.
February 3 fell on a Saturday this year. The day was passed without fanfare, although some teachers at the Palmetto Bay school were silently marking the three-year anniversary in their minds.
On Tuesday, February 3, 2004, classes had not yet begun when Bob Lunior received a call in the cafeteria. A student had been injured in a second floor bathroom. Would he come upstairs?
He left the cafeteria. He ascended the concrete stairs and charged through the windowless concrete tunnels of the school's hallways. He entered the bathroom.
"The student was hanging over the toilet," recalls Lunior, a counselor at Southwood for the past eleven years. "There was blood. I thought maybe he fell and hit his head."
Lunior ran to get a pair of latex gloves and returned to the bathroom. With the help of a security guard, he lifted the student from the toilet, thinking perhaps to initiate CPR.
"There were no cuts on his face," Lunior remembers, sitting in his office three years later, just down the hall from the bathroom. The room is covered in pictures of his family and his students. A sign on the wall reads "Do not be afraid of tomorrow. God is already there." He speaks in measured tones. He has had to learn how to tell the story.
"As we dragged him off, his sweatshirt had kind of come up around his neck," Lunior says. "I pulled the sweatshirt down to take a pulse, and that's when we saw."
As local television news anchors would frantically broadcast a few hours later, Jaime Rodrigo Gough, age fourteen, had been stabbed 40 times by Michael Hernandez, also fourteen years old. The two had been friends and classmates. Although Lunior didn't know at the time, both of Gough's jugular veins had been slashed, along with his windpipe. He did know that Jaime was already dead.
Michael Hernandez, who has been charged with one count of first-degree murder and one count of premeditated/attempted murder, is scheduled to go on trial June 4. On Tuesday he appeared before Miami-Dade County Criminal Court Judge John Schlesinger in a hearing that will decide the validity of the confession he made the day of the murder. Michael's defense team will claim that the now-seventeen-year-old is not guilty for reasons of insanity, and they hope to work out a plea bargain.
"Nobody's saying he didn't do it. The question is, 'Why?'" Michael's mother, Kathy Hernandez, says in an interview with New Times.(The family of Jaime Gough declined requests to be interviewed for this story.) "The answer is, 'Because he is mentally ill.' There is no difference between that and having cancer. You don't ask for either one. We're hoping his confession will be repressed. We're hoping that there can be a resolution without it going to trial."
In Florida, psychiatric treatment and the possibility of parole are unlikely. The state has some 600 inmates serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles, according to the New York Times. Some context: A 2004 Human Rights Watch Study found that outside of the United States only about a dozen child offenders in three countries were serving life sentences. In this country there are about 9700. About twenty percent of that population has no chance for parole.
"I'm not saying Michael should come home," says Kathy, who sat to tell her story on a recent Sunday in the tiled living room of her Palmetto Bay home. Her husband was at work at the consignment shop he owns. Kathy has close-cropped hair and a round face, wears wire-rimmed glasses, and speaks with a slight Southern twang.
"This country is supposed to have the best judicial system in the world, to be the most progressive country in the world," she continues. "To treat Michael, an ill child, as a competent adult is not right. He should have the right to get treatment he needs and an education.
"If this could happen in my family, it could happen in anyone's."
Lunior remembers what he was thinking when he saw Jaime Gough's hunched form in the bathroom stall the morning of February 3, 2004: "There's no way blood can go to his head. This kid's a goner."
It wasn't even 9:00 a.m. Counselor Lois Solly happened to look out of the main office when she caught a glimpse of Lunior, running at full speed. Strange, she thought. She went upstairs. Outside of the boys' bathroom was a police officer who looked dazed. The door was open, and Solly stuck her head in. A partition blocked the view.
"I asked if everything was okay," remembers Solly, who retired last fall. From inside, another cop yelled to keep everyone out.
"Bob said, öThere's a boy and he's dead and he's in the bathroom.' At that point we didn't know if it was a student or a teacher who did it," she says.
Solly went to the school's main office and, over the public address system, announced a lockdown "Code Red," an emergency procedure to keep classrooms locked with children inside in the event of potential danger at the school. Police and district administrators flooded the building. The office was evacuated, its workers corralled into the teachers lounge. They put the student aides in the photocopy room to shield them from what was going on.
By the end of the day Lunior would be interviewed by three sets of detectives, school police, and school attorneys. But in the immediate aftermath, emergency crews arrived and hustled him from the bathroom. Unsure of what else to do, Lunior went, as scheduled, to teach a class on substance abuse. He played a video.
"I don't think I could have done it otherwise," he says.
Solly was asked to be present as police began to interview Jaime's closest friends. She watched as Jaime's mother, Maria Gough, was escorted into the office. She didn't speak English, so a Spanish-speaking counselor was found to speak with her.
Maria Gough collapsed upon receiving the news. "You heard this just god-awful wailing," Solly remembers sadly. "It was horrible."
She says Jaime's body was removed in the afternoon. She guesses it was carried out the back, away from the eyes of the media swarming outside. "I clearly remember helicopters droning overhead for weeks. I couldn't stand it. It reminded me of Hurricane Andrew, all those army transports."
Solly stayed at the school until late, helping manage an impromptu meeting with parents. She arrived home in time for the 10:00 p.m. news.
"When they said who it was (that was accused of the murder) I said, 'Oh my god. Oh my god!' I couldn't believe it." Solly had sat in as a counselor while detectives were interviewing students. And every time police had asked kids who Jaime's best friend was, they had answered the same thing: Michael Hernandez.
On February 3, 2004, Kathy Hernandez left for work before her son went to school. As usual, he rode to Southwood with neighbors. The latex gloves she had purchased, ostensibly for a science project, were folded in his backpack, along with a gravity knife given to him by his father. ("My dad has a store, so I asked him for some knives," he later told detectives. "This was before I was going to do this.")
Sometime that morning her husband, Manny, called to tell her that something was wrong at Southwood. His shop, Palmetto Bay Consignment, was near the school, so they agreed he would go to see what was wrong. He found chaos. Parents held back by police tape anxiously called their children on cell phones. A rumor circulated that a child had died, killed by another student. But Manny was told that both sets of parents were inside the school. Since Southwood was on lockdown, he left.
Kathy left work around 3:00 p.m. and was home when the detective called. She was told that Michael may have been a witness to the murder, and that he was being held in a police station in Doral.
"The first thing we thought was that it must have been because he saw something, and how traumatic that could have been for him," she recalls. She picked up Manny at his shop and drove to Doral, where police told them a boy had been killed. She realized only then that it was Jaime who had died.
Everybody had been saying his name the way his parents pronounced it, with the Spanish pronunciation. (His teachers and peers pronounced it "Jamie.") She knew Jaime Gough. Michael had introduced them once when she picked him up from school. Michael had worked on a school project at Jaime's house around Christmas.
Detectives asked the Hernandezes for their social security numbers and address. They asked detectives to see their son. Finally Michael was brought into the room. He had no shoes on, just socks. He said, "I didn't do it," and put his head down on the table.
His parents tried to talk to him. Police warned that anything they said could be used against them in court. Kathy put her hand on her son's arm and asked what had happened. Michael said nothing.
"We still didn't understand. The police said Michael had given several different versions of what had happened," says Kathy Hernandez. These included a story that Jaime was killed by a teenager named "Sangre" ("blood" in Spanish), according to testimony given by Det. Salvatore Garafalo on Tuesday.
"We were still in the mindset that he had seen something. They didn't tell us we should be looking for an attorney."
The police told the couple that Michael had to go to the juvenile detention center overnight. The worried parents asked if he would be safe. They were ushered out thinking he was still going to come home.
Michael later admitted that Sangre was imaginary and confessed to the murder.
The Hernandezes returned to their house in Palmetto Bay. The phone rang. It was a reporter from the Miami Herald. "Are you aware that your son has confessed?" inquired the journalist.
Today outside Southwood Middle School there is a memorial to Jaime Gough. Two benches are covered with tiles painted by Jaime's friends and teachers. They have pictures of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which Jaime loved. One has the answers from an algebra test ("Unit Test, Chapter 4") that Jaime had received an A+ on.
"Jaime, shy and elusive. We'll miss you. Ms. Denn" reads one message. A local Boy Scout troop landscaped the memorial, planting the flowering shrubs that now scatter petals around the ceramic turtle placed on the ground.
In the 2004 Southwood yearbook, Jaime's friends placed a full-page memorial in the back of the book with the boy's eighth grade school picture, the same image that was plastered across newspapers and television screens. For a school portrait, it's delightfully expressive. Jaime's glasses have fallen down his nose. His mouth is fixed in a mischievous half-grin. He still has a bit of baby fat around his cheeks and he glances slightly upward. For all reports that Jaime was shy and occasionally picked on, he looks happy, like a kid with a great sense of humor. An acrostic on the yearbook page reads:
A ceremony in honor of Jaime was held one year after the murder, the culmination of a "Peace Week" at Southwood, organized by the student council to shake the cloud that had descended upon their school. On that day, students formed a circle around Jorge and Maria Gough, Jaime's parents. Accompanied by their younger daughter, the family released a basketful of butterflies, an insect Jaime had loved. One landed on Maria's shoulder and remained there for most of the ceremony.
Michael Hernandez's family did not attend the ceremony. "We sent [the Goughs] a note. We have talked with both parents. They are nice people, decent people," Kathy Hernandez says. "I'm sorry for their pain and loss, but I'm sorry for my family's too. I had hoped there would be some kind of understanding that we're hurting too." In a way, Kathy Hernandez lost her son that day, too.
The Hernandez family woke up on Wednesday, February 4, 2004, in a new world. Their day began around 3:00 a.m., when the juvenile detention center called to inform them that Michael was there and that the family would be charged two dollars a day for his room and board.
By dawn the trucks had pulled up outside. The house lit up inside from the lights of the cameras. The phone rang and rang with requests for interviews; letters would soon follow, including one from the Montel Williams Show. Someone from Southwood called to inform them of Michael's expulsion. "Like we didn't already know that," says Kathy Hernandez, bitterly.
Miami-Dade Police were in the house, combing through Michael's room for relevant evidence. They took his computer, his games, and journals. Kathy says much of the day was a blur. The public defender visited, along with a social worker. A lot of friends, his friends' parents, all of their neighbors visited.
"I never want to feel that again," she says, remembering those first days. "It's a pain. You can do nothing to make it better. You wake up and think, 'Oh no, that didn't happen,' but then you see the trucks outside. There are still days where I think maybe if I go pick him up at school he'll be there."
She sits in a glider in her living room and rocks slightly. Photo albums filled with portraits of Michael Michael in his baseball uniform, Michael as a towheaded child holding a large red crayon, Michael with chubby cheeks and an Easter basket sit on the dining room table in the next room.
Michael was born on February 2, 1990, the second child of Manny and Kathy Hernandez. (His 22-year-old sister, Cristina, is presently in college in North Florida.) His mother says he was a bright, talkative, inquisitive child. In most photos he is smiling, or giving someone bunny ears. At Southwood he was a good student in the school's gifted program. Even transcripts of interviews taken from classmates and teachers in the days following the murder describe a teenager who seemed neither sullen nor violent.
In a detective's interview with one teacher who taught both Jaime and Michael as seventh graders, the teacher said, "Jaime was quiet and had a great sense of humor that he showed to his personal friends. He was not interested in getting attention from anyone whom he wasn't close with. Michael is extremely charismatic. He is very much a people person and enjoyed the attention of the entire class. He likes to get to know all different kinds of people and made it a point to socialize with everyone."
She added that sometimes Michael needed to be reprimanded.
"He didn't do anything that was hugely terrible. He would talk when he wasn't supposed to, walk, he might get up and walk around when he wasn't supposed to be walking around. He would tell a joke to a friend and would get everyone to start laughing."
She did, however, recall two incidents that, in the aftermath of the murder, were disturbing. She learned later, from students, that Michael had once brought a knife into her classroom, and was also told Michael had once punched a student and then hadn't remembered having done so.
A friend of both Jaime and Michael who was at school early the day of the murder told detectives he had seen the two together on the second floor, laughing and joking, around 8:30 a.m. (Police estimate the murder occurred about ten minutes later.) He too told detectives that he had never detected anything abnormal about Michael, that he seemed normal. He described Jaime as "a pacifist." When a detective asked him if Michael had ever confided in him about any problems he was having, the student answered, "No. If he were going to confide in someone it would have been Jaime."
The detective asked why.
"Because they were the best of friends they were always together."
After stabbing Jaime, Michael went to his computer class. A classmate interviewed by detectives remembered him arriving late, around 9:15 a.m., with blood on his shirt, on his leg, and around his nose. Michael sat down at his desk and then was escorted to the bathroom to clean up. (By that time the school was on lockdown). According to the student, he told his teacher he had run into a door. The student described Michael as generally talkative, but unusually quiet that morning. Because someone in the class had a radio, the children learned early that a child had died an "unnatural death" at Southwood. When the police came, the student said Michael turned to him and whispered, "Oh, shit."
The classmate also said that Michael would occasionally visit porn Websites in class, or worse, sites depicting dead and dismembered corpses. The student who witnessed Michael and Jaime together the morning of February 3 said that for a while, around November 2003, the background screen on Michael's computer at school was a photo of severed heads.
At home, Kathy says he exhibited signs of mental illness that at the time she wrote off as typical teenager behavior. He had become removed from the family a little bit as he aged, she said. He no longer allowed his parents in his room.
Always a structured person, Michael became increasingly fixated on routine.
"He was very into exercising," remembers Kathy. So much so that she worried he would miss out on age-appropriate behavior, such as going to the movies with friends.
"It began to build on that type of thing," she continues. "He would have a list of things he was going to do every day by his bed in the morning."
He showed repetitive behavior typical of obsessive-compulsive disorder, symptoms his mother says worsened in the three months before the murder.
He began to open and close the door between the house and the garage a fixed number of times before going through it. When he finished dinner he would take his silverware and turn his fork so that it would face the opposite direction away from him. He would stand in front of the refrigerator and open both sides, then close them.
"We thought, 'Well, he's just doing this to aggravate us' which was working," says Kathy. "He had become more withdrawn from us, but teenagers do that."
His journal, released by prosecutors, reveals a fascination with serial killers and violence. On one page, a written list of goals reads:
Go to other countries You will be a serial killer and mass murderer Stay alone Never forget God EVER Have a cult and plan a mass kidnapping for new world Be an expert thief, etc. Have many weapons Own many vehicles
In another list, Michael described a plan to kill Jaime, his older sister, and another boy. In Jaime's case, the murder was executed almost exactly as written. The eighth item on his list read, "Thank God for success first, then Minnie and Pearly and Stopper" a reference to family pets. (The other friend failed to come to the bathroom that morning as scheduled, but the plan was enough to warrant Michael's second felony charge of premeditated murder.)
But Kathy says her son was skilled at hiding his troubled mind.
"If he walked into the room right now and had a conversation with you, you would never know he was mentally ill," she contends, explaining that her son is very careful about acting normal around strangers. "He was always very happy. He talked from the time he got up to the time he went to bed. He had a great sense of humor. You look at a profile of a serial killer and a profile of Michael and it doesn't match at all."
No one knows why Michael Hernandez would have attacked his best friend. His mother pores over the months that preceded the incident, trying to find something that could have served as a trigger to set off a psychotic episode that made Michael lose touch with reality. A brain scan commissioned by his legal defense team showed no sign of a tumor or other lesion on his brain.
Michael's lawyer, Richard Rosenbaum, is best known for having represented Lionel Tate in the appellate trial that overturned that boy's conviction for first-degree murder in 2003. Tate, who was twelve years old when he beat a six-year-old neighbor to death, avoided spending life in prison without parole (the required punishment for first-degree murder under Florida law, even for juveniles) by working out a plea deal for second-degree murder.
The Hernandez family also hopes to work out a plea bargain, so that neither family has to go through the misery of a trial. Regarding the confession, Rosenbaum contends that a mentally ill fourteen-year-old should have had a lawyer or a parent present before he was interviewed. One judge has already ruled that Michael is mentally ill but competent to stand trial. A defense psychiatrist's contention that Michael suffers from paranoid schizophrenia has thus far been negated by two court-appointed experts.
Michael has spent most of the past three years in the juvenile ward of Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center. His parents visit him twice a week, where they scream to their son through a glass barrier in order to be understood. Once a month they get what's called a "contact visit," allowing them to sit in the same room as Michael, along with a policeman. They haven't had a private conversation with their son since the morning of February 3, 2004. "As parents, we have no rights," says Kathy.
A phone call is $2.25, although the phone tends to disconnect frequently and one call can end up costing nearly seven dollars. They send him books. Kathy talks with her co-workers and friends to try to determine what type of literature Michael would be reading if he were still in school. To have books delivered to the jail, his family must order them directly from the publisher. Most recently she purchased him Great Expectations and The Canterbury Tales, which she says he enjoyed. Michael also likes books by Robert Ludlum and John Grisham. He listens to the radio and has gotten into rock music.
As far as education goes, his parents say there isn't really any. "When they say 'school,' people visualize a classroom, but it's not that way. He sits at a table with kids that can't read," says Kathy.
The inmates are seldom allowed outside. Inside the fluorescent lights are on 24 hours a day. Breakfast is served at 1:00 a.m., lunch at 9:00 a.m., and dinner at 6:00 p.m. Miami-Dade Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson Janelle Hall says the schedule accommodates inmates who leave on 3:00 a.m. transports to court.
Michael broke his glasses two years ago, and Kathy says only recently did he get his eyes examined. "They give you a prescription and you have to go guess what size glasses will fit him," she says.
Michael's case is particularly perplexing. He was not a juvenile delinquent in any sense of the word. His crime was not committed during a botched theft or while trying to buy drugs. However the murder was calculated and well-planned, and committed without apparent remorse. For his parents, the very inhumanity of the crime is proof that the person committing it was mentally ill. They do not believe Michael's mind to be beyond the reach of doctors. His brain, they say, will not be fully developed until he is 25 years old.
"The ideal outcome is for Michael to be placed where he can get the psychiatric help he needs, the medication he needs, and the education he needs," says Kathy. It would take many, many doctors to make him well, she says. "But it would still be a place where he could get help. He wouldn't just be punished." At the correctional center, she says, "he will only deteriorate even more."
Kathy says she has gone around in circles trying to find someone who might advocate for Michael's mental health, but nobody has taken him up as a cause. For some people, it is a relief to know that Michael has a good chance of spending the rest of his life in jail.
For some who were close to Jaime Gough, anything other than a life sentence for Michael is unacceptable. Brian Kornbluth, who grew up in Edgewater Park with Jaime, went to the YMCA gym with Gough the night before he was killed. Maria Gough picked them up. They made plans to see a movie that weekend.
Now a student of music education at Miami Dade College, Kornbluth has little sympathy for Hernandez.
"I don't know if he's sane," says Kornbluth. "But he knew what he was doing, and he should pay for the crime. It's not like he was ten years old or five years old. He planned it out. He should spend the rest of his life in jail."
Kornbluth was a student at Killian Senior High in 2004, but he went to the bus stop to meet friends coming home from Southwood on February 3. For all of them the moment became something of a turning point in their lives. "It made me just stop and think about how life can end. One second you're here alive planning for the next day and the next second you're not."
The day after the murder, Kornbluth and other kids from the neighborhood walked over to the Goughs. Jaime's parents welcomed them. "His father, Jorge, stood in the driveway and gave us a speech about hope and about living life one day at a time, and about how to make it through when he was the one who needed that speech," Kornbluth remembers.
Kathy Hernandez's final wish is that the two sets of parents Gough and Hernandez could sit down and talk to one another. Thus far lawyers have prevented such a dialogue.
That day still haunts the teachers at Southwood. The school has always been one of Miami-Dade's best, an "A" school with a respected performing arts magnet program. The halls are lined with evidence of students' artistic achievements. Signs advertise a performance of The Little Princess. An afternoon announcement made over the public address system congratulates the Southwood chorus for winning an award.
Before, when teachers were asked where they worked, their response would always bring a positive reaction. Now people will pause, think a moment, and say, "Isn't that where that kid got killed?"
Some teachers are not shy about the fact that they began to despise the news media, slowly coming to loathe the sound of helicopters thudding overhead and anchormen standing on the sidewalk out front.
"They really invaded our privacy," said Thelma Connor-Miller, a social studies teacher who has been at Southwood for fourteen years. It was in Connor-Miller's class that Bob Lunior gave his substance abuse presentation the day of the murder. Connor-Miller is relieved that the school unlocked the bathroom again. "When it was closed it was a reminder. I'm glad it's open. It's a sign of healing," she says. When parents or new students ask her where the murder took place, she says she tells them it happened on the other side of the building.
For Lunior, who was in the bathroom that day, it took a long time to accept what he saw. "My philosophy of life is that it's all in God's plan. Certain things are just beyond our control, and we have to surrender to God's will." He pauses. "It would have been really difficult if I didn't have that process." In the summer of 2004, after all the students had gone home for vacation, he and another teacher walked the halls together. "I burned sage and she had holy water," he says. "We did our own ritual."
Today the door of the bathroom is locked before and after school. After the murder a student had etched a tiny RIP into the door with a paper clip. Now it has disappeared under a new coat of paint.
A Spotlight on Sorrow
A Southwood alum's play draws crowds and a subpoena
The man sat in the back row, just another anonymous presence in a packed theater. The play was Defining Code Red, a fictional reconstruction of the events surrounding the murder at Southwood Middle School, which was shown for two weekends in February and March at the Riviera Theater in Coral Gables. Both shows sold out, even with additional seating.
Nobody had quite understood just how pervasively the murder of Jaime Gough had affected his community. The unexpected diversity and size of the audience proved that three years hadn't diminished a painful memory, even those who never knew the children involved.
The play's writer and director, Justin Koren, is a Southwood alum. He knew the man in the back row was there. He didn't tell his cast. They could have backed off certain aspects of their performance, or worried about causing offense. Koren had asked his costume designer, Ann Zabielinski, to keep an eye on the man from her perch in back of the theater, in case the show hit home too hard, or someone recognized the stranger and showed aggression toward him.
Nobody did. After a standing ovation, cast and crew took to the stage for a question and answer session. The audience lingered and the conversation was long. At the end, the man in back stood up and raised his hand. Koren selected him for the last question.
He had nothing to ask.
"I'm Michael Hernandez's dad," said Manny Hernandez. "I'd like to thank you all."
As Zabielinski describes it, Hernandez was enveloped in a massive group hug by the people surrounding him. "They were saying to him, 'Don't blame yourself,' and 'It's not your fault.' It was so emotional, so amazing to see," she remembers. For Koren, the director, it fulfilled his greatest goal: to get people to talk about what happened that day.
Koren looks much younger than his 24 years, and would not be out of place as a background dancer in a Justin Timberlake video. He wears mirrored Prada sunglasses, and his long blond hair is parted on the side and hangs over his face. He's a chatterbox with exaggerated expressions that range toward the theatrical.
He might seem like the last person you'd expect to draw 2000 people into a theater and making them cry a crowd diverse in age, race, and social class that included four Miami-Dade mayors, county commissioners, school board members, and a congresswoman. But that's exactly what happened. Somehow Defining Code Red struck the right chord.
Not only that, but Koren's extensive research earned him a subpoena during a hearing this past Tuesday on the Hernandez case.
Koren graduated from Southwood in 1996. He remembers a school full of music and art, bursting with creativity. His middle school experience, he says, defines him. Koren went on to Coral Reef High School, winning the Miami Herald's Silver Knight Award for drama in 2000. He studied theater at Boston University.
He was working for Broadway Across America in Boston in 2004 when a Miami Herald e-mail alert flashed the news of Jaime's death across his computer screen. Koren immediately called the school (he says he still knew the phone number by heart). He was told of the "code red," then left work in a daze and didn't come back for three days. Eight months after the incident he had moved back to Miami and was working as a substitute teacher at Southwood.
He had brought a small video camera with him with a plan to make a documentary. At first he told none of his coworkers about his project. But Koren is the first to admit that he likes to talk a lot. He brought up the topic of Jaime Gough and Michael Hernandez with teachers, administrators, students, custodians, security guards anybody and everybody he could find. (Michael Hernandez's legal defense team would later come to refer to him as "the mole.")
Koren spoke with many who had never shared their stories of that day. Many of them were harboring trauma. Although the school district had flooded Southwood with counselors in the days following Jaime Gough's death, visiting with one wasn't mandatory, even for faculty and staff who had been first responders, like school counselor Bob Lunior.
"The system did provide as much counseling as people wanted, but sometimes it's difficult to ask," says Lunior.
Koren's play conjures the terror and disarray of that day, drawing on his interviews: the security guard first called to the scene; the custodian who had to mop up the blood. He spoke with the parents of the child who had first discovered Jaime in the stall. He spoke with countless teachers, who had been locked in classrooms with students for nearly seven hours with nothing to eat.
Koren also documented the small aftershocks kids and teachers who became scared to go to the bathroom at school, children who were interviewed by detectives without their parents being notified, two empty desks left in an otherwise full classroom.
Out of respect, however, Koren didn't speak with the parents. Although he would eventually compile the most holistic account of what happened in Southwood on February 3, 2004, its nucleus the stabbing of Jaime Gough was left untouched.
After a few months of research, Koren decided to begin writing a play. From his interviews he compiled composite characters of teachers, parents, security guards, and students. At the same time, he found himself increasingly committed as a teacher. He took a full-time job as a language arts teacher at Southwood in the fall of 2005.
Kathy and Manny Hernandez saw a notice for the play in the newspaper. "It upset me," she says. But her husband called Koren to learn more. They met at a coffee shop and talked for a long time.
A representative for the Goughs called the theater box office looking for Koren as well. He says that the Goughs didn't feel they were ready to watch the play, but they offered their blessing.
For those most directly affected by the murder, the play had a healing quality. "There were a lot of emotional people in that room," remembers Lunior. "I got a little teary-eyed. I had a conversation with one of the staff members who was in the bathroom with me after we saw it. It was good for us."