Certified Bomb Technician Rich Haskell on the 1986 Bombing of Cokeville Elementary School
The Cokeville hostage crisis began the afternoon of May 16, 1986, when David and Doris Young took 154 children and adults hostage at the Cokeville Elementary School in tiny Cokeville, Wyo. After a stand-off lasting two and a half hours, the gasoline bomb the couple had brought into the school went off prematurely, badly burning Doris Young while David Young was out of the room. Returning, David Young shot his wife, then himself. All the hostages escaped, though 79 were hospitalized with burns and injuries. Young was a former Cokeville town marshal who had been living in Arizona for several years.
Transcriber's notes: I have added some reference footnotes to this transcript where I thought appropriate. In most cases I have deleted redundant ands, ers, uhs, buts, false starts, etc. If I deleted an entire phrase, I have inserted ellipses . . . Where you find brackets [ ] I have added words for explanation or to complete an awkward sentence. Parentheses ( ) are used for incidental non-verbal sounds, like laughter. Words emphasized by the speaker are italicized.
~Transcribed by Russ Sherwin, Feb. 27, 2011
Mark Junge: Today is the 23rd of September, 2010. My name is Mark Junge and I'm here at the Hilton—is it the Hilton Hotel? The Hilton Garden Suites in Laramie, Wyo. We're in a conference room here on the main floor. To my right is Sue Castaneda who is the Wyoming Oral History Project Director, and across the table from me is Rich Haskell, who is a certified bomb technician. Rich?
Rich Haskell: I'm Rich Haskell. I'm currently the Sheriff of Sweetwater County. I've been involved with law enforcement since 1977 in Sweetwater County. On May the 16th , 1986, 1 was in Rock Springs at a basketball game. During my years here in Wyoming I have refereed both basketball and football on the high school and the junior high school level, and I was watching the ball game at that time. I received a telephone call from my dispatcher informing me that an incident had taken place up in Cokeville and they were requesting me to drive to Cokeville for assistance. I called back to my dispatcher and they did inform me that the school in Cokeville was being held hostage by two individuals and there was bombs involved.
I was, and I still am, a certified bomb technician at the time, and I was, as far as I know, the only bomb technician in the southern half of the state of Wyoming. I contacted the dispatch up in Kemmerer to get firsthand information as to having second- and third-hand information and they informed me that the school indeed had been taken hostage. I believe there was a hundred-and-sixty-plus people involved that was being held. I contacted my sheriff, and that was Jim Stark at the time, and he said, "Definitely! You just do whatever you have to do and get up there." I gathered up some of the equipment that I would need and a change of clothes and proceeded to Cokeville. I think I made it there in record time—I'm not sure.
Mark Junge: How long did it take you?
Rich Haskell: Approximately an hour and ten, hour and fifteen minutes.
Mark Junge: Which means you had to be doing over a hundred miles an hour!
Rich Haskell: I was cookin' right along, yes I was! I didn't look at the speedometer, I was just kind of watchin' for animals and everything else.
Mark Junge: In fact, didn't you say you burned up your engine?
Rich Haskell: Yes, I did. They had to come and get my car and get me another one. (Laughs) But as I was passing through Kemmerer I stayed in radio contact. At that time all of the different agencies was pretty much on the same radio frequency and I was stayin' in touch with them, lettin' them know what my location was and they were in turn telling me what was taking place. As I come to the junction—I'm sorry, I don't know what the road is that goes over to Bear Lake—but as I was passing that intersection, they did inform me that the bomb had exploded. I don't know if—I just felt an empty—actually I could just see a hundred-sixty people dead!
Well, when I arrived at Cokeville, of course they had the roads all blocked off and there was not a lot of people around the school at the time. When I arrived I could see out on the lawn, there was a black object laying out on the grass. As I got closer to it I could tell it was a body, and of course, you just start thinking about what took place.
Because of the experience and the different classes that I've attended, I know what bombs do to people, to buildings and to all kinds of structures. I really did not even want to walk inside that building because I was just afraid that I'd see kids all over the place. But I walked up to the window and looked inside the window and didn't hardly see anything out of the ordinary except it was all black inside. The windows had been knocked out—had been blown out. I was later told that everybody had been taken to different hospitals, ambulance services from all over, from Utah, from Idaho, from Wyoming was transporting people all over the place and there was only two fatalities. When I walked inside of the classroom—it was a kindergarten classroom which meant that the desks were smaller, everything was smaller because of the smaller children.
I walked into the bathroom and there was the suspect that had started this whole mess, layin' there on the floor with a—he had a pistol in his hand and you could tell he had shot himself in the head.
Mark Junge: David Young.
Rich Haskell: Yes.
Mark Junge: Did you help bring the body out?
Rich Haskell: I did not. I didn't touch the body at all. I immediately went into rendering safe—he had brought in several devices with him to place in different places in the room, and there was a lot of ammunition, a lot of guns out in the hallway, and I immediately started rendering all those safe, making sure that those were safe and they could move them out of the building.
Mark Junge: You also mention in your written article in Witness to Miracles [See Note] , the book, that you found a briefcase and you had to open it remotely?
Rich Haskell: Yes, there was a briefcase in the hallway, and we were told—before I had gotten there they had gotten papers from his daughter. Kind of a synopsis of what they were going to do and what their plans were and the whole thing. I never did get to see that until—I think it was two days later—actually what they had taken as far as the paperwork was concerned. It said in there that they had brought blasting caps, ammunition, those types of things in and there was a sealed briefcase that was in the hallway. We didn't know if the blasting caps were in there—just exactly what was in there. I did open that briefcase remotely like I was taught in school to do.
Mark Junge: What was in it?
Rich Haskell: Just papers.
Mark Junge: His personal papers?
Rich Haskell: Yes.
Mark Junge: Okay. When were you satisfied that there were no more bombs?
Rich Haskell: Well, after I arrived it took probably three to four hours to make sure everything was neutral and everything was not going to be a threat any longer.
Mark Junge: And when you went into the classroom you saw holes in the walls?
Rich Haskell: You walk into the door, and I don't know if you got to go into the classroom, but you walk into that door and it opens up into the whole thing. Chalkboards and—what do they call those?—whiteboards, I think they are, along the walls. And the bathroom was off to the side of it because it was the kindergarten class. The kids could just go to the bathroom right from their classroom. Everything was blackened. You could see that the roof tiles had been lifted out of their brackets. But everything was black, like you had gone in there with a flamethrower and just torched everything inside there. And after—you look in there and you could see little pockmarks all through on the walls, and after we finished with our investigation—it took us three days to totally do the whole entire scene—you could tell where those pockmarks were bullets from the heat had gone off. Because they weren't in a gun, the pressure wasn't chambered enough to where you could direct it. It was just shootin' everywhere. It just embedded into the walls from the ammunition from the heat.
Mark Junge: But all of these holes were above the level of the children.
Rich Haskell: Were above the level of the kids, yeah.
Mark Junge: You had some bullets in the ceiling that you had to investigate, too. What did you find out about them?
Rich Haskell: There was also a—you look through the ceiling and there was a bigger hole up there. So we took the tiles off and went up into the ceiling and crawled up into the upper space up there and found a .45 slug up embedded into the iron girders up in the wall, and thought, okay, where did that come from?
Well, when I arrived and saw that body layin' on the front lawn, I was told that was Doris. When the thing went off, when the bomb exploded, they just started chuckin' people out the windows. Everybody that was inside that room, they just started throwin' them out the windows, out the doors, just any—and she happened to be one they threw out the window.
Well, after interviewing some of the people, what had happened, the bomb—David Young had set the bomb to have what they call a dead-man switch. That dead-man switch is a piece of string that goes around your wrist and it's hooked into a clothespin, the other end of it. There's a piece of wood in there that separates the jaws of a clothespin and in that clothespin there are two metal connections that the wires were hooked to which made the electrical connection with the bomb. As long as that piece of wood was in there to keep those separated, it would not detonate.
Doris had a migraine headache that day, in talking with the other folks, and she was complaining about that, and asked David if she could open the windows because the gas fumes—evidently the gas was leaking from the incendiary —and he finally consented to let 'em open the window. David was a diabetic. He hadn't had anything to eat and she finally convinced him to get something to eat, and he let her be in charge of that bomb. She tied the string around her wrist. They had a circle of tape around the device itself and they said, "Do not come inside of this circle. Nobody come inside this circle." And that's where the bomb sat and that's where they sat.
Well, he had went into the bathroom and she was out with the bomb, and they said she was complaining of a migraine headache. She lifted her hand up to rub her forehead and when she did that pulled the pin out and detonated the bomb.
Of course, I can imagine the noise that it made. He came out of the bathroom, is what we figured. She was on fire! She was a total torch! And you could see that she had been burning by just looking at her out on the front lawn. She was totally burned. And screaming, I can't imagine the screams that she was making. We figured that he had dropped down on his knee, took his pistol and shot her to put her out of her misery, because when we went out and looked at her, there was a hole up through the bottom of her chin, and it came out the top of her head. And it was a perfect trajectory up into the ceiling where that bullet was. And then he shot himself.
Mark Junge: That's a mighty powerful gun!
Rich Haskell: Yes. It killed her instantly.
Mark Junge: Did you find the bullet that killed him, too?
Rich Haskell: The bullet in him was in the bathroom.
Mark Junge: On the floor?
Rich Haskell: No, I don't think it exited. I think it was still in his body.
Mark Junge: Okay. Now you are a bomb technician. Certified Bomb Technician. You know something about bombs. This wasn't a pipe bomb. This wasn't a simple bomb.
Can you describe this? I mean, what it was supposed to do?
Rich Haskell: Sure. As well as I can. Okay? The device was set up on a—for lack of a better word, I call it a shopping cart. It's a little basket that has different layers on it. You see the bag ladies pullin' them around behind them when they go to the store and they can put their groceries in or whatever else. Well, he had put wooden shelves for layers. Had a gallon milk jug full of gasoline on one level, had aluminum powder, flour and those two components was in tuna fish cans directly under the gasoline bomb.
Mark Junge: What were they designed to do?
Rich Haskell: Pretty sophisticated guy is what he was. He had tried this device—and they were designed to—that it would be a delayed explosion. The tuna fish cans with the two floury would be spread out in the air like—have you ever seen a grain elevator explosion? Well, you know how fine that dust is. That's what it was designed to do was to go out and be particles and that gasoline was gonna ignite it and blow it up.
Mark Junge: What would the aluminum do?
Rich Haskell: It's a combustible. So you got that and you got the flour and the gasoline and that's what it was all designed to do in millisecond delays. We know for a fact that he had tried that device because he did it in Arizona and totally destroyed a school bus. Totally destroyed it! So he did try that device. We know he built two of 'em. One of 'em was in Cokeville and one was in the bus that he did the experiment with.
Mark Junge: Curious, Rich. How did you determine how everything looked when this went up in smoke itself. The basket, the shelves—
Rich Haskell: The basket didn't.
Mark Junge: Oh, it didn't?
Rich Haskell: No. What had happened—I can't explain it. I cannot explain it! I cannot tell you what happened. The tuna fish cans, if you can imagine, here's two tuna fish cans sittin' here like this, and a gallon jug of gasoline sittin' above it. These are designed to just spread out the particles all over the air. The gasoline bottle was leaking. Had a small pin-hole leak in it and it dripped into both containers and they both became paste. This can, the aluminum powder, never went off. The wire was cut.
Mark Junge: It was cut?
Rich Haskell: It was cut.
Mark Junge: By whom?
Rich Haskell: I can't explain it.
Mark Junge: Do you think David or Doris would have cut it?
Rich Haskell: No.
Mark Junge: No? The kids couldn't have cut it.
Rich Haskell: No.
Mark Junge: One wire was cut?
Rich Haskell: Yep. It was cut.
Mark Junge: This bomb was designed to do what? To go off to the side?
Rich Haskell: To come this way.
Mark Junge: Like a mushroom?
Rich Haskell: Yeah.
Mark Junge: And what did it do?
Rich Haskell: If it would have went off like it was supposed to have gone off, it would have lifted the roof off of that school. But it didn't.
Mark Junge: So it would have gone upward, but would it have killed the kids?
Rich Haskell: Yes. Because it was sittin' low enough and the kids were low enough that it would have done it. It would have killed them.
Mark Junge: And what happened? With the explosion—what occurred?
Rich Haskell: I don't think that they were planning—or David was planning on the ceiling tiles in the school. Because in the bus, everything was solid in the school bus. There was no give in the school bus. Well, with the window being open, with the ceiling tiles being able to lift up and down, I think that absorbed a lot of the explosion of the gasoline bottle. But it still sent flames all over in the room and you can see where all the flames were in that room.
Mark Junge: Well, and it burned some of the kids.
Rich Haskell: Yeah. And it burned some children.
Mark Junge: Do you still think about this?
Rich Haskell: Yeah.
Mark Junge: How often?
Rich Haskell: Not really that often, but every time I think about it I get very emotional.
Mark Junge: What triggers your emotion?
Rich Haskell: I think it could be a spiritual experience that I have with church, or being around the kids, I don't know.
Mark Junge: Did it change your life?
Rich Haskell: Yes.
Mark Junge: In what way?
Rich Haskell: Well, I like to think I'm a better person because of it. But I know that, well, I'll just be quite frank. I know there's angels. I know that for a fact! When you say what cut the wire? I don't know. I can't explain it. The kids couldn't have done it. The detonation didn't do it, it was cut. And we all—there was three of us there. We had people from ATF—Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms—and there was another bomb technician that came up from Evanston—he was studying to be a bomb technician—and we all looked at that and said, "That wire's been cut." Just like with a pair of pliers, pair of snips. It was cut.
Mark Junge: Had you seen anything like what took place in this classroom before? Anything?
Rich Haskell: Never.
Mark Junge: You'd been tested, though. You'd had experience?
Rich Haskell: Yes.
Mark Junge: With bombs? And knew what they could do?
Rich Haskell: Yep.
Mark Junge: And the explosion went straight up? Why? Because of the tiles and the window?
Were—do you think it had something to do with angels?
Rich Haskell: Well, I did learn later that the kids saw the angels. Encircled it.
Mark Junge: Why do you think that God chose Cokeville to save? All the kids were saved.
There was nobody killed but the perpetrators. I mean, Columbine, it wasn't that way. Virginia Tech, it wasn't that way. I'm not saying all of 'em were bombs, but why did God cut out Cokeville and say nobody's going to get hurt in this?
Rich Haskell: Well, you know, that's a really good question. I have given that some thought. I think it's because of the ages of the kids, to start with. I mean, we're talking about from kindergarten kids up to 10-, 11-, 12-years old. So many of 'em that—I don't know.
Mark Junge: They weren't big enough, in a way. And they had practiced how to get out of that building. Go to their hands and knees and crawl out. What is your assessment of these two people who did this? Do you ever think about them?
Rich Haskell: No.
Mark Junge: You don't? Why not?
Rich Haskell: Well, I didn't know a lot about 'em and I still don't know a lot about 'em.
Mark Junge: Well, what do you think would cause two people like this to do this?
Rich Haskell: You know, with 33 years of law enforcement, I've seen a lot of things.
And I think that these people actually thought that they could start another world.
In their minds they could start another world. And that was their whole intent of coming to Cokeville. Number one, that's where he worked. He used to work in Cokeville. He knew what the community was all about. He knew it was a predominantly Mormon [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] community. He was asking large amounts of money. Wyoming has a lot of money as far as the state is concerned. So if the state didn't pay him, he figured the Mormon church would pay him because the Mormon church has money also. But he knew the culture, he knew the type of people, and I'm not sayin' that Mormon people are better than anybody else, but their way of life is family is first. Family is the most important thing in a Mormon family. That's what David Young forgot to realize just how important families were.
Mark Junge: Well, yes. And they had trouble keeping people away from the building. People who had guns!
Rich Haskell: Yeah, there was some people ready to just shoot him right where he was sitting.
They were sitting out across the fence with scopes on their rifles just ready to shoot until the sheriff went out and said, "No. No, we can't do this."
Mark Junge: So it took you three days, three and a half days—
Rich Haskell: Approximately three and a half days.
Mark Junge: —to go through all this? And then what? You went back home?
Rich Haskell: Yeah, I think I did. Yeah, we didn't get a lot of sleep. I just stayed right there and we processed the scene and did the scene. One of the unique things that I noticed when I went into that room and I don't know if any of the other people have told you about it or whatever else, but when I walked into that room you could see the outline on the whiteboard of an angel. Of what you would picture an angel, with the wings and—
Mark Junge: Well, if I'm a skeptic, I could say, "Well, that's just the way the flames shot up."
Rich Haskell: Okay, I'll buy that! (Laughs) Yeah, I understand what you're saying, but it was. It was perfect!
Sue Castaneda: Did you look at (unintelligible)
Rich Haskell: I took pictures of it. No. I said, "What on earth happened there?" And I didn't know about the angel thing comin' to the kids until many days later.
Mark Junge: Oh, really! So there's doubt in your mind that there was divine intervention?
Rich Haskell: No, there is no doubt.
Mark Junge: What's been your experiences since then? Have you had anything like this, anything close to this happen?
Rich Haskell: Not even close.
Mark Junge: This was a life-changing event.
Rich Haskell: Yep.
Mark Junge: You think when we talk to you to bring this up again—I know you're emotional about it—but does it hurt you to talk about this?
Rich Haskell: No. No, not at all. It brings back lots of memories but it doesn't hurt because actually it was a positive experience.
Mark Junge: How so?
Rich Haskell: Well, by none of the kids bein' hurt that was supposed to be hurt. By the people that was the bad folks, they're the only ones that got really hurt. They're the ones that died from the whole thing.
Mark Junge: And you know, in Sue and I's conversation with these dozen people we've talked to now, seems like they also feel the same way you do. They feel that it was a positive experience for them. Which is hard to believe, but a positive experience in that they learned something. They learned to trust in their God, the kids were healed for the most part, and they value life more now.
Rich Haskell: Well, as we were talking before we started recording, because of my knowledge with the explosives and with the law enforcement and everything else, I've had many opportunities—because of the explosives—I've been with Vice President Cheney when he was here in Wyoming up in Pinedale. I was up there as part of his protection team. I've spent many, many hours and many days with the leaders of the Mormon church, with the Prophet of the Mormon church. Whenever they would come to Wyoming I would be part of their security team. President Hinkley, President Monson, and President Faust. It's—I'm still doing that kind of thing because whenever they hold General Conference in Salt Lake City I go to Salt Lake City to be part of the bomb team for the church while they have General Conference.
Mark Junge: Are you one of the most experienced people in the area? In the West?
Rich Haskell: Yes, I think so.
Mark Junge: How many actual bombs have you had experience with?
Rich Haskell: Oh my goodness! I don't know. Dozens.
Sue Castaneda: Where did you get your training for that?
Rich Haskell: Well, I got a lot of it while I was in the Marine Corps and in the Army National Guard. Then when I became a deputy, Sheriff Stark says, "You know, we're going to start finding a bunch of old explosives, dynamite and things. Go to school and learn how to do it." And he didn't even ask me if I wanted to do that. He just said just go do it. So I went to Huntsville, Ala., to Redstone Arsenal. It's a continuous training thing and years and years and years of continuous training with the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, with the fire marshals and now that it has come into it with the hazardous materials and everything else. It's just something that you just have to stay on top of. You can see what's happening in the world today.
Mark Junge: Yeah, my brother-in-law worked in the Navy as a chief petty officer and he worked with what they called EOD.
Rich Haskell: EOD, yep.
Mark Junge: EOD. And he had to defuse bombs. Now this is just for my own information and it doesn't have anything to do with this case, but whenever I read about a bomb threat in the paper, I think to myself, "Oh, no! Guys like you have to go and search every corner. And what happens if they trigger something accidently?" Do you ever think about that?
Rich Haskell: I sometimes do, but you can't let yourself think about it. You have to think about what you're doing right at that particular time so you can stay focused on what you have to deal with. You can't think, well, maybe something could happen, because yes it could. You could walk across the street and get run over as far as that's concerned, but I don't know if my wife has any more gray hairs because I've chosen this profession.
Mark Junge: Do you think you were cut out to do this job?
Rich Haskell: There was a reason I was there for some reason. I don't know what. And I think it's made me a stronger person. It's made me, I think, more open-minded to things and don't take so much for granted anymore. That your life could change just at a blink of an eye.
Mark Junge: Do you think you've taken more joy out of life because of it?
Rich Haskell: Absolutely! I certainly enjoy my grandkids a lot more. And my children.
Mark Junge: How many do you have?
Rich Haskell: I have 34 grandchildren.
Mark Junge: How many kids?
Rich Haskell: Nine.
Mark Junge: Thirty-four grandchildren!
Rich Haskell: And fourteen and a half great-grandchildren.
Mark Junge: That's a record of all the people we've talked to!
Sue Castaneda: Which is the son who is also running for sheriff?
Rich Haskell: That's my oldest boy, Steven.
Mark Junge: Where at? Where's he running?
Rich Haskell: In Sublette County.
Mark Junge: And you're sheriff in Sweetwater?
Rich Haskell: Yes, adjoining counties.
Mark Junge: Do you think he took up that—wanted to take that up because of you?
Rich Haskell: I don't know. I'd like to think so. I think he went in the Marine Corps because of me and served 25 years and retired.
Mark Junge: You must be proud of him.
Rich Haskell: I am. I'm proud of all my children.
Mark Junge: Do you know the names and birthdates of all your grandchildren?
Rich Haskell: I don't know the birthdates but I know the names. That's why I have a computer.
Mark Junge: And your great-grandkids? You know their names but not their birthdays.
Rich Haskell: Yep. Too many of 'em to try to remember their birthdays.
Mark Junge: Well, you've been blessed in a lot of ways.
Rich Haskell: Yes, absolutely. I absolutely have.
Mark Junge: What do you want to do with the rest of your life?
Rich Haskell: Well, run for—do another term as sheriff and then retire, and my wife and I are going to do—she loves genealogy. She's an avid genealogist, so maybe get involved with that, and maybe go on a mission for the church.
Mark Junge: One of the things that Sue and I found out is that people don't regret doing this because they think it's important for history. Do you think this is a historical event?
Rich Haskell: Absolutely. When Columbine took place, it was such a big deal, and I mentioned to a couple people, "You know, Columbine wasn't the first school to have anything happen." They forget about what happened in Cokeville with a lot more people and the potential of what was there. In Cokeville, Nowhere, Wyo. So if it can happen there it can happen anywhere in the United States.
Mark Junge: And that's the lesson we learn. You know this is going to sound morbid, but I always thought if the Muslims, the radical Muslims were smart, they would take their jihad to local communities because that would scare the hell out of 'em like it did in Cokeville. I mean, okay, you lose the Twin Towers, you might get the Pentagon damaged, but if somebody's town hall or school is blown up in Star Valley [Wyo.] where there's only a limited population, that's going to throw the fear of God into everybody. Is that morbid thinking on my part?
Rich Haskell: No, it is not.
Mark Junge: Thank you.
Rich Haskell: No, it's not. And that's what we in this country have that these other fanatics or whatever is the family is the import factor. You start messing with the kids, now you're going to have yourself a war. Now you've got problems. And that's exactly what took place in Cokeville. They messed with the kids and that brought a whole community—in fact, it brought the whole western half of the state all together.
Mark Junge: Really.
Rich Haskell: Idaho and northern Utah.
Mark Junge: How do you know?
Rich Haskell: Because of the response and because of the emails and everything that took place
over there. They just didn't let it die out. It was there for a long time, all that support.
Mark Junge: We were worried, Sue and I, that people would take offence, right?
Sue Castaneda: Carla said that some people were mad that we were there.
Rich Haskell: Uh, I can understand that. Yeah. I can understand that.
Mark Junge: They don't want it brought up again.
Rich Haskell: No. You know, the kids have forgot about it, let's let 'em move on. No, this is something that people need to know about. This did, in fact, happen in Wyoming!
Mark Junge: Well, I want you to know that we think you're courageous for doing this with us. I mean, not everybody would do this. There are a select number of people that would do this, so thank you.
Rich Haskell: You betcha!
NOTE: Witness to Miracles was published in 2006 by Pronghorn Press, www.pronghornpress.org . A compilation project by the Cokeville Miracle Foundation, a 501(c) (3) charity. P. O. Box 37, Cokeville, Wyoming 83114.
- Recording and transcription by Wyoming State Archives. Used with permission and thanks.
- The photo of Rich Haskell is by Wyoming State Archives. Used with thanks.