Human Rights

How teacher stopped the school slaughter

A look at the horror and heroism in Erfurt school massacre

John Hooper
Sunday April 28, 2002
The Observer

The houses on Ottostrasse on the outskirts of Erfurt's picturesque old town are not prosperous, but comfortable. By no means deprived. You would need to have a decent income to live in Ottostrasse. No 40 is the prettiest house on the sunny side of the street. Frau Steinhäuser, who lived with her 19-year-old son Robert on the top floor, worked for a local skin clinic. Her estranged husband heads a department of the giant electronics concern, Siemens.

Yesterday the venetian blinds of Robert's bedroom were pulled down. There was a police van outside and red and white 'incident scene' tape was strung across the garden. This was because, on Friday, Robert went back to his school (motto: 'Learn to live') and slaughtered a quarter of the teaching staff, two of his former schoolmates, a police officer and then himself.

It emerged last night that he might have claimed dozens more victims had it not been for the courage of one of the very teachers he so hated.

Yet, as the details of Steinhäuser's life emerged, it became clear he was not a run-of-the-mill young man - and that he had been able to do what he did only because of incomprehensible lapses in the framing, or application, of Germany's gun laws.

There were no more than hints at the inner workings of his mind. He had been expelled from school and had already threatened a teacher. Yet the law allowed him to keep up to four lethal weapons. He was entitled to own two short- and two long-barrelled guns, which he carried in Germany's biggest multiple killing since the massacre at the Munich Olympics - and he learnt to use them partly at the local police shooting association, of which he was a member.

Steinhäuser also played handball. Norbert Hieltscher, a coach at the club where he played, said: 'He was a quiet kid. Not a mover and shaker. He was just there'. A fellow pupil said: 'Robert was not stupid, but he was bloody lazy.'

Police said he frequently played truant and forged sick notes. It was this that led to his expulsion from the Gutenberg Gymnasium (equivalent to a grammar school) in February. He had already been kept down a year after being prevented from sitting his Abitur , the exam which is needed to get to university. Now expulsion meant he was blocked for ever from a life in a white-collar profession. According to one report, Steinhäuser hid his expulsion from his family.

He had amassed large quantities of ammunition. Police found some at his home, and 500 rounds in a bag in a lavatory at the school.

On Friday morning, as his former schoolmates were preparing to sit the exam Steinhäuser so resented missing, he selected - a pistol and a pump-action shotgun ostensibly for clay pigeon shooting. Then he set out to exact revenge for what he viewed as the wrecking of his life.

Shortly before 11 am Steinhäuser, dressed Ninja-style, burst into a classroom and fired wildly, killing a teacher and two students. Then he narrowed his aim: it was the teachers he was after. Erfurt's police chief, Rainer Grube, said: 'He did not stay in one place, but covered several floors of the building.'

A janitor called the police at 11.05. A police patrol car was dispatched. It arrived at 11.12. The officers rushed in. One of them, a 42-year-old patrolman, was shot dead. The state authorities said yesterday it was the last killing before Steinhäuser put an end to his own life. So in about 10 minutes he murdered 13 teachers, all with his pistol. In most cases Steinhäuser would wound from a distance, then stand over the body to deliver the coup de grace.

An art teacher was ushering her pupils from a classroom when Steinhäuser made towards her. She turned and ran, but he kicked her from behind and she fell. 'Leave me alone. I've never done anything to hurt you,' she pleaded. Steinhäuser stood over her and pulled the trigger, a witness said.

Police said last night that the killing came to an end only when, in an act of extraordinary bravery, a history teacher tackled Steinhäuser, ripping his mask from his face to reveal his identity. 'Robert, this is pointless, but go ahead and shoot me if you want,' a police spokesman quoted the teacher as saying. The teacher then pushed him into Room 111, where police later found the young killer's dead body.

· Additional reporting by Beate Steinhorst

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