Janitor who ended school shooting heard “screaming you can’t define”

All week in Spokane County Superior Court, experts have testified about the mental health of an admitted high school shooter. Thursday, tears filled the courtroom as the man credited with stopping the shooting described that awful day.

Joe Bowen worked as a janitor at Freeman High School on September 13, 2017. He ordered 15-year old Caleb Sharpe to the ground and held him until he was arrested. Sharpe, who was 15 at the time, is charged with killing one student and injuring three others.

Sharpe is in court all week as his attorneys argue he should be tried as a juvenile, not an adult.

Defense experts have testified this week about Sharpe’s health history and the possibility he can be rehabilitated if charged as a juvenile.

Thursday morning, Bowen took the stand for the prosecution, which is arguing Sharpe should be tried as an adult.

He described hearing loud bangs in the school that morning in 2017.

“There was two pops, pop pop, followed by a burst of three to four pops and then a pause,” Bowen remembered. “And then, probably four to five more pops.”

He remembered thinking, “which one of these kids brought firecrackers to my school?”​​​

That was before he heard the screams.

“Immediately. Screaming. Screaming you can’t define,” he reflected. “The girls were screaming intensely. Intensely. A white powdery substance engulfed the entire hallway. Almost like an IED had went off.”

When Bowen came into the hall, he said he came face-to-face with Sharpe. Then it clicked: he had just heard a shooting. He said he thought, “Well, Columbine had two shooters. Where’s the other one?”

He told Sharpe to “get down on the f-ing ground,” then held Sharpe down until the school resource officer got there.

“I put my knee into his back, my gerber to his neck and said, don’t f-ing move,” Bowen told the courtroom.

“I looked back at the weapon and I’m like ‘I gotta get the weapon out of here,’ so I immediately thought, ‘I don’t want to get shot taking the weapon out of here for responding officers, thinking I’m the shooter.’ And I don’t want to fingerprint it. So, I had the gerber leatherman still in my hand. I bent down with the handle open, put it through the stock. I lifted it with two hands and I proceeded out of the doorway,” said Bowen.

Bowen was talking about an AR-15.

Bowen also remembered looking over at someone laying on the ground down the hall, past the school resource officer. It was Sam Strahan, who was the first person shot.

“And I said, ‘There’s another individual behind you. I’ll go help,’ And he said, ‘No, Joe. They’re all gone.’ And I said, ‘No, what do you mean? No, we gotta go help,'” Bowen said.

Strahan was already gone when Bowen got to him.

“I thought, ‘No, no, there’s still life. We’ve gotta safe him.’ And then I thought, ‘No, no, it’s just muscle spasms,'” Bowen said.

Doctors have spent the week analyzing Sharpe’s brain in front of the court, saying possible brain damage at birth and a neurodevelopment disorder contributed to the shooting. Beyond Sharpe’s maturity, Judge Michael Price will also have to weigh the impact the shooting left on the Freeman community when deciding whether to try Sharpe as an adult.

Few people know that better than Bowen.

“There will be a constant memory of it. I can’t go upstairs without seeing it in my head on any given day,” said Bowen, who said the shooting sparked the addition of security features inside the building.

He told the court there are reminders of that horrific morning everywhere he looks — like the back door Sharpe walked through before he opened fire.

“There are staff members that are pretty scared of that door still, to this day,” Bowen said. “If that alarm goes off because somebody’s bumped it, or anything, they get a little nervous.”

He remembered one morning, near the one-year anniversary of the shooting, when he came across someone who was kneeling in the hallway that changed everything. Knowing the history, not knowing what he’d find, he turned on the lights with a bit of hesitation.

“It was one of the parents having a hard time with the incident, with it being near the anniversary,” Bowen said. “Tried to talk to the individual and consoled what I could, and reality’s that there’s nothing I could do to console anybody but I tried.”

Bowen worked in aerospace maintenance for the U.S. Air Force before his time at Freeman. He has been honored for his actions that day, receiving the Governor’s Lifesaving Award.