Thirty-three years ago this week children who survived a bizarre kidnapping and bombing at the Cokeville Elementary School returned to their classes to finish the school year.
A troubled former Cokeville town marshal, David Young, instigated a standoff after he had been fired from his post. He had left Lincoln County for Arizona but returned to the town with accomplices to carry out an apocalyptic vision.
His plan was to hold the school children captive, demand ransom money, then blow the school up, according to a summary by the Wyoming State Historical Association. The explosion would transport money, children himself and his wife Doris to a “Brave New World.”
But his devious plans quickly unraveled that day — May 16, 1986. The gasoline bomb attached to Doris exploded prematurely causing Young to shoot and kill her before turning the gun on himself. All 154 hostages escaped but several children were burned.
Then Casper Star Tribune photographer Bill Willcox got the assignment to document the children’s return to school the following week.
“Several people indicated they weren’t wild about the media attention,” said Willcox, who was in the scrum of reporters, photographers and videographers that converged on the town of 500. “They just wanted to get on with their lives.”
“I saw it across the classroom,” Willcox said of the scene of George Moore carrying his bandaged son Jeremiah. “I just like the strong emotion between the father and son.”
Willcox recently retired from decades in journalism, but many of his photographs remain icons in the communities where he worked. They reveal an instinct for empathy with his subjects, despite Willcox’s insistence that the Cokeville photograph “just fell into my lap.”