Liberty High School cross country team encounters gunman, assists detectives

October 4, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Liberty High School cross country runners set off for a late-morning practice from Clark Elementary School on a muggy morning late last month and, as the sun inched upward in the sky, slurped Otter Pops and chatted in the parking lot.

Then, as members rested after a run along Tiger Mountain trails, a bang echoed across the campus. Maybe a firecracker, runners said later.

Instead, the noise came from a shot fired on the nearby Issaquah Middle School campus as gunman Ronald W. Ficker headed across downtown on a fatal trip to Clark Elementary.

Though much of the attention after the Sept. 24 shootout focused on the people corralled beneath bleachers at Issaquah High School, the cross country team encountered the gunman firsthand. The coach, runners and members’ parents also ushered people to safety, called 911 and later offered important details to investigators.

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“It was a very sad thing, because it was a situation where there was no outcome that was going to be good,” coach Michael Smith said. “That was the hard part for me, being involved in it. There was nothing you could have done. I think it was going to end the way it was going to end.”

Most runners left the Clark Elementary campus before Ficker reached the parking lot and attempted to break into a driver’s education car parked outside the school. Only Smith, a half-dozen team members and a pair of parent volunteers remained.

“If he had wanted to shoot us, he could have come up to our group at any point,” Smith said. “We were just sitting there. We had no idea what was happening until he shot and then started beating on the car.”

Senior Nick Knoblich, 18, noticed Ficker at the driver’s education car. The cross country team stood at the opposite end of the parking lot.

“He looked like a normal guy,” Knoblich said. “If he wasn’t doing all of that stuff, I would just think he’s walking along.”

Smith yelled at Ficker to stop — but backed off after noticing rifles in the gunman’s arms. Smith said Ficker lost interest in the car, and then started to head in the direction of the high school.

Using Knoblich’s cellphone, Smith dialed 911 and described the scene to the dispatcher as Ficker stalked across the Clark Elementary campus.

“He looked at me, he pointed and he shot. She goes, ‘Is he shooting at you?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Are you sure it’s not the gun club?’ ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I am not going to keep watching,’” Smith recalled. “I said, ‘You need to get here now. You can’t wait. He’s shooting now. So, where are you?’”

(The school is near the Issaquah Sportsmen’s Club.)

Meanwhile, parent volunteer Karen Chucka urged people — including a young boy walking a dog and a woman taking a baby for a stroll — to flee from the campus and surrounding area.

“I heard from the sheriff that he wasn’t aiming at anything, that he was just randomly shooting,” she said later. “I realized that we were just protected by the grace of God.”

The shootout rattled Chucka’s twin daughters, 16-year-old cross country runners Megan and Michaela, as bullets struck the ground nearby.

“My daughter said she swore like a drunken sailor,” Karen Chucka said later.

Meanwhile, as Smith reported Ficker’s movements to the dispatcher, Knoblich headed in Smith’s direction.

“I got into my pickup and I drove toward Mike for a couple reasons,” Knoblich said. “One, he had my cellphone. Two, in case the gunman actually did fire at him, he would be able to jump in the back. Three, he was back there by himself and you shouldn’t leave him.”

Investigators sought out Smith and Knoblich in the days after the incident. Detectives later interviewed the coach about the fateful interaction on the Clark Elementary campus.

“The minute he fired at the police, there was nothing he could do, and there was nothing they could do,” Smith said. “He was in a position where there was nowhere to go. He wasn’t going to give up and there was no other outcome.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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