By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Frank Owen
"You took my drink, so I'll take all your pencils," Nate replied.
Packard let him take the pencils, which Nate threw in a trash can.
"All I can think is that he didn't want to be shown up," Packard notes, adding that the boy stewed about the incident for weeks afterward. "That seemed to be his attitude, like he had egg all over his face."
In light of what Nate did on the last day of school, Packard says the incident now chills him. At the time, though, it didn't seem like that big a deal. Nate may have acted strangely and his outburst might have been disturbing, but the seventh grade, almost by definition, is a weird time for kids in general. Adolescence is dawning, hormones are kicking in, and bizarre behavior becomes the norm. Next to some of the more boisterous troublemakers at the school -- at which 75 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch and many don't speak English -- Nate was an angel. Packard says he can't count the number of times other students have cursed him, and it's common for the truly troubled students to have to be restrained and removed from the school.
In hindsight Packard thinks he should have called Nate's mother about the Fruitopia incident. "But I didn't do it," he says. "It was a minor thing, but in fact it was a major thing. We've just gotten so used to this kind of treatment from students."
While Nate was a relatively good student and excelled at math, his scholastic achievements have been overblown in the countless "Honor student kills teacher" headlines across the country. Nate, in fact, was no A-B student. He was an A-B-C student, with a few D's and F's sprinkled in. In Packard's geography class, for instance, Nate batted for the cycle in the year's quarterly grading periods, earning an A, B, C, and D. He wasn't much for English, either. Nate was failing Grunow's class.
Grunow, according to some students, was frustrated with Nate's efforts in the class, but Nate's friends say the boy still liked the teacher. Everybody, it seems, liked Grunow. Kervin, Michelle, and Dinora all counted Grunow as their favorite teacher, because he taught books like Treasure Island and The Hobbit with both enthusiasm and humor. During reading time Grunow kept it interesting by talking in different voices and speaking in rhymes to keep up a quick pace.
"He'd say things like, "Gene, Gene, the reading machine, take it away!'" Kervin recalls. "He was just different."
Grunow, a former star high-school basketball player, had built himself a nice family life in Lake Worth on his teacher's salary. His middle-class house on O Street was lushly landscaped and equipped with a swing set for his five-year-old boy and baby daughter. Packard says Grunow was absent-minded and kindhearted and always had a way of making him laugh. They talked shop and graded papers together every day during their planning hour, often while listening to old Jethro Tull tunes. "He was a shining light," Packard says. "I don't want to sound clichéd, but he really was a shining light at this school. He really cared about these kids."
Nate, on the other hand, didn't seem like he cared so much about school anymore during those last two weeks. "At the end it didn't seem like he was getting things done," Packard says. "I don't know why, but he wasn't working hard."
Whatever the reason for his change in attitude, it corresponded with his acquisition of the Raven pistol, which he secretly plucked from the bedroom dresser of a close family friend, 75-year-old Elmore McCray of Boynton Beach, whom Nate affectionately called "Grand."
Nate usually kept it hidden in his bedroom, but his lawyers, Robert Udell and Lance Richard, say he would also carry the gun around with him in his pocket, the power of life and death hidden on his hip. Police believe nobody knew about the gun but Tiffany, who didn't want to cause a stir, and Kervin, who forgot about it.
On the morning of May 26, Nate certainly didn't fit the image of a killer. Instead of a gun, he was carrying three $2.99 bouquets of flowers and a heart-shape balloon he'd just bought from Walgreens. The purchase almost caused him to miss the school bus, but the driver saw Nate in time and waited for him to run across the street and climb aboard.
Later that morning Nate and Kervin walked through campus to the 300 building, where the pair had most of their classes. In the gray terrazzo-tiled hallway of the building, Nate spied Dinora and presented her with the flowers and balloon. He still hadn't given up on her. Kervin says Dinora gave a smiling Nate a kiss on the cheek. Dinora says she doesn't remember if she kissed him or just gave him a hug.
"I was like, "Oh thank you, that's sweet,'" Dinora recalls. The flowers, however, didn't change her feelings. She and Nate would never be anything more than good friends, she says.
The rest of the morning was uneventful. Administrators had beefed up supervision to prevent any last-day shenanigans. It wasn't guns they were worried about, says assistant principal Robert Hatcher. It was kid stuff, like water balloons. Book bags were banned on that last day, and staffers kept an extra close eye on students. Regardless of the extra measures, water balloons were plentiful outside the 300 building after lunch, recalls Nate's friend Michelle Cordovez.