Unsolved Mysteries Wiki

Real Name: Cokeville Elementary School
Case: Unexplained Phenomenon
Location: Cokeville, Wyoming
Date: May 16, 1986


Details: At 1:20pm on Friday, May 16, 1986, forty-three-year-old David Young and his forty-seven-year-old wife, Doris, wheeled a shopping cart containing a homemade gasoline-filled bomb into Cokeville Elementary School in Cokeville, Wyoming, just after the lunch hour recess. It packed the brute force of twenty-five sticks of dynamite. They also were armed with several rifles and handguns.
David went to the school office and told secretary Christine Cook, "This is a revolution. We are taking this school hostage." He forced her to unplug her phone and the principal's phone. He then rounded up the staff in the office and led them down the hallway. Meanwhile, Doris went to each classroom, luring the students and teachers out. She claimed that there was either an emergency, surprise, or assembly.
David and Doris herded everyone at the school, 136 students and 18 adults (15 staff members, a parent, an applicant for a teaching position, and a UPS driver), into one small first grade classroom. Initially, some of them believed that David and Doris were giving a class on gun safety. But it soon became evident that they were all being held hostage by a madman.
David was no stranger to Cokeville; he had served as town marshal for six months in 1979 before he was fired for misconduct. His first wife was afraid of him; she said he was mentally abusive, "gun crazy", and had "screwed up" the lives of their children. She described him as very smart and said he was always reading books. After he and Doris married, they moved to Tucson, Arizona. They both reportedly had ties to white supremacist groups, including the Posse Comitatus and the Aryan Nations. His resentment against Cokeville had mushroomed into a full blown "messianic tirade".
David’s journal entries referred to a "Brave New World", a new realm of existence where he would be reincarnated and would reign over intelligent children. He was aware of above-average achievement scores in Cokeville's education system. He believed that Cokeville's tight knit, predominantly Mormon community would listen to his demands. He also believed he would be able to take his possessions to this new world. His journal indicated he had been planning the hostage plot for several years. A few weeks before the incident, he told a friend, "Goodbye, I won't be seeing you anymore."
David initially planned to involve two friends named Gerald Deppe and Doyle Mendenhall in his plot. He had told them that it was a "get rich quick" scheme. When they arrived at the school that day, he told them his true intentions. They refused to participate and were left handcuffed in a van parked outside.
David's daughter from his first marriage, Princess, was involved in the plot as well, but she was also unaware that the target was a school. She helped them unload the bomb and their weapons but refused to go along with the plan any further. Surprisingly, he let her leave; she immediately drove the van (with Deppe and Mendenhall inside) to the town hall and told them of David and Doris' plans.
It is a scenario that is now chillingly familiar: innocent lives hanging by a thread at the whim of a suicidal madman. But when David and Doris stormed the school that day, such horrors were still fresh and incomprehensible. To the people of Cokeville, it seemed only a miracle could save their loved ones.
Once everyone was in the classroom, David handed out his manifesto, "Zero Equals Infinity", which talked about Socrates, nuclear war, Jesus, Adolf Hitler, and the "nothingness of knowledge". He then began to go on a bizarre rant. He told the hostages that they were part of a "great revolution" that had begun many years earlier. He told the students that the government and its schools had filled their minds with lies. He also made it clear that he was prepared to kill himself and everyone in the room. Virtually every child in Cokeville between the ages of five and twelve was at his mercy.
Student Melanie Chadwick was then eight years old. She did not realize what was happening at first. Her friend Kevin's older brother told them that they were being held hostage. But they did not know what "hostage" meant. David told them that they were being good. But he said that if any of them tried to escape, he or Doris would have to shoot them in the legs, so that they could not run away. He said he did not want to hurt them, but, if they tried to run away, he would. He told the adults, however, that he would kill them if they tried to escape, because, "We have no use for you."
David next talked to the principal, Max Excell. He told Max that he would be his "spokesperson" and that he had a disagreement with the federal government and that they would not listen to him. He said this was his way to get them to listen. He then said that he wanted $2 million for each hostage (for a total of $308 million), and an audience with then-President Ronald Reagan (he had previously sent his manifesto to Reagan). He also wanted Congress to convene and appropriate funds for the ransom.
David also showed that the bomb's trigger was attached to his wrist with a string. He said, "If I go down and this wedge pulls out, this school blows sky high." He said if his demands were not met, he would detonate the bomb and send the students to the "Brave New World", where he would rule over them.
News of the crisis flashed through Cokeville and beyond. Police converged on the scene. Distraught parents confronted the sheriff, determined to take matters into their own hands. David was a veritable human fuse; one tug of his wrist could destroy the classroom and everyone in it.
At one point, one of the students jostled David, which made him quite upset and nervous. He apparently did not want the bomb to go off yet. One of the teachers, Jack Mitchell, suggested that they put tape in a nine-foot square area around it. They called that the "magic square". They told the students not to go inside it. This was done to prevent them from accidentally triggering the bomb.
Student Amy Bagaso was then ten years old. She remembers people saying that someone outside could shoot David. She thought she was going to die. She thought she would never see her family again, grow up, or get her driver's license. Christine remembers that several of the students were getting ill and throwing up from the smell of the bomb's gasoline fumes. As time went on and the fumes got stronger, most of the hostages began to feel nauseated. She and the other adults convinced Doris to open the windows to let some air in.
With permission, the staff tried to preoccupy the students in the form of movies, books, games, art supplies, songs, and prayer. Amy remembers that she and the other hostages were praying a lot throughout the ordeal. She remembers sitting with her hands clenched tight, praying to God to let something happen to save them.
Many of those in the classroom believe that the praying heralded a coming miracle. First, David became agitated and appeared to lose confidence. Moments later, he handed control of the bomb over to Doris and left to go to the bathroom. By then, the students had been immobile for nearly two hours. They were restless and irritable. Many were distressed, sobbing, and wanting to go home.
Doris tried to calm the students down, telling them to "think of it as an adventure movie" or that they would have "a great story to tell their grandchildren". She told them not to worry, and that David would not hurt them. She also told some of the staff to help her do something about the "noise" and get the students to quiet down. Eyewitnesses remember her gesturing carelessly, even though one false move would trigger a catastrophic explosion. At around 3:40pm, while she was gesturing for the staff to move some of the students, she inadvertently triggered the bomb, causing an explosion and fire.
Paramedics and firefighters immediately went to the school to try and contain the fire and save the hostages. Three of firefighter Kevin Walker's children were among them. When he saw smoke coming out of the windows, he expected to see the school explode into a million pieces. A few students stumbled from the smoke within seconds of the blast, escaping either through the windows or the classroom door. Others were trapped inside, barely able to see because of the dark smoke.
After the explosion, David returned to the classroom. Doris had been injured in the explosion and her clothes had caught on fire. He shot her to death. He also shot and injured a teacher that was fleeing down the hallway. Then he returned to the bathroom and killed himself with a single gunshot wound to the head.
The fire caused some of David's ammunition to discharge, firing bullets throughout the classroom. Some of the students' hair and clothes caught on fire. Amy said that teachers were throwing students out of the windows and shoving them out into the hallway. She could feel the heat from the flames on her back. She did not initially realize she was on fire. Then, from the corner of her eye, she saw flames on her right shoulder. She immediately dropped and rolled to extinguish them.
When Amy looked up, she saw several other students running out into the hallway. Some of them were stepping over or on her or jumping over her. Then, out of nowhere, someone picked her up; it was two of the teachers, Mr. Moore and Mr. Mitchell. They beat the fire off her. Then they picked her up and shoved her to safety.
Ambulances rushed the injured hostages to area hospitals. Some of those who emerged unharmed were taken home by their parents. No one knew how many hostages had survived or how many lay lifeless in the ashes. On the school's front lawn, police found Doris' body; staff had taken her outside in an attempt to get her help, unaware that she was already dead. David's body was found in the bathroom. A grim search for Cokeville's children commenced.
After an hour, dread turned to hope, then to joy. Although seventy-nine students and staff were injured, not a single one perished in the flames. It seemed that Cokeville had been blessed with a miracle. Sheriff T. Deb Wolfley says there are many things that point to something happening and a higher power stepping in and helping in this case.
At the very least, an extraordinary run of luck helped the hostages survive. By staying outside the so-called "magic square", they were away from the bomb when it exploded. With the doors and windows open, much of its force blew harmlessly out of the classroom. Loose ceiling tiles also sent some of the explosive force into the roof, away from the hostages. And then there was the bomb itself. Remnants sifted from the rubble told the incredible story.
According to explosives expert Richard Haskell, the bomb could have and should have destroyed the whole classroom and wing of the school if it had functioned the way it was supposed to. Police learned that David had built and exploded several bombs exactly like it. He tested one in a sealed school bus and destroyed it. Yet in the classroom, his bomb had unexpected problems. A container of blasting powder had become thoroughly soaked by a gasoline leak, rendering it a useless paste. Detonation wires to other tubs of powder had been cut; no reason, no explanation.
Haskell says that there should have been 156 people dead in that classroom. But somehow, that was not the case. There were other fortunate coincidences. Emergency responders happened to be in town that day due to flooding. Recent fire drills had prepared the students to exit quickly. The volunteer fire department had practiced a week before on how to treat the elementary school should it catch fire.
One first responder, when entering the classroom, unintentionally crawled over several guns on the floor; none of them fired. The ammunition that did so from the heat did not strike anyone. And an ambulance that was transporting one of the survivors broke down on its way to the hospital. A truck driver stopped to help; he happened to have the exact part that was broken on the ambulance.
The people of Cokeville came to their own conclusion about the improbable turn of events. The hostages must have been saved by a modern-day miracle. Amy says she has an "overwhelming feeling" that God was there and was watching over them that day. Melanie is also certain that God was there with her that day; she knew that he would make everything all right and make sure that they all survived. Many other hostages also remember experiencing a "peaceful feeling" shortly before the explosion.
A few students were adamant about seeing what they called "a presence" hovering above the classroom in the moments before the bomb ignited. Some of them said that the mysterious presence actually directed them to move, advice that may have helped save their lives. One student, the son of the lead investigator, reported seeing an angel over each child's head. He said that his was his late great grandmother; she told him to get away from the bomb. He also said that David did not have an angel, but Doris did. However, it left shortly before the explosion.
Others said that, shortly before the bomb exploded, they saw several angels encircle it and hold hands. Haskell believes they kept its force away from the students. Kevin said that in his mind, the only way everyone survived was through divine intervention. He believes that guardian angels, who were spirits of late loved ones, helped the hostages that day.
Student Jennie Johnson said that when she escaped into the hallway, she blacked out. When she woke up, a woman she did not recognize was carrying her to safety. Later, when she was looking through photo albums with her grandmother, she saw a picture of that woman. It was her late Aunt Ruth; she had died before Jennie was born.
Sheriff Wolfley said that outside the school, he, too, felt the touch of heavenly guidance. He remembers very clearly thinking in his mind, "What am I going to do? Here's a man in here with a bomb who wants to blow our kids up. How am I going to handle that?" He says that, without a shadow of a doubt, God answered his prayers. He says a voice said to him, "Everything will be okay."
One final discovery: a ghostly image singed into the north wall of the classroom. It led some to conclude that an angel had been in school that day, protecting innocent lives.
Since then, Cokeville has resumed its quiet ways. But most folks there still believe that only a divine miracle stood between themselves and unspeakable tragedy.
Extra Notes:

  • This case first aired on the December 13, 1996 episode.
  • It inspired the books When Angels Intervene to Save the Children: The Cokeville, Wyoming Bombing Incident by Hart Wixom and Witness to Miracles. The former was adapted into the movie To Save the Children starring Richard Thomas and Robert Ulrich.
  • It was also documented on Sightings, It's a Miracle, Unexplained Mysteries, and I Survived.
  • In 2015, a film, The Cokeville Miracle was released based on it.
  • In the recreation, David was played by actor and B-Movie icon Bill Moseley.
  • Princess and David's friends were never charged in this case.
  • Sources vary on the number of hostages, the reason for Doris triggering the bomb, the cause of her death, and the reason for David's firing from the police force.

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