Tyrone Mitchell was born on October 17, 1955, in Alabama to Lee Charles and Annie Lee Mitchell. He had five siblings: Linda, Shirley, Beverly, Lawanda, and Tony.
The Mitchells raised their children in a South-Central Los Angeles home that was later demolished to build the 49th Street Elementary School.
Mitchell and his family were members of American religious leader Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. In March 1978, Mitchell’s parents, three younger sisters, and brother traveled to Guyana to live in Jones’ compound, Jonestown. A few months later, on November 18, 1978, they were among more than 900 followers who died after drinking a cyanide-laced fruit drink in what became known as the Jonestown Massacre. Mitchell and his sister, Linda Mitchell, were in California at the time.
Mitchell later moved into a two-bedroom white Victorian home at 730 E. 50th St. in his old neighborhood. The house faced the rear of the 49th Street Elementary School.
His fiancée, Marylou Hill, 29, resided with him. Hill was a student at California State University, Long Beach, and encouraged Mitchell to take courses. He wanted to marry her, but Hill longed to finish college and be financially stable first.
The loss of nearly his entire family devastated Mitchell, and he was never the same again. He began using drugs and getting into trouble with the police.
Hill denied Mitchell was violent or that he abused drugs. But neighbors said Mitchell had a short fuse and could explode at any given moment.
On December 15, 1979, police officers arrested Mitchell at his residence after a dispute with Willie Lee Mitchell, his uncle and landlord. Mitchell grabbed a .30-caliber rifle and fired three shots into the air before police arrived.
Two months later, he was convicted of discharging a firearm within city limits, a misdemeanor, fined $400, and placed on two years probation.
A couple of years later, Mitchell started shooting into the air regularly. He would fire outside every couple of days and always at noon. Although he never pointed the gun at any of his neighbors.
On February 11, 1984, one of Mitchell’s uncles called the police after Mitchell pointed a machine gun at him. However, officers never arrested Mitchell or confiscated the weapon. Instead, they turned the incident over to a city attorney, who had set a hearing date to review the matter.
Shortly after, Mitchell fired his rifle into the sky as airplanes passed over on their way to landing at L.A. International Airport. Neighbors did not call the police for fear of retaliation.
Perhaps if the police had taken Mitchell’s disturbances seriously, they could have prevented the following events.
The 49th Street Elementary School Shooting
At 2:23 p.m. on Friday, February 24, 1984, Mitchell, 28, hunkered at his second-story bedroom window and began shooting at nearly 100 children as they fled the 49th Street Elementary School for the weekend break.
As one can imagine, the scene was instant chaos. Several children were screaming and crying while running to find shelter. They hid behind garbage cans, trees and any other cover they could find. Others ran back into the building to escape the gunfire.
Police officers in a patrol car on East 50th Street heard the shots and radioed for backup.
Shawn Williams, 10, was walking across the schoolyard when the first shot was fired. He thought the noise was a firecracker. A vice-principal yelled at him and his friends to get down on the ground, which they did. When the shots stopped momentarily, the kids jumped up. But as they ran for cover, Mitchell started shooting again. Shawn’s sister, Latreece Williams, was slightly wounded in the attack.
Shawn saw Shala Banks, 10, by the stairs. She started to run, looked behind her and then sank to the ground.
Schoolyard supervisor Albert Jones, 50, and a co-worker were on the 50th Street side of the school when the shots started. Jones immediately rode his bike to the cafeteria area and saw Shala facedown on the ground and bleeding. He made several attempts to help her, but the barrage of bullets prevented him from reaching her. Jones later said that he believed the gunman purposely fired towards him to keep him away from Shala.
Jones was slightly wounded in the foot but survived. He later said that he was supposed to get off work that day at 1:15 p.m. but hung around to play softball with some kids.
Paramedics arrived at the scene, and one team drove directly onto the schoolyard, rescuing several kids by pulling them into the ambulance as Mitchell continued his shooting rampage.
The school was evacuated, and 100 police from several different divisions surrounded Mitchell’s residence. They tried several times to contact him with bullhorns but never received a response. There was no telephone in the home.
At 5:30 p.m., L.A. Police Department’s SWAT team fired tear gas canisters into the home. Thirty minutes later, a four-person SWAT team entered the residence and found Mitchell dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Mitchell was lying face-up on the bedroom floor dressed in camouflage pants, a khaki shirt, and combat boots. An empty knife scabbard was strapped to his belt.
The shooting rampage lasted 10 minutes. Mitchell had fired off 57 shots using three weapons: a semiautomatic, military-type AR-15 carbine, a double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun, and a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun. The AR-15 had a 30-round banana clip, and one round had jammed in the chamber. Mitchell used the double-barrel shotgun to kill himself.
The mass shooting left one child dead and 13 injured; one adult victim died later in the hospital.
Shala Eubanks died at the scene.
Anna Gonzales, 11, was shot in the abdomen and underwent several hours of surgery plus many subsequent surgeries.
Steve Gomez, 9, was wounded when gunfire ricocheted from the pavement and struck him in the abdomen, chest, and leg.
Iran Macias, 10, was admitted to Orthopaedic Hospital in good condition.
Carlos Lopez, 24, a pedestrian walking by the school on his way to go jogging at a local park, was shot twice and had most of his pancreas and his spleen removed. He never left the intensive care unit at Martin Luther King Hospital and had suffered repeated complications. Lopez died in the hospital eight weeks later, on April 13, 1984.
Nine other victims suffered minor wounds and were treated and released from the hospital:
Albert Jones; Latreece Williams, 11; Alicia Pena, 10; Mayra Cruz, 10; Jose Prada, 11; Marie Hernandez, 9; Eloisa Cruz, 10; Jose Gavino, 11, and Victoriano Ulloa, 11.
The shooting stunned neighbors and parents, with many asking why it happened, but the police never established a motive. Many people believed Mitchell chose the school because it was the site of his childhood home, and the mass shooting resulted from the suffering of losing his family in 1978.
Nearly 100 of 49th Street Elementary School’s 1,164 students received psychological counseling to cope with the tragedy and aftermath. School attendance dropped dramatically but was back to normal within a year of the shooting.
The school remains open today. A plaque dedicated to Shala Eubanks’s memory was placed in the school library shortly after her death.
Many neighbors and parents wanted the city to destroy Mitchell’s home, as it was a daily reminder of the tragedy that unfolded there. However, it still stands but has been renumbered 732, according to Google Maps.
The funeral for Shala Eubanks drew more than 1,000 people to the Roger Williams Baptist Church on February 29, 1984.
Among the mourners in attendance were nearly 100 teachers and students, several LA School Board members, and 49th Street Elementary School Principal Charles Jackson.
Shala Eubanks’ parents filed separate lawsuits against the school, but a judge dismissed her father’s suit. The outcome of her mother’s case is unclear.
Roughly 100 friends and relatives throughout the L.A. area attended Carlos Lopez’s funeral at Park Lawn Cemetery in the City of Commerce in April 1984. Lopez was originally from Mexico and moved to LA to earn money to support his parents there. When they died in 1980, he brought his two younger brothers to L.A. to live with him.
Lopez lived with his sister, Cruz, her husband, and their five children in a one-bedroom rented home less than a mile from the 49th Street school.
Lopez worked at a South-Central LA furniture factory earning $160/week. After his death, co-workers raised $600 to help Lopez’s brothers.
The school saw tragedy once again 10 years later. On April 14, 1994, Jorge David Licea, 10, killed himself in front of students and staff.
No one knew why Jorge took his own life. He had no apparent family problems, was a good student, and had many friends. However, he did display behavioral issues.
In the weeks before his death, Jorge brought home five notes from his teacher for misconduct. A parent was required to sign the note, then Jorge was to apologize the next day to his teacher in front of his father and the other students.
The day before his suicide, Jorge said a bad word while playing a game during recess. A teacher ordered him to sit on the bench, but Jorge listened to a fellow student who told him he did not have to sit down, and he continued to play the game. The teacher gave him a note to take to his parents, but they never received it. Jorge is buried in Mexico.
Reform Follows Tragedy
The school tragedy revealed flaws in the criminal system in handling potentially violent and mentally ill offenders. Instead of providing professional help, the police either put them in jail or prison or released them back on the streets.
Los Angeles Times reported on the shooting’s first anniversary that in response to the tragedy, officials had developed a plan to change L.A. County’s criminal justice system through which many violent and mentally ill people had fallen, including Mitchell.
“This will give us a better chance of spotting Tyrone Mitchells beforehand and preventing some of them,” Commander James Jones of the LAPD said in 1985.
But 37 years later, problems still exist between police and mentally ill criminals. Jocelyn Wiener of CalMatters.org wrote, “After decades of failure to create and fund policies that effectively help people with serious mental illnesses, many now say the jails and prisons have become the state’s default mental institutions.”
According to a 2017 Stanford University study, more than 30% of California inmates receive treatment for a “serious mental disorder.” The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation expects that figure to rise, “increasing the need for additional psychiatric services in the years to come.”