Grand Death Auto

Written by David Kushner, Salon

Tuesday February 22nd, 2005

Two kids, 13 and 15, killed an innocent highway motorist. Was a violent computer game responsible -- or their sad lives?

The bullets came from nowhere, and there’s plenty of nowhere in Newport, Tenn. An hour into the sticks east of Knoxville, this country town of 7,200 is little more than a piss stop on the way to nearby attractions like Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park or the Life of Christ Experience in 3-D. Like most people who make it to these parts, Aaron Hamel and his cousin Denise “Dee Dee” Deneau were just passing through. Quickly.

It was around 8 p.m. on Wednesday, June 25, 2003, and the sun was still shining on the end of what Hamel called “a perfect day.” The two were driving back to Knoxville in his red Toyota truck after hiking in Black Mountain, N.C. Hamel, a 45-year-old registered nurse and nature lover, had recently relocated from Ontario, Canada, dreaming of landing a log cabin in the woods. The day before, he had gotten a call back from a juvenile detention facility where he hoped to work. “I think I could make a difference and help these kids,” he told his cousin during their hike.

Driving among the semis on Interstate 40, Hamel admired the rolling hillside. “Oh, Dee Dee,” he said, “look at the beautiful flowers…” As Deneau would later recall in an interview with the Knoxville News, Hamel didn’t have time to finish the word before the window shattered. Blood and broken glass sprayed Deneau’s lap. With blood pouring from Hamel’s head, their truck sped out of control over the median into oncoming traffic and smashed into a guardrail.

Coming up behind them in a white Mazda west on I-40, a tourist from Roanoke, Va., 19-year-old Kim Bede, and her boyfriend Marc Hickman heard the crash. They assumed someone had blown out a tire. Another bullet proved them wrong. It pierced the passenger side of their car, shattering Bede’s hip. Then the shots stopped, and Newport went quiet again.

When the cops arrived, Hamel was dead. Bede was gushing blood, fragments of bullets in her spine. The woods under the faded billboards along the highway were shrouded in darkness. As word spread around the small town, investigators scoured the brush with spotlights and heat-seeking equipment, looking for a trace of what they feared might be a replay of the Beltway snipers. “We don’t know if it was road rage, a sniper, or what,” Deputy David Jennings told reporters that night.

It didn’t take long to find the answer. Lurking anxiously in the bushes was a lanky, quiet 15-year-old named William Buckner, with his short, hyperactive 13-year-old stepbrother, Josh. The two had been stepbrothers only for a brief while, but had instantly bonded after growing up in unstable families. They had no prior record, a clean slate at school, and seemingly no reason to have fired the deadly shots. But, after breaking down in tears and confessing to the crime, the boys volunteered a reason of their own. A video game made them do it.

Will and Josh said they didn’t mean to hurt anyone. They went out to shoot at the sides of trucks after playing “Grand Theft Auto III,” the bestselling PlayStation 2 shoot’em-up that has become synonymous with the controversy over violent video games. Their assertion spawned a $246 million lawsuit on behalf of the victims against the game’s makers — Sony Computer Entertainment America and Rockstar Games, a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive Software. “What’s intriguing about this case is that there was a lack of a motive,” says Jack Thompson, the lawyer who launched the suit. “They were acting out the game.”

This, of course, isn’t the first time a video game has been blamed for fueling a violent act. On Feb. 15, another suit citing “Grand Theft Auto” was filed in Alabama, alleging the game led a teenager to shoot two police officers and a dispatcher in 2003. The Columbine massacre in Colorado was blamed, in part, on the killers’ obsession with the first-person shooter “Doom.” John Lee Malvo, the Beltway teen killer, is said to have trained on “Halo,” the Microsoft Xbox alien shooter. Despite many attempts, however, lawsuits against the makers of violent games seldom get very far, and the Buckner suit proved no different. After the Buckners’ victims filed the suit in Tennessee state court, the defendants moved it to federal court. The victims’ attorneys responded by dismissing the suit altogether, possibly paving the way for another shot at the state level.

But the fate of the Buckner boys was already sealed. In Tennessee, kids under the age of 16 cannot be tried as adults, and they must be tried before a judge, not a jury — which meant that a determination in the Buckner case came quickly. In August 2003, after listening to the evidence and evaluating a psychological assessment of the boys, the judge determined that the boys had done something extraordinarily stupid, but without murderous intent.

Will and Josh pleaded guilty to reckless homicide, reckless endangerment and aggravated assault and were sentenced to a nearby juvenile detention center, where they live today. According to state law, they can be detained only until the age of 19. With good behavior, however, they can get out much sooner — as soon as this summer. Deneau called the sentence a “slap on the wrist.” For the first time, the video-game defense seemed to work.

But it didn’t tell the whole story. There’s no easy answer for this kind of tragedy. And, today, the stepbrothers’ friends, family and even the Buckner boys themselves suggest that it was much more than a video game that sent the bullets flying from nowhere that night.

“I didn’t realize the highway was this close,” said Wayne Buckner, Josh’s father and Will’s stepfather, when we walked to the spot on the hill where his boys shot at the cars that night. We were surrounded by trees and tall brush as the cars and trucks sped by on I-40 below. Wayne is a tall, gray-haired 56-year-old in a golf-course vest, blue jeans and baseball cap. “I saw this area in the police diagram,” he said, making his way tentatively around the brush, “but this is the first time I’ve come here. My wife doesn’t want to know where this spot is.”

In his mind’s eye, Wayne had pictured the boys standing much farther away from the road, so far that their bullets would not have easily hit the cars. But, as we looked down at the highway, we were close enough to make out the passengers behind the windows. Wayne’s eyes welled up. “It’s pretty sad,” he said.

It was a sunny winter’s morning in Newport. The path in the weeds that Will and Josh cut with machetes was still discernible. A deflated inner tube they once used to ride down the nearby creek rested against a tree. Pigeons roosted in a rickety liquor billboard a dozen feet away.

It was the birds that first took the blame after the boys were caught that night. Josh told Wayne that they had been shooting at the pigeons and must have accidentally hit the cars in the process. “He said the birds always fly off this billboard toward the interstate,” recalled Wayne. When the birds suddenly abandoned their roost above us, however, not a single one flew toward the road. “I really wanted to believe him,” Wayne said, as we made our way back down to the neighborhood of modest homes below.

The Buckners lived in a split-level brick house on the side of a golf course. The golf cart Will and Josh used to ride sat by the garage with a basketball net. In the backyard, the yapping dogs now had free rein in the impressive tree house Wayne had built for the kids. Inside the living room, Wayne’s wife Donna, lit a cigarette. A petite and pretty 37-year-old in a powder blue sweater, she had dropped to a painfully thin 85 pounds since the incident. “I just can’t get my appetite back,” she said. Wayne excused himself to hit the greens. “He plays too much golf,” Donna grumbled quietly.

Since the shooting, Wayne and Donna have struggled to survive and make sense of the most senseless of acts. Though their sons were found to be reckless, not murderous, that hadn’t made their soul-searching any easier. Ultimately, that search led them to one answer: “Grand Theft Auto III.” “Will and Josh wouldn’t have done this if they hadn’t been playing that game,” Donna said, as she showed me family photos. “They aren’t serial killers. They’re good boys.”

Though taken during better times, the shots didn’t exactly convey adolescent bliss. In one, Josh and Will sit expressionlessly on either end of a black futon facing a giant television screen. Josh, a small, wiry kid with uneven sandy blond bangs and a spotty complexion, leans against an 8-ball pillow in a yellow Fort Lauderdale Surf Sport T-shirt. The stoic look on Will — who’s wearing baggy tan shorts, a yellow Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned over a black Nike tee, a dog-tag necklace, and a half dozen bracelets on his arm — reveals, if anything, a desire for his mother to hurry up and shoot already. In a picture taken on a family trip to the beach, Will stands awkwardly in a blue T-shirt and long blue shorts, bony white arms crossed around his chest, next to Josh in a bright red shirt, arms stiffly down, staring forward; Wayne and Donna are clear across the frame. No one’s touching. “I don’t see how we could ever be a family again after this,” Donna said, as she sparked another cigarette. When I asked her how much they felt like a family before the shooting, she exhaled and said, “Somewhat.”

Will and Josh had an unstable life from the start. Born to Donna several weeks premature, Will suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of one month, leaving him slightly brain damaged. Though able to function normally, he was slower than average, with an IQ of 91. His dad, a factory worker, had little patience for the boy, says Donna, even less after she divorced him, when Will was 3 years old, for fooling around with her friend. “He never wanted anything to do with him,” she recalled. “Will begged him to come over and visit, but he just wrote him off.” Years later, when she took Will to see him on his deathbed, he wouldn’t acknowledge his son. “Will always thought his father hated him,” she said.

Donna’s second marriage was equally difficult for Will. When Will got up at night to pee, her husband would berate the boy for waking him. Will began wetting the bed. Donna soon divorced again. Though Will loved the outdoors, he became more shy and reclusive at school. “He was something of a loner,” Donna said. But he rarely acted out. The worst thing he ever did was to write the word “Fuck” on the kitchen floor with a felt-tip marker. When Donna met Wayne and his young son Joshua in 2002 while working as a bookkeeper at the club where Wayne golfed, Will was ready for a friend.

And so was Josh. Though outgoing and energetic, Josh had had his share of trauma. He was born to a mother, Sandy, who suffered from congestive heart failure. Often sick, she was unable to provide readily for Josh, retreating to her books and her soap operas while her son fended for himself. She died when he was 11.

As the hospital bigwig and an active officer of the chamber of commerce, his father Wayne kept busy and had little time for Josh, who was literally bouncing off the walls. In the first grade, Josh was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and began a lifetime of medication. The drugs made him sluggish but seemed to help to some degree. Josh was warm with friends and family, giving big and frequent hugs. Popular with the girls, he was the only boy invited to his friend Sara Sample’s slumber party. “He was like a little puppy dog,” Sara’s mother, Mandy Epley, recalled.

Still, Wayne had the impression that Josh was suffering. “After his mother died,” Wayne said, “he was on the run all time.” Josh never let on how he was feeling, staying up late playing video games or listening to his Eminem CDs. “He keeps it all inside,” Wayne said. “Anything bad happens, he laughs it off.”

Late one night when Josh was around 11, Wayne heard a strange sound coming from his son’s room. He walked down the hall and opened the door. The room was painted bold yellow and plastered with posters of sports cars. There’s a Lava Lite near a small desk, a student Bible, an enormous boom box. A big black sign reads Go Away.

Wayne half-expected to find that Josh had pulled the blankets from his bed and was sleeping on the floor, a habit his son had taken to without explanation. Tonight, Josh wasn’t there. He was curled up in his closet, crying. He said he wanted his mommy.

When Donna and Wayne married, it seemed as if Will and Josh’s hard times might finally be behind them. The boys hit it off so well that bringing the two families together was easy. They both dug 50 Cent and Tony Hawk and the PlayStation 2. After the wedding, Will and Donna moved to Newport to live in Wayne’s house. Buoyed by the prospect of good times, the parents transformed the basement into the kids’ ultimate playpen: a giant screen TV, a foosball table, posters and pennants of race cars, their very own microwave. Will slept here on a futon under a blanket with the words “Hot Hot Hot” written in flames.

Video games were among their favorite distractions. Paul Buckner, Josh’s 19-year-old stepbrother from Wayne’s previous marriage, gave Josh “Grand Theft Auto III” for his birthday. “When I came downstairs, I’d just see them crashing in their cars,” said Donna. “I didn’t know you could kill prostitutes and stuff like that.” The violence she witnessed, though, was enough to give her pause. “You realize this is virtual reality, not reality,” she told the boys. They nodded, and returned to their game.

Though they had a great time together, things were more difficult, particularly for Will, when they were apart. Because Will was older, he had to go to a different school than Josh and manage on his own. After classes, Will’s guidance counselor, Karen Smith, would see him outside her window wandering the parking lot. “He’d be off by himself,” she said. “He was a bit of a loner,” said his driver’s-education teacher. “He only had a couple of friends. I told him to watch out, because there were other kids here who were taking advantage of him.” Girls would ask Will for money, and wanting to be liked, he’d hand over the cash, never to be repaid.

After school and on weekends, Will fell eagerly under Josh’s wing. While Josh was younger and smaller, he was the town veteran and eagerly assumed the role of Batman to Will’s older and taller Robin. And Will, somewhat slow by nature, needed all the help he could get. “Will is a little more down-the-stream relaxed,” said one friend, “and Josh is the hard-core whitewater rafter.”

To prove his loyalty, Josh steered Will into the arms of his ex-girlfriend, Amanda Hetherington — a smart and iconoclastic 13-year-old with long dark hair and blue paw prints painted on her fingernails. Amanda wrote moody poetry, listened to Marilyn Manson, and was known as one of Newport’s only female skaters. She was a cheerleader, but the sort that would be portrayed by Christina Ricci. She hated it. “It’s just something to do,” she said.

On weekend nights while watching horror movies, Will and Amanda bonded over their disdain of Newport. “There’s nothing to do here but stare at the dots in the ceiling,” Amanda would say. And, though different, they shared a feeling of being outcasts among the ruling kids of Cocke County. “The rednecks have power over everyone here,” Amanda lamented. She thought it was cute that Will refused to wear a jacket emblazoned with the name of the school’s embarrassing mascots, the fighting cocks.

Back at home, it began to seem that Josh was leading Will into more than just a new relationship. He was leading him into trouble. One day, out by the creek behind their house, the two went out shooting with their pellet rifles. Wayne, in one of his father-son bonding excursions, had taken the boys out target shooting with his .22 rifle. They spent the day shooting at cans floating down the water. This time, Josh struggled to aim at his target. When he fired, a pellet flew at a rock, bouncing back and lodging in Will’s neck.

But it didn’t deter them. One day later, about six months before the fatal shootings, Wayne caught the boys sitting in his bedroom cleaning his .22 rifles that they had taken from his closet. “You do not ever, ever do that,” admonished Wayne, who seldom raised his voice with the boys. He grounded them for a week, and dead-bolted his bedroom door whenever he left the house. When he was home, it would remain unlocked.

When you’re a teenager without a driver’s license, it doesn’t take long to get bored. In Newport, you get bored hanging out in the parking lot in Wal-Mart, waiting for the cops to tell you to beat it. You get bored cheering the Fighting Cocks, watching “American Idol,” and swilling soda at the tiny movie theater. You even get bored playing “Grand Theft Auto III,” which is what happened to Will and Josh that night in June.

The summer of 2003 had started on a bad note. Josh failed seventh grade. It turned out that he had not been turning in his homework throughout the year. Wayne and Donna went in for a meeting with the teachers and Josh, but he offered no explanation. As Wayne recalled, “He just said he didn’t feel like turning it in.” While Amanda, Will, Sarah and his friends would be moving on, he would be staying behind. Despite the recent breakdown over his mother, Josh was back to his ways of denial. “He just laughed everything off again,” Wayne said.

Will, on the other hand, had every reason to look up. After months of biding his time, he was one month from turning 16 and getting his driver’s license. He and Donna had even made plans to get him his own car, a used Mustang that he couldn’t wait to get his hands on. With his own wheels, the invisible walls of Newport would finally come down. He could pick up Amanda himself, take her to the skateboard park, maybe even cruise up to Dollywood to soak in the Big Bear Plunge rafting ride. But he would never get the chance.

After a few rounds of “Grand Theft Auto III” that night, Josh felt the boredom set in. Hey, he said to Will, let’s go shoot at the sides of trailer rigs for real. It was doable. Wayne and Donna were home, which meant their bedroom door would be unlocked. They went upstairs. Their parents were watching TV. They asked if they could go ride the four-wheeler. Donna looked outside. The sun was still out. “OK,” she said, “but you gotta be in before dark.”

The four-wheeler didn’t go anywhere that night. Will and Josh sneaked the .22 rifles from their parents’ bedroom closet and hit the trail across the street. It’s a steep incline down to the creek. They passed the rickety pump house, cutting their way down the path they’d cut with Wayne long before. Up the trail, they could hear the semis speeding down the highway. Pigeons fluttered from behind a faded billboard. The boys took a few shots at the birds but, despite the short distance, missed. The trailer rigs would be easier to hit.

They crossed a rickety wooden fence that separated the path from the hill overlooking I-40. Will faced west down the road. Josh ran a short distance along the hill and faced east. They didn’t say anything to each other. They just started firing. Will thought that if he actually hit a rig, the bullets would just bounce off the side. After more than 20 shots, though, they hadn’t hit anything. But Will had a few bullets remaining, and he fired them away. Then they heard the rubber squeal.

After they saw the red truck careen over the median, they ran, assuming they had accidentally shot out a tire. Wayne and Donna were still watching TV when they came back home, and the boys quickly put the guns back in the closet. But their minds and hearts were racing. From the house, Will and Josh could hear the police sirens. When they asked if they could go back outside and hit golf balls, Wayne and Donna didn’t think anything of it.

An hour later, Will and Josh were nowhere to be found. Calls to the walkie-talkies they carried went unanswered. Wayne got in the truck and drove up the road. Donna grabbed a flashlight and hit the trail, fearing they had some kind of accident. Desperate, she called 911 and reported the boys missing. The cops called her back. “We have your boys right here,” she was told.

While investigating the scene of the shooting, a cop saw Will and Josh standing up on the hillside. “It’s not a place you expect to find kids around,” said Al Schmutzer, the district attorney who would prosecute the case. “The officer began talking to them and getting unusual answers.”

When the boys were released to their parents, they said they had been out shooting pigeons with their pellet gun, and when the pigeons flew over the highway, they might have accidentally shot the cars. But their parents knew enough to know that a pellet couldn’t do that kind of damage. Two days later during questioning over a polygraph test, Will and Josh broke down and confessed. “They said they’d got the idea from playing the game,” Schmutzer said. The Buckners were ordered to turn over to the police their guns and their copy of “Grand Theft Auto III.”

As the sensational news of the video-game killers hit, the residents and national media descended upon the small town. Josh would be the youngest person tried for homicide in Newport history. In written statements, the boys expressed remorse. “I will always hate myself for what happened,” Will wrote. “If I could give my life to bring him back, I gladly would. I know what I did was stupid. I didn’t think anyone would get hurt … I am so so sorry, and no matter how long the judge gives me, it won’t be long enough because I will still hate myself.” Josh wrote, “I am sorry … I hate that it happened … I know what it is like to lose someone because I lost my mother when I was 11. And it has been hard without her.”

On the day that the boys were being led into the courthouse, Amanda rushed down to get a glimpse. Will saw her long dark hair in the crowd and blew her a kiss as the cameras rolled. She knew they would never want to hurt anyone, but rejected the idea that the game was to blame. “I don’t think it would persuade them to do this,” she said over dinner at a local restaurant called the Fox n’ Hound. “I mean, my aunt plays that game.”

Amanda has been writing poems for Will. “Hold my hand,” goes one, “make me stop crying. By myself I feel like dying. I can be strong if you stay. We can be together, we’ll be okay. So here we are, together at last. We’ll be okay, forget the past.” But she hadn’t brought herself to ask Will and Josh why they fired the shots that night. “I don’t want to know the reasons,” she said, picking at her food. “It freaks me out.”

The sun was coming down over the barbed-wire fence surrounding Will and Josh’s gloomy new home, a juvenile detention center outside Newport. Behind the two-story chain-link fence that encircles the brick buildings, a stocky guard slowly led a group of prisoners across the pavement. Two rows of tough kids — murderers, sex offenders, drug dealers — walked single file behind him. Yesterday, a kid came in after shooting his dad in the face.

It was last February, and I was sitting outside the fence in the parking lot with Wayne and Donna, who were finishing their last cigarettes before walking inside to see their sons. They had been coming promptly for each allotted visit — one hour every day but weekends and Fridays. Over on the basketball court behind the fence, we could see Josh braving the cold to squeeze out a few more minutes of hoops. Despite the chill, he was wearing only a green short-sleeved T-shirt and long baggy black shorts. As a couple of taller kids hogged the ball, he lagged behind them, quickly rubbing some heat along his arms with his hands before they turned around. “I worry about him in there,” said Donna. “He’s a lot smaller than the other kids.”

Life inside the juvenile center was hard for the boys from the start. Will and Josh were assigned to separate 6-by-8-foot cells. They spent the day taking classes. Lights out by 6:30 p.m. Their parents couldn’t get them anything to help bide the time. When they requested Bibles for the boys, they were told no; kids use pages of the Bibles to roll smokes.

According to Wayne and Donna, Josh soon stopped taking his ADHD medication because the other kids were stealing it from him. Josh, however, had been known to willfully decline the medication in the past. With his hyperactivity unleashed, he started getting into trouble, talking out of place, showing up at visitors meetings without wearing his requisite uniform. One day he was caught piercing the tongues of a bunch of other kids with a shared thumbtack.

Will soon stopped playing follower to Josh’s leader. Unlike Josh, Will had few infractions. He began doing well in school and was on the fast track to getting out. Last July, Will was transferred to a much less punitive group home facility. Josh soon began shaping up his act and was transferred to a separate group home last November. With good behavior, the two may eventually take the next step and be released for good. If and when that happens, however, the stepbrothers will not be sharing a house again. According to Donna, “the judge doesn’t want the boys back together.” When Will walks out the door, she said, she plans to move with him out of state, leaving Wayne and Josh behind. It doesn’t seem as though there will be love lost between the boys. “Josh is going to pay for some of the things he’s done in here,” Will told his mother without elaboration.

That’s not all that’s changed in Will’s mind, Wayne and Donna learned after they passed through the metal detectors to see him that cold February night. With guards standing watch, Will sat at the table in his uniform, exchanging greetings with his parents. After a bit of small talk, Donna looked him in the eye. “You’ve had a lot of time to think about what you’ve done,” she said. “Do you still think it was a video game that made you do this?”

Will sat up and became emphatic. “It wasn’t the game that made us think to go out and do this,” he said, bitterly. “We wanted to do this. The idea was to act out the game. But the game didn’t reprogram our minds.” When asked to elaborate, he just repeated that phrase: “The game didn’t reprogram our minds.” And he said he wished the lawsuit against the game’s makers had never happened. With Will’s time up, the guards came and took him away.

Would Will and Josh have done what they did if it hadn’t been for the game? While researchers try to discover whether there’s a link between violent media and aggression, the truth is that it’s impossible to say why the Buckners pulled the trigger that night. Ideas come from the most random of places, and violence has certainly been inspired by the most random of things, from the “White Album” to “Catcher in the Rye.” Even if Will and Josh hadn’t played “Grand Theft Auto III,” who knows what else might have inspired them to break out the .22s.

Whatever the reason, it was, as Will suggests, surely much more complex than a game — and to suggest otherwise is to deny the experience of so many kids like these. Maybe it was a broken home, death, rejection. Maybe it was bad biochemistry, bad grades, dumb mascots. Maybe it was the overwhelming dread of being stuck with nothing left to do. Maybe bullets fly from nowhere when nowhere feels likes it’s everywhere after all.

As Donna lit a cigarette outside, I asked her if she was surprised that Will was backpedaling from blaming the game. She said she was, but wondered if he wasn’t backing off for another reason.

“What reason is that?” I asked.

“Because the kids inside there are fans of ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ and they told him if he gets the game pulled from the shelf, they’re going to beat him up.”