Bill Sniffin: It Took A Miracle To Prevent Killings At Wyoming School 38 Years Ago

Columnist Bill Sniffin writes, "The perpetrator was the town’s former lawman named David Young. He entered the town’s elementary school with a grocery cart full of guns and gasoline bombs.”

Bill Sniffin

April 20, 20245 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Wyoming was blessed to not be home to one of the worst school killing sprees in national history.

To the people involved, it was a miracle on May 16, 1986, when a Wyoming school-bombing attempt failed, sparing 154 students and teachers from dying. As a newspaper editor-publisher in Lander at the time, I recall vividly this news story as it was reported.

Cokeville, Wyoming, is a sleepy little town on the far west border of the state next to Idaho. It is a predominantly Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints town where crazy things are never supposed to happen. It is nestled between the towns of Afton and Kemmerer in Lincoln County. It was always believed to be the safest place possible to raise children. The schools were considered good and the teachers excellent.

But all this serenity changed 38 years ago this spring.

You literally can’t make this story up. It was beyond crazy but it really happened. With little warning, a nutty couple took over the school with guns and bombs and promised to start killing people.

Books have been written about the event and even a movie was filmed a few years ago. The State Historical Society’s has compiled amazing data on the event. See Jessica Clark's article at, which includes a dozen oral histories by people who were there.

One of the best books is Trial by Terror: The Child-Hostage Crisis in Cokeville, Wyoming by Hartt and Judene Wixom.

This event took place 13 years before the famous Columbine, CO school shooting.

Grocery Cart Full Of Bombs

The perpetrator of all the danger was the town’s former lawman named David Young. He and his wife Doris entered the town’s elementary school with a grocery cart full of guns and gasoline bombs. Nobody saw such a threat coming. This was decades before schools all over the country started keeping their doors locked.

Young had been the town’s marshal in the 1970s. He was let go after his six-month probationary period. He had recently married Doris Waters of Cokeville, a divorcee who was a waitress and singer in a local bar.

After their wedding, they moved to Tucson where David became more reclusive. He came up with a scheme called “the Biggie,” and acquired some investment money from friends.

His “Biggie” plan was to invade the Cokeville School, hold the kids ransom for $2 million apiece and then use the money to create what his friends said he called a Brave New World.

David, his wife Doris, and his daughter Princess, from his first marriage, entered the school that Friday at 1 p.m. and took the entire school hostage. They herded the 154 students, teachers, and other staff into one room. It was a room that had a capacity for just 30 students.

According to the Trial by Terror book: David set himself up in the center of the room with his guns and bombs while Doris rounded up more folks. She told most of the younger students they were needed for an all-school assembly.

Once they were all in the room, he told them he was leading a revolution. He passed out copies of his philosophy called Zero Equals Infinity.

He had already sent copies to the president of Chadron State College (where he graduated), President Ronald Reagan, and various media.

The teachers tried to keep the students calm, especially the younger ones. They watched movies, played games, and prayed.

Suddenly at 4 p.m., the bomb exploded. People in the room later said that just before the explosion, David had connected the bomb to his wife. Then he went to the restroom, which was next to the bigger room. Doris accidentally set off the bomb by motioning to the hostages with her arms. The explosion covered her in flames and burned some nearby children.

In the chaos, David returned to find Doris in agony. He shot her dead and then saw music teacher John Miller trying to escape. He shot Miller in the back. Then he returned to the restroom and killed himself.

Just like that. The danger was over.

This tragedy ended with just two fatalities, the perpetrator and his wife.  Miller survived his injuries.

This potential tragic story became a feel-good story across the country. However, in Cokeville and the larger Mormon community it took on a different theme – it was a miracle.

Angels Were Involved

Many recalled seeing angels during the crisis and prayer circles had been formed all over town and over the West.

In the book Witness to Miracles by the Cokeville Miracle Foundation in 2005, Kameron Wixon, son of the authors of the original book, wrote: “I didn’t have to see angels, hear them, or even think that their presence might be required. God did deliver our salvation that day. I’m living proof.”

A movie called The Cokeville Miracle was made in 2015.

Bill Sniffin can be reached at:

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.