By News-Register wire services • News-Register wire services • 

Autzen sniper victim reflects on 1984 shooting

MARK BAKER

EUGENE — He is standing in the east end zone of Autzen Stadium, near the spot where he could have lost his life 30 years ago.

“I think he could have shot me if he wanted to. I think he was just telling me to get back inside,” Rick O'Shea says.

A standout University of Oregon wrestler back then, O'Shea was hit by shrapnel from a sniper's bullet at Autzen on Nov. 12, 1984.

Yes, Rick O'Shea, now 52, was injured in the neck, legs and buttock by a ricochet bullet, and many have never let him forget the pun on his name.

“They call him ‘Ricochet Rick,’?” says Ron Finley, the former UO wrestling coach who in 1983 helped guide O'Shea to a Pac-10 Conference wrestling championship at 150 pounds.

Puns and lightheartedness aside, O'Shea, a longtime special education teacher and wrestling coach at west Eugene's Willamette High School, says he will always carry a “certain sadness” about that gray November Monday.

“I still get a little teary-eyed sometimes,” says O'Shea, who was a three-time state champion at Harrisburg High School from 1978 to 1980. “Something happened, and it changed my life. But I don't necessarily think it affected my life in a bad way. I'm extremely lucky with the way my life has been.”

O'Shea, along with some of his wrestling teammates and other UO athletes and coaches who were working out in the old weight room at Autzen's east end, survived that day.

But another athlete was not so fortunate.

Chris Brathwaite, a 36-year-old former UO track athlete and Olympic sprinter in 1976 and 1980 for his native Trinidad and Tobago, was shot to death by the sniper, 19-year-old Michael Feher, while jogging on Pre's Trail on Autzen's south side.

Years before the Thurston High School shootings of 1998, and Columbine a year later and 9/11 two years after that, it was unthinkable that someone would fire off more than 60 rounds of high-powered ammunition at the UO's football stadium.

And it is still, three decades later, the only sniper incident ever recalled in Lane County.

“It was a rather unique event, and we didn't anticipate it, of course,” said Bill DeForrest, a retired Eugene and Springfield police official who was the commanding officer on duty that day and who now lives in Yuma, Arizona. “And it could have (turned out) a lot different.”

Feher, a one-time UO student from Everett, Washington., who was still living at the Delta Tau Delta fraternity on campus, had tried to commit suicide on the Autzen football field earlier that summer. He could have chosen a much busier place on campus and killed scores more.

It could have been like Austin, Texas, on Aug. 1, 1966, when a former Marine named Charles Whitman climbed atop a tower at the University of Texas and killed 16 before an Austin police officer shot him to death.

The story here was still national news, though, with O'Shea's name appearing in newspapers and on network TV news from coast to coast.

He would rather be remembered for winning an Olympic medal — he competed in both the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Trials — but the first thing that pops up if you Google “Rick O'Shea Oregon wrestling” is a Nov. 13, 1984, New York Times story about the sniper incident.

Today, O'Shea still has scars on his body and shrapnel in his neck and leg.

Sitting in one of two classrooms where he teaches 11 special education students at Willamette High, where photographs on the wall showcase his Wolverine wrestling teams and himself wrestling for the Ducks back in the day, O'Shea lifts his right leg to show a small scar.

It was Veterans Day that Monday, and Feher was dressed in commando-style camouflage gear and black face paint. He was carrying two .223-caliber rifles, a Ruger Mini-14 with a sophisticated laser sight and an AR-15 he had stolen from Anderson's Sporting Goods in downtown Eugene.

It began when Feher spotted UO football player Ray Wheatley on his way to the weight room early that morning.

“Freeze!” Feher told him, according to The Register-Guard's coverage of the incident. “You know that red dot on your back? If I pull the trigger much further, you're dead.”

Feher made Wheatley lead him down one of Autzen's tunnels toward the weight room.

Inside were O'Shea and fellow wrestlers Keith and Bill Beutler (brothers), Derek Phillips and Glenn Jarrett, along with assistant wrestling coach John Kotmel, cross-country runner Gretchen Nelson and golfer Paul Weinhold and his coach, Scott Krieger.

“Most of us reacted the way I think we should have,” O'Shea says. “We acted fast. When (Feher) asked to use a phone, we told him we didn't have one.”

But they did.

“We didn't want to give him that opportunity and have him hold us hostage. We were already with him 10 seconds longer than we wanted to be.”

Feher told them to get up to the second level. Unsure if it was a sick joke or something more sinister, they complied, grabbing weight equipment along the way to bash Feher over the head if he followed. But he was gone.

About 90 seconds later, O'Shea and Weinhold went back downstairs to check the restroom and taping room.

Then O'Shea went outside. He looked around the stadium, slowly wandering out into the end zone, eventually making eye contact with Feher, who was now up in the south stands.

“I wasn't worried,” O'Shea recalls. “I was just trying to figure out what was going on. I just wanted to know if someone was screwing around or not.”

Feher was standing in the middle of the old yellow seats reserved on game days for university donors, under the cover of the old south side of the stadium, years before it was remodeled in 2002.

“He just said, ‘Get back inside,’ and then shot,” O'Shea says.

“And I think I called him a name. I remember cursing at him.”

It was 8:35 a.m.

O'Shea ran back inside the weight room, yelling that he had been shot.

“At first, nobody believed me,” he said at a press conference at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene that night. “Then I lay down, fell down, and they saw the blood running.”

The other athletes blocked the door with weight room equipment. Then they called the police and spent the next 2½ hours listening to radio reports while preparing themselves for Feher's possible return.

Getting shot by a sniper was not as scary as what happened next, O'Shea says. Hearing bullets echo against the cement walls of the tunnels on the other side of the weight room was worse.

“That was pretty creepy,” O'Shea says.

“He could shoot the locks off!” some of the athletes were saying.

The gunfire (police would later determine that Feher shot 67 rounds of ammunition, shooting out press box lights and the like) stopped sometime after 9 a.m. But it wasn't until about 11 a.m. that someone was fiddling at the weight room door.

“This is the police, open up,” a voice said.

But was it really the police, or was it Feher? When the first SWAT team member came through, his weapon drawn, he was dressed just like Feher.

Wheatley, the 265-pound football player, was quoted 30 years ago saying he nearly belted that first officer with a 25-pound weight.

About the same time that SWAT members entered the weight room, retired UO professor Marshall Wattles discovered Brathwaite's body on Pre's Trail.

Police would determine that Feher shot him about 9 a.m. and then took his own life about 9:08 a.m. Police found Feher's body in section 30 of the old stadium at 11:54 a.m.

Brathwaite, president of the Oregon International Athletics track club and a social worker at the former Skipworth Juvenile Detention Center across the street from Autzen, left behind his wife, Sharon, and their son, Sean, who was a couple of weeks shy of his fifth birthday at the time.

For O'Shea, his take from a civil trial for damages wasn't much. “After I paid the lawyer, I think I got $23,000,” he says.

O'Shea used some of that money to help with expenses when he went back to school in the late 1980s to finish his degree in public health education before attending graduate school in the early 1990s.

“That was one crazy time,” he says, remembering 1984.

Earlier that year, on Jan. 21, two of O'Shea's UO wrestling teammates, Jed Kesey, son of the late author Ken Kesey, and Lorenzo Wright, were killed in a van accident on an icy Washington state highway on the way to a meet in Pullman.

O'Shea, having redshirted in 1983-84, and Finley, who coached the 1984 U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team, were in Colorado Springs, Colorado., training for the Olympic Trials.

“That van accident was devastating, almost worse than the shooting,” O'Shea says. “Our team was really just decimated.”

He believes that his mindset as a wrestler, his will to always win, to come out on top, helped him cope with the tragedies.

“You decide if you're going to give up or if you're going to win,” he says. "I think that's what happened to me more than anything.

“And I felt for the kid,” he says of Feher. "I did then, and I do now.

“When people ask me what should be done, I say, ‘People need to open their hearts and listen. If you think somebody's ill, they probably are. We should see if they should be helped. Especially if you work in schools.’?”

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Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com

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