PITTSBURGH — The large swath of farmland seemed ripe for development. You could not ignore the rustic beauty, the rolling hills set on the edge of a dense forest, and yet you would still be just 20 miles east of the city if you wanted to drive in for a game or a show. And the school district? Well, it did not get much better than Franklin Regional, which annually sent its brightest students to some of the top universities in the country.
The Heritage Estates of Murrysville were going to be attractive to those who desired the comforts of suburban life. When a young married couple named John and Sonya Kukalis found out about the new properties in 1999, one street layout stood out to them: Sunflower Court. It would be a cul-de-sac, and for Sonya, it was easy to imagine their three children gallivanting outside freely, with minimal traffic passing through.
It would be so natural for them to make friends with the rest of the kids on the block. That’s how it happened. Next door to their left, Harold and Tina Hribal and their two toddlers, Ryan and Alex, moved into the white two-story, country-style home with the dark green accents. The Hribals, both in their second marriage, blended in just fine with the rest of the families.
The little ones grew up in unison, taking their first steps, putting on training wheels, and playing catch together, and the parents took ownership over each of them, no matter the last name. The block parties on Sunflower Court were the most fun, not to mention all the garage sales, Easter egg hunts, turkey trots, and Christmas caroling.
Once in a while, a family would move. In 2004, the Ogdens left the corner lot at the top of the cul-de-sac, and Trina and Sam King swapped in with their son, Zack. Everybody in town knew Sam, who had been principal at Heritage Elementary School. People trusted him with their kids. He would be a splendid addition to the dynamic.
Sunflower Court was just one patch of green in a small town outside of Pittsburgh that slowly had become a suburb. It contained 13 indiscriminate plots out of thousands, but in Murrysville, there was a sense that you were never alone, that you were a part of a shared, unique experience.
“People were always referring to the ‘Murrysville Bubble,’ ” Sonya Kukalis said.
And it worked. It worked because of the assumption that you knew the person standing next to you, that families such as the Kukalises, the Hribals, and the Kings would always be there for one another.
Really, it would go just as they’d all hoped — until a Wednesday morning one decade after the Kings’ arrival on Sunflower Court. Mr. King was now the assistant principal at Franklin Regional Senior High School. His neighbor Alex, now 16, was a sophomore. They would meet in the school’s hallway, with lives — and a way of life — hanging in the balance.
■ It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?...
— Westmoreland County native Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
Each morning of the school year, Sam King and the youngest Hribal boy, Alex, would take in the same views during the six-mile drive from Sunflower Court to the Franklin Regional school complex, which sits just a few blocks from William Penn Highway, or U.S. 22.
A town of 12,000 in 1970, Murrysville would welcome 8,000 residents during the next four decades, its citizens crossing over into a new century while grasping onto old values.
“It’s funny. When we moved into Murrysville 20 years ago,” said Steve Kinsel, whose daughter attends Franklin Regional Senior High, “a friend of ours said that the last person to move into Murrysville wants to be the last person to move into Murrysville. They don’t want more people coming in because they want to keep the smaller feel of the community.”
The schools are the center of everything. There is no reason for Murrysville to exist without them. Families have made the decision to relocate to the “Gateway to Westmoreland County,” to escape the burden of paying Allegheny County taxes and have been more than willing to replace them with significant school taxes. The investment has been worth it at Franklin Regional, which has a graduation rate of 96.7 percent and regularly outperforms its neighbors academically.
While some would say “there’s nothing to do” in Murrysville, others point to the school’s array of extracurricular activities and point out that, actually, a child can do whatever he or she wants. In rising to assistant principal at the high school, Sam King, 60, had devoted his days to making sure of that.
He wanted all students to feel as if they mattered, that they could come to him with anything. He helped create an open, trusting environment for students at Franklin Regional, where there were no metal detectors at the entrances.
It helped that many kids had known him since elementary school.
“He was always one of the guys that my group of friends felt like we could go to if we had an issue or something,” said Nico Lodovico, the football team’s quarterback as a senior in 2013. “Talk to him one time, and you feel like he’s almost your best friend.”
Not as many people knew what to think about Alex Hribal as he made his way from Sloan Elementary to Franklin Middle to the high school. He was “the shy kid in the corner,” said a classmate, smart but quiet, usually only responding when asked a question. At 5 feet, 3 inches tall and 110 pounds, he did not stick out in the crowd.
On the morning of Wednesday, April 9, Mr. King and Alex, now 16, once again each made that trip from Sunflower Court to school. Alex, all in black, took with him two 8-inch kitchen knives.
■ “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ ”
— Fred Rogers
Gaby Lee could not sleep Tuesday night because of nightmares.
“Usually I only get them if something bad is going to happen,” said Gaby, a 15-year-old freshman at Franklin Regional.
She figured it was a harbinger of another day of being called names. Getting through high school is hard work, especially for someone like Gaby who just moved to Murrysville before the start of this school year. Most mornings, she would rather stay home.
To battle the negativity, she and other ridiculed friends have tried to reverse the tide.
“We hug hello and good-bye because we never know what’s going to happen,” she said.
All over Murrysville and Export and Delmont, the two smaller towns that contribute to Franklin Regional, kids trudged through a soft sprinkle that morning to their bus stops.
Steve Kinsel and his wife, Margaret, walked with their daughter, Tatiana, a junior, to the bus, where they talked about her role in the weekend’s thespian club play.
Kids congregate in the halls by the lockers, catching up with friends and dreading the 7:22 a.m. bell that signals that homeroom has started. It’s the most peaceful time of the day.
Julianna Carolla parked her car in the senior lot, where she waved to friendly faces. She headed for the science wing. It was crowded.
Nearby, Shannon Patberg, a 16-year-old junior, was in the hall checking the list of people who owed class dues to see whether she could buy a ticket to the prom.
In a matter of seconds, four male students would barrel past Shannon down the hall, with a teacher screaming at them from behind to stop horsing around, and one of the boys frantically would yell back what had to be nonsense:
“He has a knife!” he said.
Julianna knew about the blades Alex allegedly carried with him. She had been standing by ninth-grade science teacher Amy Kerschner’s class when a knife pierced her hand.
Ms. Kerschner escorted Julianna through the cafeteria to tables outside, where lunch ladies helped to stabilize her. Julianna apologized for getting blood on the cafeteria floor.
■ “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”
— Fred Rogers
What good was the Murrysville Bubble? The dark-haired boy in all black, who had been raised by the watchful, caring eye of Sunflower Court, was now running down the hall, expressionless, slashing at the world that reared him.
The bubble had exploded in dark red all over the science-wing floors. Could it be put back together? If so, then it would start now, in the crucible of the fight-or-flight scenario examined in every psychology class in the nation.
Gracey Evans, a junior, was talking to sophomore Brett Hurt, near his locker when Brett jumped in front of her. The boy in black stabbed Brett in the back and continued down the hall.
“I let out a blood-curdling scream,” Gracey said.
Gracey knew that if she didn’t put pressure on Brett’s wound that he could bleed to death. Urged into a science room by a teacher, Gracey used paper towels to hold her hero together.
Back in the hall, sophomore Nate Scimio had been stabbed in the arm but still pulled the fire alarm. Hundreds of students poured into the halls and burst through the doors to get outside.
Ken Wedge, a 62-year-old security guard, was directing traffic as he did every morning. When he heard a student say that someone was “knifing people,” he went back into the school. He saw Sgt. John Resetar, whom he refers to as “Sarge,” on the floor, stabbed.
“There was blood all over the halls,” Mr. Wedge said.
Ian Griffith, a senior, saw the boy stab Sarge, and saw Mr. King on the scene. It was as if Mr. King didn’t want to believe his eyes.
“Initially,” Ian said, “I don’t think that he knew he was the stabber. From what I remember, it sounded like he was just trying to get him out of the building.”
Once reality set in, Mr. King chased Alex and tackled him. Ian jumped on top of Alex, and they held down the boy’s hands and arms so that he couldn’t inflict any more damage.
When Mr. Wedge arrived, Mr. King had Alex in a bear hug. Mr. Wedge then put Alex in a choke hold. He was nearly unconscious before he let go of the knives.
“Do you want to die today?!” Mr. Wedge kept yelling.
Alex would leave the school in handcuffs. The Westmoreland County police scanner indicated it took about seven minutes for two knives to sever the foundation of a town built by generations of people who just wanted a place to belong.
■ “Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.”
— Fred Rogers
Gaby Lee and Shannon Patberg escaped the science wing. But they could not avoid the carnage.
Gaby’s friend, 15-year-old Ariana Schofield, had been stabbed in the throat and was covering the slash mark as she stood on the sidewalk. Without emotion, she showed it to Gaby.
“I will never get that neck wound out of my mind,” Gaby said.
Shannon’s best friend, 17-year-old junior Kate Lonergan, had a slash across her face.
“I just want to know why,” Shannon said.
All ushered to the football field, what had just occurred began to sink in.
“We were all shaking, in tears,” Gaby said.
Gaby had been given two brownies before the attack began. Now she was walking around the field, splitting them into pieces and giving them out as a small bite of comfort.
They were kept at the middle school until their parents could pick them up. There, the teens had their smart phones, and that meant the names of the victims traveled fast. Gaby learned that her friend, Brett Hurt, was among them.
“We kept hearing our best friends’ names being called out as victims,” she said.
Those who were in the middle school and not on the way to the hospital like Brett knew they were lucky ones.
“Everybody was running really late,” said sophomore Marissa Hanchey, who believed her penchant for tardiness had saved her.
Tatiana Kinsel wasn’t as lucky. She had seen enough horror to be considered a witness.
Like many parents, her father, Steve waited in a middle school classroom as detectives talked with his daughter. When she was released, he pulled her tight.
“All I said was, ‘Let’s go home,’ ” Mr. Kinsel said.
Shortly after noon, Tatiana took a long nap.
■ “Forgiveness is a strange thing. It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends. It can be hardest of all to forgive people we love. Like all of life’s important coping skills, the ability to forgive and the capacity to let go of resentments most likely take root very early in our lives.”
— Fred Rogers
In some ways, it was just Friday morning on Sunflower Court. Mothers waited with their elementary-aged children at the top of the cul-de-sac and engaged in a long conversations once the yellow school bus had taken their kids away.
In other ways, not much had changed since Wednesday, when the Hribals learned that their son had been accused of a savage attack. A TV station truck was parked in front of Sam King’s house — he has not done any interviews since he subdued Alex — and it was hard to shake the feeling that only sadness now lived in the darkened home across the street and just four houses down.
“Any child on the street, it would be hard,” Sonya Kukalis said, at her front door. “We’ve seen them grow up being a toddler and a baby. We all support the Hribals. They’re such a nice family with a really good mom and dad. You know, you can’t comprehend or begin to understand how they feel. You can only feel heartbreak for them.”
The people of Murrysville will try to build back their bubble even stronger. But now their kids are hurt and scared. Tatiana Kinsel hasn’t opened up to her parents about what she saw. Gaby Lee hasn’t left a close friend’s side since Wednesday because she doesn’t want to be alone. And that’s just two of about 1,200.
The community has mobilized around them. T-shirts are being sold to raise college scholarship money for the 21 student victims, and a fund is being quietly set up for Alex, the young man who now awaits his fate at a juvenile detention center.
Recovery will be toughest on Sunflower Court, where a hero now lives across the street from a suspect and a harsh lesson lingers.
“Nobody,” Mr. Kukalis said, “is untouchable.”
Post-Gazette staff writers Liz Navratil, Molly Born, Rich Lord, Elizabeth Bloom, and Nikki Pena contributed to this report.
Block News Alliance consist of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. J. Brady McCollough is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette.