Fifteen years ago Saturday, the piercing sounds of gunshots echoed through campus as then-State College resident Jillian Robbins crouched on the HUB lawn, rifle in hand.
The incident not only stole the peace of mind from students who lived and worked at Penn State, but it also robbed one young woman of her life.
Robbins shot Melanie Spalla, 21, to death on the lawn in front of the HUB-Robeson Center that day, also wounding herself and another student in the gunfire.
In a matter of minutes, she caught an entire campus off-guard.
“It burst our bubble and broke the innocence of the students,” said Penn State Spokeswoman Lisa Powers, who was on-campus the day of the shooting. “How could this happen here in Happy Valley? There was no more idyllic life, and at that time, that was so shocking.”
It was a rainy, dreary day.
Robbins, a 19-year-old Army reservist and qualified military weapon expert, said she planned to kill only herself on Sept. 17, 1996.
But instead, the State College resident said she opened fire on the HUB lawn, and she had no idea why. Five other people became targets.
“I don’t know why, I just started shooting,” Robbins said during her preliminary hearing shortly after the incident. “I tried to reload so I could shoot myself.”
Robbins left her Toftrees apartment at 6:30 a.m. with a knife, nine rounds of ammunition and a 7mm Mauser rifle on her back, hidden under a rain poncho.
She set up a tarp near the northwest bushes on the lawn and fired five shots toward College Avenue at about 9:30 a.m., hitting Spalla from more than 130 feet away and student Nicholas Mensah, 22, from 300 feet.
Mensah was hit in the side of his abdomen and fell to the ground after he was shot.
Later that evening, two other students found bullets lodged in their backpacks — they, too, had been hit in Robbins’ fire.
Bill Moerschbacher, now assistant chief of University Police, was a patrol officer at the time and one of the first officials on the scene.
Just minutes after shots were fired, Moerschbacher said he was there, arresting Robbins.
When he arrived, Spalla was dead and Mensah was on the ground. Moerschbacher said he was on the lookout for another shooter.
But before he took Robbins into custody, Moerschbacher said someone else played a key role in disarming her.
Former Penn State student Brendon Malovrh, 21, was walking across a path near the HUB lawn and heard the gunshots.
He didn’t miss a beat.
Malovrh approached Robbins, who was still crouched near a bush. He wrestled with her to get the rifle out of her hands as she slashed and stabbed at him — missing and wounding herself.
But he didn’t stop there.
Malovrh noticed the blood excessively flowing from Robbins’ leg, so he removed his belt, tied it around her thigh and slowed the bleeding.
In an interview with The Daily Collegian after the shooting, Malovrh said if the situation has lasted longer his emotions might have changed the outcome.
“I’d have to have consciously realized what was going on to be scared,” he said.
In the wake of the shooting, Moerschbacher took Robbins into custody and scanned the area. Medical personnel were already arriving to be of assistance and university officials were on the scene within few seconds.
Malovrh was later recognized as a Penn State hero by the Board of Trustees when he received the Barash Award for Human Service later that year.
“He hated being called a hero,” said Penn State spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz.
Mountz was one of the officials that was on the scene just moments after the shooting and said she was responsible for guiding Malovrh through the media frenzy that followed on Sept. 17.
Though he resisted his title, Mountz said he deserved it.
“I would call what he did heroic, though,” said Mountz. “He saw an opportunity to stop what was happening and he took it.”
“Everything was kind of a blur,” Powers said.
Powers said she doesn’t remember much of that day clearly — just that university officials reacted quickly and without hesitation.
“All I really remember was that it was such a hectic day and it was something we had never before experienced,” Powers said.
Communications officials set up media outposts and offered press conferences every hour so the public was informed.
Penn State President Graham Spanier was on the scene following the shooting and offered help to officers and media personnel.
“The campus really came together during this time, with students and staff supporting each other,” Spanier wrote in an email. “I think Penn State handled the situation well.”
Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Dennis Heitzmann said CAPS, too, jumped into action almost as soon as shots were fired.
Less than two hours after the shooting, CAPS set up counseling outposts in Henderson Building and the HUB, where many student witnesses had gathered.
“I can’t say enough about how this campus threw a blanket of support, safety and security around the students, faculty and staff who were present at the time,” Heitzmann said.
But the counseling and support didn’t end that day.
CAPS counseled students throughout the year with how to cope with traumatic events — serving 81 percent more students in crisis control than they had the year before — Heitzmann said
Heitzmann, Mountz and Powers all agreed they set aside their own emotions to care for students and community members that day.
“In reporting tragedies you work through it and you don’t feel any emotion because there is no time to think about it,” Powers said. “We had a job to do and we had to put our own emotions to the wayside.”
The weeks and months following the shooting were filled with fear and insecurity, Mountz said.
No one knew who to trust.
“Those familiar places and comfortable spaces were, for the moment, viewed as less safe or unsafe so there was a sense for many students of vulnerability,” Heitzmann said.
Candlelight vigils were held for weeks in memory of Spalla, marking the beginning of a healing process for the student body.
A scholarship was opened in her memory. The senior class also dedicated a peace garden that year, equipped with white flowers as a statement of purity since many students felt their innocence was stolen, Mountz said.
But the lasting impression rippled far beyond just students.
The shooting also spurred evaluation within the police force, as law enforcement officers looked at how they equipped themselves as a result of the sniper, Moerschbacher said.
Mountz said Penn State communications officials changed their approach to crisis management and tactics when breaking news to an audience that was increasingly looking online for updates.
In the decade and a half that’s passed, Robbins life has, likewise, been changed.
She spent six months in a mental institution and was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison for murder in the third degree.
Today, she is serving her sentence at the Women’s State Correctional Facility in Muncy, Pa.
It will be another 17 years — 2028 — until Robbins will be eligible for parole.