Students, community crushed by tragedy

By Union Democrat staff February 05, 2013 12:52 pm

Calaveras Sheriff’s Chaplain Keith Ancar, who was on scene at the murder-suicide, speaks at Monday night’s gathering. Amy Alonzo Rozak / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
Bret Harte High School was reeling Monday with the news that two well-liked students were killed in an apparent murder-suicide. 

Alex Marshall, 17, and his sister, Macaila Marshall, 14, along with their father and the apparent shooter, Philip Marshall, 54, were found dead in their home Saturday. Friends concerned about the teens’ whereabouts visited the home and saw Philip Marshall dead on the floor, so called the authorities.

Each family member died of a single gunshot to the head. The teens were apparently sleeping on the couch when shot, said Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Chris Hewitt.

Alex Marshall was a junior at Bret Harte High School in Angels Camp. He played baseball and varsity football and was also involved in student council. 

Macaila was a freshman. 

School staff members described both teenagers as popular, the type everyone else knew. 

“This thing touches probably everyone on this campus,” said Scott Edwards, a Bret Harte teacher and football coach.

Students wept Monday morning as Bret Harte Superintendent and Principal Mike Chimente recited the Pledge of Allegiance, then called for a moment of silence on campus.

The flag was lowered to half-staff.

Bret Harte’s staff counselor, Sherri Sedler, had prepared a statement for teachers to read in their classes if necessary. But, by Monday, news of the deaths had already spread. 

In the school library Monday morning was a 14-person crisis response team, formed of school counselors, therapists, church leaders, youth ministers and others. Several peer counselors from Calaveras High School, trained in grief counseling, arrived later. 

The library and area outside were full of students as a steady stream came to speak with counselors, many still crying.

Both Sedler and Chimente said that during their tenure at Bret Harte, they hadn’t dealt with a tragedy touching such a large number of students and teachers. Chimente said it was many students’ first experience of loss. 

“They’re at an age when death isn’t part of their lives,” he said. “As much as possible, we’re going to continue with a normal schedule. There’s some comfort for kids in structure.” 

Sean Hale, 17, a senior and football player, said he was honoring Alex Marshall by keeping a positive attitude. He noticed that the sun was shining a little brighter that morning, which he said matched the person Alex was. 

“What I like to remember is that he always had a smile for anybody if they were down,” Hale said. “When Alex was around, it was just a better time.” 

At one point, Alex got a haircut that resembled Peter Parker’s from the movie “Spiderman,” Hale said. 

His friends started calling him “Peter Parker” as a result. He had a Spiderman sweatshirt complete with a mask and was known for his sense of humor. 

“Everyone knows him as a really, really good big brother,” Hale said. “He was always just there for (Macaila).” 

Edwards, who taught Alex and later coached him in varsity football, said Marshall kept a smile on his face even when he broke his clavicle during warm-up exercises. He was one of the smallest players on the team but made up for it with his drive, Edwards said. 

Teachers said the outgoing Macaila followed in her brother’s footsteps by joking and brightening up the campus. 

“She was just a little ball of sunshine,” said Carrie Phillips, a Bret Harte agriculture teacher who had Macaila in her floriculture class. “She was a typical high school teenage girl, laughing and giggling all the time.” 

Assistant Principal Kelly Osborn, who taught Macaila in study skills class, described her as “bright-eyed” and “bubbly.” He appeared badly shaken by the news of the deaths Monday. 

“They were both great kids,” he said. “The reaction of the school speaks for itself. Their positivity and sense of humor made a big impact. We shouldn’t let that die with them.” 

Philip Marshall’s role in the killings “just doesn’t make sense,” Osborn said. He described Marshall as an “involved, caring” father. 

Philip Marshall was supportive of Bret Harte’s football team and sent emails with compliments, Edwards said. 

“A lot of times, as a coach, you might have negative meetings with parents. That was never the case with (Marshall),” Edwards said. 

He didn’t see signs that anything was amiss in Alex’s life, either.

“He always … was up for shenanigans,” Edwards said. “Had he acted any different, that would have been a signal.” 

Bret Harte has planned a memorial service for 11 a.m. Saturday in Bret Harte’s football stadium, Chimente said. Students have organized a candlelight vigil at 7 p.m. Wednesday on the school’s quad. Both events are open to the community. 

Other small gestures of remembrance were shaping up Monday. 

For example, Alex’s football teammates were signing his jersey, and students posted pictures and notes on a bulletin board outside the library.  

Calaveras High School sent a banner of solidarity — “two schools, one community, one heart” — for Bret Harte High to hang up.

Bret Harte High Trustee Jeff Rasmussen, whose daughter Erika is a student there, thanked the community for its “thoughtful, caring” response to the tragedy at Monday’s board meeting.

“There’s no road map to do this,” he said.

More than 100 students attended “The Rock” youth group Monday night at Foothill Community Church in response to an open invitation for students to share their grief and their memories of Alex and Macaila.

They gave each other hugs and shoulders to cry on throughout the evening. Many wore their hair dyed in purple, the primary Bret Harte school color. They sang and they told stories.

Most signed large paper banners to be carefully rolled up and presented to Sean Marshall, Alex and Macaila’s mother.

One theme remained constant throughout. Alex and Macaila loved their many, many friends and one another. Their lives touched hundreds of others, making so many they knew feel special, one student after another recounted.

“Alex showed his love for every single one of us. Some of us can talk for years about it … he was my best friend,” said senior Erika Rasmussen. “I loved Macaila so much. Her love was identical to the love Alex showed for us. They were identical in so many ways.”

“Nobody could comfort you as well as (Macaila) could. Nobody could make you laugh as much as she could,” sophomore Syd Klann said. “You’d never hear anything bad about her. She was such a great person. Everybody loved her.”

“What a gift Alex and Macaila left here … their gift was making you feel like you were the most important person in their life,” said youth pastor Chris Muetterties.

Muetterties and Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office Chaplain Keith Ancar told the students their feelings of anger, bewilderment and numbness all are normal.

“There’s nothing that you could have or should have done different. Nothing … should cause you to blame yourself,” Ancar said. “This was a tragedy and a heinous crime and nothing more.”

A guide for helping students through grief has been posted on the Bret Harte High website at Live On, a Calaveras County-based support organization for suicide survivors, has said anyone seeking counseling can contact them at 800-499-3030 or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Counselors will be available all week in the Bret Harte library, Chimente said. 

He urged students to live their lives, because that’s what Alex and Macaila would have wanted.