When faith bears a miracle

The Cokeville Miracle

The day a deranged couple, walked into an elementary school with a bomb, and a revolution in mind.

Nicole Henley
May 6 · 10 min read

We are living in a time where it feels like tragic news stories are dominating the media cycle now more than ever. Still, it is important to remember, that, in moments of danger, with a little faith, miracles can and do happen.

A Wyoming town called Cokeville, wasn’t even on the map until an astounding miracle took place one day. With a population of roughly 500 and the community of Mormon faith, and not a single face that was not friendly. No one could have prepared for what one day had in store. On a fateful spring day in 1986, a deranged couple walked into a local school with a bomb and a revolution in mind.

The Perpetrators

David Young, the “mastermind” behind the plan, attended Chadron State College in Nebraska. There, he earned a degree in criminal justice, and later got hired as Cokeville’s town marshal in the ’70s. However, the job did not last long, as he got fired for misconduct six months into it.

Later, while still living in Cokeville, he met a divorcée named Doris Waters. The two then got married and moved to Tucson, Arizona shortly afterward.

Both had ties to white supremacist groups, including Posse Comitatus and the Aryan Nations. They also both believed in reincarnation.

While in Tucson, as Doris’s daughter Bernie Petersen recalled, her stepfather became reclusive. He would focus on his philosophical readings and writings. To make ends meet in their meager lifestyle, Doris worked as a waitress and in housekeeping. It was during this time that he began writing a manifesto on his philosophy, “Zero Equals Infinity.” Young’s youngest daughter, Penny, lived him and her stepmother in their mobile home as well. While he had a second, elder daughter from this marriage, he had become estranged from her by this point.

Moreover, Young came up with a get-rich plan he referred to as “The Biggie.” The plan consisted of holding schoolchildren hostage for $2 million each. Once he had the money, Young would blow up the school with the intent of being reborn and ruling over his targets. He called this “Brave New World.” Mind you, though neither he nor Doris was a part of any organized religion, they were very spiritual. To help him achieve “The Biggie,” Young tried recruiting two longtime friends. The friends, Gerald Deppe, and Doyle Mendenhall had invested money with him for “The Biggie.Neither knew what exactly “The Biggie” entailed until it was time to head over to the school. The reason they did not know of it sooner, was because Young had refused to tell them. Upon learning what was about to happen, both men refused to take part. Despite their refusal, Young forced them at gunpoint to come along. They were not the only ones “recruited” for the plan, as Penny, came along too. By this point, she was not yet aware of her father’s true intentions. While intending to return to Cokeville, Young first tested out gasoline bombs he made. Each test run he did worked to perfection.

The Bomb

The bomb used in the crisis was a homemade gasoline bomb. Housed in a two-wheeled shopping cart, it had wooden shelves, separating its contents. On the top sat the ammunition, followed by a plastic 1-gallon jug filled with gasoline. Below the container, were two tuna fish cans containing powder chemicals, and five blasting caps. The powder chemicals in question were aluminum powder and flour.

The blasting caps had they had gotten triggered, the resulting particles from the cans would have gone into the air. If this had mixed with the gasoline — which was on a time delaywould have ignited a fireball. The resulting explosion would have traveled outward in a 360-degree circle, mushrooming upward. Then, crawling across the ceiling and down the walls before engulfing the room in flames.

“The Biggie”

Finally, the time came to return to Cokeville, which they did on May 16, 1986. On that day, at 1:30 p.m., they arrived at Cokeville Elementary School. There, they unloaded the homemade gasoline bomb, several rifles, and handguns. Then, Young, Doris, and Penny headed toward the school. Meanwhile, they left Deppe and Mendenhall handcuffed inside the white van.

After entering the school office, Penny learned of her father’s true intentions. Upon finding out, she refused to continue being a part of it, then immediately left to report the crime to the town hall.

“This is a revolution!”

Now down to Young and his wife, the two continued the plan. The couple proceeded to rant and rave. Young also handed out his manifesto which was both strange and nonsensical to the staff. He also announced, “This is a revolution!”. As a result of all this, the faculty thought the couple was mentally ill and delusional. As they dealt with Young, his wife, Doris, went from classroom to classroom, rounding people up. She wound up getting 154 people into a 30x30 room, and among the captive, there 136 children, six faculty, nine teachers, and three other adults. A job applicant and a UPS driver were even among the hostages. Doris accomplished this by telling everybody that something was happening in the chosen room. The excuses she used were of a non-existent emergency, assembly or an unspecified surprise.

With the hostages now in the room, Young made his demand of $2 million per child. He also demanded an audience with then-President Reagan, to whom he also sent a copy of the manifesto. Moreover, Young had the bomb’s triggering mechanism attached to a shoelace, which he kept it tied to his wrist. After getting Young’s permission, the teachers retrieved books, art supplies, and a TV. To keep the children occupied during the standoff.

Meanwhile, the police, families of the captive had gathered outside the school. They were out of view from those inside the classroom.

During the standoff, many of the children sobbed, said they wanted to go home. They also complained of headaches they were getting from the smell of bomb’s gasoline. On several occasions, Doris tried calming the children. She told them to either think of the situation as an “adventure movie.” She also told them to think of it as a story to tell their future children and grandchildren. One of the children had his birthday fall on this day and had songs sung in his honor. Young and Doris even joined in the singing. When the singing failed to lift the mood, the teachers retrieved items from the library. This way, they could try keeping the children’s minds off of the situation again and pass the time.

Another way the children coped was by either praying in groups or alone. They did so without any prompting from the adults.

At one point, due to the smell of the gasoline still making the children sick, the teachers got to open windows. The teachers also created “barrier” of sorts with “magic tape,” which allowed everyone to keep a safe distance between themselves and the bomb. To keep the children from stepping inside the barrier with the weapon, the teachers made a game up.

About 2–2.5 hours into the ordeal (roughly 4 p.m.), Young appeared to get irritated for an unclear reason. He also transferred bomb’s trigger onto his wife’s wrist, before heading to a small bathroom. The bathroom connected the first- and second-grade classrooms. Not long after he left, Doris accidentally set the bomb off after moving her hand in the wrong direction. The resulting blast severely injured her and filled the room with thick, black smoke. In the chaos, the teachers began shoving children out through the open windows. As a result, it caused further confusion as parents tried breaking through police lines.

After the hearing the commotion outside, Young stepped out of the bathroom. Upon seeing his wife engulfed in flames, he shot her dead to put her out of misery. Then, he shot at and wounded a fleeing male teacher. Afterward, Young walked back into the bathroom and then took his own life.

The Aftermath

Of the 154 hostages taken, only 76 sustained injuries. The injuries consisted of flash burns and other injuries from the explosion. Aside from this, every victim survived. The only causalities of the crime were of the perpetrators themselves.

Moreover, due to their refusal to take part, Penny, Deppe, nor Mendenhall was ever charged as a part of the crime.

In the end, most would credit the victims’ survival to sheer luck. However, many of the victims soon came out with claims crediting divine intervention. Many children mentioned seeing people, dressed all in white. When asked to describe whom they saw, each pointed out relatives from family photos. Each one ended up pointing out ancestors who had passed away decades earlier. None of the children appeared to have known of these relatives before the crisis. Some of the claims were of seeing angels telling them to go over to the windows moments before the explosion. Aside from that, others claimed to have seen an angel above each child’s head.

Besides these children’s claims, several factors subsequently found had played a role in the outcome. Without these factors, the explosion would have been far worse than it was.

  • Since the room’s windows and doors were left open, it created a vent for the brunt of the explosion to escape.
  • The “magic tape,” allowed no one to be close enough to the bomb, the moment it exploded, to suffer the brunt of the bomb’s shrapnel shooting out.
  • Speaking of the shrapnel, somehow, it missed every victim, despite shooting out in every direction. Also, while black smoke filled the room and everyone was scrambling to escape.

Before the incident, every test run Young did on the bomb worked without fail, yet this last time it did. Several factors later found led to the bomb malfunctioning:

  • There was a pin-sized hole discovered on the plastic jug filled with the gasoline. The breach caused the gas to leak its contents throughout the standoff slowly. It ended up dripping onto one of the tuna fish cans below it. The can directly below the jug had contained the aluminum powder. With the powder soaked from the gasoline, it became a useless paste.
  • At least one of the wires attached to the bomb appeared as if someone had cut it. The cut itself, described as if someone had snipped it with a pair of scissors. Though, no one has ever been able to explain how or when it got cut.
  • Only one of the bomb’s five blasting caps went off. Had all five did, a side of the building would have been blown off.
  • The explosion, instead of shooting outward as it should have, it shot upward.
  • Since before the bomb detonated, one firefighter was at the scene. After it exploded, and he rushed in, he crawled along the floor due to the smoke. He then realized after crawling across the floor that he was crawling along on a pile of guns yet, none went off.

One of the strangest finds at the crime scene was what looked like the imprint of an angel or humanoid on a wall. The indentation could have been one of the victims getting blown back into the wall from the force of the blast. Still, it doesn’t explain the imprint’s skull-like face. Although, pareidolia could explain that part. No matter the explanation, it doesn’t take away from the unexplained events in that room

In any case, I also can’t help but question the glaring holes in Young’s logic. While I’m no expert in reincarnation, I wonder how he did not think they would all end up being reborn as babies. If that happened, how did he expect to rule over them then? Not only that, even if he did get $300 million ransom, what made him think the money itself would survive the blast? Wouldn’t it have ended up disintegrating in the explosion? Did he think it was going to be reborn alongside him and his intended victims?

Pop Culture

Books and movies were later released, detailing the incident. One such book was The Cokeville Miracle: When Angels Intervene by Hartt Wixom and his wife, Judene. Subsequently, it got turned into a made-for-TV movie called To Save the Children.

Another book was written in 2006, and compiled by the Cokeville Foundation. It detailed recollections about the day from parents, emergency workers, and former hostages.

Such TV Shows that have covered the incident include Unsolved Mysteries, Unexplained Mysteries, and I Survived…

A movie on the event got released on June 5, 2015, called The Cokeville Miracle, and made by T.C. Christensen.

The community soon returned to a reinvented definition of normal. Though no one will ever forget the day the tragedy that almost happened, likewise, they will always remember the miracle which prevented it. While the school still active today, the classroom itself has become a computer room.

Last Thoughts

Now, whether you’d believe in the children’s claims of angels saving them is up to you, as everyone’s faith is unique. Besides, how 154 victims survived an explosion that should have killed them may never get answers. The fact that such a miracle happened at all is proof enough that not everything in life will come with a resolution. Sometimes, a miracle is meant to be a miracle and nothing more. So, if such an enigma resulted in over 100 lives getting spared, then that’s fine with me.

Nicole Henley is a freelance writer and storyteller. An East-coast girl whose obsessed with shows like The X-Files, Buffy and almost every crime procedural series under the sun. Writing the story is merely half the journey. When she’s not covering cold cases or mysteries, she’s watching movies or writing poetry, short stories, and flash fiction that may or may not be based on horror.

Of Misdeeds and Mysteries

True Crime and Unbelievably Real Stories; we aim to shine a light on the forgotten and unknown.

Nicole Henley

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Freelance writer of stories on true crime, unsolved mysteries, marvels of history, and more.

Of Misdeeds and Mysteries

True Crime and Unbelievably Real Stories; we aim to shine a light on the forgotten and unknown.

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