17. Cascade

April 20, 1999

CNN Center — Atlanta, Georgia

War had occupied the news for months. If there had been no developing stories to report, CNN’s programming that Tuesday probably would have continued to feature fresh footage of NATO airstrikes, blowing up Yugoslav tank positions in Kosovo. But just before noon, the control room in Atlanta flipped a switch, and CNN’s video feed changed to live footage from a domestic affiliate in Colorado — yet somehow, the aura of a war zone lingered over the screen.

Many of the details were still sketchy, and that was part of what made the whole thing so extraordinary — the crime was still in progress in Littleton when the BREAKING NEWS flash cut into regular broadcast programming. Viewers on other channels, watching daytime soap operas, suddenly found themselves looking at something even more dramatic than their stories: a high school under siege, live and in progress.

Columbine was shown at a distance, the cameras held back at the police perimeter, along with the many distraught parents who came down as soon as they heard that there was a shooting at Columbine. Then the police line parted, to allow a column of SWAT officers through; the men steadily advanced on the school, clad in body armor and carrying ballistic shields, as terrified students and staff came sprinting past them from the exits.

Inside the school, some of the students who were barricaded in their classrooms were also dialing into news stations, for on-air interviews. Their stories did indeed sound like scenes from a war, with bombs going off and crowds running for cover, bullets flying all around them. Anchors had to discourage the teens from specifying their location within the school; the gunmen were still at large, and they could be listening. Viewers were on the edge of their seats.

Just then, another survivor came running out, and when she reached the perimeter, a reporter saw that her clothes were stained with blood. She had escaped the library, and she fought fevered sobs as she delivered the first accounts of the horror that had unfolded there: “Everyone around me got shot and I begged him for ten minutes not to shoot me, and he put the gun in my face and started blaming everyone and started laughing, saying that it was all because people were mean to him last year!”

On a nearby roof, a police sniper was scanning the school’s science wing through his rifle’s scope, when he spotted, in one of the classroom windows, a small handwritten sign:

ONE

BLEEDING

TO

DEATH

Inside the room was the teacher who had sprinted to the commons when he heard the first shots, and finally got the packs of gawking teens to run for their lives; now, the students were trying to save him. But while the SWAT team was still clearing the school, room by room, the injured teacher was already out of time.

* * *

President Clinton had been in a meeting with his economic team when the news of Columbine broke. He first spoke to the nation just after 2:30pm, Colorado time:

Ladies and gentlemen, let me begin by saying that we all know there has been a terrible shooting at a high school in Littleton, Colorado. Because the situation, as I left to come out here, apparently is ongoing, I think it would be inappropriate for me to say anything other than I hope the American people will be praying for the students, the parents, and the teachers. And we’ll wait for events to unfold, and then there’ll be more to say.

Almost as the president finished this sentence, news stations suddenly cut back to a breaking development at Columbine; there was something moving up on the second floor, visible through the holes in the library’s shattered glass wall: a teenage boy, bleeding badly, and crawling for the window’s ledge.

The nation held its breath, and saw a soon-to-be iconic moment unfold on live TV: as the boy is about to drop a full story to the pavement below, suddenly, a commandeered bank truck rolls into frame, with SWAT officers on top who barely catch the boy in time. In their other hands, the officers each carry submachine guns, ready to confront the shooters. They are unaware that by this time, their two adversaries have been dead for nearly three hours.

* * *

The SWAT team finally breached the library at 3:22pm. Clearing the nightmarish scene, they noticed that two of the students were different from the others; they were not lying folded under tables, but out in the open. They had guns and bombs next to them, and their T-shirts read WRATH and NATURAL SELECTION.

Left and Right were identified, and the siege of Columbine came to an end. But as soon as their names went public, the narrative went paranoid; the trench-coated shooters were alleged to have been members of a notorious “Trench Coat Mafia” — Columbine’s name for a clique of alt/goth-misfits, formed just before the shooters came to Columbine as freshmen — and now they had declared war on “the jocks.”

It was mostly myth, the first of many; the shooters hadn’t really been members of the “TCM” at all, just traveled in the same circles. And they loved the uniform. A lot of boys their age did.

The self-confessed “jock,” who had escaped the library with his “never had a problem with you guys” line, gave an interview to TIME shortly after the shooting. No longer at gunpoint, he bragged of the atmosphere at Columbine, and the way the shooters were disrespected:

Most kids didn’t want them there. They were into witchcraft. They were into voodoo dolls. Sure, we teased them. But what do you expect with kids who come to school with weird hairdos and horns on their hats? It’s not just jocks; the whole school’s disgusted with them. They’re a bunch of homos, grabbing each other’s private parts. If you want to get rid of someone, usually you tease ‘em. So the whole school would call them homos, and when they did something sick, we’d tell them, “You’re sick and that’s wrong.”

His description of the shooters (or perhaps the TCM) sounded more like a collage of all the misfit groups wearing black that a jock might have passed in the hall: a mass of nobodies, blurring into an opposing team.

Other students at Columbine would refute his characterization — but still others would endorse it, as if students at the school experienced two different Columbines. The same divide was recognized all over the country, and soon, there began a “national conversation” on bullying in schools. (Years later, the conversation would still be ongoing; looking back, Columbine’s escaped jock would see the shooters he witnessed that day in the library more clearly, now through a man’s eyes; both, he says, acted like “the ultimate bullies.”)

Briefing Room — the White House

As the sun set on April 20, 1999, and as the enormity of Columbine started to sink in, the president called another press briefing. He said he had just had a conversation about the school shooting phenomenon with a representative from Jefferson County, who had shared a hope that, “Perhaps now America would wake up to the dimensions of this challenge, if it could happen in a place like Littleton.”

A reporter asked him what the country should “wake up” to.

The president said that there were “a lot of kids out there who have access to weapons — and apparently more than guns, here — and who build up these grievances in their own mind and who are not being reached.” Hinting that this would not be his last words on guns, nor Columbine, he added, “After a little time has passed, we need to have a candid assessment about what more we can do to try to prevent these things from happening.”

21 April, 1999

House of Commons — London, United Kingdom

In the UK, the process of gun buy-backs was mostly complete, but the memory of Dunblane remained. There had not been a school shooting since; Britons had watched in horror as the phenomenon instead began haunting the Americans, for whom it just seemed to get worse, every time the season came around.

An MP from Scotland took a moment during the chamber’s daily business to “send condolences to the people of Denver, Colorado, after the horrific incident that they suffered yesterday.” She then turned to the Prime Minister, and (assuming, like he and many others in the wake of Columbine, that handguns were the primary weapon used) asked, “Given that this country suffered a similar incident in Dunblane in Scotland not so long ago, will my right honorable Friend reiterate how important it was to ban handguns after that incident?”

Tony Blair stood to respond; gun control, and the Snowdrop Petition, had been a major issue in the 1997 election that had brought him and his party to power, and after the gun ban became law that year, he had proudly declared that his Government had “paid its debt to the people of Dunblane.” He shared the lesson he took from the UK’s tragedy:

Because of Dunblane, the events of Littleton, Colorado are bound to evoke many special memories and emotions for people in this country. We were right to take the position that we took on handguns. The laws of the United States are a matter for that country. I strongly agree with the sentiments expressed by President Clinton last night, [and] I know that my hon. Friend and her constituents will look back on the tragedy of Dunblane, from which they are still recovering, and recognize how much better our future is as a result of the action that we have taken.

April 22, 1999

T.C. Williams High School — Alexandria, Virginia

The next day, the president hosted a round table discussion on school violence. In attendance were students and teachers from Pearl, and Paducah, and a number of other towns where the disaster had struck. Clinton observed how one of the things that made the attacks so shocking was that, for some reason, the phenomenon did not occur as often in dense, urban areas, where populations and crime rates were higher. “They tended to occur more in small towns and rural areas or suburbs,” he said, “where you normally would not think that society itself falling apart around you would happen.”

The president also said that he was struck by “this whole black trenchcoat deal,” and he lingered on the common psychological threads among the boys who had donned the costume: “That’s something that really struck me when I read these accounts, is how alienated these young people were because these athletes were saying bad things about them or who else was saying bad things about them. They were different, so then they had to look for somebody to feel bad about.”

It was an informed observation. The president had seen early results from an FBI-organized expert’s symposium on school shooters, held earlier that month. And from this, he knew of another common thread, now reinforced in the emerging profiles of the Columbine attackers: internet access. There seemed to be a tidal effect, a pull, with the darkness in a young man’s mind seeking out more of itself online. “If you are very lonely and very alienated and you feel you don’t belong with anybody or anything,” the president said, “you find something on the Internet that you can read that you can relate to, and then things begin to spin out of control.”

“You don’t want me to choke off the Internet, it’s one of the greatest things that ever happened,” Clinton continued. “But the problem is, how do you — how do parents limit their children’s access to something they shouldn’t be able to see? And I do think that the role of the Internet, and the way it’s bringing everything into the home, has made a parent’s job much more difficult.”

Private Residence — Upstate New York

Watching the news from Colorado, David Kaczynski, the Unabomber’s brother, shared some of President Clinton’s concerns. He knew that the Columbine shooters had found their pipe bomb recipes online, and he foresaw mass communication progressively lowering the bar for every aspiring mad bomber to come. And at the same time it was providing the technical knowledge, it was also spreading inspiration to “strike back” at the establishment; The Anarchist Cookbook was not just a list of recipes, after all, but was interspersed with essays, such as in the introduction to the very bomb-building section that the school shooters were all studying:

There are individuals, in our society, who claim that we cannot exist without oppression and regulation, because we are children. I agree that we are children, because we have always had supervision, and have never been allowed the freedom to see ourselves in a different light. We are all children of the humanistic revolution, and, whether certain individuals like it or not, American children are growing up, fast.

This was rhetoric from 1971’s anti-Vietnam War underground protest movement, but now, a generation later, it seemed like the out-of-print book was finding an unlikely second life among the disaffected children of its original audience.

David ultimately decided to write an open letter — one co-signed by one of his brother’s maimed victims, and a survivor of the Oklahoma City bombing. It was a warning, addressed to America Online, Microsoft, Yahoo, and other internet firms, about the dark potential he saw in the emerging online sphere, and how America’s increasingly digital society was allowing “every troubled kid out there to become the next Tim McVeigh.”

Anticipating that free-speech advocates would object to any act of censorship, the group’s letter went on to argue that, “No one has a constitutional right to use an Internet company’s property to facilitate murder,” but rather, “the companies have the constitutional right — and the moral obligation — to stop this use of their property.″

Even so, it wasn’t clear yet what, specifically, any of the companies could do, or should do, with the technology — they all insisted that they “already prohibit” information like bomb-making recipes, or anything encouraging violence. But this new threat wasn’t going away. David Kaczynski was the man who had recognized the Unabomber’s voice; he was hearing it again, now, seeping in from the ether.

Office of Indian Affairs — Jefferson County, Colorado

Symbols of condolence and comfort continued flooding into Littleton for months, from all over the country. The massive collection of teddy bears, quilts, letters, and photos would fill a tractor trailer, and then finally a whole warehouse. Administrators in Jefferson County had to figure out what to do with all of it.

One day, not long after the tragedy, a unique gift turned up at the county’s Office of Indian Affairs. The package came from Michigan, and contained a “dreamcatcher”: a Native American charm made from feathers, beads, and a ring of willow reeds; the wood hoop holds taught a web of string, to catch evil spirits in the night, and leave good dreams and good spirits to pass through. The dreamcatcher’s sender had two plaques added to the frame holding it, each carrying a phrase written in the Odawa tribe’s language:

Gda dwendaagnananik

“all our relations”

Ba ma pee

“let us see each other again”

A woman from Muskegon, Michigan had made the dreamcatcher just for Columbine, by hand. She was part of a group of parents who ran the city’s native education program. As she put it, when her indigenous peoples’ group heard what had happened to the community in Littleton, “We just sent good spirits to them.”

Depot Road — Kingston, New Hampshire

It was Spring Break for Newtown’s schools, that week in April of 1999. The Lanza family were on vacation, visiting old friends and family back home. Nancy took the boys to the old ice cream shop, Memories, and of course, they got to spend some time visiting their Uncle Jimmie.

The Kingston locals got to hear more about Nancy’s new life in Newtown. It all sounded so fancy, and they noticed how generous she was whenever she came to visit, always looking to pick up a check. She liked to show off the good life — and perhaps, to prove that while she missed her old hometown, the bets she had placed on Connecticut had paid off. Big time.

Nancy didn’t talk about Adam very much. Adam barely talked at all. Everyone in the family already knew that he had “issues,” and he hadn’t got better since moving away; none of them expected the frightened boy to interact. He mostly listened.

Maybe it was the television, or a parent or uncle whispering too loudly from another room, or maybe it was another kid — but it would not have been long into the afternoon of April 20th before Adam heard the news: the most unbelievable thing was going on at a high school in Colorado. It was another school shooting, like the ones in Kentucky or Oregon, but it was so much bigger this time. There were reports of grenades raining down from the roof of the school, and teams of gunmen in black trench coats exchanging fire with the police, refusing to surrender. It was like the ultimate, end-all power fantasy, come to life — and it was happening at school.

Newtown, Connecticut

The atmosphere in the village had changed. Littleton was cause for introspection in every American suburb, captured by the TIME magazine cover showing the yearbook photos of both smiling Columbine shooters, side by side, captioned in stark lettering: “THE MONSTERS NEXT DOOR.”

A few slots over on the newsstand, Columbine was on the cover of the Newtown Bee, under the headline “Columbine tragedy resonates in Newtown.” The Bee wrote that the tragedy in Littleton felt so meaningful to Newtown “because Columbine High School appears to be the typical American school — very much like Newtown High School.” They even printed a letter to the editor, sent from a former Newtown resident who had years ago relocated to Colorado, and who warned that the similarities were not just imagined: “Please believe me when I say that they are the same, and the tragedy that occurred in Littleton can happen in places like Newtown.”

Newtown High School

Reporters from the Bee visited the high school, to find out for themselves. Many of the students they met agreed with the letter’s author; the stories coming out of Littleton, about the social hierarchy and sports culture at the school, sounded like Newtown High. “Kids are too mean,” said one Junior. “Some students are constantly being harassed about the way they look or the way they dress.” Others confirmed these accounts, and claimed that the administrators turned a blind eye. It was going on right under their nose. “Newtown is full of people with money,” said a sophomore boy. “They think they’re better than everyone else and they put others down. There’s a lot of mental abuse and some kids can’t take it anymore.”

One day that spring, as if to illustrate the point, there was a commotion at Newtown High when a male student came to class wearing a black trenchcoat. A teacher quickly ordered him to remove it.

* * *

A few students — active in their church, and concerned about violence at their high school — started organizing to bring awareness to “the lessons of Columbine.” They received support from the principal as well as religious leaders from Newtown Congregational Church, and its neighbor Trinity Episcopal across the street; the onetime “pamphlet war” adversaries had come together, to help Newtown learn from the tragedy in Colorado.

The group held a candlelight vigil at Newtown High, on the football stadium’s fifty-yard-line. They lit a candle, and the students crowded around, holding smaller candles — each lighting their own wick from the flame, and then their neighbor’s, so that as the ceremony proceeded, the light spread through the crowd, as the clergy of Trinity Church led them in prayer. Then the Newtown High School chorus sang “Lean on Me,” and the procession moved to the front lawn of the school, where they planted a single weeping cherry tree, surrounded by an arrangement of perennial, white Columbine flowers. The organizers expressed hope that this living memorial would last as “a constant reminder to students that there is good in everyone, and that harsh words and actions can only lead to pain.”

* * *

Even as the students were gathered around the weeping cherry tree, their parents were worrying for their safety. The Newtown Prevention Committee sent out a survey, asking each family in town what their areas of concern were when it came to safety in schools. The results “placed the highest priority on addressing student-to-student behavior and improving communication and respect between students, parents, staff and administrators.” Other areas of concern were “addressing class sizes and creating a definitive emergency response plan.”

Duck Pin Bowling Alley — Danbury, Connecticut

Two days after Columbine, Adam turned seven years old. His “new friends” birthday party — the last of the set that Nancy had been overwhelmed with sending out invitations for — was held at the Duck Pin Bowling Alley.

One of the boys throwing miniature bowling balls down the lane that day was a schoolmate of Adam’s, from Mrs. Lavelle’s class, who was there with his mother, Wendy Wipprecht. Wendy was friendly with Nancy, and knew how withdrawn Adam was; she wasn’t surprised to find that he looked uncomfortable at his own birthday party, being the center of attention.

While the kids played, Nancy took Wendy aside. She was looking for advice. “I got into a long talk with his mother,” Wipprecht recalls of the scene. “She was concerned mainly that Adam wasn’t fitting in well in his classroom. He was obviously very bright and very shy. She was worried he wasn’t doing as well as he should be.”

Nancy feared that it could be some kind of “neurobiological condition,” but Wendy was skeptical of that. Her own son had been diagnosed with autism, and had a one-on-one aide assigned to him every day at Sandy Hook to address it. She knew autism very well, and whatever was behind Adam’s bashful nature, she didn’t expect that was it. “I thought it was his shyness and uncomfortableness in large social situations. I mean, a class of 20 people is a lot for a 6-year-old to handle.”

Nancy had agreed to move her whole life to help her son, but so far it still just wasn’t enough. Perhaps that meant Sandy Hook Elementary wasn’t enough; she told Wendy she was considering switching Adam to a tiny parochial school in town, run by St. Rose of Lima church, “because classes were smaller and she thought he might do better there.” She hadn’t made up her mind yet, but she knew things had to change for Adam’s upcoming second-grade year.

The more Wendy listened, the more she felt sorry for her friend, still struggling as she was to find the answer to why her son acted so differently from his peers: “Even if you’re merely suspicious, it’s a kind of awful thing to have to deal with.”

Summer 1999

Sandy Hook Elementary School

As the end of the school year approached, Nancy was busy with the flurry of activities scheduled for each of her boys: class picnics, field trips, and school plays. She frequently volunteered to help, like she had with the scouts; that way, she would be present to watch out for Adam during group activities.

One day at home, she spied him rehearsing for his role in Oklahoma! and thought it was cute. “Adam has taken it very seriously,” she wrote to Marvin, “…even practicing facial expressions in the mirror!”

On June 10, 1999, Nancy’s older son, together with his 5th-grade classmates, were having their “Stepping Up” ceremony, marking the end of elementary school and their transition to Newtown Middle School. Nancy volunteered to help. She later received a thank-you card — beneath the pre-printed message, there was a handwritten note:

Dear Mrs. Lanza

The children achieved a most successful year with the dedication from your active involvement. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Terri Lavelle

Nancy kept this token of appreciation from Sandy Hook Elementary School for the rest of her life.

In a way, the ceremony marked a change for both of her sons: that year at Sandy Hook marked the last time when Adam’s older brother would be attending classes at the same school as him, at the same time. From then on, each of the Lanza boys would be on their own.

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

Nancy had always enjoyed designing gardens. The soil back on Depot Road had been perfect, tilled for generations; the more she dug under the lawn of 36 Yogananda, the more rocks she found, and the more she missed home. Still, she was determined: her goal for the summer of 1999 was to plant the perfect garden.

Nancy called in a team of landscapers, with a bulldozer and bucket loader. Adam and Ryan watched in rapt attention as the team used the heavy equipment to excavate 36 Yogananda’s rocky soil. Standing next to her, the boys told their mom that it looked like a fun job.

The rocks went out, and three truckloads of the best topsoil in town went in its place. Nancy meticulously researched, selected, and positioned every flower in the garden. She wanted to do as much of the work herself as she could, telling Marvin, “I have help for the heavy stuff…but I have to be right there while it gets done. I have a very specific vision, and being a perfectionist means that I can’t delegate!”

She had been driving to nurseries all over Fairfield County, looking for the perfect centerpiece plant, but she ultimately decided that the best flowers to grow in the Newtown soil were ones shipped from back home. She told Marvin she was thinking long-term: “The first year in, a garden is setting roots. The second and third you start to get the results.”

She even gave Marvin tips on his own garden, and discouraged him from listening to any of the Home Depot clerks: “ALWAYS go to the bookstore or library first, and get a good book. (Or ask for MY expert advice!)”

* * *

As the two old friends wrote back and forth, suddenly, in the summer of 1999, their correspondence took an ominous turn: Nancy was discussing the rigors of working in the garden when Marvin apparently asked her (only Nancy’s side of the conversation is available) if laboring in the sun was hard on her eyesight.

Nancy’s response demonstrates that Marvin was one of the few she had trusted with a big secret: she was actually very ill, and had been for years.

It was probably Multiple Sclerosis, as she had confided to a few other friends and family members before she had moved away. She of course told Peter about her MS years ago — but as always, emphasized that she wanted to keep it private.

She assured Marvin that she was getting by surprisingly well: “The heat has not kept me from gardening. I go out early in the day…or after dinner. It is generally tolerable at those times.” And, she had some good news: the decision to move to Newtown had in fact been key to her recovery. “My eyes have improved considerably. When I got down here, I was referred to a group of experts who discovered that I had been misdiagnosed in N.H.,” she wrote. “I have had no serious headaches, no blurred vision, no dizziness, no disorientation, etc. since they have taken over. […] I have gotten MUCH better with the proper treatment.”

It hadn’t been all good news, along the way. Nancy revealed something she had been holding back, even from Marvin: that until the recent breakthrough, her condition had been far more serious:

…my spirits were raised when they were able to say with a degree of certainty that I was NOT in the incurable/inoperable and going to die group that I had been told I was in. Apparently my original brain scans had been misread to a certain degree…they are still going to do a follow-up brain scan to confirm that I am ok…

Marvin wrote back, alarmed, asking about the “going to die” group that Nancy had been saved from; it turned out that when Nancy had agreed to move to Newtown the year before, she knew that it could well have been the last Lanza family milestone she would live to see:

My diagnosis was not good. I was going under the premise that I had a limited time left…about enough time to get the boys settled in…at one point I was trying to deal with a time frame of about 12 months.

Definitely a hard thing to deal with, and not something that I wanted to talk about. As it seems to be turning out…because my symptoms got better and disappeared rather than getting worse, a lot of what is going on is a genetically based problem. It showed up recently when they did a series of DNA strands. I am currently being “monitored” and “managed”.

It is kind of like an on/off switch. Right now, it is on “off”. As long as it stays that way, I’m fine. If something happens to turn it on, I’ve got problems. At this point, they don’t really understand how it works or why.

Whatever her mystery brain ailment was, she had seen what it does to a person — the same thing had taken her grandfather: “It was so quick that nothing could be done. Six weeks. His auto-immune system went haywire and attacked his skin and muscles. No way to stop it…no cure.”

The fear that Nancy had, until then, been keeping bottled up inside, now was pouring out. “It is like living on top of a time bomb,” she wrote. “I am carrying the gene for this type of self-destruct. It started up, but then stopped by itself. Right now I am fine and hoping to stay that way.” But she couldn’t let her guard down.

She gave Marvin one request: if she should suddenly die, she wanted him to say a few words at her funeral. “I know how much you will hate that, given the fact that you don’t like to speak in public…but I would get a big smile from it, so I know you will do it! But at this point I feel like I could live to be 100!”

* * *

One day, Nancy called Robert — the man who had built 36 Yogananda. She had discovered that there were some rough patches on the oak floors in her kitchen, where the varnish was uneven, especially in front of the stove. “I snagged a few silk stockings, which is very aggravating AND expensive.”

The contractor that Robert sent over to smooth out the oak floors would surely regret the day he met Nancy Lanza; “I didn’t like the man’s attitude, PLUS he mumbled when he spoke,” Nancy wrote of the encounter. “Believe it or not…when I showed this moron one of the places that was rough…he didn’t even get down and feel it. He just mumbled, ‘I don’t see nothin’ wrong with it, but I’ll go over it if you say so.’ To make a long story short, I told the guy to pack up his tools and get out of my house.”

Robert’s phone was ringing before the mumbler was even out from Nancy’s driveway. Soon enough, Robert was headed up to the pale yellow house himself, floor-sander in tow. He walked into the home he built, felt the surface of the floor in front of the stove, looked at Nancy, and mumbled “I don’t see nothin’ wrong with it.”

She was ready to erupt, until Robert cracked a smile; “He said that knowing how PARTICULAR I am, (do you think that was meant as an insult??) it was best if he did it himself.”

Fall 1999

Sandy Hook Elementary School

For the 1999-2000 school year, classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary were going to be more crowded than ever. A Newtown Bee headline that year, “Concerns About Crowd Control At Sandy Hook School,” ran above a story that focused entirely on the scant resources left at SHES; the paper reported that there were 700 students enrolled that year — more than any of the other elementary schools in the district — and the numbers were expected to increase sharply for years to come. A reporter described the strained conditions at the school: “A part-time speech instructor works out of a cramped office in the language arts room; an occupational therapist works out of a closet-sized room in the gymnasium.” The list of Newtown’s budget-and-population-inflicted compromises went on, and on.

* * *

Nancy deliberated for most of the summer, but ultimately, she decided against moving Adam to St. Rose of Lima’s school. Instead her son would again be in the regular classes at Sandy Hook, for 2nd grade. But there would be one change to the curriculum: after the school day was over, and the other kids went home, Adam would stay behind, and Nancy would make the trip down the hill to the school, to help him 1-on-1 through anything his nervousness had made him miss from the day’s crowded class lessons.

Early in the new school year, Adam’s IEP shows that his occupational therapy was discontinued. He was “still having problems with fine motor skills (e.g., shoe-tying and zipping his jacket)” but was, overall, getting better. Teachers reported that “sensory processing was improving,” and that he was “no longer distracted by tactile input.” It was enough progress to remove the goals for his sensory integration from the education plan — though Adam’s team still wanted to focus on “improving articulation through speech supports.”

In class, Adam seemed to be doing well. He was described as attentive to detail, and “an excellent student.” He was socializing a bit more, too. His teachers wrote that he was “conscientious, quiet, but more talkative since he was grouped with another second grade student.”

In October of 1999, a progress report records Adam to be “a thoughtful friend to peers” with “wonderful thoughts and ideas to share.”

Years later, Adam’s teacher that year would recall him as a somewhat thin, very shy boy who nonetheless seemed to be able to handle the school day. He never got in fights or picked on anyone, and his grades were unremarkable. The woman remembers that Nancy came to all the PTA meetings, and didn’t express any concerns about her son’s experiences in class. “Some kids coming in from first grade need more attention,” the teacher says, “but academically, he was fine. Socially, he got along with the others. I don’t remember him as hostile.” And he didn’t say anything memorable. Hardly surprising, since he barely spoke at all. “There was a quiet depth to him that I couldn’t penetrate.”

In the photo of his second grade class, they are standing side-by-side. Adam is half of his teacher’s height. His smile has smoothed out somewhat, and Nancy has updated his hairstyle to a bowl cut, the same as captured in the photo of him on her nightstand, squinting from a rocky shore.

* * *

One of Adam’s classmates, who lived down the street, invited him to their birthday party. The girl still remembers that day, with all of her class at her house wearing party hats, and how awkward the Lanzas were:

The one thing that I thought was odd was Adam’s mother, Nancy Lanza, stayed for the entire party. Typically, the parents would drop my classmates off at the house and leave. Nancy stayed and helped with the cutting of the cake, etc. [and] stayed with Adam throughout the entire party, which caused me and my other classmates to not interact as much with him because it wasn’t ‘cool.’

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

Some of the trees in Nancy’s garden weren’t taking root. She wanted to try again, planting them at a different spot in the soil, but with all the development going on in Newtown, her favorite landscapers were booked solid. After much searching, she finally managed to track down a contractor — one she hadn’t hired before — and decided to give him a chance.

The way she told it to Marvin, she never saw it coming: the man was older than Nancy (who was about to turn 39) and had worked in the garden all afternoon, right alongside her, chatting about the weather. She was wearing nothing more provocative than a baggy Red Sox tee and jeans; but suddenly, the man changed the topic, and “without getting into disgusting specifics,” Nancy wrote in her email that week, “he has made some inappropriate comments.” Something about older men being generous lovers, and how he was so sick of his own wife before his divorce, he almost wanted her killed. Nancy was at least glad to hear the man’s wife had left him — “we are definitely talking psychopath here!” — and said she told the guy to get lost. He had called a few times since then, but it was nothing she couldn’t handle.

Marvin practically had to remind her that she was married. Why didn’t her husband intervene?

“Peter doesn’t really get involved in the day to day stuff,” Nancy wrote back. “He is very busy at work, and doesn’t like the annoyances of real life.” She described this state of affairs as “unfortunate.”