19. Radar

FBI National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime — Quantico, Virginia

After finally tracking the ghost back to his cabin in Montana, the FBI profilers on the UNABOM task force were set to return to their traditional fare: serial killers, and terrorists. But as it turned out, their next mystery attacker was one that struck in Moses Lake that same year, and again in communities across America ever since: the school shooter.

It was an awkward fit for the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC); profiling is usually done in an open criminal case, to help identify a specific individual that already committed a crime. The nation’s schools were clamoring for something bigger than that: they wanted something to watch out for every day. They wanted to know what the next shooter would look like.

Shortly after the FBI profilers got to work on this request, sure enough, they found that coming up with a “shooter profile” would not be an easy task — if it was possible at all. The school shooter phenomenon seemed to have come from nowhere, and their data analysts said it was too new and too rare for them to reach any meaningful statistical conclusions about it. There just wasn’t enough of a sample size. Yet at the same time, just from following the news over the last few years, it seemed to be getting worse; the cycles were coming faster and faster, so quick that the nation could barely register one before the next attack hit, and each time, it increased the pressure on law enforcement to find a solution.

What the NCAVC needed was data. The problem was, unlike the FBI’s typical “bad guys,” teenage shooters generally didn’t have lengthy criminal records or employment histories to comb through. So, the feds went to the schools.

July 1999

Leesburg, Virginia

What came to be known as the “Leesburg symposium” would focus on 18 specific school shootings (including some that were foiled attempts) with the goal to “develop a better understanding of the incident itself, and the shooter, his background, the school, and other social dynamics which may have influenced the crime.” The FBI brought in representatives from all 18 communities where the phenomenon had appeared — from the teachers and principals, to the local police who had investigated the crimes. And at least one of the adults, from each community, was one who had known the shooter personally.

Everyone at the symposium was aware that there was, in fact, something of a “school shooter profile” already out there, drifting around pop culture: the shooters were always a quiet boy with white skin, who wore black clothes, and listened to dark, angry music. They would be outcasts, bullied for years, until they finally snapped and brought a gun to school, for their ultimate act of revenge.

Comparing notes, the attendees in Leesburg found that only the broadest strokes of this portrait reflected reality: the 18 shooters were indeed overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) white, and they were always boys. But with every other trait, they were all over the map. “At this time,” the final report from Leesburg would read, “there is no research that has identified traits and characteristics that can reliably distinguish school shooters from other students. Many students appear to have traits and characteristics similar to those observed in students who were involved in school shootings.”

In other words, whatever it was that made the shooters different from the millions of other white boys in America’s schools, it wasn’t showing up in the demographics. There was, simply, no meaningful or useful profile for a school shooter.

The best that the FBI could do with the data from the Leesburg symposium was provide the schools with a “threat assessment protocol.” This tool couldn’t tell them which student to look at, but if they ever had what they thought was a threat on their radar — if there was “leakage” of a possible plot — the protocol would help them evaluate just how serious the danger was.

The protocol consisted of a list of factors, sorted under the four key aspects of each case: the shooter’s personality, their home life, societal factors, and then the school itself. The more boxes that were checked under the four columns for a given suspect, the more the school should be concerned.

* * *

Shooters tended to be sensitive boys. Many would be “injustice collectors,” keeping a running inventory of all the wrongs they felt they needed to set right. Both traits were strong signs of narcissism, the doctors at Leesburg pointed out. But as the sessions went on, another condition appeared to be even more common a factor: the shooters usually exhibited a number the classic symptoms of depression — “lethargy, physical fatigue, a morose or dark outlook on life, a sense of malaise,” and a “markedly diminished interest in almost all activities that previously occupied and interested him.”

Being adolescents, the shooters all also had an extra subset of depressive symptoms to look for, and these boxes were often checked-off too: shooters would display “unpredictable and uncontrolled outbursts of anger,” or “generalized and excessive hatred toward everyone else, and feelings of hopelessness about the future.” They would also have more difficulty articulating these extreme feelings, compared to an adult. With fewer outlets, the internal pressure would build much faster.

At school, the shooters were not usually “loners,” in the classic sense; many of them had a tight-knit group of friends. What was more significant was that these social circles tended to be “closed groups,” and usually out on the school’s social fringe, where the shooter’s abnormalities may be less noticeable, and where dissent from conformity was valued; no, being a “goth” never made anyone into a school shooter — but the goth clique, by definition, was not going to react as strongly to every mention of violence and death.

One checkbox led to more disagreement at Leesburg than any of the others, and it was the issue spurring debate everywhere in the country: bullying. There were, undeniably, accounts that some of the shooters had been bullied at school, and several had specifically cited revenge for bullying as their motive — but despite this, the FBI did not believe bullying was a significant factor in school shootings. “These students were not disproportionately bullied as compared with their classmates,” a profiler said. “The difference is how student shooters perceive the bullying.”

A psychiatrist from Kansas disagreed sharply: “I think there is an under-emphasis on the effect of bullying on students.” He argued that in all 18 shootings they studied, “the school settings were extremely victimizing,” even encouraging bullying in certain environments, such as in athletics. “Until schools adopt a more accepting and less-restrictive stance in which bullying is discouraged,” he predicted, “school shootings will continue to happen.”

The homes the shooters came from ran the gamut, from foster care to upper-class. Some had experienced abuse — but not significantly more than the non-shooter population. Really, the dynamics in their homes tended to be out-of-balance in more subtle, intangible ways: the student would demand “an inordinate degree of privacy,” and his parents would invariably provide it. Traditional family roles would be reversed; “The child acts as if he were the authority figure, while parents act as if they were the children.” If the school confronted the parents, the parents would react by defending their child, regardless of the evidence. There would be a culture of denial within the home that grew gradually, a course inverted against the child’s emotional decline.

Many of the shooters had internet access, and the recentness of such technological advances could reinforce the family’s upside-down power structure even more; now there was an invisible, uncensored information pipeline into the home that the parents’ generation never had to deal with — and frequently, had no concept of.

Access to guns was, undeniably, a factor — especially if there were guns in the home that were “treated carelessly, without normal safety precautions.” But even in homes where there were no guns, a child could develop an unhealthy fixation on them, one that could go unnoticed; the Heath shooter had stolen all his guns from a neighbor, but he says he was fulfilling a fantasy he’d had since kindergarten: “I remembered a time when I wanted to bring a gun to Show and Tell, and whoever didn’t like it, I was going to shoot them. Of course, I didn’t have access to a gun, so it was not realistic. But I do believe that if I had had the means at the time, I would have gone that far.”

Finally, the symposium looked at modern society: movies and television were indeed more violent than ever before, and bloody video games like DOOM and Mortal Kombat gave still another stream of graphic content for the adolescent male psyche to absorb.

On the other hand, these same video games were also very, very successful, and the market for them was almost exclusively adolescent boys. And yet, school shootings were still quite rare.

But even here, the shooters often took it a step further than other boys, showing “an unusual fascination with movies, TV shows, computer games, music videos or printed material that focus intensively on themes of violence, hatred, control, power, death, and destruction.” Rather than the graphic content itself, the professionals were more concerned with the potential for such media to provide “cultural scripts” — narratives that the boys would absorb and then try to act out in their own lives, like the convergence of A Fistful of Dollars, Rage and Natural Born Killers that the Frontier High School shooter launched out of Classroom 15 in Moses Lake.

But censorship didn’t seem an effective solution, for reasons that would give the symposium attendees even further reason for concern: now the shootings themselves seemed to be evolving into their own, independent, cultural script. Shooters were emulating shooters — so, the cycle could be self-sustaining. The same frightening prospect was invoked by a man who knew the Shangri-La shooter’s father — and had been on the phone with him just minutes before he was attacked. “Killing your parents, going to school and shooting everybody, is an idea we’ve accepted,” he told Rolling Stone. “It’s on the screen. I think there will be many more of these things, and that they’ll get worse. Because the idea is out there. You don’t have to think it up — it’s available, ready-made.”

United States Department of Education — Washington, D.C.

Waiting for “leakage” to appear wasn’t enough for the Department of Education. The federal agency still felt the pressure from the nation’s school districts to do something about school shootings, and not just wait to react. They resolved to go deeper, and find the profile that the FBI must have missed.

But the educators could only do half of the job themselves; they knew schools, not crime. Fortunately, there was another agency, besides the bureau, that had expertise in identifying deranged gunmen. And they wanted to help.

Headquarters of the Secret Service — Washington, D.C.

When the United States Secret Service puts a person under their protection, the work they do falls into two categories: traditional protection (such arranging bodyguards and physical security measures around the protectee), and then “protective intelligence”: an investigative practice that comes from the understanding that keeping the protectee safe is easiest if “persons with the intention and capacity to mount an attack on a protectee are identified and stopped before they come near.”

The agency began focusing more on protective intelligence after a high-profile shooting in Manhattan in December of 1980: the victim was musician John Lennon, killed by a man with a revolver who seemed to believe he was living inside his favorite novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Though not an “assassination” in a political sense, this crime got the Secret Service’s attention because it was an instance of what they called “targeted violence”; the agency was trying to put together a “profile of an assassin” at the time, but they didn’t have enough data. The gunman who shot the Beatles member seemed cut from the same cloth as their prey, and they wondered if studying such non-political slayings could help them catch future assassins.

Three months later, Ronald Reagan was shot, by a young man wearing a John Lennon button. This gunman’s claimed motives, like the Lennon attacker, turned out to be quite bizarre; he was trying to win the affection of a famous Hollywood actress. He did not know the young woman at all, but had become obsessed with the 1976 film Taxi Driver, in which an aspiring political assassin crosses paths with a child prostitute, played by that actress. As the Reagan gunman said into his cassette-tape diary before his attack, the actress was “all I think about really. That, and John Lennon’s death. They were sorta binded together.”

After he shot Reagan, in the gunman’s hotel room, agents found a poem he had written:

Guns are Fun!

See that living legend over there?

With one little squeeze of this trigger

I can put that person at my feet

moaning and groaning and pleading with God.

This gun gives me pornographic power.

If I wish, the president will fall

and the world will look at me in disbelief,

all because I own an inexpensive gun.

Guns are lovable, Guns are fun

Are you lucky enough to own one?

His assassination attempt, it turned out, wasn’t about the president at all. It was about him.

* * *

Completing the “assassin profile” became a top priority for the Secret Service after that. “They gave us a room,” one psychologist on the project remembers, “and put a bunch of cases in front of us. We spent that summer reading the cases and trying to figure out if there was any way to figure out who wanted to kill the president.”

The team was dubbed the Exceptional Case Study Project, and the cases they looked at went as far back as 1949 — but they also reviewed literature on the subject going back hundreds of years. And almost immediately, they noticed something strange: all of the societal elements associated with assassination were present in the eighteenth century — and yet, there were extremely few political assassinations during that time. There were plenty of guns, and wars, and political conflicts, but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century — and then, rather suddenly — that assassinations became a global epidemic. And as the rate of assassinations rose into the 20th century, the assassins themselves also seemed to be changing; increasingly, they were found to be “mentally disordered,” and so were less likely to have some tangible political outcome as the goal of their attack. That made it very difficult to see them coming.

The earliest documentation the Secret Service researchers could find on the psychology of United States assassins was from an article in a 1911 edition of the Journal of the American Institute of Criminology, published ten years after an anarchist shot and killed President McKinley. Arthur MacDonald, a criminal anthropologist and “Specialist in Education as Related to the Abnormal and Weakling Classes” for the U.S. Bureau of Education, wrote of a personality type he had identified as “the Assassin of Rulers”:

The most dangerous criminals are the assassins of rulers. They may be sane, insane, or partially insane, or simply monstrous criminals.

They may be degenerates with certain peculiar traits, as instability, and the continual changing of their occupation and habitation. They are usually vain, irritable, impulsive and mystical, and are easily influenced by surroundings.

They are usually proud of their crime, protest with indignation if called insane, and usually show great courage on the scaffold, clinging to their ideas or delusions until the end.

Their most common characteristic is a want of mental balance or equilibrium, which may take various forms, as exaltation and mysticism. If circumstances be not favorable to its development, it may remain dormant and inoffensive. But if it finds in the events of the day, as wars, revolutions, political dissensions or extreme theories of sects; in publications or books inflaming the mind; if, in short, it finds a soil favorable to its development, it is liable to appear and sometimes culminate in most terrible crimes.

McDonald noted how difficult it would be to identify such persons if they did not reveal themselves, but he proposed several measures that might, as of 1911, decrease the likelihood that they would strike, such as “for newspapers, magazines and authors of books to cease publishing the names of criminals,” theorizing that “this would lessen the hope for glory, renown or notoriety, which is a great incentive to such crimes. […] As far as scientific study is concerned, names of persons are not necessary.”

* * *

The Secret Service never quite found what they were looking for in their assassin research. The agency completed its guide “Preventing Assassination” in 1997, with a threat assessment protocol, and a warning: “Attackers do not fit any single — or several — descriptive or demographic ‘profiles.’” Instead, the assassins came from all sorts of backgrounds, and had all sorts of reasons for doing it. Few were “crazy.” Quite often, the individual chose to become an assassin first, and their actual target last; sometimes, they just went with the closest and most significant victim they could find. Their real target was something more abstract.

* * *

The agency decided to keep the Exceptional Case Studies Project open, as a permanent operation. And these were the assets that, in the summer of 1999, the Department of Education hoped to tap into when they enlisted the Secret Service for their “Safe School Initiative.”

The Secret Service approach would be more in-depth than the one the FBI had adopted in Leesburg. They cast a wider net, making a list of every school shooting they could find — defining one as “any incident where a current student or recent former student attacked someone at his or her school with lethal means,” and where the shooter intentionally chose the school as the location for the attack. With this criteria, they identified a total of 36 attacks, occurring between 1974 and 1999. This number, by itself, brought a realization: that the school shootings were not a brand new phenomenon after all, and that in fact there had been previous waves that passed over the country, going back 25 years. But after each one peaked, there was a calm period, a generation cycling through the schools without experiencing the fear, so that when the next wave came, it seemed like a new phenomenon all over again. Really, it was just the season returning.

Each of the 37 cases was assigned to a review team. They would break down every detail of the given incident, and whenever possible, personally interview the surviving shooter. They wanted to find any warning signs that could have been missed — anything that could help in the ongoing struggle to catch the next shooter before he struck. But it was going to take time.

A year later, a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times tracked down one of the team’s forensic psychiatrists, and asked him if they had solved the mystery yet. “What caused these shootings? I don’t pretend to know, and I don’t know if it’s knowable,” the doctor said. “We’re looking for different pieces of the puzzle, not for whether kids wore black clothes.”