29. On Time, On Budget

January 6, 2003

Reed Intermediate School — Newtown, Connecticut

The bridge was ready just in time for the crossing. The school’s bell first sounded on a frigid Monday morning, at 11:00am — ninety minutes late, but only due to mother nature, blanketing Newtown with fresh snow during the night.

The convoy of school buses finally came into view, rolling down Queen Street to Mile Hill Road: passing by the old Fairfield Hills campus, turning at the white wooden sign, and curving around the looping driveway at the new school’s entrance. The lead bus came to a stop at the curb, its door opening with a hiss, and there disembarked a beaming Superintendent Pitkoff, leading the way for the students, and declaring it “one small step for a child, one giant leap for Newtown,” his breath clouding in the afternoon’s freezing air. The Superintendent was wearing a badge on his overcoat that read “ON TIME, ON BUDGET,” and he was carrying a large pair of novelty scissors to cut the ceremonial ribbon over the doorway, officially marking the beginning of the first day of class at Reed Intermediate School.

The ribbon fell, and the students came streaming in, pausing to gawk at the sheer spectacle of their new facility, with its high polished-wood ceilings, rows of elevators, and sleek computer labs. It was a like a whole different world from Sandy Hook Elementary School; the only part that was familiar were the ceramic tiles that each of the students had decorated while at their previous school, now a permanent part of the Reed edifice. And for any kids that got lost in their strange new surroundings, there were twenty parents stationed around the school that first morning, each in a recognizable red shirt, ready to guide them to their new, spotless, classrooms.

As the mass of students rushed past, one of the guides happened to crane his neck to see out the front windows; he was stunned to witness an unprecedented traffic jam, snaking all the way up Mile Hill Road, past the NSSF’s offices, and all the way up to the flagpole. It was the first of many traffic jams that winter; soon, the clog of school buses at the beginning and end of every Reed school day became the scourge of Newtown.

As classes began, and the new routine set in, the students took their first real steps onto the bridge. In practice, Reed provided its mid-step (between the centralized elementary-school, and scattered-classroom middle-school environments) by grouping adjoining classrooms in pairs, and installing movable walls that separated them, to modify the environment around the students. The walls would be in place for focused instruction, and when a larger stage was needed, the classroom could be unified, while an LCD projector descended from the ceiling to display high-definition video.

* * *

One of the first bits of footage shown, two weeks after the school’s grand opening, was an interview with Natalie Babbitt, author of Tuck Everlasting. A teacher from one of the classes back at Sandy Hook had taken video of her students asking the questions they had for the writer, after reading the book, and brought the tape out to Babbitt’s home in Rhode Island over the holiday break. Now, the teacher had brought back Babbitt’s answers.

Asked about some of her book’s philosophical aspects, Babbitt commented that she “wanted people to think about their lives on Earth and how they live them, as well as learn to deal with change, whether it is joyful or sad, but find out what life has to offer.”

One of the kids at Sandy Hook had asked about “The Man in the Yellow Suit.” Babbitt explained that the character was actually a singular exception in her writing: he was based on a real person. Usually, Babbitt just borrowed bits and pieces from real life, but the sinister kidnapper was “the only time I took someone directly from real life and put them in a book.”

* * *

Amid the general upheaval at the new school, and with only half a term together, it appears that the staff at Reed did not get much of an impression of Adam in the fifth grade (surely, his withdrawn personality contributed to this). His homeroom teacher would recall only that he was “a very quiet boy who didn’t stand out from others, as neither an exceptional student nor a behavioral problem.” Adam always completed his work on time, and never disrupted the activities going on around him. His teacher would tell police that she “cannot remember anything that struck her as odd” about her student. She never saw him getting bullied by anyone — that much, she was quite sure of.

Outside of school, there were some notes of concern. A witness close to the Lanza family, in a heavily redacted report, remembers that Adam stated sometime during the fifth grade that he “did not think highly of himself, and believed that everyone else in the world deserved more than he did.”

He was spending more time outdoors, lately. He would go on hiking trips with his mother or father; frequently, they trekked up north to the woods around his old elementary school. This was at Adam’s request — perhaps it was just a leftover compulsion after so many daily commutes to the area (another “ritual”), but his parents noticed that he was still drawn to the area around Sandy Hook Elementary, despite no longer being a student there.

February 7, 2003

Department of Homeland Security — Washington, DC

On a Friday morning, the United States Attorney General announced he had raised the “Threat Condition” on the recently-enacted Homeland Security Advisory System, to status Orange: “HIGH RISK OF TERRORIST ATTACKS.” Worried Americans were told that the increased threat assessment was in response to intelligence reports — all classified — which had ominously suggested that “Al Qaeda leaders have emphasized planning for attacks on apartment buildings, hotels, and other soft or lightly secured targets in the United States.”

Newtown Congregational Church — Newtown, Connecticut

Later that night, in Newtown, the tolling of the church bell filled the valley, and a group of some one hundred townspeople assembled in the old meeting house. Many had lived in Newtown long enough to remember the last time their young, enlisted, men were sent off to war in the Persian Gulf, and several could even attest to the atmosphere in town after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. They had also watched that morning as the Secretary of State presented evidence to the UN on Iraq’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction” program, and were getting a familiar feeling.

In an effort to bring the town together in dark times, the congregation’s Human Services Committee had organized an evening’s “Dialogue On The Possibility Of War,” and invited a number of local academics to share their views about Iraq.

Midway through the evening, one of the speakers, a political science professor from Western Connecticut State University, urged a global perspective, invoking the Space Shuttle Columbia mission that had ended in tragedy in the skies over Texas that same week: “I encourage everyone to picture the world as the crew of Columbia did. We have more in common with each other than we have different.” She urged restraint, and hoped that the US would grant France’s request for a third round of weapons inspections before any use of force. “We must foster future comprehensive world peace. Are we certain that military action at this time will ensure a better world for our children and for the world’s children?”

Another WCSU professor, retired, did not so much disagree, but simply called the debate “irrelevant” to the events about to unfold: “The decision has already been made. We will invade Iraq, we’re just not sure when.”

* * *

Later that week, a newly-formed federal agency made one of its first official announcements; the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created from the ashes of the 9/11 attacks, and its mission was to prevent and defend against all terrorist threats. In this new emergency bulletin, DHS advised every family in America to be prepared in case of a terrorist attack:

To “Shelter-in-Place:”

* Bring your family and pets inside.

* Lock doors, close windows, air vents and fireplace dampers.

* Turn off fans, air conditioning and forced air heating systems.

* Go into an interior room with few windows, if possible.

* Seal all windows, doors and air vents with plastic sheeting and duct tape.

* Be prepared to improvise and use what you have on hand to seal gaps so that you create a barrier between yourself and any contamination.

* Local authorities may not immediately be able to provide information on what is happening and what you should do. However, you should watch TV, listen to the radio or check the Internet often for official news and instructions as they become available.

* * *

The next day, just down the street from their offices on Church Hill Road, a Newtown Bee reporter watched as customers streamed in and out of Newtown Hardware, stocking up on supplies. Duct tape and plastic sheeting were flying off the shelves.

A grandmother from Sandy Hook was picking up two rolls of each, when the reporter asked her what she was feeling. “I just think we should be prepared for the unknown. We know they [Al Qaeda] have what they need to hurt us and they have the motivation, too. I just hope our government will be able to spoil their plans.” Asked what her next destination would be after the hardware store, the woman said she was headed for Castle Hill — one of the high vantage points facing the old crossroads — “where you can look out over Newtown, and the flagpole, and pray.”

Six weeks later, on March 21, 2003, the aerial bombardment of Baghdad began, and the resulting “Shock and Awe” marked the start of America’s second war with Iraq.

May 2, 2003

Headquarters of the Newtown Police Department

That spring, the Newtown Police Commission issued a revised policy on the department’s use-of-force; it included a new “Active Shooter Protocol” — a tactic designed to respond to incidents like Columbine, “in which one or more people are participating in a random or systematic shooting incident, demonstrating their intent to continuously harm others, inflicting death or serious bodily injury on people.”

Active Shooter training had become as ubiquitous to local police departments as lockdown drills already were for high schoolers. While such training certifications had been around since at least the Luby’s shooting, they were rarely sought, until recently. It was Columbine that changed everything — seeing it unfold on television, live, with the heavily armed police inching cautiously toward the school, a sign reading “1 BLEEDING TO DEATH” in the window. After that, everyone could tell that something had to change.

Newtown’s active shooter protocol would be the same standard that most other towns were adopting: upon receiving a “shots fired” call, and arriving on the scene (be it at a school, or a shopping mall, or a workplace, or anywhere else), and finding that the attack is still ongoing, it should be considered an active shooter situation. From there, the protocol was fairly simple: move in and physically engage the shooter as quickly as possible, and shoot to kill. Don’t stop to treat wounded, or to establish a perimeter, and don’t try to negotiate. Just get there, and shoot him.

Police agencies nationwide would train regularly for such scenarios going forward, and so, while the season of the shooter seemed to have died down since 9/11, if it ever came back, places like Newtown would be prepared.

Fall 2003

Reed Intermediate School — Newtown, Connecticut

Reed Intermediate School opened its doors again in the fall of 2003, for the start of its first full school year. Adam returned to the school, moving to its other “house” for the sixth grade, and the second half of the bridge.

September 18 was “Picture Day” for the new sixth graders. Adam pulled an orange Old Navy hoodie over his bowl-cut that morning, and in his portrait, he smiles. He had never looked more normal.

Indeed, though the staff from Adam’s sixth grade year would have a slightly clearer recollection of him than those from his fractured 5th grade year, their accounts all attest to just how unremarkable he seemed: the home-room teacher on his side of the movable partition that year thought that Adam was a perfectly normal kid. He earned A’s and B’s, and always had his homework done on time. He was “reserved in the classroom, never made trouble or distracted others.” When the teacher called on him, he always knew the answer. He was, simply, “a normal child with no oddities.”

The other teacher on the team remembers a boy who was “bright, if reluctant, with good ideas regarding creative writing.” Adam didn’t initiate conversation with the other kids, but he didn’t outright ignore them, either. He was never bullied or teased.

Adam was even in the school band at Reed. He played the saxophone, and his band instructor remembers him just as her colleagues would: “A shy, quiet boy who listened and participated in class.” She remembers that Adam’s demeanor was always “neutral” — in that he “did not show enthusiasm, extreme happiness or extreme sadness.” He was never bullied, and in fact, she swears, he had at least one friend.

The band put on concerts, and though Adam never once volunteered to play, he always attended — and every once in awhile, when the teacher said it was his turn, he would perform. Always without complaint. But there was something the teacher noticed from up on the conductor’s stand, as the children played their songs: the saxophone player, trying his hardest to hide behind the other students and their instruments, disappearing as much as he could.

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

For adults closer to Adam, who saw him outside of school, the signs of a shift in his aspect were more apparent. Peter had noticed that his youngest son — who he always knew was “weird” in his own way — now “began to seem a little different, less happy.” He was noticeably more anxious, and would have “trouble concentrating and seemed easily overloaded.” Any direct attention, especially, brought on an acute state of fear: Adam began avoiding eye contact more, and it was apparent that he didn’t like to be photographed, or seen in pictures. However, he “did not seem to [his father] to be angry or aggressive” during any of these periods, no matter how agitated he became.

Shortly after his 11th birthday, in 2003, Adam’s pediatric records show a new development: his doctor prescribes him an over-the-counter skin ointment, Aquaphor, to treat “excoriated areas on his hands,” attributed to “obsessive washing behavior.” It was a hallmark of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Adam was washing his hands so frequently, it was leaving his flesh raw. The doctor also made note that Adam was engaging in constant shirt-pulling, and other “obsessive compulsive tendencies.” However, the Aquaphor was the extent of the remedies the doctor prescribed; there was no referral to any sort of treatment or counseling to identify any underlying mental disorder.

Under “recreation activities,” the pediatrician wrote that Adam frequently played “DDR” — Dance Dance Revolution. It was a video game, but somewhat more meaningful to the player’s health than that implied; at the time of its release, DDR was unique, unlike anything that grownups would have before associated with “video games.” In the typical DDR setup, the arcade cabinet’s screen is positioned facing a platform on the floor, about the dimensions of a small elevator. Once the player has put in his or her payment, the platform lights up, and the speakers start pumping out Japanese dance music, which the player then must keep up with as they hop from one foot to another along the grid, following the screen’s commands in rhythm with the beat. The whole thing is not unlike a neon-lit, dance-music version of hopscotch. Adam played it constantly, and over time, became very, very good at it.

September 2003

Traders Sporting Goods — San Leandro, California

Tony had just received the worst news he could imagine, a nightmare piece of mail he had been dreading for years: the ATF wanted to inspect his records again.

Everything had been going so well. A friend of the NRA was in the Oval Office, and a municipal lawsuit from San Francisco, which had ensnared Traders and lingered in the courts for almost a decade, was finally settled (and for far less than the anti-gun crowd first sued for). But now, just when he thought he might again be in the clear, Tony saw the existence of Traders in peril all over again.

It was bad. This time, by the time the inspection was over, the ATF would identify at least 1,723 individual firearms that Traders could not account for — and that was just the start of the violations.

The ATF told Tony it was over; this time, he would have to surrender his license for good.

Instead, Tony again sued the ATF, claiming that the supposed violations were “hyper-technical,” and that the effort to take him down was just a sign of how long the federal vendetta against his gun shop had been going on. As before, Traders would stay open while the appeals process ground toward its conclusion, and Tony was prepared to put up a fight. But for the gun industry in the post-D.C. Sniper environment, nothing was certain.

October 2003

Intersection of Washington Blvd and Tresser Blvd — Stamford, Connecticut

Downtown traffic in the city of Stamford suddenly came to a standstill. Motorists got out of their cars to peer down the street at whatever was going on, annoyed at first — but when they saw the source of the hold-up, they started cheering, and pounding their car horns.

There was a monkey — a chimpanzee, actually — gleefully rolling around in the middle of the street, soaking in all the noise. When the police tried to corral the animal, he’d leap up and scamper nimbly along the roofs of the cars that were backed up. It was like a scene out of Benny Hill, playing out in the middle of rush hour. You couldn’t ask for better entertainment.

The police started searching desperately around town for a tranquilizer gun to shoot at the animal, but none could be located. The city was in gridlock, and the diapered beast continued running amok, pausing to slap cops on the behind when they tried to chase him, and hooting and screeching all the way. The authorities even deployed a dish of ice cream and cookies, in an effort to coax the animal back into his owner’s SUV — that would work momentarily, but he wouldn’t stay put. Teams of burly officers threw their shoulders against the SUV’s doors, trying to get it shut, but it was no contest: an adult chimp possesses the strength of five men. When he wanted back out, he got out.

Eventually, after two hours of running amok, the chimp got tired, climbed back in the SUV, and buckled his seat belt. His owners, a local woman and her husband, got in and took him home. The crowd applauded the chimp upon his exit; it was the damnedest thing they ever saw. Meanwhile, Peter Lanza might have been among those late for any appointments that afternoon, but he had a good excuse — it had all unfolded just eight blocks from his apartment.

May 2004

My Place Restaurant — Newtown, Connecticut

It was a great time to be a Red Sox fan, and nobody felt it more than Nancy Lanza; even her email address — [email protected] — was a reference to the last time her favorite team had won the World Series, and she had always wanted to witness them “break the curse.” With her season tickets, of course, she was going to every home game at Fenway Park. But the best place to watch the away games was at her favorite neighborhood bar.

Nancy had been coming to My Place for over six years. She had become a familiar face, known to all the regulars, and many of them had become her friends. She didn’t often go into detail about her private life, but they all knew Peter had moved out.

When rumors of Nancy and Peter’s separation eventually made their way up to Kingston, some of the townies there — including Marvin — wondered if Nancy would be returning to her hometown, to raise her two boys back on the farm, and be closer to her brother Jimmy. But as Nancy told her new friends at My Place, she was staying put; in May of 2004, Peter signed a quit-claim deed to transfer ownership of 36 Yogananda solely into Nancy’s name (the mortgage released from General Electric’s employee bank, over to People’s Bank), at $490,000. The home was Nancy’s, now, and her reason for staying seems to have been the same she had for agreeing to leave Kingston in the first place: she was still betting on Newtown School District as the best place for her boys to grow up.

* * *

Settling in for the long haul, and single again for the first time since graduating from Sanborn High, Nancy began exploring the dating scene around Fairfield County. At the same time, she got in touch with a dress maker in town (who had a boutique just around the corner from NSSF headquarters), and told her she wanted a “complete style makeover.” Nancy ended up spending so much time with the dress maker, the two became friends; Nancy’s day books — one of her boyfriends joked “if something was not in [Nancy’s] day book then it did not happen” — show that she would meet with the dress maker regularly, usually on a weekly basis, for years to come.

One man that met Nancy around this time, and who saw her romantically off-and-on over the next two years, would later tell police detectives that he knew she had two sons, though he never met either one. He remembered that Nancy often spoke of how “intelligent” twelve-year-old Adam was — but that he was also “very distant when it came to his ‘feelings’ and that he needed everything in his life a certain way.”

Peter had visitation rights with the boys, and the estranged couple always honored them without any fuss. One of his family photos from this time shows him with Adam, on a hiking trip somewhere in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire. Adam is seated on a rock formation, and Peter stands next to him, their eyes level, his arm wrapped lovingly around his son’s shoulders. Adam is grinning, appears peaceful, and is making “bunny ears” for the camera, behind his dad’s head.

June 5, 2004

Intersection of Church Hill Road and Main Street — Newtown, Connecticut

An attendant went out to the intersection, and brought Newtown’s flag down to half-mast, where it would remain for a week of mourning: the news had just broke that Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, had died at his home in Bel Aire, California. The assassin’s bullets from twenty years before had officially failed to achieve the gunman’s vision; the president instead passed away from pneumonia, after more than a decade battling Alzheimer’s Disease.

Summer 2004

Reed Intermediate School — Newtown, Connecticut

As the last day of the school year approached, the intermediate school’s Weekly Reed newsletter cautioned parents to be aware of the stress that their sixth-grade child may be under; the first batch of students were about to step across to the other end of the bridge, once again leaving behind familiar teachers and social groups, while at the same time having to focus on final grades. “As adults, we have learned which coping strategies are best to help us handle the stresses of this busy time,” principal Donna Denniston wrote to the parents. “Most kids haven’t yet developed the repertoire of strategies. They may not even be able to identify what is stressing them out.”

* * *

Reed Intermediate School never really got around to normal operations during its first full year (the last that Adam would attend). Superintendent Pitkoff and the rest of the school board were still wrangling with contractors to get the carpets just right, and the wood finish around the school’s entrance changed, and the rest of the grass planted on the soccer field. Even the final report cards were late, arriving weeks into summer break; but when they did arrive, Adam’s academic performance was shown to have been as stable as ever — “A’s and B’s across content areas” — despite his increasingly apparent anxiety and social aversions. And, officially, he had made it across the bridge, to middle school.

* * *

The neighbors down Yogananda Street hosted a Christmas dinner every year. Their daughter remembers the year they invited the Lanza family over; her parents told her to be a nice host to the two boys, and she was familiar with Adam ever since his “hand poem” had caused her to come home crying from the school bus. She had grown accustomed to the family since then; she would say “hi” to the two brothers on the bus, and Ryan would respond in kind — but Adam usually wouldn’t even look her in the eye.

The girl’s mother recalls hearing from her back then, about the younger Lanza boy: “[He] was not connecting with anyone at all. He was not bullied, however, he was just left alone… he never associated with others and when he got on the bus he would sit with his headphones and listen to music.”

In fact, there was only one instance when the girl could remember Adam looking directly at her: he was angry, though she did not know why, and he said that he was going to “bomb” her.

That Christmas, when the two brothers arrived for the party, they just went straight downstairs to the family gaming room, to play the first-person-shooter Halo. Everyone seemed to get along.

The neighbors invited the Lanzas back the following year, and many after that, but the girl never saw Adam in her house again. Once in awhile, though, when she was in her bedroom, she would hear Nancy visiting with her mother downstairs. Mrs. Lanza would talk about men she was dating, or her views on fashion, but more and more, she heard Nancy speaking in hushed tones, about Adam; somehow, she had become convinced that her son was “sick.”