December 5, 2007
A woman in distress came to the Douglas County Sheriff’s station in Omaha, and told the deputy there that something was going on with her son. She was worried about him. She’d known for awhile that he was depressed, and that morning, she had gone over to her ex-husband’s house (where the 19-year-old was staying), to talk to him about it. But he was gone. And so was her ex-husband’s gun.
The teenager had left behind a a pair of what appeared to be suicide notes: the first was addressed to FAMILY: “I’ve just snapped I can’t take this meaningless existence anymore,” and “P.S. I’m really sorry.” The second note was addressed to FRIENDS: “I’ve been a piece of shit my entire life it seems this is the only option. I know everyone will remember me as some sort of monster,” but “I just want to take a few pieces of shit with me…just think tho, I’m gonna be fuckin famous.”
He didn’t say where he was headed, in either note. They were just goodbyes.
The deputy looked up from the two notes, and asked the boy’s mother what kind of gun it was. She said she didn’t know the name, but it was a black rifle, and “ugly.”
* * *
It was a AKM — another semi-automatic AK-47 model — and at that moment, it was traveling in a car, with her son in the driver’s seat, on the way to Omaha’s Westroads Mall. He didn’t have any kind of special connection to the place, or to the Von Maur department store he chose at the south end of the mall. It was a building full of total strangers.
He took out his phone, and texted his girlfriend. He apologized, and said he was going to have a “standoff.” Then he sent a text to his ex-girlfriend, saying the same thing, and apologizing for breaking up with her. He tucked the ugly black rifle under his black hoodie, and headed into the Von Maur.
The security cameras recorded him getting into the elevator, and going up to the 3rd floor. Then another camera recorded him aiming the rifle as he advanced onto the sales floor, the stock against his cheek, with a 30-round magazine jutting out below — and a second ammo magazine duct-taped to that one, upside-down, “jungle style,” for faster reloading. He started shooting at the staff, and the customers, and then down at the janitor who was cleaning at the bottom of the escalator. Panicked shoppers streamed out into the parking lot, calling 9-1-1, while others cowered in dressing rooms, as the gunfire continued. At one point, the gunman encountered a stuffed teddy bear on one of the Christmas racks, and blasted it. Then, as the sound of police sirens rose from the parking lot outside, he turned the borrowed rifle on himself.
His name and his photo were on the news that night; the deadliest rampage to visit Nebraska in 50 years, hearkening all the way back to the notorious pair of teenage spree-killers that passed through in 1957 (leaving a trail of mayhem that was so shocking it inspired the film Badlands, and later, Natural Born Killers). But times had changed since then, even in the Corn Belt; Rolling Stone would eventually run a profile on the mall shooter, the latest awkward white kid to go off of his antidepressants and turn crazed gunman — a bespectacled “Harry Potter with an AK-47” — but the piece was mostly a commentary on just how routine it had all become: “These days, teenage shooters come and go on TV with such regularity that their sprees hardly seem surprising anymore; on the contrary, it feels almost naive to be shocked.”
December 8, 2007
A message appeared online, commenting on the news from Omaha. “Sounds like one of the Nobodies became a Somebody,” the anonymous person wrote. “Sure he’s still hated by everyone, that is obvious, but at least now he’s a somebody…..and he’s left a world that didn’t give a shit about him to begin with.”
The message was posted to a forum for lapsed members of the Pentecostal church. The person at the keyboard was an unemployed, 24-year-old man who lived at home with his mother, in a suburb of Denver. Most of what he wrote were just lyrics lifted from a Marilyn Manson song, but even if they weren’t his words, he meant them very much; he had been a freshman when Columbine happened, just a few miles down the road. It had made a big impression on him. His family was deeply religious, and didn’t want him exposed to the excesses of modern secular culture, so he was always homeschooled, and really only had to see other kids at church events, or when studying to be a missionary — but despite never having spent a day attending a public school in his life, he somehow identified with the Columbine shooters more than anything in the world.
By this point, he knew that there was something wrong with him. He complained about it on the ex-Pentecostal forum all the time; however, he did not accept that the problem was anything inherent in his nature. He blamed his upbringing, instead:
So many people don’t have any clue about The Nightmare we’ve grown up in. I mean, it’s not my fault I was raised in homeschool for 12 f***ing years and that I’m not able to “socialize normally.” How am I supposed to socialize and make new friends when I’m always left out of everything, and always made to be the outcast? I’m nice, I’m considerate, a lot of people tell me I’m intelligent and kind….so why the f*** must everyone think they have some right to abuse and reject me?
On the evening of December 8, three days after the attack on Westroads Mall, the young man in Arvada navigated to the Usenet group “alt.suicide.holiday.” He started a new topic, typing in the subject: “You Christians brought this on yourself”.
He wrote a few paragraphs… but then stopped. Something still wasn’t right. He wasn’t ready.
He saved the message as a draft, and got up and put on his jacket. On the way out the door, he told his mother he was going out with friends for the night.
* * *
About an hour later, at the Youth With a Mission evangelical school in Denver, there was a knock at the door. The Resident Advisers inside were still cleaning up from the evening’s “culmination banquet,” celebrating the approaching graduation of a new batch of missionaries. They thought maybe one of the students had left their keys in their room. But when the RA’s opened the door, it was someone they didn’t recognize: the 24-year-old from Arvada.
He nervously explained that he was a former student, and just needed a place to stay for the night. The residents weren’t sure it was okay — but it was also a cold Colorado night, so they agreed to let him wait in the hall while they figured it all out.
The young man from Arvada knew the school’s layout well. He wandered upstairs to the trophy case as the RA’s talked, to see the photos of the graduating classes: one of them, from ten years ago, had his older sister in it. A few years later, there was another one that should have had him in it… but he missing.
The path his family had set out for him had ended abruptly, right in the building where he was standing, five years before, at his own culmination banquet. The staff let him be the DJ for the night, and he had decided to play some Marilyn Manson. The program’s administrators, who already believed that his “antisocial” demeanor was going to make him a poor missionary, said it was the last straw. They told him it would be best if they parted ways, and that they were canceling his missions trip. He never really recovered from that.
The RAs came back, saying they had made up their mind, and he had to leave. He took out a handgun and shot them instead. Then he ran off, into the night.
The first police unit arrived on-scene just one minute and four seconds later, but the gunman was already gone. Nobody had recognized him, or saw his license plate. A description of a total stranger, from the survivors, was all they had.
Meanwhile, the shooter drove back home, went to his room — being careful not to wake his mother — and then was on his computer until 3:45am.
* * *
His mother saw him the next morning, as she was leaving for church. He was scraping ice off of his SUV. She noticed that he had changed his clothes: now he was wearing black combat boots, and black cargo pants. But he seemed in good spirits, and even said “happy birthday” to his mother’s church friend who came to pick her up. As the two women drove off, the shooter’s mother glanced back through the window of their home, and saw her son, sitting down to his computer.
* * *
He opened the draft he had started the day before, and at 10:03am, clicked PUBLISH. “I’m coming for EVERYONE soon and I WILL be armed to the @#%$ teeth and I WILL shoot to kill,” the message read, quoting the Columbine shooters. “I’m going out to make a stand for the weak and the defenseless,” it continued, echoing the Virginia Tech shooter. The message ended, “Christian America this is YOUR Columbine.”
He hauled his arsenal out to his car: a Bushmaster XM-15, an AK-47-style rifle, and three handguns, including the one he had used the night before — all of which he had purchased himself, legally, in the last year — and some other items. Then he got on the freeway, and headed south: to the city of Colorado Springs, home of the thriving mega-church New Life — known to some as the “Evangelical Vatican.”
* * *
Meanwhile, the shooter’s cousin called his mother. She answered. She was at another church, in Denver.
The cousin told her that he was very concerned about her son; he had spoken to him on the phone the previous afternoon, and her son said something about being depressed, because, “He doesn’t understand other people, and they don’t understand him.” Whatever was going on, it sounded bad.
She thanked her nephew, and said she would call her son, as soon as the church service was over.
* * *
After a ninety-minute drive, the shooter arrived at New Life. He found a parking spot. He also, likely, saw the police cruiser parked in front of the church; security had been increased after the YWAM gunman got away the night before. So he sat in his car, waiting.
His phone rang. It was his “friend” from his days at YWAM (a girl who barely even considered him an acquaintance, but also knew that he had no real friends, and so tended to exaggerate their closeness.) She had a missed call from him the day before, just a few minutes before she heard about the YWAM shooting. Now she was calling back, to see if he knew anything about it.
They talked for 29 minutes, what amounted to “a philosophical discussion about the craziness of society.” She asked him if he’d heard what had happened at their old school, and he said yes, he had — in fact, he had been “researching kids who do that.” Stuff like Columbine. “It’s crazy… like the Omaha shooting last week,” he said. “I don’t understand what the world’s coming to.” He lingered on how the attacks seemed to come in waves, tying YWAM to Westroads. “I can’t believe it, one after another. I was studying that.”
The former classmate got a sinking feeling. Later, she would tell police, “I realized I was talking to the person who did this.”
She kept him talking, trying to probe for a confession. But the conversation came to a halt suddenly, right around the time when an “Amen” brought services at New Life to a close. As the police cruiser parked out front started up, and drove off, the shooter interrupted his friend, and said that he was “going to go to church.” He hung up, and left his phone behind — along with a note, addressed “to god”, complaining “Jesus, where are you? Do you even care these days?”
* * *
Families coming out of the church saw two huge columns of black smoke rising into the sky, billowing from canisters that were set on the pavement. Suddenly, the shooter came marching through the haze, and opened fire. The worshipers scattered, some to their cars, and some retreating into the sanctuary.
Back in the shooter’s SUV, next to his letter to God, his cell phone was ringing. It was his mother, checking on him.
Inside New Life, the church’s volunteer security guard — a former law enforcement officer — came down the long hallway toward the entrance, trying to find out what all the noise was. She saw the doors open, and the shooter enter on a curtain of black smoke. The guard drew her pistol, and as the crowd in the hallway parted, she shouted, “Drop the gun!”
He stopped, and mumbled something back, inaudible over the commotion. He didn’t obey. The security guard took a breath, and pulled the trigger. “I just said, ‘Holy Spirit, be with me.’ I wasn’t even shaking,” she later said. “I engaged him. I took him down.”
Injured, the shooter drew his pistol, and turned it on himself.
February 14, 2008
Northern Illinois University — Dekalb, Illinois
It was Valentine’s day, and it was snowing outside. A lecture on ocean sedimentology was in session in Cole Hall, when suddenly, a young man stepped onto the stage from the rear entrance. He was dressed in black, with a trenchcoat over a t-shirt that had TERRORIST printed across the front. He had a Glock pistol in his hand — not quite the same Glock model as the Virginia Tech shooter, but as close as he could find — and a shotgun slung across his back.
His classmates at the school knew he had a documented history of mental health issues, but he had worked hard to get his masters from NIU; they thought, or hoped, that he would continue improving and taking his medication after he graduated. But he didn’t. And besides, he had graduated six years ago. These weren’t even his classmates.
He opened fire on the students from the stage with his shotgun, then hopped down into the seating area and turned his Glock on them for a few minutes. Then he went back onto the stage, and turned it on himself.
* * *
The next day, from Washington D.C., a senator representing Illinois released a statement in response to the tragedy at NIU, and the revelation that the “madman” who had carried it out had obtained his guns legally:
We hear about heartbreaking, mindless acts of violence like this day after day, week after week. They come in and out of the headlines, and after awhile, most of the world goes on. But for all the loved ones who are left behind, the pain and the sorrow remain for a very, very long time. Today we offer them our prayers, but we must also offer them our determination to do whatever it takes to eradicate this violence from our streets and our schools; from our neighborhoods and our cities. That is our duty as Americans, and that is our solemn obligation as mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, neighbors and friends.
The Illinois senator’s remarks drew more attention than they might normally have; Barack Obama was in the running for his party’s presidential nomination at the time. He was the community organizer from Chicago — the city that outlawed handguns — and NIU was the first mass shooting that he would respond to publicly.
When asked to summarize his campaign’s position on the 2nd Amendment, he said that he believed in an individual’s right to bear arms, but that it was subject to “common-sense regulation.”