6. Frontier

Late 1995

Depot Road — Kingston, New Hampshire

Marvin Lafontaine was driving back to Kingston after the work day ended at his job in Boston, and was just a few miles from home when his cell phone rang; it was his wife, asking him if he could pick up their son from a play-date on the way. She gave him directions.

Minutes later, Marvin was making the turn off Depot Road, down a long and shaded dirt driveway, to the house with the wrap-around deck, next to the old Champion farm. As he approached the home, the front door opened — and then Marvin met Nancy Lanza.

Marvin still remembers the way she smiled, as they shook hands: “Right from there it was a friendship. I felt it. She felt it, and we were close friends.” The two got to chatting as he rounded up his son from playing with Nancy’s oldest. Marvin found her easy to talk to. He told her a bit about himself: he was a staff scientist for a company in Boston, but he didn’t want to leave small-town Kingston behind, so he made the long drive back and forth every day. Nancy could relate, and she told him about her years holding down an office job at John Hancock. It wasn’t that long ago, but it was like a different life; she was still getting used to the 24/7-mom role.

They discovered more common ground: both parents had another kid, four years younger. And another child of Marvin’s was “coded” in the state’s special education system, like Adam. Nancy was relieved; finally, she had someone who understood, and with whom she could compare IEP notes, and trade tips on the early-education resources available in the area. Someone she could really talk to.

Marvin listened, and as the months went by, he learned that Nancy liked wine, and film, just like he did. And even though they were both married, he knew there was no use trying to ignore it: Nancy was beautiful.

Lafontaine Home — Kingston, New Hampshire

The Lafontaines were in charge of the town’s boy scout troop: Marvin’s wife managed the administration, and he was the Den Leader. They held the weekly meetings at their house in West Kingston; Marvin’s home had a striking cathedral-style living room with a vaulted ceiling, where the boys would work toward their merit badges, assembling crafts or racing pinewood derby cars. In the backyard, Marvin had set up his own target range. The scouts loved it.

Nancy signed up Ryan to join Marvin’s scout troop, and the Lanzas were a fixture from then on, never skipping a meeting. Marvin noticed that Peter was never with them, which Nancy attributed to her husband’s unbreakable work ethic: he had recently left PaineWebber, to start as a Senior Tax Manager at the accounting firm Ernst & Young, and he was also teaching advanced tax courses at a university in Boston. Marvin would eventually cross paths with Peter a few times — but he got the distinct impression that Nancy was taking care of the boys almost entirely by herself.

* * *

As the months went by, the two friends grew closer still. One day, Nancy let Marvin in on a family secret: she was filing a lawsuit against her former employer, John Hancock Life Insurance. Something about a betrayal, and a troubled pregnancy; sure enough, in May of 1995, Lanza et al v John Hancock Distributors Inc was filed in the Suffolk County Civil Court, with Nancy seeking damages for discrimination. The fact that her father-in-law still worked for John Hancock was apparently no obstacle to Nancy; and, if Peter S. Lanza felt any conflicting loyalties at her suing his longtime employer, that was kept within the family.

Marvin could already tell that anyone who went up against Nancy Lanza in a contest would have their work cut out for them; she was quick, and she seemed to know something about everything. He had to be careful when telling her a story, because she was a smart listener, too: the kind who was constantly bringing up one’s past statements to contradict them. “She has a memory like a steel trap, and she gets you,” Marvin recalls, and though she went about it playfully with him, he could tell that Nancy was an aggressive, capable person under her disarming exterior. “She was pretty. She was attractive and very well spoken, and she didn’t take any crap from anybody.”

* * *

Nancy brought young Adam along with her to the scout meeting one week. Marvin got to meet the shy kid he had heard so much about — the one who, supposedly, didn’t talk. Sure enough, when Marvin said “Hi,” Adam said nothing.

Nancy continued bringing the shy boy to the scout meetings. A few times, Marvin observed Adam making an odd “chit-chat” noise; he thought that was cute, but knew it was also a sign that the boy was continuing to speak in his own, secret language. Nancy had mentioned that. They were trying to get him to come out of his shell, but so far, it just wasn’t working.

Adam wasn’t actually old enough to officially be a scout at first, but Nancy let him orbit around his older brother, tagging along, and Nancy herself was never far away, either. The preschool had told her that Adam was not participating in groups, and Nancy thought that bringing him to the scout meetings would present a safe environment, where he could experience a structured social setting, while still not leaving her sight. As anyone who met them knew, Nancy was always very protective of Adam.

* * *

One day, Nancy took Marvin aside. She had to warn him about something. “I know you wouldn’t do this, but just so you know, don’t touch Adam.

Marvin, familiar with the old stereotype of the creepy scoutmaster, was taken aback. “Well, I wouldn’t touch him.”

“No, no. Not like that.” Nancy explained that even a normal handshake was out of the question when it came to her younger son, just as it was a bad idea go up and pat him on the back, the way any scout leader normally might. “He just can’t stand that.”

Marvin thanked her for the advance warning, and he honored her request, leaving a buffer around Adam — but the other scouts were a different story. They were too young to have any restraint, and they touched Adam anyway. When they found out he didn’t like it, they did it more; every once in awhile, Marvin would hear Adam yell at the other boys, angry and with tears in his eyes as he ran over to Nancy for safety.

But usually, the scouts just worked on crafts, and Marvin and the other adults would circulate around their tables, offering a helping hand. Adam never asked for help, and if any of them approached him to see if he wanted any, he would not respond. He would just stare down at the table. The only exception was with his mom; Marvin would glimpse Nancy whispering something in Adam’s ear as he worked, and kissing him on the top of his head. “He didn’t seem to mind that. He didn’t consider that being touched or mothered.”

November 23, 1996

The two friends started exchanging emails every day, and talking on the phone at least once a week. Marvin mentioned that he was looking for activities that would be fun for the scout meetings, and one day, Nancy had a suggestion: why not call her little brother, Jimmy?

Marvin had never met Jim Champion before — but, like most everyone in Kingston, he knew the name well. After returning from the Green Berets in 1983, Nancy’s kid brother had come back to his small hometown, and taken a job as one of the local police officers. There were never more than two or three officers on the whole force, and so, if you ever had an emergency in Kingston, there was a good chance you were about to meet Officer Champion.

Nancy suggested that her brother — Uncle Jimmy, as her boys always knew him — could bring his various police gear over to Marvin’s for a demonstration at one of the scout meetings. He could tell the boys about life as a cop, and as a soldier.

* * *

It happened the weekend before Thanksgiving. Marvin had his video camera rolling as the police Suburban came down his driveway. Lt. Champion hopped out, mustached and in uniform, exuding masculinity and strength. In the footage, a small den of cub scouts can be seen milling around, excited to take a gander at the inside of a police vehicle. Nancy is there, too, in jeans and a dark jacket, her hair cut to neck-length. She has Adam close by her side; he is still dwarfed by the older boys, and he flinches as they shove past him to crowd around the SUV.

Later in the footage, a K-9 officer removes the leash from a German Shepherd who was pawing at a discarded bottle in Marvin’s driveway. The freed animal runs off into the woods, and the camera swings over to catch the gleam of Uncle Jimmy’s police badge, reflecting from further back in the wilderness as he waves at the boys to follow him.

The boys run after the dog. Adam follows last, wobbly and losing ground. Nancy’s voice shouts from off-screen: “Adam, do your doggie bark!”

He doesn’t make a sound. Nancy swears to someone that he sounds just like a dog when he does it.

Heading off into the woods, Adam slows to a stop. He finally turns away from the informal hunting party, and goes back toward his mother.

* * *

“It wasn’t just the kids that enjoyed it, I was thrilled,” Marvin remembers of James Champion’s visit to his home. And Nancy liked bringing her little brother around. That was another of the things that would linger in the memories of everyone who knew her during her years in her hometown: she loved and admired her baby brother, and especially, she praised his military service. He was a strong, respected, male figure, both within the family and around town. Adam was just four-and-a-half years old as he stumbled through the woods that morning, and like surely many boys in Kingston, he wanted to be just like James Champion. Nancy knew that, and she encouraged it. “She allowed him to believe that yeah, you’re gonna be like your uncle,” Marvin would recall to journalists from the Hartford Courant — adding carefully, “…depending on how he turned out.” That was a caveat that Nancy did not share with Adam then, hopeful for her son and his dreams.

April 1997

Sanborn Regional School District — Kingston, New Hampshire

By the end of preschool, Adam was drifting further off-track in his development. His teachers observed that he was still engaging in several different “repetitive behaviors,” was sensitive to smells — or “sometimes smelled things that weren’t there,” according to his father — and he would not tolerate certain textures, to the degree where Nancy had to cut the tags off of his clothes before he would wear anything. While his articulation had improved, he was still very quiet, and in fact had started relying on a classmate to speak for him. Like his mother always had.

Some teachers would document that they saw Adam “sit and hit his head repeatedly.” But like his expression delays, his repetitive behaviors went unaddressed in his IEP (or at least, there is no record of any change to account for them). Instead, the next time Adam’s plan shows a change, it is when the school district suddenly cancels all of his speech and language services, late in preschool, “due to a perception that his challenges were not impeding his ability to learn.”

His parents didn’t see it that way. Nancy sent a letter to the school district, beginning, “As I stated at the Team Meeting on April 11, 1997, I strongly disagree with the results of Adam’s assessment as well as the decision to release him from the Special Education Program.” Her concerns were that her son’s “speech is below age appropriate level,” despite a “strong ability to mimic most sounds and words.” She cited New Hampshire’s laws on Special Education, and argued that Adam’s “inability to participate puts him at at disadvantage,” which would legally qualify him for state-mandated support.

But at the heart of the issue was a simple scarcity of funds: the federal government would only reimburse the district for a portion of the cost associated with Adam’s “free and public” education, which was mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). When this act originally passed, in 1990, it was with the recommendation that the federal government cover 40% of the program’s cost. But the real federal contribution never came even close to that; to direct what little funding there was, the government relied on the school districts to identify each student’s primary disability, specifically looking at how it impacted their ability to learn. In Adam’s case, the problem had been identified — delayed speech articulation — and by the end of preschool it appeared to have been resolved. It is not surprising that the school district would look to shuffle him out of special education once he passed such a milestone: New Hampshire was not a wealthy state, and so there was certain to be another kid that needed help, waiting in line right after Adam. They couldn’t wait forever.

Years later, the State of Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate would sift through New Hampshire’s records — with the benefit of hindsight on their side, and with a team of doctors supporting them — and they would reach different conclusions. The Child Advocate would determine that the district’s identification of Adam’s (relatively minor) speech problems had actually “masked the fact that expressive language was extremely delayed in his early education years,” and “particularly delayed compared to his ability to understand language.”

Nancy saw it, too: her son, slipping through the cracks. It stirred a change in her. She had already been a mother for four years before Adam came, but it was his arrival in her life, and the challenges they faced together, that gave her new purpose. She would do whatever was necessary to protect him, the most vulnerable of her tribe.