70. Calm

July 23, 2012

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

The door at the top of the stairs was closed.

He got an email, from one of his contacts back at the Columbine forum; any reaction to the Aurora shooting?

He wrote back:

My interest in mass murdered [sic] has been perfunctory for such a long time. The enthusiasm I had back when Virginia Tech happened feels like it’s been gone for a hundred billion years. I don’t care about anything. I’m just done with it all.

The forum itself had been approaching a sort of crossroads when he left back in February, with the discussions stifled by infighting, and the original site owner, Danny, having little interest in policing it. Danny ended up transferring all the data to one of the forum’s longtime users, who moved the forum to a different host. (As an indirect result, if “Smiggles” ever tried to come back, to erase the last of his postings, it might have looked to him like they were already gone.)

Many defectors from the forum were setting up shop at a more modern website, Tumblr — a popular blogging platform built for customization and glossy visuals, and known for its anti-censorship stance. The mass-murderer fandom community there was thriving.

* * *

The GPS unit had not logged any trips in five weeks. But on July 28th, it turned on, and the black Honda left the garage. It drove toward the Danbury theater, like it had on so many trips that preceded marathon DDR sessions earlier that year — but this time, the driver took an exit that was one too early, and then had to turn around and get back on I-84, to get the next one.

When the car finally got to the theater, it didn’t stop. It just did a U-turn, and headed all the way back to the 36 Yogananda, like the driver had changed his mind about leaving the house after all.

He went upstairs and closed the door. The GPS didn’t turn on again for months.

October 2012

Unknown Location — United States

She had been on the Columbine forum for years. Now, she was on Tumblr.

She hadn’t heard from the user known as “Smiggles” in awhile. They didn’t know each other in real life, but they had exchanged emails and PMs regularly over the past two years or so; from this, she was confident that whoever her online acquaintance was, he probably knew more about mass shootings than anyone, anywhere.

Browsing through “school shooter” tags on Tumblr one day, she found an account she had never seen before; this Tumblr user had posted a map of the United States, with red dots marking where attacks had occurred, and made a joke about it looking like an acne outbreak. Whoever it was, they seemed to be drawing on a deep well of information about mass shooters, many of them quite obscure; the user shared a collage of crime-scene photos, showing all the dead shooters sprawled on the floor of whatever school or mall or church they made their last stand in, most of the wounds self-inflicted: there was the Luby’s shooter, the Dawson shooter, Texas tower sniper, Virginia Tech, Columbine… it went on and on. He also posted video montages of shooters (clips he had apparently edited together himself), and their wannabe-basement tapes. Even their username was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Dawson College shooter, from back in 2006. It all seemed so familiar.

* * *

One day, this mysterious Tumblr user started recounting what he said were “nightmares” that he had experienced. In one, he was at school when someone in his class “shoved” him; a teacher responded, but punished him, instead of the bully. So it ended with him storming out of the classroom, “screaming at the teacher.”

In another nightmare, she remembers that he said he “was in school when he saw some kids bullying another kid. The bullies were dumping out the backpack of the victim kid. The victim then took a gun out and started shooting the bullies.” Witnessing this, in the dream, the user started trying to “help the shooter,” by “telling him to watch out for people behind him who would try to stop him.”

In a third nightmare, he said he was in a mall, when a shooting started. He “was in a shoe store and found himself with the shooter,” and started talking to the gunman, “trying to convince the shooter to commit suicide before the police were able to arrest him.”

Finally, the user posted an audio file. It was an .mp3 of “Greg,” calling Anarchy Radio to talk about Travis the Chimp. That was when she put it all together.

She sent the user a message on Tumblr — her old acquaintance had told her months ago that he was done with the whole mass-shooter scene online, so in a way, she was calling him out: Is that you?

He came clean. Yes, it was him.

The user once known as “Smiggles” said that he had tried committing something he called “online suicide” that summer: he had “destroyed the hard drive of his computer and lost all of his virtual identities.” Apparently, what he really wanted was not a permanent break from the internet, but just to push “reset” — or perhaps he really did try to leave entirely, and found he just couldn’t stay away from the portal.

With a vital component of his computer destroyed, she wasn’t sure how her acquaintance was getting online now — maybe his parents had another computer in the house, she figured. Or maybe he just got a new hard drive. She didn’t ask.

She noticed that the Tumblr accounts (there were several, all with the same naming format) were active until at least October of 2012. But then, one day that fall, she logged in and saw that he had deleted everything. And she never heard from the person she knew as “Smiggles” ever again.

October 6, 2012

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

Downstairs, Nancy’s iPhone buzzed. She had installed the Facebook app, and had been reaching out to old friends lately; she had even stumbled across Marvin Lafontaine’s profile earlier that year, and reached out to him — “Just saying hello” — but it seemed he wasn’t online much. It would be months before Marvin saw her message.

She tapped her notifications; it was a message from her old sister-in-law (Peter’s brother’s wife) Marsha — just checking in, and sharing an update on their family. Nancy was happy to hear from her. They always got along.

“I am still in CT and all is well,” Nancy wrote back. Marsha had said something about wanting to move, but holding back until the housing market recovered, and her kids were older. Nancy could sympathize. “I hear you there…no sense selling at a loss! Best to keep stability in the kid’s lives. Moves are so tough at that age…I am still in the same place but getting to the point where I may want a smaller house…”

About her own life, Nancy didn’t go into much detail. “I travel a lot, spend time with friends, work with a couple of charities. Low key life and very happy…. Ryan works in Manhattan.” Her other son was “still at home. Yes, they do grow up too fast.”

Marsha asked where she’d been traveling to.

“A little bit of everywhere… Boston, New York, Maine, Toronto, London, San Francisco, Nantucket, Charlotte, Baltimore…that covers this year.” And Nancy did share one bit of juicy family gossip: “I discovered I have a half sister in Ohio…apparently my father was married previously and actually lived in Ohio…secret life and all. Weird.”

Marsha asked for details, but there weren’t many to share. “Her mother is dead, our father is dead, and my mother won’t say. It’s a mystery. We will never have answers…just have to deal with what is….Story TOO long to text off my little iPhone… But yes, life is funny and strange. Lies people tell and try to live inside those lies….”

* * *

In the study, just to the left after entering the front door at 36 Yogananda, Nancy had a stack of books she had recently picked up: on the top was How to Find Out Anything. It was like a manual for investigating people online — she was probably planning on tracking down more information about her father’s secret family.

Under that book, in the stack, there was a guide on manners. Under that, Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning. That one was special: she had bought two copies.

And finally, upstairs, her bedtime reading: Train Your Brain to Get Happy.

Garner Correctional Institution — Newtown, Connecticut

There was a fire one day at the prison. It wasn’t very big, and the staff were able to put it out quickly, but it was nonetheless a major emergency, for one reason: it took the computer system offline. In the early days, that might not have been a big deal, but the 2006 tech upgrade had been a major one. It remotely controlled all the locks on all the prison’s doors; until the system was back online, everything had to be done manually. And they didn’t have the staffing to sustain that for long.

By 2010, one out of every five prisoners entering Connecticut’s Department of Corrections would need mental health treatment. Garner housed the most serious cases. The violent offenders. But there were more and more of those, and they had high recidivism rates; it seemed there were never enough cells. As one state official put it, “The more mental health beds you put in the prison system, the more mentally ill prisoners you’ll end up with…sure, it’s good that we have a big mental health prison with state-of-the-art services, but it’s also become kind of a magnet.” And while isolating all those prisoners in one place was an efficient use of resources, it also meant that that same place could suddenly become very dangerous, if the system for keeping them contained was offline for very long.

A specialist from the security company flew in from Ohio the day after the fire, and got everything working again. The magnetic door locks clicked back on, and the security monitors came back to life. Emergency over. The town barely felt it; few people even signed up for the text message alerts anymore. “They are a good neighbor, and the institution has not been a problem to the town,” First Selectman Pat Llodra told the News-Times in 2011. “And we wouldn’t want to lose that revenue.”

A previous first selectman, who had been in office during Garner’s rough-and-tumble early years, now agreed. “There have been no more escapes and no more riots… People have come to realize it is well managed, and they feel it’s a lot safer having the prisoners inside rather than roaming the streets.”

Former Campus of Fairfield Hills Hospital

The old mental hospital up the hill was still struggling to find its next phase of existence. The new Town Hall was open, and humming with activity, and the new ball fields where Fairfield House once stood were already well in-use; but the rest of the campus was still mostly dormant. A shell that time left behind.

That fall, the Newtown Bee ran a series of stories it called “Tales from Fairfield Hills,” featuring interviews with staff who worked at the hospital. One of them was Donna, a Registered Nurse who was hired in 1969. She saw everything at Fairfield Hills, working in the geriatric ward and then a detox and alcohol program in the 1970s. In the 1980s, she was assigned to Canaan House, where they put the patients with chronic mental illnesses. “They all made me sad,” she told the Bee. “You gave them what you could, and your time, when you could. But one nurse could be responsible for 90 patients. It was understaffed.”

Donna remembered how her last assignment at Fairfield Hills was in the adolescent unit. “It was a wonderful place, with a wonderful staff. A lot of the young people were there for depression, or because they were trying to hurt themselves.” She retired when the hospital closed in 1995, but she would still run into her old patients around town, all grown up. Usually, they were doing well. They would thank her.

Those were the good stories. The bad ones were the patients who could never get by “in the community” — without Fairfield Hills, society had no place for them. “[Some] became homeless, others turned to crime, or became violent and ended up at Garner Prison.”

Donna still found herself thinking back on how it all happened, whenever she drove past the old asylum, still empty up on the hill. “Why just open or closed?” she reflected, mourning the new era of mental health that never came. “Why did it have to be all or nothing?

October 16, 2012

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

It was around 4:25pm on a Tuesday afternoon, when a truck driver from California began to maneuver his Peterbilt tractor-trailer around the town’s iconic flagpole. He didn’t quite make the arc, and ended up hitting the pole instead.

The base of the pole wasn’t damaged much — the town had installed some steel reinforcements around it after the accident in 1993 — but for the first time since that collision, the pole was hit hard enough to snap the tiny stem at its top, and the decorative gold ball normally perched there, 16 inches in diameter, went sailing off again.

A witness said they saw the golden sphere fly off east, “toward Trinity Church.” But the townspeople searched the area, as well as all around the intersection, up Main Street and down Church Hill Road, and it was nowhere to be found. Some thought it might have landed in the bed of the passing truck, and was now en route to wherever that driver had been headed.

The unofficial caretaker of the flagpole was a retired Newtown Police lieutenant. He resolved to try and track down the golden sphere — or, failing that, figure out where to buy a new one. The town would have to dip into the funds that the Lion’s Club donated every year for the flagpole’s maintenance, but they could bear it. In the meantime, throughout the coming winter, Newtown’s treasured landmark would be incomplete.