74. Darkness

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook , Connecticut

Houses were evacuated all along Yogananda Street, and snipers took up positions atop the homes on either side of the pale yellow house. There was a police checkpoint established at the turn-off for Bresson Farms Road, to keep onlookers at bay — and to watch for any follow-up attacks. They still weren’t quite sure exactly what they were dealing with.

The police found a receipt in the mailbox at the end of the driveway. An oil delivery, earlier that morning.

They peeked through the downstairs windows. One of the living rooms had large mirrors blocking all the views inside. But there was nothing noteworthy to be seen through the other windows. Just furniture.

An officer called the house’s listed number. No answer. He spoke through the answering machine, urging whoever might be inside to pick up the phone. Nothing.

The FBI arrived in their black SUV’s, and then the ATF came up the hill in an RG-12 armored vehicle. They met up outside 36 Yogananda and sized up the situation — the shooting back at the school was over. But the shooter could have wired his place with explosives before he went on his attack, like the Aurora shooter had.

The FBI said they had a robot they could use.

A squad member went over to one of the house’s garage doors, and used a pry-bar to loosen the bottom panel of the door. They carefully slid the robot inside.

* * *

The robot’s camera turned on, transmitting a video signal back to a monitor in the tactical van. They could see there was a silver BMW in the garage, next to some stacked firewood, and a generator off to one side. The other space in the 2-car garage was empty. The robot’s arm raised, and opened the door, into the kitchen.

The downstairs looked clear. Spotless, even, except for some shopping bags, and a purse. The house was totally silent, and still.

The robot went up to the second floor, its conveyor belts rotating on their axis to crest each hardwood-topped step. When it reached the top of the staircase, it turned left, to face the master bedroom.

The door was open. There was a long rifle of some kind, on the floor next to the bed. And under the covers, what looked like a person sleeping. But they weren’t breathing.

In the corner, there were some suitcases, not yet unpacked, next to a bookshelf full of travel guides.

The robot rolled back out of the room.

On the right side of the hall was the open doorway to what was once a guest room. Now it was full of junk — old Red Sox memorabilia, and boxes of dinnerware and books. Someone might have been preparing for a move.

The robot turned back to the hall. It passed a bathroom on the left. Empty.

The robot came to the south end of the hall. There were two doors.

The robot turned to the door on the right, and raised its mechanical claw. The door opened, and the treads slowly revved forward.

Though the probe’s pilot couldn’t have known it, this was very likely the first time an outside observer had breached the environment of this room in years.

The pilot in the truck squinted into the screen. It was very dark inside the room. The windows had heavy blinds over them that completely blocked all sunlight.

The pilot flicked on the robot’s flashlight. Directly in its path, glinting on the carpet, there was a single, unspent .22 round.

The pilot pressed the control stick forward.

In the center of the room was a black desk chair. It was empty, but whoever normally occupied it had spent so much time there that the upholstery had frayed open, where the backs of their knees had rested.

In front of the chair, on the floor, there was a computer tower. The side panel had been removed. The hard drive was taken out.

The probe rolled forward across the carpeted floor, and shined its light around the room. There was hardly anything in there — mostly bare shelves that had been pushed all the way against the walls. But everything seemed positioned with one purpose, directed around the computer monitor in the far corner; there was TV tray there, with mouse and keyboard on it, next to a clean, white hand towel. There were also two empty ceramic cereal bowls, and a half-consumed bottle of water.

To the right of this position, there were two desks placed lengthwise against the west wall, creating a long, nearly-empty desktop. There was a set of headphones resting there within reach, and past that, most of the length of the joined desktops was bare. It looked like someone’s makeshift workbench, scrupulously cleaned after their work was all done. At the far end was another half-empty bottle of water, a set of keys, a small dumbbell, and the hard drive from the computer — pulverized, and then scratched all over. Obliterated.

To the left of the ratty faux-leather throne, against the south wall, there was an old tube-TV with a built-in VHS deck, and some horror movie tapes spread out on the floor, along with some old video game consoles. There was one VHS tape with a handwritten label, filled out in ancient-looking pencil: “Ryan Lanza.”

In the left corner of the room, folded up, there was a Dance Dance Revolution mat.

The robot rolled over to the closet on the inside wall. It was open, and there was a gun safe there, also open. There was a Lee-Enfield .303 rifle set upright inside, but other than that, the safe was empty space, like the bulk of its normal contents had been removed. On top of the safe, positioned facing the computer, there was a white, stuffed, teddy bear.

The robot backed out of the room, and swung its instruments 180 degrees, to the bedroom across the hall.

This door had a dent in it, about knee-height.

Inside, this room was even more barren than the last. And all of the windows had been covered over with black plastic sheeting, the edges taped tightly against the wall. On the ceiling, the air vent had aluminum foil wrapped over it. There was a wardrobe near the door, full of identical changes of clothing: tan cargo pants, black polos, and grey hoodies. There was a bed, neatly made. And there was another old TV, with a VCR under it. But everything else in the room had apparently been crammed into the closet at some point, which was stuffed with books and computer towers and boxes of old video games — and, near the bottom of one stack, an old saxophone case.

There was not a single decoration on any of the walls, in either room.

His initial sweep complete, the bomb technician gave the signal — no traps, no suspects — and the Connecticut State Police, downstairs, swung the battering ram.

* * *

The front door’s deadbolt ripped through the frame, and a column of officers in black body armor came charging across the threshold of the pale yellow house. Simultaneously, another team entered through the garage door.

The rumble of rubber-soled boots came to a rest on the kitchen’s sanded-smooth hardwood floors. The place was spotless, even the dishes in the sink. The sparkling counters were platinum-granite, and there was a matching cutting board. The indicator light on the dishwasher glowed blue: “sanitized and clean.”

An officer checked under the sink. There were some pairs of disposable nitrile gloves in the trash, along with some apple cores, sliced out neatly with a knife.

In the dining room, under one of the side tables, there was a cardboard box. It was full of gun-cleaning patches, little bottles of gun oil, bore brushes, long Q-tips — the elements of proper gun maintenance. But no actual guns. And the supplies didn’t look well cared-for, either, or really like they had been used much at all; this was the “gun kit” of a novice.

The living rooms each had big display shelves, lined with antiques and fine pottery and glassware.

They found an iPhone in the south living room, sitting on an ottoman. It had two unread text messages: one at 10:12 am, from a male contact-name: “Morning QT :)”

The second message came from the same number, at 1:12 pm: “Ok?”

The team crept up the stairs, and paused at the top landing. The officer in point-position looked down the hall to his left, into the master bedroom. He saw the gun on the floor, and the body, in bed. White, middle-aged female, lying face-up. Head wound.

He called out to her. No response.

None of the SWAT officers there were certified paramedics. Someone radioed for one. But they knew the medic would just be going through the motions.

The bomb squad moved into the master bedroom first, to physically search the all nooks and crannies before anyone else entered. They found expensive clothing (much of it custom-made by a tailor in Newtown, judging by the tag) and several sets of fine jewelry, with large gemstones. Lots of shoes in the closet. No bombs.

They gave the signal, and then the tactical team moved in. Stepping around the gun on the floor, they saw it was a .22 Savage Mk II. There was blood on the end of the barrel, burnt and flaking off. There was a round in the chamber. An officer ejected it, and the rifle’s magazine, and set them on the floor nearby.

They checked the female lying in bed. It was obvious that she had been dead for “several hours.” There was a striped green-and-orange bath towel under her head, soaked in blood.

On the nightstand, the plug from the landline phone had been disconnected from the wall jack. On the floor, next to the nightstand, were some black slippers, a self-help book, and a spent .22 casing.

Downstairs, the phone rang. The answering machine picked up. It was someone named Ryan, checking on his mom. He sounded distressed.

The team searched the master bedroom. There were three more .22 shell casings, apparently fired from the same position next to the bed: one lying against a baseboard, one that rolled under the bed, and another that arced behind an ottoman. The cushion of the ottoman lifted up when they tried to move it, revealing a storage compartment; there were copies of divorce papers inside.

In the closet, they found a stack of books on adolescent mental disorders. There were bookmarks for sections on “OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE DISORDER (OCD)” and “DEPRESSIVE DISORDERS.” One section Nancy had marked, about anxiety in children with Asperger’s, noted that they might experience depression, and were “more likely to be irritable, cry, whine a lot, act hopeless and gloomy about the future, and be pessimistic.”

Down the hall, bomb technicians were processing evidence, from the two dark rooms.

In the computer room, just under the desktop where the obliterated hard drive was found, there were two large desk drawers, one on top of the other. In the top drawer, they found four ammunition magazines, loaded with shotguns shells — clips that would fit the Saiga shotgun they found in the car back at the school. Some of them had duct tape wrapped around them, like the AR-15 magazines they found on the floor of Room 10.

They opened the bottom drawer. Inside there was a dark-blue hardbound book: Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. It told the story of the Lancaster community in Nickel Mines, and how they had recovered from what happened at the tiny schoolhouse there in 2006.

The bomb technician carefully extracted the book, and found there were objects underneath: a handful of shotgun shells, some of them split down the middle to expose the pellets inside, with the black powder from the primers scattered in the bottom of the drawer. Apparently, the remnants of someone’s passing interest one day in making an explosive device.

At the very bottom of the drawer, under the specks of gunpowder, there were four pages of white paper: a print-out from a newspaper archive, of the April 9, 1891 edition of the Newburgh Daily Register. The article was entitled “It Might Have Been a Murder.” It recorded the details about a crime that occurred in the town of Newburgh, New York (about an hour’s drive east from Sandy Hook): it involved a 70-year-old man, known around the neighborhood as “very irritable,” who as a result was “the butt of ridicule for children on the street,” and it was known that “when the annoyances occur he assaults or insults the first child or person he sees.” That day in 1891, he had taken a shotgun to the local elementary school, and “fired into the group of boys and girls, none of whom were more than 12 years of age”. The shooter then ran home, where he was soon arrested:

It was fortunate indeed for the old scoundrel that none of the victims were seriously injured, for it would have gone hard with him indeed had it been otherwise. As it was, there was some talk of forming a vigilance gang last night and giving to the gunner a dose of what he had himself attempted — the administration of satisfaction without recourse to law. Wiser counsels prevailed, however, and it was left for the courts to give him what he so justly deserved.

The event was, very likely, and by the metrics of the person who lived in the bedroom, the first school shooting in history.

The team brought in a big cardboard box, and started filling it with everything that had even the potential to be useful in the investigation. So far, it didn’t look like there were any other perpetrators, but they still had no idea why any of it had happened.

They went into the other bedroom, behind the door with the dent in it. On the other side of the door, on the wall, someone had taped a few sheets of paper, as a makeshift patch over the hole in the drywall where the doorknob hit (presumably, a split-second after the kick that dented the outside of the door). The police had just rammed the exterior doors open — not this one. This was existing damage.

The search team at 36 Yogananda checked the drawers in the shooter’s wardrobe cabinet. Inside were stacks and stacks of clean, white, bundled gym socks.

They opened the closet, and found it stuffed with the remnants of an abbreviated, cloistered life: there was sheet music, a shoebox full of Game Boy cartridges, a Jane Goodall book, and some paperback memoirs written by various soldiers. One shelf contained fragments of an abandoned project to start a tech career: books on network protocols, and bits of hardware strewn around; a modem, some ribbon cables. Tucked off in one corner, there was a 160-gig Storjet external hard drive. They added it to the box.

Above, there were some clothes hangers, dangling various garments amid all the clutter. One held a military uniform. Olive green, with gold stars on the epaulets.

In the adjoining bathroom, in the cupboard under the sink, they found a flip-style cell-phone, some pocket change, a package of tissue papers, and an ID badge from the “Newtown Technology Team,” showing a frightened young man with a bowl haircut. Scattered amid the coins, were some tokens from an arcade.

They went back out in the hall, and pulled open the hatch up to the attic. There were a number of boxes up there; in one, they found an old reading journal, with notes inside on some old children’s book, about a man in a yellow suit, selling immortality.

Somewhere in the house — redactions make the location unclear — they found a book “bound in a black plastic spiral binding and covered on the front and back with a clear plastic sheeting,” which featured a drawing on the cover, of a figure holding a cane like it was a gun: the “Big Book of Granny.”

* * *

The medic arrived downstairs, and the SWAT team escorted him up to the master bedroom. Photos from the dresser — a kid on a rocky shore with an oar in his hands, a toddler in a red sweater with trains on it — looked on as the paramedic peeled a layer of plastic off an electrode, applied it to Nancy’s wrist, and pressed the pads of an Automatic External Defibrillator to her chest, in a token attempt to shock her heart back into beating.

Downstairs, the phone rang. The answering machine picked up. Nancy’s voice again — “Hi, you have reached the Lanza residence. Please leave a message, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.” *BEEP* — and then it was a stranger’s voice, sending condolences. “Terribly sorry for everything you’re going through.”

The Lanza name was all over the news by then, and anyone could look up their phone number.

Back upstairs, the paramedics ran another jolt through Nancy’s heart. Then the formality was over; the paramedic pronounced Nancy dead at 2:25pm.

The phone rang again. It was a reporter from CNN, looking for a comment. They left their number.

Outside, the cops crowbarred open the bulkhead doors at the rear of the house, and breached the deadbolted entrance to the basement. The area inside looked like it had once been someone’s bedroom, and most of the documents scattered around had the name “Ryan” on them. But as the officers observed, “It does not appear that someone sleeps in the room on a regular basis.”

Off in the corner, an internet router blinked. There was a color printer on the desk next to it. Someone had printed a photo: “An unknown child and various firearms.” The child looked to be innocently teething on the hammer-end of a pistol. Somewhere nearby that was an article clipped from the New York Times almost five years before, about a shooting at Northern Illinois University.

Officers gathered up everything from the basement that looked to be of evidentiary value, and carried it out of 36 Yogananda in boxes, to be sent off to the FBI’s profilers. As they passed by, the phone near the front door rang again, at 2:39pm, and an unidentified male voice left a message: “Your son deserves to be dead.”