75. Strangers

Times Square — New York City

Ryan Lanza stopped for coffee at Dunkin Donuts on the way to work, and paid with a debit card, his Bank of America account logging the transaction just after 9:00am. As he swiped his purchase, he couldn’t have known that it would soon prove very useful for making his case that he was nowhere near Newtown that morning.

Ernst & Young’s offices were in Times Square. Ryan got to his desk a little after 9:30 am. There was a TV screen on the wall, with CNN on mute. One of the international stories that morning was about an attack at a school in China — someone with a knife, in the Henan province. No fatalities.

Shortly after noon, Ryan looked up from his desk again, and saw something unusual: his hometown on CNN. His old elementary school, filmed from a helicopter, with emergency vehicles all around it. And then, in the scrolling text at the bottom of the screen, he saw his own name — something about a school shooting. All he knew for sure was, they had the wrong guy…


He called home. No answer. He left a message.

A work friend stopped at his desk asked what the hell was going on. Ryan’s reply, as they would tell a Daily Mail reporter: “It was my brother. I think my mother is dead. Oh my God.”

Ryan went into his boss’s office, and said, “I need to go.” He walked out of the building, and boarded a bus back to his apartment in Hoboken.

Thirty minutes later, police stormed Ernst & Young, looking for him.

Ryan’s phone was vibrating non-stop. He opened his Facebook app, and posted a new status: “Fuck you CNN it wasn’t me.” A few minutes later, “IT WASN’T ME I WAS AT WORK IT WASN’T ME.”

One of his Facebook friends commented, “How the fuck do they jump to such a conclusion with zero evidence?” Another friend: “Get yourself a lawyer and sue them.”

Someone from back at work probably messaged Ryan by then, that the cops were there looking for him. He posted another update. “I’m on the bus home now it wasn’t me.”

As it turned out, with the massive level of attention suddenly diverted toward Sandy Hook, and focused on a life about which almost no information was available, the resulting news vacuum sucked up every possible detail: some right, some exaggerated, some flat-out made up. Nancy was a teacher at the school. Peter was dead in Ryan’s apartment. There were two shooters, and Ryan was one of them.

Exactly how the Connecticut State Police managed to misidentify the shooter is still not clear: the gunman’s real name wouldn’t be released by police until after 5:00 pm on the 14th. Until then — and well after — whatever the news outlets were selling, that was what filled the void.

Hoboken, New Jersey

The Hoboken Police Department got a call from a Connecticut State Trooper, who told them about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He said the perpetrator was dead, had been identified as Ryan Lanza, and gave the suspect’s address in Hoboken. They needed to secure the scene there as soon as possible.

The New Jersey police went out to the apartment building, and a sergeant knocked on his door. No answer. They started setting up a perimeter around the building, and distributing photos from Ryan Lanza’s driver’s license record, so they could start canvassing.

The FBI and the bomb squad pulled up. They were just discussing their entry strategy when, suddenly, the police saw the apartment door finally creek open. There was a young woman inside — the girlfriend of Ryan’s roommate — and the cops, very sternly, asked her why she didn’t open the door when they knocked. She said she thought it was a FedEx delivery. They didn’t appear too impressed with that… but they could tell the young woman was very scared. They asked for permission to search the apartment, and she said yes. They came in and looked around. No bombs, no guns. No suspects.

Downstairs, some officers were just taping off the entrance to the building, and telling some painters who were working there to get clear, when another officer shouted, “Let me see your hands! Let me see your hands!”

There, stopped on the sidewalk, with his hands in the air, was the guy who was supposedly dead in Connecticut.

Ryan dropped to his knees, hands on his head as instructed, while officers quickly surrounded him, their guns drawn and pointed right at him. He cried out: “Please don’t kill me! It wasn’t me that killed all those people! You are looking for my brother! It was my brother who murdered everybody! My brother just killed my mom too!” Tears were streaming down his face.

An officer searched him, and put him in handcuffs. He asked Ryan how he knew his mother was dead. He said his dad had just called him, and told him.

General Electric Financial Services — Stamford, Connecticut

Peter had taken his lunch break around noon. Leaving his office, he found that all his work colleagues were crowded around a television; there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “Both my kids went to that school…” he said, mostly to himself. He went back to his office, but found he couldn’t focus on work. The news was just unbelievable. Unreal. Who would do such a thing?

He headed home, to watch the news coverage.

He pulled into his driveway at around 1:30pm in his blue Mini Cooper. He noticed that there was a woman he did not know, standing there on his porch. He pushed a button on his car door, and the window slid down. “Is there something I can do for you?”

The woman explained that she was a reporter for the Stamford Advocate — and she expected that to register with him. But he was still puzzled. So she told him she was covering the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and she had been informed that someone at his address had been linked to it.

Her account of what happened next ran later that afternoon in the Advocate, under the headline “Reporter Broke News to Father of Suspect”:

His expression twisted from patient, to surprise to horror; it was obvious that this moment, shortly after 1:30 p.m. Friday, was the first time he had considered his family could have been involved. He quickly declined to comment, rolled up the window, parked in the right side of the two-car garage and closed the door.

Peter went to his living room, and turned on the television. CNN was saying it was his son, Ryan. And that his ex-wife was dead. From his front lawn, the journalist he had just spoken to saw him sitting at the table in the front of his house, holding a phone to his ear with one hand, with his other palm against his cheek. Peter would tell Andrew Solomon that the first person he called was his wife, who was at work. She answered. “It’s Peter,” he said. And he told her that it wasn’t Ryan. He did think the shooter was his son… but it wasn’t Ryan.

Hoboken Police Department

The FBI brought Ryan to the Police Detective Bureau at the Hoboken station. He was “rambling” in the car on the way there, but was cooperative. In the interrogation room, they took the cuffs off, and he put his phone on the table.

They asked him about his brother.

He said that his brother had been diagnosed with a form of autism in “approximately the 8th grade,” after which he left school and “essentially became a recluse, shutting himself in his bedroom, playing video games all day.” He had no friends, no associates, no girlfriends. He had considered joining the military at one point. Ryan said his little brother “often became frustrated at not being able to express himself,” but he was never violent. He had a “close relationship” with their mother Nancy, because over time, she had become the only person he would talk to.

Ryan’s phone had been blinking on the table, constantly, but went ignored while they talked. However, when the caller ID lit up “DAD,” the FBI agent in the room motioned for the police to let Ryan answer. After a brief conversation, the cops got on the phone; Peter told them he was “outside the Lincoln Tunnel trying to get to Hoboken, sitting in traffic, and just wanted to get to his son, Ryan.” The police called the Port Authority, to go provide Peter an escort.

* * *

At 3:15pm, news coverage of Sandy Hook shifted to the White House, for a statement from the President of the United States. It was a five minute address, delivered from the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room:

…The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own. Among the fallen were also teachers — men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children fulfill their dreams.

So our hearts are broken today — for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost. Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children’s innocence has been torn away from them too early, and there are no words that will ease their pain.

As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago — these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.

This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another. But there are families in Connecticut who cannot do that tonight. And they need all of us right now. In the hard days to come, that community needs us to be at our best as Americans. And I will do everything in my power as President to help.

Because while nothing can fill the space of a lost child or loved one, all of us can extend a hand to those in need — to remind them that we are there for them, that we are praying for them, that the love they felt for those they lost endures not just in their memories but also in ours. May God bless the memory of the victims and, in the words of Scripture, heal the brokenhearted, and bind up their wounds.

* * *

Peter arrived at the police station with his wife. The officers led them down a hallway, to the interrogation room. Father and son tearfully embraced; and amid the surreal events still unfolding, the surviving Lanza family was whole again.

Peter and Ryan answered questions for hours, late into the evening. Peter dug back in his memory, spotty as it was from his years working overtime at GE, and told the investigators that he remembered Nancy had taken their son out of the school system sometime in middle school, when “stresses over papers, classes, pressure from grades and dealing with his disease” became too much. But his son “never completely accepted that he had a disease, and therefore never took any of his medication he was prescribed.”

The FBI asked if he ever heard about his son getting in fights, or hurting animals. Any history of violence at all. Peter said no.

They asked if he had any social networking accounts. None that he knew of, Peter said, but he noted his son did use the Gmail account “Blarvink.” He didn’t know if he used it anymore, though; he had been e-mailing him every few months for the better part of two years, with no response at all.

Around 8:30pm, the police told the Lanza family that they could go. Ryan and Peter signed forms granting permission to search their residences, and agreed to answer more questions in the coming days. But it was already evident that they were nearly as baffled as everybody else. It seemed the only person who ever really knew Nancy’s youngest son was Nancy herself. And she was gone.

A crowd of reporters had amassed outside the police station. Peter gave an officer his keys, and the Mini Cooper rolled up outside the back exit. The media fell for it, and ran around to the back of the building, while FBI agents escorted the family out the front entrance, into an unmarked car. The two vehicles met up at a gas station in Weehawken, and the Lanzas got in the Mini Cooper, and they drove off to Connecticut to stay in a series of safe houses, with a police canine unit keeping guard over them until everything was sorted out.

The next day, Peter Lanza released a public statement.

Our hearts go out to the families and friends who lost loved ones and to all those who were injured. Our family is grieving along with all those who have been affected by this enormous tragedy. No words can truly express how heartbroken we are. We are in a state of disbelief and trying to find whatever answers we can. We too are asking why. We have cooperated fully with law enforcement and will continue to do so. Like so many of you, we are saddened, but struggling to make sense of what has transpired.

On the 17th, Peter met with ATF and police investigators at the office of his personal attorney. One of the ATF agents asked if he knew where his son had acquired all the ammunition he used, and Peter said he didn’t. He knew Nancy was purchasing firearms in early 2010; his son had stopped responding to his emails not long after.

The officer had him sign a written statement, and then, as the officer would write in his report, “I asked Peter Lanza to help us understand more about his son, and what would cause him to carry out such a horrific event.”

Peter said his son had Asperger’s, “but that he clearly had some other medical condition in order to carry out the events at Sandy Hook.” He didn’t know what it was. He told them he had a box in his attic at home, full of records related to his son’s care. They were welcome to it, and anything else that would be helpful.

* * *

Not long after, as he would tell Andrew Solomon, Peter had the worst dream of his life. There was a figure in a doorway, shaking, and emanating “the worst possible evilness.” He realized who it was: his son, alive again. His fearful exterior had been replaced with rage, transforming him completely; it was as if Peter had encountered his son’s damned soul in a nightmare, unrecognizable without its shell.