December 16, 2012
Office of the Chief Medical Examiner — Farmington, Connecticut
The door to the morgue opened, and a woman stepped into the cold-room, followed by her husband. She was a technician for the medical examiner — and he was nobody. But when his wife had told him they were doing the autopsy on the Sandy Hook shooter that day, he got her to sneak him in, for a peek at what was on the slab.
She unzipped the black bag, and they saw. Saw how insignificant the creature really was — the almost-man who had created such immeasurable pain.
Later, the post-mortem examination recorded that the subject was a 20-year-old male, six feet tall, and weighing 112 pounds. The medical examiner wrote that to the right-rear of the shooter’s head was an “intraoral gunshot wound with extensive injury to skull and brain.” He listed the manner of death: “Suicide.”
(There was apparently no sign of any “bump to the head,” as Nancy described it — but then, any damaged area could easily have been obliterated by the final gunshot.)
The shooter was dissected, his organs inspected and weighed. But nothing the examiner saw explained why it had happened. He would eventually reach out to geneticists at the University of Connecticut, providing them with biological samples from the shooter’s body, and asking them to look for any “abnormalities or mutations.” Just to be sure. But the scientists found no such easy answers. As far as anyone could tell, the beast was, physically, just a man.
The medical examiner knew what the shooter had been diagnosed with, but he wasn’t buying it; Asperger’s “is simply not on the menu, in terms of what is wrong with this kid,” he told a press conference. And even if the diagnosis had been accurate, there simply was no research showing that Asperger’s made people violent. It wasn’t the answer.
So the question came back, like it always did: Why?
Reporters were all over town by the 16th, searching for the answer to the mystery. The quality of their dispatches improved somewhat after the initial wave, but there were still falsehoods that bubbled to the top; one of the townspeople, who claimed they knew Nancy, told a Fox News reporter that she had been considering a conservatorship for her son, and the reporter ran with the story, unchecked — resulting in a fresh theory for the motive. Maybe the gunman found out she was going to have him committed, and that’s why he did it.
But the “witness” was just making it up, as they later admitted to police. There was never any sign that Nancy was planning anything more for her son than simply moving away with him, out of Newtown.
* * *
A writer for the New York Daily News, Mike Lupica, was at a firing range in Danbury, talking to the owner. The man told him: “The guys from the ATF were here late last night, wanting to see the sign-up sheets for the past two months. Two agents. I gave them all of 2012. The lists were thoroughly scrutinized. That name doesn’t show up.”
A few months later, the man was calling up the ATF, to make a correction; his was the Wooster Mountain Shooting Range, the one out in the woods, and Nancy and her son had both signed in for range time there in February. They had the Bushmaster with them at the time.
* * *
Some testimonials would shine through as genuine. A 20-year-old woman from Newtown, on Twitter, wrote of the shooter, “I used to have play dates with [him]. In his house. In my neighborhood.” She went to Sandy Hook Elementary School with him, and then saw him again, briefly, in high school. “I always saw him walking alone, sitting on his own at a table or on the bus. Most of the time I saw him he was alone.”
Her mother had a Twitter account too, and backed up the story. “We lived 6 houses away. He was troubled for sure for a long time.” She knew Nancy, too, of course. “Such a kind woman.”
There was another neighbor, right next-door to 36 Yogananda. Reporters asked him if he ever heard any signs of domestic disturbance coming from the pale yellow house. “The house is barely 200 feet away, and I never heard anything,” he said. “If something was happening, it was obviously behind closed doors.”
Peter’s sister-in-law Marsha, whom Nancy had been messaging on Facebook the month before, told CNN of the shooter, “He was definitely the challenge of the family in that house. Every family has one… But never in trouble with the law, never in trouble with anything.” She said that Nancy had “battled” with the local school district to get him to graduation. “I’m not 100% certain if it was behavior or learning disabilities, but he was a very, very bright boy. He was smart.”
Police found another young woman who had gone to elementary school with the shooter. She lived on his block, and remembered his “Night Elf” WiFi network showing up on her computer. She told police she could imagine the boy from 36 Yogananda doing what he did “with a smile on his face.”
A few days later, officers returned to her doorstep, to ask if she could clarify what she meant; she told them it “wasn’t based upon any specific reasoning, just instinct.”
* * *
The reporters found Richard Novia, still in town after losing his job at NHS. He was struggling to make sense of the attack, too. But he knew the shooter, and he knew the media were going about it all wrong. “Have you found his best friend? Have you found a friend?,” Novia asked the San Diego Union Tribune, almost taunting them from further down the hunting trail. “You’re not going to. He was a loner.”
He immediately regretted even talking to most of them; he wanted to communicate that the shooter’s shyness and tendency to withdraw was, in fact, not special either. It might be the sign of something deeper under the surface, but it couldn’t be the answer to the mystery, because he had seen so many teenagers just like the shooter: withdrawn, anxious, alienated. He had started the Tech Club just to try and help them. They weren’t killers. But all the media wanted was a simple answer: Why?
Yale Child Study Center — New Haven, Connecticut
A subpoena arrived at the old collegiate school, from the Connecticut State Police. The old file on the 14-year-old boy from 36 Yogananda Street, sitting in a drawer and marked “draft” since early 2007, saw the sunlight once again. Nurse Koenig met with the investigators in person, and told them all about the nervous boy she had met a handful of times, and how she had tried to medicate him… and about his mother. She said there was another doctor that his mother preferred, and remembered that, in general, Nancy was “not receptive to her reasoning.”
Waikato District Health Board — Hamilton, New Zealand
Investigators tracked down the shooter’s “primary psychiatrist.” He was living abroad, in New Zealand, and had been hired as a psychiatrist for a state health and addictions service there, back in July. The investigators reached a secretary at the center, and left their phone number.
A few days later, they got a return call from Dr. Fox. He confirmed that he had heard about the shooting in Sandy Hook, and that he “vaguely recalls treating” the shooter. But most of his records were in storage, back in Connecticut.
“Where in Connecticut?”
He declined to say. He said he’d “have an associate examine his files,” and then get back to them.
Dr. Fox called back on December 18th. He said that “any medical records pertaining to [the shooter] have been destroyed,” since the statutory five years had already passed since his treatment. (This timeframe was accurate, with the exception of the isolated final payment in May 2008.)
The investigators asked him if he simply remembered the patient.
Yes, he responded: the boy was about 15 years of age when he saw him (13-15, actually) and he recalled the boy as having “aggression problems,” and “possibly having been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.” The teen was “very rigid and resistant to engagement.” That was all he remembered.
The investigators didn’t think that Dr. Fox was, in general, a credible witness. When the Child Advocate contacted him, separately from police, in August of 2013, he told them that he “saw Mrs. Lanza 1 or 2 times alone, and saw [her son] approximately 8 times,” but the Advocate had obtained billing records that provided “a picture of a longer and more extensive relationship between the community psychiatrist and [the shooter] than portrayed by this psychiatrist in multiple interviews.”
Meanwhile, police in Connecticut, in the course of investigating the Sandy Hook shooting, started to hear separate rumors about Dr. Fox, and his conduct with his female patients. But they knew that when he surrendered his license, the document he signed admitted “no guilt or wrongdoing” — and anyway, he was well outside of Connecticut’s reach now.
December 17, 2012
AMC Loews Danbury 16 Theatre — Danbury, Connecticut
When Dave arrived at work in the morning, some co-workers approached him. “Did you hear?” Dave didn’t know what they were talking about. “The Sandy Hook shooting,” they said. Yeah, what about it?
They told him: the killer was “DDR guy.”
Dave couldn’t believe it. He went to the break room, and checked his phone. Sure enough, the photo on the news (from the driver’s license that the shooter had been so reluctant to obtain) was the same young man he had changed tokens for so many times. With the same wide-eyed stare.
Homicide detectives came in a few hours later, and talked to every employee. Dave told them what he knew, which wasn’t much; but he remembered that he had seen “DDR guy” with an older male, several times over the summer. He didn’t know the guy’s name, but he seemed like the shooter’s only friend.
December 18, 2012
KWVA Campus Radio — University of Oregon, Eugene
John Zerzan opened Anarchy Radio talking about a firefighter, from the “small rural affluent town of Newtown,” who was reportedly heard saying, “No one in this town could have imagined this.” Zerzan asked: “Why is that? How many times does this have to occur, that nobody could have imagined this? …It’s just always senseless? Meaningless?”
Still, despite his relative lack of surprise at another school shooting having taken place, even the jaded anarchist seemed taken aback by the sheer cruelty of what had happened at Sandy Hook. He was uncharacteristically somber. And there was a note of something else, perhaps resentment; because he couldn’t feign a lack of answers as to where these things came from. He’d been trying to communicate the reasons, to answer “why?” for years. But the culture was as deep in denial as it was in decline. That was why he was so critical of the media, for propping up the illusion: for focusing on the individual, and retreating into unmeaning. “You hear the word senseless over and over, and it’s not quite adequate.”
He didn’t know then that he had spoken to the Sandy Hook shooter himself, just one year before. In 2015, when Zerzan released his book Why Hope?: The Stand Against Civilization, he would write how the young man had called Anarchy Radio from his cave, to share his theory on why the shooters snapped, and how now, looking back, “The bitter irony was that [the shooter] himself snapped.”
Connecticut Forensic Science Laboratory — Meriden, Connecticut
A forensic investigator took the grey Storjet hard drive out of a box, and plugged it into a USB port on their workstation. They created a digital image of everything on the drive, and started cataloging every file.
They saw references on the drive to “Blarvink,” the username reported by the shooter’s father — but also, “Kaynbred.” Nobody had mentioned that one.
There was a folder of “screenshots” from a video game Combat Arms, and Kaynbred was the player featured in them, racking up the kills. They found the image file “kayntdlr”, the same that had been printed out in the basement of 36 Yogananda. They showed it to Peter’s lawyer, who said that his client “denied that the child in the uncaptioned photograph was either son.” (The actual source of the photo, though, remains unexplained. It does not appear that the image existed anywhere online before it was released as part of this case. Of similarly mysterious origin are three other photographs, never released to the public, showing “what appears to be a deceased human covered in what appears to be blood, wrapped in plastic.” These were found in the room full of junk on the second floor, along with Nancy and her son’s NRA certificates.)
They found the spreadsheet, in all its exhaustive detail. There were also gigabytes, oceans of data on the individual shooters: the Columbine 11k, photos of the Westroads Mall shooter aiming his AK-47, an audio clip of the Shangri-La shooter telling police “I had no choice,” a full transcript of everything said about the Scoutmaster at the Cullen Inquiry, and a full copy of the LA Fitness shooter’s online diary, from just before the cops took it offline. It went on, and on, and on.
There were several text files on the drive. One was a “document written showing the prerequisites for mass murder spreadsheet.” Another was a “document written reviewing horror films.” There was the essay on pedophilia, and a typed transcript of an interview with the widow of the 1984 McDonald’s killer. There were even some creative writing pieces, including “a screenplay, presumably by the shooter, in which four male characters have a delusional discussion and ultimately all but one end up being killed,” along with something titled “Lovebound.”
But there was no note left behind about the shooting. No “manifesto,” or anything like that. There often isn’t.
The police brought Peter Lanza a new form to sign: “Consent to Assume Online Identity.” His signature gave them access to the Gmail accounts.
They found correspondence in the mailbox, between the shooter and people he apparently only knew online. Some of them called him “Smiggles,” a name found on several of the text documents on the drive. From there, the FBI found the Columbine forum, in its then-current manifestation, with the surviving posts from “Smiggles” carried over from the old board. Suddenly, the investigation changed.
Unknown Location — United States
A woman’s cell phone rang. It was the FBI. They said they were investigating the school shooting in Newtown. She confirmed she’d heard of the event — everyone in the country had — but what did it have to do with her?
The agents offered to come to her house and explain, and she said okay. She didn’t have to talk to them, but she wanted to help. They showed up, and she listened patiently as they went through their routine about lawyers and what her rights were — and eventually got to the point: they asked her what she knew about “Smiggles.” Then it clicked.
She said that she had spent a great deal of her time online, over the years, and had met a lot of people, but the person the feds were asking about was, without a doubt, “the most fixated and disturbed internet associate she had ever encountered.”
They had corresponded once a month or so, always by email. She never knew his real name, but whoever he was, he was “singularly focused and obsessed with murders and spree killings.” He “devoted almost all of his internet activity to researching and discussing” them. She got the impression he was “extremely intelligent and serious,” but also “depressed and cynical regarding his view of life and people.”
She said she had talked to him about that mindset before, and he described it as “functional depression.” She said that as far as she knew, he had “no effective coping mechanism to deal with his depression,” and seemed to “wallow in it,” and “ride out the low periods by hiding in his room and sleeping for 12 hours or more at a time.” He “seemed to have no friends or people he could turn to for support or assistance and did not appear to have any enjoyment of life.”
They had discussed dying, and suicide. He said he “did not consider death to be a negative. He saw it as an escape from his joyless existence.” As for mass shootings, she said that he saw them as “merely a symptom caused by a broken society,” and framed them as “people striking back.”
She told them about Anarchy Radio, and the shooter’s fixation on the Travis incident. How he believed that the chimp was “probably under great pressure and did not have any ability to express it,” and “having no way to relieve the pressure through expression, the monkey acted out in the only way it could.”
This person — who knew only the shooter’s digital manifestation — it turned out, knew him better than just about anybody. Maybe even better than Nancy. But when this person learned that the entity behind “Smiggles” was the same who pulled the trigger 156 times at Sandy Hook, she said that he was, in words that would likely have mirrored Nancy’s own, “more fucked up than I thought.”
* * *
When the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate finalized their report on the shooter in November of 2014, having read much of the correspondence he had sent to users from the Columbine forum, they would write that, “The emails exchanged between [the shooter] and members of this macabre online community offer a rather breathtaking reflection of a negative micro-society within our midst.”
Meanwhile, on Tumblr, some of the same users the shooter used to interact with, and swap mass-murder memes with, were making memes about him now, oblivious to the fact that he had once been in their fold himself. (In many cases, when they eventually did find out, it seemed to only enhance their fandom.)
Around this time, the police found the shooter’s DDR friend. He told them everything he knew: about the shooter’s worldview, and his obsession with chimpanzees and chimp culture. And they had found the recording of the radio show call, connecting Travis with mass violence; they still didn’t have answers that satisfied the scale of the questions that Sandy Hook left behind. But they knew all they were going to know.
FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit — Quantico, Virginia
The profilers at the FBI had opened up all the boxes that the Connecticut Police had sent from 36 Yogananda, and done their best to put the puzzle pieces together. Their analysis ultimately amounted to seven distinct conclusions:
* The shooter had a complex background featuring many problematic bio-psycho-social issues. Historical, clinical, and contextual factors contributed to the shooter’s extremely rigid and inflexible world view.
* The shooter did not “snap,” but instead engaged in careful, methodical planning and preparation. There is evidence that the shooter began contemplating the attack as early as March of 2011.
* In the weeks and months immediately preceding the attack, the shooter’s deteriorating relationship with his mother was a significant challenge and stressor in his life.
* The shooter was fascinated with past shootings and researched them thoroughly.
* The shooter shared many characteristics and behaviors with other active shooters.
* There is no evidence to suggest that the shooter viewed the attack as [a] “video game” or as a contest.
*There is evidence to suggest that the shooter had an interest in children that could be categorized as pedophilia. There is no evidence that he ever acted out on this interest.
The Office of the Child Advocate would emphasize another of the Behavioral Analysis Unit’s observations: that the feds in Quantico had seen everything, mass murderers and bombers and predators of every stripe, but, “After an exhaustive review of [the Sandy Hook shooter’s] computer usage, the profilers determined that ‘his obsession and attention to detail with mass killing was unprecedented.’”
Kingston, New Hampshire
While the news vans were still swarming around Newtown, a smaller satellite-cluster of reporters was in New Hampshire, looking into the Lanza family’s early life. Channel 9 WMUR News out of Manchester tracked down Marvin LaFontaine — who, despite never having heard the shooter speak, nor having seen him in over a decade, had a surprisingly insightful answer to their inquiry: he said he believed the shooter “was trying [to] come up with an act of revenge that was so awful he would stab every American in the heart.”
December 31, 2012
Peter Lanza began combing through the psychiatric literature, trying to figure out how anyone could reach a point in their lives where they would choose to do what his son did. He probably did not know that his search was leading him down some of the very same paths that his son had followed, sealed away in his black plastic cocoon, hiding from him just a year before; in particular, Peter found himself reading the work of a Dr. Park Dietz — the psychiatrist who had tried to tell everyone that the man who shot Reagan was not insane.
Dietz had coined a term for the shooters, in a journal article published in the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine in 1986: pseudocommando. These were killers who “are preoccupied by firearms and commit their raids after long deliberation, [and after which] may force the police to kill them,” such as the Austin tower sniper from 1966, or the McDonald’s shooter from 1984. And like the man who shot Reagan, the pseudocomandos would “see headlines as one of the predictable outcomes of their behavior, which they pursue in part for this purpose.” Their acts did not occur in a vacuum, even to them. And also like the man who shot Reagan, Dietz continued, mass shooters usually were not truly insane:
Mass, serial and sensational homicides tend to elicit a premature conclusion that the offender must have been mad. The tendency of the press, public and public officials to regard such individuals as mad solely on the basis of their crimes reflects widespread needs to attribute such behavior to alien forces. As with the mythical werewolves and vampires and the demons of the middle ages and of contemporary Pentecostals, the attribution of unacceptable human conduct to possession by madness reassures the believer that people like him are incapable of such evil.
At the time he wrote this, Dr. Dietz was observing the rising wave from 1986, before the Stockton shooter had even purchased his almost-AK-47. “Given the frequency with which the public is bombarded with sensational events of all kinds,” he had continued, “one might wonder how anything remains emotionally arousing. We should be thankful that even as so many of our cultural sensitivities erode, we at least do not experience extinction of our aversion to cruelty…”
* * *
Peter claimed his son’s body from a funeral home, sometime around the end of the year. What became of his son’s earthly remains, or their final destination, was something that Peter Lanza vowed never to tell anyone, for the rest of his days.
Town Hall — Newtown, Connecticut
One week after the shooting, at a vigil held on the old Fairfield Hills campus, First Selectman Pat Llodra caste the attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School as “the desperate act of a confused young man with violence in his heart.” It was about as accurate a summation as any.
Many, many gifts made their way to Newtown in the weeks and months after the tragedy. Communities all over the country, even the world, felt the urge to ease the townspeoples’ pain, and show their support. One of the gifts stood apart. It was brought by nine representatives from the Red Lake Nation, who had driven 1500 miles from Minnesota to bring it to Newtown: a dreamcatcher. The native American object had been dispatched to Columbine in 1999, and then passed on to their tribe in 2005. It had been hanging prominently in the halls of Red Lake High School ever since, an inherited symbol of strength and healing. That tribe had been through the nightmare. Now, the survivors of the 2005 attack could see that Newtown needed it more, and they presented the dreamcatcher to the school board as part of a ceremony, held in the town hall, at Fairfield Hills.
The native woman from Michigan, who originally made the dreamcatcher, didn’t know until Newtown that her gift had ever left Columbine. “It’s one of those memories that will sustain me for a lifetime, and brings me to tears when I look through to the miles that it has traveled and of the sentiment behind it,” she said. Speaking for her tribal organization, she added, “It is our hope that the dreamcatcher will find a final home at Sandy Hook.”