9. Grand Adventure

April 1997

Depot Road — Kingston, New Hampshire

Just as her younger son was about to turn five years old, Nancy brought him to a doctor’s office. She was hoping for a second opinion.

The new doctor reported that Adam had a good sense of humor, was “friendly [and] bright,” and even showed “good social language ability.” However, he also confirmed something the last doctor had said: that the boy displayed “many rituals” in his behavior, such as washing his hands excessively.

When the doctor was done running his tests, he gave Nancy the new diagnosis: her son actually had “Sensory Integration Disorder.” Children with this condition experience input through their senses at heightened levels, making even moderately loud noises, or bright lights, intolerable. This sensitivity leaves them fearful of their environment, and as a result, they can appear hard to engage in conversation, or play.

It sounded like Adam. But even the existence of Sensory Integration Disorder was somewhat controversial in 1997. (It has since drifted further from widespread acceptance; as the Child Advocate would note in 2014, the disorder’s associated symptoms “are [now] thought by many to be secondary to other conditions such as autism, anxiety disorder, or attention-deficit disorder.”)

The clinician who suggested it to Nancy in 1997 was very confident, though. And Nancy herself was sold. Perhaps more importantly, Kingston was willing to go along with it; Adam’s IEP was updated, and “significant” speech and language supports were added back onto his special education plan. It was also recommended that he work with an occupational therapist who was “certified in sensory integration therapy.”

Lahey Clinic — Burlington, MA

Nancy brought Adam to a pediatric neurologist later that month, for a development evaluation. This clinician’s notes record that her son was an “extremely active young child,” who rarely slept through the night. He was “very quiet in groups” during his preschool years, and did not like to be held, kissed, or hugged.

Sanborn Regional School District

A month later, it was the school district’s turn again. They put Nancy’s son through a pair of 100-point tests, separately measuring his “receptive” and “expressive” language abilities: the resulting gap — between how much communication Adam was able to understand, and what he was able to reproduce spontaneously — was measured by a score difference of 42 points. This shortfall was so dramatic that it triggered a clinical concern that “his ability to make his needs known in a variety of settings was extremely limited or delayed.”

Here, the Child Advocate investigators identify a significant missed opportunity: the information from this language evaluation should have been compared with the results of the neurological evaluation from the month before, as the combination would have been “strongly suggestive of autism.” But instead, when Adam’s 1997 IEP was restructured, it was only to focus on his diagnosed Sensory Integration Disorder.

* * *

Records from Adam’s occupational therapy begin with a consultation in the fall of 1997, when he would have started kindergarten. His evaluators were looking out for ways in which his disability may have been preventing him from completing everyday tasks; however, there is no indication that an expert in sensory integration issues was ever involved in this process (a fact which likely indicates that none were available in the area).

The assigned (non-specialist) clinician further noted that Adam “displayed inconsistent eye contact and scattered motor skills,” and that there had been “reports of seizures in early childhood” — though any such reports themselves are missing from the file. The Child Advocate would determine that it was unclear “if the seizures would have been actual epileptic episodes or simply vasovagal (fainting) episodes, or whether they were ever resolved through an in-depth neurological assessment.”

Another gap appears just at the beginning of Adam’s K-12 public schooling: it is not known which kindergarten he attended in Kingston that year — if any. (When Kingston Police Chief Donald Briggs, Jr. was interviewed by Connecticut authorities, he speculated that Adam may have gone to DJ Bakie Elementary, the same school Nancy had attended as a little girl. But he couldn’t be sure.)

Over the course of these meetings with the school district in Kingston, at no point was Adam subjected to a comprehensive evaluation of his educational abilities. The staff only ran specific, diagnostic tests to measure against certain concerns, particularly in his language development. And even outside the school system, in all his visits with doctors in New Hampshire, there was never any comprehensive clinical evaluation performed; once again, medical professionals were only called upon to address isolated concerns, as they arose. Nancy had become very selective about who she would allow to see her fragile, young son.

Kingston, New Hampshire

Once in awhile, Marvin would take the scouts out on trips together, what they called COW — “Cub Overnight Weekends.” Ryan would go, and often that meant Adam would come along.

When Nancy first heard about COW, she blurted “I want to volunteer!”, just like she always did with the weekly meetings. But Marvin had bad news: the overnight weekends were different, a more traditional scouting event. They only accepted male chaperones.

Nancy was stunned, and offended. “What? I can’t believe that. That’s sexist!”

She pleaded her case, but there was nothing Marvin could do. Rules were rules, and the cub scouts were a traditionally male institution. She eventually let it go, but Marvin knew Nancy didn’t like to lose. And she didn’t like to be away from Adam.

During one of the weekend trips, the scouts held a marksmanship competition. Nancy visited that day — strictly as a parent supporting her boys — and Marvin saw her watching closely, as the firearms instructor introduced Adam to a rifle for the first time. The man patiently coached the scouts through some safety drills, and, “It was very, very, very, very detailed that way, very careful,” as Marvin recalls. He remembers that Nancy was impressed with the responsibility on display; She surely remembered how her own father had done the same for her, when she was a little girl on the farm. “She had no fear of guns,” Marvin confirms, speaking with Frontline. “She knew how to use them and she was extremely responsible and safe.”

And so Adam Lanza fired a gun, likely for the first time in his life, at the age of five: a .22 rifle. Nancy brought Adam and his older brother over to Marvin’s regularly after that, on off-days when the other scouts weren’t around, and the boys practiced their aim on the makeshift range in the backyard. Marvin had a .22 they could use, and a high-powered air rifle (the kind commonly used to snuff out snakes and rodents in rural New England). In Marvin’s memories of these days, little Adam rarely even hit his target — let alone the center of it — his shots arcing wide and plunking harmlessly into the sand-pit backstop. “None of the kids could shoot very well,” Marvin explains, and he considered that normal for their age, when even a .22 would feel heavy in their small hands.

The Lanzas also had a .45 pistol at home, and a .223 Ruger Mini-14 “ranch rifle.” Adam grew up around guns, just like his mother had. Just like half of Kingston.

* * *

Adam dressed up for Halloween in 1997. A photo captures him that evening, participating in a “kindergarten costume contest” (as the tabloid New York Daily News would caption the image). The photo’s staging, at one end of an auditorium, suggests that there is a crowd of parents watching from the other side of the camera’s lens. Standing astride his classmates, Adam forces a closed smile, staring at something off to the side, out-of-frame. He is dressed in a costume-military uniform, camouflaged, with a mock “US ARMY” patch on his breast, and a green plastic army helmet strapped onto his head.

Late 1997

Boston, Massachusetts

The Lanzas and the Lafontaines got to know each other, and even went on a few double-dates, in the city. Nancy liked to show off her capacity for remembering trivia — never more so than when discussing wine. She relished the opportunity to school the table on the different vintages and their characteristics. And she liked that Marvin had grown up in France, a culture that loved wine as much as she did.

Marvin noticed that, like Nancy, Peter was smart, and well-read. Good at conversation. He didn’t seem to be much of a drinker, though.

The Lanzas had an update on their lawsuit: John Hancock had offered a settlement, and they had accepted, receiving a substantial a payout for Nancy’s pain and suffering. (Marvin’s memory is hazy, but Nancy characterized the outcome to him as “comfortably well-off, or something like that.”)

The depositions had been ongoing while Adam was in preschool, resulting in Nancy arguing in court that her pregnancy had been difficult, but her son “healthy,” while at the same time exhausting herself in searching for an answer for Adam’s problems. Her life had changed so much since losing her job, Nancy didn’t think she would ever be returning to the workforce. And that was fine. She could sacrifice anything for him.

* * *

Nancy and Marvin went to see the film Titanic when it hit theaters. After the credits rolled, Nancy turned to him and shared her take on the film’s ending, observing that the hero Jack would have survived the shipwreck if his true love, Rose, had just stayed aboard the lifeboat that was offered to her earlier in the film, rather than jumping back onto the sinking ship to stay with him. In the long run, her romantic gesture had cost her true love his life. (The conversation was reminiscent of how Nancy talked about one of her favorite films, Casablanca; she was always toying with the different possible outcomes — if only a few scenes had gone differently.)

* * *

Marvin and Nancy started meeting for dinner alone once a month, in Boston. The talk got serious, sometimes, and Nancy would share some of her most private fears with Marvin: often, they were about Adam’s development. He was so fragile, and she had been trying desperately to figure out what she needed to do to make him stronger. Though there had been moments of hope over the past three years, he remained a timid, almost silent child. Nancy seemed to be getting desperate. “It was hard on her,” Marvin recalls. “I could see it was bringing her down. She didn’t know what to do.”

There had been those rare times, however, when her son actually seemed in harmony with his environment. Usually, it happened outdoors — family would spot him picking up litter, and he liked to climb rocks, once telling a relative that he “wanted to climb every mountain in New Hampshire.” These were mostly solitary activities, though, and his unease around strangers and crowds wasn’t improving. In fact, as far as Marvin could tell, it seemed like Adam was actually getting worse.

Early 1998

Depot Road — Kingston, New Hampshire

One day, Peter had some big news for Nancy. The corporation General Electric had just offered him a lucrative new job: Tax Leader, in charge of some of the company’s most complex transactions and partnerships, areas in which he had worked hard to specialize. The pay would be unbelievable; it was just the sort of opportunity Nancy and Peter had hoped for as newlyweds, back when they placed their bets on him as their breadwinner. Now they had, with little exaggeration, just hit the jackpot.

But the news wasn’t all good: GE’s headquarters were almost 200 miles away, in Stamford, Connecticut. In order to accept the prize, the Lanza family would have to uproot, and leave their life in Kingston behind.

When Nancy told Marvin, he was stunned. He didn’t want her to go. And Nancy confessed that she really didn’t want to leave Kingston, either; by this point, she had already shared concerns with Marvin that her marriage was in trouble. With Peter working all the time, and Nancy consumed with taking care of their disabled son, they had been drifting further and further apart.

Still, the GE salary was not an opportunity to be ignored. For the Lanzas, it would mean financial security, and even luxury. How could they say no?

Soon, the Lanza house, built on the slice of land that used to be part of the Champion homestead, was on the market. Nancy’s family were especially saddened by the news; her mother had given them the land in order to keep the extended family together, and it was no small thing to be walking away from that now. It was going to be a scary transition for Nancy, too. She had never really known a life detached from the farm on Depot Road, and nor had her boys; they would be starting all over, with new friends, a new house, and new schools, the family setting out together into the great unknown.

Ultimately, she decided to do it for Adam. She knew her son needed help, and she felt that the school systems in Connecticut would be better equipped to provide it for him. She researched school districts near Stamford that sounded the most promising for special-needs students, and she also heard that many GE executives were building homes in a town in Fairfield County, called Newtown. It turned out that there was a small public school there, Sandy Hook Elementary, that had excellent ratings. It sounded like just what she was looking for.

* * *

Soon, construction began on what would be the Lanza family’s new home, in Sandy Hook. When it was finished, in the summer of 1998, they packed up their life, and left the old family plot behind — headed south, toward what Nancy called their “grand adventure.”

Later, reflecting on the departure of the family he had grown so close to, Marvin Lafontaine had a realization: that in all the time that he knew Adam Lanza, he never heard the boy speak a single word.