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Evolution of a gunman

Suspect’s life spiraled into conflict and paranoia

At left is Jared Loughner’s 2004 yearbook picture. At left is Jared Loughner’s 2004 yearbook picture.
New York Times / January 16, 2011

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TUCSON — Moments after the swirl of panic, blood, death, and shock, the suspect was face down on the pavement and squirming under the hold of two civilians, his shaved head obscured by a beanie and the hood of his dark sweat shirt.

Deputy Sheriff Thomas Audetat, a former Marine with three tours in Iraq to his credit, dug his knee into the gangly young man’s back and cuffed him.

With the aid of another deputy, he relieved the heroic civilians of their charge and began searching for weapons other than the Glock semiautomatic pistol, secured nearby under a civilian’s foot, that had just fired 31 rounds.

In the left front pocket, two 15-round magazines. In the right front pocket, a black, 4-inch folding knife. “Are there any other weapons on you?’’ Audetat recalled demanding.

“Back right pocket.’’

But the back right pocket contained no weapons. Instead, in a Ziploc bag, the deputy found about $20 in cash, some change, a credit card and, peeking through the plastic as if proffering a calling card, an Arizona driver’s license for Jared Lee Loughner, 22.

Audetat lifted the passive, even relaxed suspect to his feet and led him to the patrol car, where the man twisted himself awkwardly across the back seat, face planted on the floor board. Then he invoked an oddly timed constitutional right. “I plead the Fifth,’’ Loughner said, though the deputy had no intention of questioning him. “I plead the Fifth.’’

At a Pima County Sheriff’s Department substation, Audetat guided Loughner to a tiny interview room with a two-way mirror, directed him to a plastic blue chair and offered him a glass of water. The deputy detected no remorse; nothing.

Now to another building for the mug shot. Look into the camera, the suspect was told. He smiled.

And was his slightly blackened left eye almost winking at the wholesale violence that preceded the camera’s click? The attack on a meet-and-greet event with a congresswoman outside a supermarket; the killing of six people, including the chief federal judge in Arizona and a 9-year-old girl; the wounding of 13, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, shot in the head.

Since the Jan. 8 shooting frenzy, investigators and the news media have spent the week trying to assemble the Jared Loughner jigsaw puzzle in hopes that the pieces will fit, a clear picture will emerge, and the answer to why will be found, providing the faint reassurance of a dark mystery solved.

Instead, the pattern of facts so far presents only a lack of one, a curlicue of contradictory moments open to broad interpretation. Here he is, a talented saxophonist with a prestigious high school jazz band, and there he is, a high school dropout. Here he is, a clean-cut employee for an Eddie Bauer store, and there he is, so unsettling a presence that tellers at a local bank would feel for the alarm button when he walked in.

Those who see premeditation in the acts Loughner is accused of committing can cite, for example, his invocation of his Fifth Amendment rights or the envelope the authorities found in his safe that bore the handwritten words “Giffords,’’ “My assassination,’’ and “I planned ahead’’ — or how he bided his time in the supermarket, even using the men’s room. Those who suspect he is insane, and therefore a step removed from being responsible for his actions, can point to any of his online postings, including:

“If 987,123,478,961,876,341, 234,671,234,098,601,978,618 is the year in B.C.E then the previous year of 987,123,478,961,876,341,234,671,234,098,601,978,618 B.C.E is 987,123,478,961,876,341,234,671,234,098,601,978,619 B.C.E.’’

What the cacophony of facts do suggest is that Loughner is struggling with a profound mental illness (most likely paranoid schizophrenia, many psychiatrists say); that his recent years have been marked by stinging rejection — from his country’s military, his community college, his girlfriends and, perhaps, his father; that he, in turn, rejected American society, including its government, its currency, its language, even its math. Loughner once declared to his professor that the number 6 could be called 18.

As he alienated himself from his small clutch of friends, grew contemptuous of women in positions of power, and became increasingly oblivious to basic social mores, Loughner seemed to develop a dreamy alternate world, where the sky was sometimes orange, the grass sometimes blue, and the Internet’s informational chaos provided refuge.

He became an echo chamber for stray ideas, amplifying, for example, certain grandiose tenets of extremist right-wing groups — including the need for a new money system and the government’s mind-manipulation of the masses through language.

In the last three months, Loughner had a 9mm bullet tattooed on his right shoulder blade and turned increasingly to the Internet to post indecipherable tutorials about the new currency, bemoan the prevalence of illiteracy, and settle scores with the Army and Pima Community College, both of which had shunned him. He also may have felt rejected by the American government in general, and by Giffords in particular, with whom he had a brief — and, to him, unsatisfactory — encounter in 2007.

Nearly four years later, investigators say, Loughner methodically planned another encounter with her. Eight days ago, on a sunny Saturday morning, he took a $14 taxi ride to a meet-your-representative gathering outside a Safeway, they say, and he was armed for slaughter.

Early signs of alienation One spring morning in 2006, a student showed up at Mountain View High School so intoxicated that he had to be taken to Northwest Hospital, 5 miles away. A sheriff’s deputy went to the hospital’s emergency room to question the inebriated 17-year-old student, whose eyes were red from crying.

According to a police report, the teenager explained that he had taken a bottle of vodka from his father’s liquor cabinet around 1:30 that morning and, for the next several hours, drank much of its contents. Why? He was upset that his father had yelled at him, the student, Jared Loughner, said.

In the search for clues to explain the awfulness to come, this moment stands out as the first public breach in the façade of domestic calm in the Loughner home.

His mother, Amy, worked as the manager of one of the area’s parks. Pleasant though reserved, she impressed the parents of her son’s friends as a doting mother who shepherded her only child to his saxophone lessons and concerts and encouraged his dream of one day attending the Juilliard School, the prestigious arts conservatory in New York.

But the father, Randy, was so rarely mentioned by his son that some of Jared’s friends assumed that his parents were divorced. Randy Loughner installed carpets and pool decks, and spent much of his free time restoring old cars. Jared drove a Chevy Nova; his mother, an El Camino.

Some neighbors saw Randy Loughner as private, others as standoffish, even a bit scary. As a member of one neighboring family suggested: If your child’s ball came to rest in the Loughners’ yard, you left it there.

Teased for a while as a Harry Potter look-alike, then adopting a more disheveled look, Jared Loughner seemed to find escape for a while in music, developing a taste for the singular sounds of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. A talented saxophonist, he could show off his own musical chops by sweetly performing such jazz classics as “Summertime.’’

Loughner and a friend, Zane Gutierrez, would shoot guns for practice in the desert; Loughner, Gutierrez recalled, became quite proficient at picking off cans.

But Loughner, a curious teenager who at times could be intellectually intimidating, stood out because of his passionate opinions about government — and his obsession with dreams.

He became intrigued by antigovernment conspiracy theories, including that the Sept. 11 attacks were perpetrated by the government and that the country’s central banking system was enslaving its citizens. His anger would well up at the sight of President George W. Bush, or in discussing what he considered to be the nefarious designs of government.

“I think he feels the people should be able to govern themselves,’’ said Ashley Figueroa, 21, a former girlfriend. “We didn’t need a higher authority.’’

Breanna Castle, 21, another friend from junior and senior high school, agreed. “He was all about less government and less America,’’ she said, adding, “He thought it was full of conspiracies and that the government censored the Internet and banned certain books from being read by us.’’

Not long after he showed up intoxicated at high school, Loughner dropped out. He also dropped out of band. Then, in September 2007, he and a friend were caught with drug paraphernalia.

Something was happening to Jared Loughner. It was clear to his friends, clear to anyone who encountered him.

“He would get so upset about bigger issues, like why do positive and negative magnets have to attract each other,’’ recalled Gutierrez, the friend who joined him in target practice in the desert. “He had the most incredible thoughts, but he could not handle them.’’

After dropping out of high school, Jared Loughner tried to straighten up, friends say. He shed his unkempt image, cut drugs from his life, and indulged only in the occasional beer. He got a job at Eddie Bauer.

“He was damned strait-laced and, I believe, had given up weed,’’ Gutierrez recalled.

Still, things never quite clicked. Loughner seemed to meet rejection at every turn. He tried to enlist in the Army in 2008 but failed its drug test. He held a series of jobs, often briefly: Peter Piper Pizza, but not long enough to make it past the three-month probationary period, an executive said; the Mandarin Grill, where the owner recalled that after less than a month of employment, the teenager simply stopped showing up.

Loughner was informed in his father’s garage that he was suspended from Pima Community College. Not long after, the college sent him a letter saying that he would not be welcomed back until he presented certification from a mental health professional that he was not a threat. That never happened.

Setting out on Saturday At 9:41 last Saturday morning, a 60-year-old cabdriver named John Marino pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store to collect his first fare of the day. Out came his customer, a normal-looking young man. Climbing into the back seat, the man said he needed to go to the Safeway supermarket on Oracle Road, on the Northwest side.

Marino has been driving a taxi for a dozen years. He does not pry for information from his passengers, but if a customer wants to talk, he will talk. He glanced at his rear-view mirror and saw his passenger looking out the window. The passenger was quiet, until he wasn’t.

“Do you always remember everybody you pick up?’’ Marino recalled the man asking.

“Yeah, vaguely,’’ Marino says he answered. “I’ve been doing this a long time. It’s hard to remember everybody.’’

At another point, the passenger blurted out, “I drink too much.’’ To which the cabdriver answered, “Oh, that’s too bad.’’

Then it was back to silence.

Now the cab was delivering its passenger to the Safeway supermarket plaza, where a congresswoman was about to greet constituents. Loughner pulled out the Ziploc bag in which he kept his cash and handed Marino a $20 bill for the $14.25 fare. The driver could not break the bill, so the two men went into the supermarket to get change.

Marino got in line at the customer service desk. He received a few bills for the $20 and handed Loughner a $5 bill — meaning his tip was 75 cents. The cabdriver would later wonder why, considering what was about to happen, his passenger didn’t just let him keep the $20.

Before going their separate ways, Marino recalled, Loughner asked, “Can I shake your hand?’’

Sure.

“And I noticed his hands were really sweaty,’’ recalled the cabdriver who had seen all types. “You know?’’

This article was reported by Jo Becker, Serge F. Kovaleski, Michael Luo, and Dan Barry and written by Barry.

Latest developments

▸Doctors removed Representative Gabrielle Giffords’s breathing tube yesterday and could soon know if she can speak. Giffords had an operation yesterday to replace the tube with a tracheotomy tube in her windpipe. That allows her to breathe better and frees her from a ventilator. She remains in critical condition at University Medical Center in Tucson. “Her recovery continues as planned,’’ the hospital said in a statement. One patient wounded in the attack was discharged yesterday while two others remain in good condition.

▸One of the shooting victims was arrested after he threatened a Tea Party movement leader at a town hall meeting yesterday, police said. James Eric Fuller, who was shot in the knee and the back, objected to something Trent Humphries said during the forum. Fuller, 63, took a picture of Humphries and yelled “you’re dead,’’ police said. Fuller was arrested on disorderly conduct and threat charges, police said.

▸A video shot by the suspected gunman showed the former community college student touring campus at night and at times rambling about free speech and the Constitution. Jared Loughner shot and narrated the video tour of the Pima Community College campus that illustrated his deep anger toward it, at one point saying, “I’m gonna be homeless because of this school.’’ College officials confirmed that the video, discovered on YouTube, was the last straw in their decision Sept. 29 to suspend Loughner from school. In the video, he calls Pima “a genocide school.’’ Panning an empty concourse, he says: “We’re examining the torture of students.’’

SOURCE: Associated Press

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