Jared Loughner’s behavior often caught the attention of those around him in the years before he was accused of a mass shooting in Arizona. It took a massacre to raise the question of why no one intervened.
He interrupted class talking about the apocalypse and brainwashing, leaving students and professors fearing for their safety. He convinced a friend to watch movies featuring conspiracy theories about the government’s role in the Sept. 11 attacks, and he spoke of mind control.
Those actions suggested someone who was troubled and increasingly frightening, according to people who spent time with Loughner, 22, and police records documenting complaints against him. They also call attention to the issue of why no one sought a court-ordered mental health evaluation.
“Why didn’t they make sure the mental health system knew about him?” Ira Burnim, legal director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, said of the community college Loughner attended, where complaints were filed.
Authorities are now scrutinizing Loughner’s past for clues about what led to the attack that killed six and wounded 14, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who authorities believe was the target and remains in critical condition after being shot in the head.
Loughner faces federal charges of attempting to assassinate Giffords and murdering U.S. District Judge John Roll. He’s also accused of killing Gabriel Zimmerman, a member of Giffords’ staff, and attempting to murder two other aides, according to a complaint filed on Jan. 9 in Phoenix. Local prosecutors have said they plan to file state charges tied to non-federal employees killed and injured in the attacks.
Loughner left notes behind saying “I planned ahead,” and “my assassination,” along with “die bitch,” an apparent reference to Giffords, on papers later found in the Tucson house where he lived with his parents, according to the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.
At Pima Community College in Tucson, where Loughner attended classes between 2005 to 2010, administrators and instructors last year reported his behavior to campus police, calling him a “dark personality” and “creepy,” and saying he “might become physical,” according to police reports. After a student read a poem in class, Loughner, in an outburst, suggested strapping bombs to babies, according to one report.
There’s no record of his receiving publicly funded mental health treatment or anyone contacting the local mental health hotline about him, said Neal Cash, president of the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, which manages publicly funded behavioral services in Tucson. Cash’s records wouldn’t include Loughner seeking private treatment.
“It’s hard to Monday morning quarterback” whether someone should have forced a mental health evaluation, Cash said, though he added that there’s a lack of awareness in identifying mental illness across the U.S.
“It’s a fundamental flaw: not having an aware or trained community that can recognize the symptoms,” he said.
Paul Schwalbach, a college spokesman, declined to discuss mental health questions about Loughner, citing federal privacy laws.
Under Arizona law, anyone can seek to force a mental health evaluation for those who pose a danger to themselves or others or are acutely disabled and unable to make their own treatment decisions.
Some of those who spent time with Loughner — before his difficulties in college during the past year — said they never suspected violence.
“I couldn’t believe he did this,” said George Osler, whose 22-year-old son, Zachary, was friends with Loughner in high school. “He seemed a little odd. I didn’t see signs of mental illness.”
Zachary and Loughner watched movies and hung out in each other’s houses in their neighborhoods of single-story homes whose yards are adorned with desert trees and cacti.
Osler said his son, who lives with him in Tucson, told him Loughner introduced salvia, a hallucinogenic drug, to Zachary, who didn’t like it. Osler tried to get his son to cut ties with Loughner, he said in an interview at his house.
Loughner talked to Zachary about “getting into your dreams and controlling what you do” and “questioning the reality that we live in,” Osler said. He got him to watch movies alleging U.S. government involvement in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, mind control and dreams.
“He was introducing his same belief system to Zachary,” Osler said.
Osler met Loughner’s parents, Randy and Kim, when they came to his door looking for their son. Zachary told them Loughner had run away and was staying at a motel.
After two years, Osler said Loughner ended the friendship for no apparent reason by sending a text message. Zachary declined through his father to comment for this story.
Loughner attended Mountain View High School, a low-rise building on the outer reaches of Tucson bordered by desert scrubland and patches of housing subdevelopments. He played saxophone in the school band and never showed signs of violence, said Christina Lundeberg, 21, of Phoenix.
“He didn’t seem like a real bad kid, just one of those odd ones, you know?” said Kyle Croft, 24, another band member.
A police report suggests a more serious warning sign. In 2006, Loughner drank so much vodka one morning that he had to be taken from school to the emergency room, according to a sheriff’s report. He told a deputy he drank because he was upset after his father yelled at him.
Loughner dropped out of high school after his junior year and enrolled in an alternative program that’s part of the community college, according to school officials.
In 2007, a sheriff’s deputy pulled him and a friend over. The friend told a deputy that both of them had been smoking marijuana, and Loughner had a marijuana pipe in his pocket, according to a sheriff’s report. A misdemeanor charge involving possession of drug paraphernalia was dismissed after Loughner completed a diversion program for first-time offenders, according to Pima County court records.
By last summer, Loughner was in Ben McGahee’s community college algebra class, and Loughner’s behavior was deteriorating.
He talked about an apocalypse and made comments to McGahee like, “How do I know you’re not trying to brainwash me?” said Angel Amado, 20, a student in the class. When it came time to take tests, Loughner insisted he be given an A because he was paying the bill for school, Amado said.
Loughner regularly smirked and mumbled, said Tim Damron, 19, another student.
“He would say the most random, bizarre things,” Damron said. “He asked the professor’s views on the universe, the apocalypse.”
When McGahee started doing math on the classroom’s white boards, Loughner interrupted with questions like: “How can you deny math instead of accepting it?” McGahee said. Students told the professor that Loughner was red-faced and trembling in class and that they were uncomfortable.
McGahee had Loughner meet with school counselors at least twice, he said. School officials said there was little they could do unless Loughner brought a weapon to class or hurt or threatened another student or himself, the professor said.
“Sometimes I would be very worried just to turn my back totally” to the class while writing something on the board, he said. “I just tried to hurry up and turn so I could eventually see Jared.”
After three weeks, administrators removed Loughner from algebra class, he said. In late September, the college suspended the student and said he could return if he received a mental health clearance saying he wouldn’t harm himself or others, according to a statement from the college.
Those complaints should have prompted mental health services to be alerted, which might have started a process to assess him, said Burnim, of the Bazelon Center.
Throughout it all, Loughner never talked much about politics, those who knew him say.
In 2007, however, he attended a Giffords event that friends said left him upset. They told investigators he asked her: "What does government mean if words have no meaning," according to a law enforcement official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
On the morning of the Giffords shooting, Loughner was pulled over for running a red light by a state wildlife officer. He was given a warning. Authorities didn’t search his car.
Two and a half hours later, Loughner arrived by cab to a strip mall parking lot where the congresswoman was meeting with constituents, authorities said. Witnesses said he walked to the front of a line of people waiting to meet her, pulled out his Glock 9mm pistol and opened fire.
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