Friends, teachers tell of alleged gunman’s downward spiral

Arizona shootings: Suspected killer often caused disruptions

January 14, 2011 

He played late-night marathon games of Monopoly with his buddies. He went with friends on family vacations. He would hang with pals at IHOP on Fridays. He had a girlfriend. He laughed and he loved and he knew things – about jazz, cars, fantasy games.

And then Jared Loughner slipped into a world of fantasy that was no online game. Slowly but steadily, his intelligence warped into a distorted, disconnected series of obsessions. He developed an illogical fascination with logic. Math, grammar, logic – the systems civilization has developed to make sense of the world – became the means through which he expressed the confusion and pain in his increasingly lost mind.

A picture of Loughner gleaned from interviews with more than two dozen friends, classmates, teachers and neighbors, as well as from his own writing in online forums, shows no evidence that politics or government were among his defining or enduring obsessions. Rather, his deepest, most disturbing questions were about the very nature of reality: He appeared to have lost any clear sense of the line between real life and dreams or fantasy.

And somewhere in that netherworld, between his dissolving sense of reality and the brutal truth of a sunny Saturday morning outside a Tucson supermarket, Loughner, according to police and a federal indictment, somehow latched onto his congresswoman, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. In Loughner’s mind, she became a symbol of the system that he blamed for turning a bright, seemingly functional child into a frustrated, lonely, angry and frightening young man.

Loughner’s father, Randy, a bachelor who loved to work on cars, moved into the ranch house on North Soledad Street in a working-class section of Tucson in 1977.

Randy was no career man; he worked jobs here and there, laying carpet, installing pool decks. In later years, he stayed home and worked on his show cars. He kept mainly to himself, neighbors say, and when he did interact with others, the results were often bad: He had tiffs about incursions onto his property; he yelled at people. Before long, some neighbors were telling their children to steer clear of the Loughner place.

In 1986, Loughner married Amy Totman, a quiet sort, but someone others found more pleasant and approachable than her husband. Amy worked for the Pima County parks department, taking care of plants and doing maintenance, and most recently as a $25.70-an-hour park manager.

According to her first cousin Judy Wackt, some members of the extended family have had mental illness. “There’s a history in the family of what they used to call manic depression, which I guess they now call bipolar disorder,” said Wackt, who lives in Texas.

Two years after they got married, the Loughners had a son, Jared, their only child.

From his elementary years through middle school, Jared Loughner lived a life that his friends saw as little different from their own. There was something awkward about him, and he was teased more than most, but he had friends and they were often among the smarter kids in his grade.

Mick Burton, a friend who played with Loughner in the Tortolita Middle School band and on the basketball team, recalled that he “sort of got picked on a little bit. He had a sort of bowl cut of curly hair. He wore glasses. I just remember people on the basketball team calling him Harry Potter.”

Nasser Rey, 21, a friend from elementary and middle school, remembered Loughner as quiet and not popular in high school, but not a recluse either. They would work on assignments together and hang out, talking about hip-hop songs. “We would get into conversations about regular stuff,” Rey said. “He was a normal dude.”

In those years, Loughner’s music was at the center of his life. “His parents spent thousands on musical instruments for him,” said Alex Montanaro, one of Loughner’s best friends from seventh through 10th grades.

Loughner started on the saxophone around the fifth grade. By late middle school, he was a serious jazz buff, keeping lots of John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker on his iPod.

Friends say Loughner’s sophomore year was a whirlwind of change. He left behind his passion of the past few years – he stopped playing sax. He found a new love – his first real girlfriend. He lost that love, changed his look, switched friends, discovered new interests and seemed to drift off into a world of ideas that friends found odd, irrational, disturbing.

What Montanaro calls Loughner’s “mental downfall” seemed to start after his breakup with the girlfriend. Until that relationship blossomed, Loughner “actually had many friends,” Montanaro said.

“Jared really became an outcast,” he said. “We allowed him around us for a while, but he started acting nutty. His friends changed from people like us to more drug-oriented people.”

That fall, Pima County police were called to Mountain View High School after Loughner reported that a student had stuck him with a needle crafted from a pen. According to a police report, Loughner said he became pale and dizzy after the pen prick, but he declined to press charges.

In the spring of his junior year, police were called to school again when Loughner showed up “extremely intoxicated” after drinking about a third of a bottle of vodka. “He drank the alcohol because he was very upset as his father yelled at him,” the police report said.

In 2006, Loughner dropped out after his junior year. That summer, he enrolled in an alternative high school, Aztec Middle College, and earned his diploma that December.

During his late high school years and thereafter, Loughner moved through a blur of entry-level jobs at chain stores and restaurants – Red Robin, Mandarin Grill, Quiznos, Eddie Bauer.

“He absolutely hated Red Robin,” recalled Montanaro, who also worked there. “He couldn’t stand the people who worked there or the customers.” One night, Loughner, then busing tables, walked off the job. “He just told me he couldn’t take it anymore,” Montanaro said.

Loughner was arrested twice on minor charges, in 2007 for possession of a small amount of marijuana and a pipe, and a year later, for defacing a stop sign. Both cases were dismissed after Loughner completed a diversion program.

After high school, Loughner again shifted passions. He cut his hair short and switched from hip-hop to heavy-metal. He spent a lot of time at the home of his friend Zachary Osler, sometimes staying the night.

By this time, Loughner had a growing fascination with dreams and alternative realities. He believed in lucid or conscious dreaming, the idea that you could consciously enter your own dream and change the path of its characters. He loved the 2001 movie “Waking Life,” in which a young man walks in and out of dreams, exploring ideas about the fleeting nature of identity.

Loughner “focused all his energy into understanding the mystery of man’s existence on Earth,” George Osler said. “He was desperately trying to escape from all the chaos and suffering in his world.”

Two years ago, Loughner texted his old friend Zach Osler: “I don’t want to be your friend anymore.”

In the past year or so, the crumbling of what was once Loughner was clear to anyone who bothered to look. Teachers, fellow students, even the anonymous e-buddies who substituted for the real friends he had lost – many suspected mental illness and said so, to one another, to Loughner, even to people who might have taken action. But no one did.

Within minutes of the start of Ben McGahee’s eight-week course on algebra last June, he knew Loughner would be a problem. Loughner, who had already failed the same course, called the remedial class a “scam” and the teacher a “fraud.” Asked to quiet down, Loughner calmly replied, “How can you deny math and not accept math?”

The next day, McGahee sent Loughner to see a school counselor, Delisa Siddall, who spoke to him in the hall for a few minutes. The counselor told Loughner to stop disrupting class and he promised to do so.

That Friday, on his first quiz, Loughner doodled in the margins, drew cartoon figures, and wrote nonsensical equations such as “Eat + Sleep + Brush Teeth = Math” and the words “MAYHEM FEST.”

McGahee showed the quiz to Siddall, who looked up Loughner’s record and saw that he had had several run-ins with campus police. Students and teachers had reported his odd comments and inappropriate behavior. At first, according to police reports, officers decided only to “document the faculty’s concern.” One report was marked “No Bonafide Incident.”

When Siddall asked Loughner about what had happened in class, he said his comments were only about math, according to a memo she wrote. For example, he said, “My instructor said he called a number 6 and I said I call it 18.” The counselor concluded that the student had a “unique ideology that is not always homogeneous.”

After three weeks of class – and after other incidents, including one that led an officer to conclude that “there might be a mental health concern” – the professor asked the dean to remove Loughner for good. On Sept. 29, a campus police officer visited Loughner at home and read him a letter of immediate suspension.

At the end of an hour-long exchange in which Loughner “held a constant trance of staring,” he told the officer, “I realize now that this is all a scam.”

By last summer, evidence of Loughner’s increasingly deteriorating mental state was littered across the electronic worlds he inhabited.

On one site, Above Top Secret, Loughner left dozens of posts with bizarre theories about U.S. currency, the Constitution and grammar. Finally, another regular on the site wrote back that “I think you’re frankly schizophrenic, and no that’s not an amateur opinion and not intended as an uninformed or insulting remark. I really do care. Seek help before you hurt yourself or others or start taking your medications again, please.”

Loughner, known on the site as “erad3,” responded, “Thank you for the concern.”

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