TUCSON, Ariz. – Federal authorities filed murder charges Sunday against 22-year-old Jared Loughner, as new evidence suggested the alleged gunman in Saturday’s rampage had fixated on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., while his mental health deteriorated.
Loughner appeared to have planned the shooting, according to court documents. In a safe at his parents’ home, investigators found an envelope with the words “I planned ahead” and “my assassination” written on it, along with the name “Giffords.” Loughner’s signature is also believed to be on the envelope, the complaint says.
In the same safe, authorities found a 2007 letter to Loughner from Giffords, using congressional stationery to thank him for attending a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson. Saturday’s shooting took place at another such event, where Giffords was meeting constituents outside a supermarket.
Loughner allegedly shot Giffords in the head during the event – then fired his handgun repeatedly into the crowd around her. In all, 20 people were struck by bullets. Six of them died, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.
Giffords remained sedated and in critical condition, doctors said. After surgery on the wound – in which a single bullet traversed the left side of her skull – they said Giffords was able to follow simple commands, such as holding up two fingers when asked.
“This is about as good as good can get” with a bullet injury to the brain, trauma physician Peter Rhee said.
Loughner will be arraigned today at a federal courthouse in Phoenix. He has been charged with two counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder.
Authorities said Sunday that he appeared to have acted alone, without ties to larger anti-government or hate groups. A second “person of interest” seen with Loughner near the shooting scene turned out to be the cabdriver who had dropped him off. Authorities said the man had no connection to the shootings.
The court documents also said U.S. District Judge John Roll, who died in the shooting, was not targeted in advance. Roll, who had received death threats because of previous rulings, was in the crowd around Giffords. He had come to the event, authorities said, because he wanted to talk to Giffords about the volume of federal cases in Arizona.
Loughner, who lived with his parents, was recently suspended from his community college for disruptive behavior and told he could not return until a mental health professional determined he was not a danger to himself or others.
Police said he purchased the Glock pistol used in the attack at Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson in November.
About 200 people, meanwhile, gathered outside Giffords’ Tucson office Sunday evening for a candlelight vigil. Earlier in the day, people crammed the synagogue where Giffords has been a member, as well as the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ, which lost one member in the attack and had another one wounded.
“I don’t know how to grieve. This morning I don’t have the magic pill, I don’t have the Scripture. I can’t wrap my head around this,” said the Rev. Mike Nowak, his strong preacher’s voice wavering.
Nowak said he received hundreds of e-mails from people sharing their prayers with the congregation.
New accounts also emerged Sunday about the past few years of Loughner’s life, showing that the slim, dark-haired man had undergone a frightening transformation after high school.
Alex Montanaro, a childhood friend of Loughner’s, said in a telephone interview Sunday night that Loughner had met Giffords at a public event at a Tucson mall in 2007. He said Loughner had called him the next day and recounted the conversation.
Loughner, whose videos show an obsession with grammar and words, asked Giffords “something like, ‘Why do words mean what they mean?’” Montanaro recalled. “And apparently she was just sort of dumbfounded and answered him in Spanish.”
The shootings and deaths in Arizona resounded in Washington, D.C., with a deep and immediate impact on the political conversation, even though there is no evidence, at this point, that they were influenced by inflammatory political rhetoric. The attacks prompted a dramatic – if temporary – stand-down in the partisan battles that have consumed the capitol.
Instead of a vote to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care act, Republican leaders in the House have scheduled prayers and security briefings. On Sunday talk shows, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle stressed their friendships and mutual respect. One freshman House member suggested more hugs, less name-calling.
Websites that featured politicians as targets were scrubbed; rhetoric softened.
“This is a time for the House to lock arms, both in condemnation of this heinous act, and in prayer for those killed and wounded in this attack,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a conference call joined by an extraordinary 800 members of Congress, their spouses and staff.
“At a time when an individual has shown us humanity at its worst, we must rise to the occasion for our nation and show Congress at its best.”
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the shootings, whatever their motivation, will cause politicians to more closely examine their rhetoric.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt but my colleagues are very concerned about the environment in which they are now operating,” Hoyer said. “It’s been a much angrier, confrontational environment over the last two or three years than we have experienced in the past. I think there is worry about that.”
Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., said Sunday night that he plans to introduce a bill that would give members of Congress and federal officials the same protections from threatening language and symbolism as afforded to the president under Title 18, Section 871 of the U.S. Code.
“It’s not a wake-up call; it’s a four-alarmer,” Brady said of the Tucson shootings, adding that he last spoke with Giffords on Friday, the day before the attacks.
The Washington Post and The Associated Press contributed to this report.