The New York Times’ “RAMPAGE KILLERS”
Click here to read original article “How the Study Was Conducted”.
Click here to read original article “How Youngest Killers Differ: Peer Support”.
Click here to read original article “Part One - They Threaten, Seethe and Unhinge Then Kill in Quantity”.

Click here to rear original article “Part Two - The Well-Marked Roads to Homicidal Rage”.

Click here to read original article “Part Three - The Mentally Ill Often Skirt a Landmark Federal Gun Control Law”.

Click here to read original article “Part Four - Man and His Son’s Slayer Unite to Ask Why”.

April 8, 2000

How the Study Was Conducted

The New York Times set out to study rampage killings by assembling a detailed database of as many such crimes as could be discovered by searching news clippings in all 50 states, scientific papers and other sources.

Times researchers and reporters found 100 cases that met strictly defined criteria aimed at encompassing the kind of crimes that seem to have become more common recently. The crimes had to have had multiple victims, at least one of whom died, and to have occurred substantially at one time and in a place where people gather -- a workplace, a school, a mall, a restaurant, a train. Multiple killings that were a result of domestic strife, robbery or political terrorism were excluded, as were serial killings.

Reporters and researchers reviewed newspaper articles and court transcripts, and interviewed prosecutors, victims, families and, when possible, the killers. Reporters recorded into a database more than 90 separate pieces of information on each crime, including age, mental health histories, victim relationships, weapons used, warning signs, location, time of day and criminal records.

Ford Fessenden, a database reporter at The Times, coordinated the research.

The 100 cases include 20 shootings at schools, 11 at restaurants or shopping malls and 32 at the killer's workplace. There were 102 killers.

Four hundred twenty five people were killed and 510 injured.

In some cases, it was difficult to get precise information, as news accounts and even police reports varied. And while extensive efforts were made to be as complete as possible, there is no central list of multiple murders, and the database does not include every attack of this type over the last 50 years.

Still, the experts acknowledged it to be the largest and most detailed database devoted exclusively to such murders in the United States, and suggested it should be considered an initial step in a systematic study of a largely unexamined field.

"This should be seen as a way of starting the conversation and getting good social science going," said Franklin Zimring, director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at the University of California at Berkeley.

"It's not science and shouldn't be addressed as science," said Alfred Blumstein, director of the National Consortium on Violence Research, who was shown The Times's findings. "But I think it's aggressive and careful."


April 8, 2000

How Youngest Killers Differ: Peer Support


When 16-year-old Evan Ramsey strode into the lobby of his high school in Bethel, Alaska, in 1997 and shot a popular basketball player in the stomach, there were already spectators gathered on the mezzanine above -- students that he had told to be there to witness his "evil day."

Some may not have known exactly what was to transpire, but at least two students at Bethel Regional High had been intimately involved in the planning of Mr. Ramsey's crime, in which two people died. One student showed Mr. Ramsey how to load the shotgun the day before. The other carried a camera to record the event, but forgot to use it.

Such goading, sometimes even collaboration, is not uncommon among the school-age killers who were part of The New York Times's study of 100 rampage killings in the United States in the last 50 years. It is one of the principal factors that set them apart from adult killers.

For the most part, the adults were loners, who planned their crimes surreptitiously, even though they almost always broadcast their intentions. Some of the teenagers, on the other hand, sought, and often obtained, reinforcement from their peers and boasted of their plans.

In the most extreme cases, including the shootings at Columbine High School, teenagers actually killed together. All of the adults killed alone.

In two other cases involving teenagers, including Mr. Ramsey's, collaborators were prosecuted, and in at least two more, the police have said they believed schoolmates or friends played a role.

As the country approaches the anniversary of the killings at Columbine, which crystallized public horror over rampage killings, this distinction is crucial to understanding, and even preventing, school shootings, many experts say.

A continuing study by the Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center of 40 cases of school violence over the last 20 years has reached some of the same conclusions. The study, done in conjunction with the Department of Education, found that teenage killers often communicated their plans or shared their feelings with other students, in sharp contrast to the pattern of adults.

In most ways, rampage killings involving young offenders are no different from those involving adults, The Times found in compiling its database. Young killers are as likely to strike in small towns as in big cities. Both groups are mostly white, but with some blacks and Asian-Americans. Both favor semiautomatic weapons.

But in other compelling ways, the teenage killers differ. While serious mental health problems are common among them, fewer commit suicide after their crimes, The Times found. The younger killers are less emotionally detached and more susceptible to peer influence, experts said.

Overall, school violence is declining. The number of homicides and assaults at schools is down. But a series of mass killings at schools in the last four years has seemed to present the country with an ugly new face of school crime -- the sudden, explosive rampage killing.

Although these shootings seem new, the Times study shows that teenage rampage killers were around far before the recent trend. Anthony Barbaro, an honor student, killed three and wounded nine at his high school in Olean, N.Y., in 1974. Sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer, using a rifle given to her for her birthday, killed two and wounded nine at an elementary school near her house in San Diego in 1979. "I don't like Mondays," she told reporters. "This livens up the day."

Serious mental problems were reported in the histories of 10 of the 19 teenagers in the Times study. Two had been in psychiatric hospitals. Six showed evidence of psychotic delusions. Five had seen a mental health professional, and four had prescriptions for psychiatric drugs.

"I think it's quite possible that you're seeing incipient mental disorder," said J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist at the University of California at San Diego who has just completed a study on juvenile rampage killers. "But a lot if times it will be minimized or not identified as readily as adults."

Dr. Anthony Hempel, chief forensic psychiatrist at the Vernon campus of North Texas State Hospital and Dr. Meloy's co-author, said the fact that many of the adolescents were able to work with others was a strong argument that they were less likely to be mentally ill, or at least that their illness was in the early stages.

"When people pair up to commit one of these, the odds of a major mental illness go way down," Dr. Hempel said. "Very few people who don't have a mental illness can get together and plan something with someone with a major mental illness."

Some experts say that for many adolescents the plan to kill is a way of thinking about getting even, so the point is to discuss it. "Kids talk to kids about this stuff because fantasy is a process," said Frank C. Sacco, director of a mental health clinic in Springfield, Mass., who is researching school violence.

The companionship may even make the crimes possible. "Pairing then allows them to do these acts where acting alone doesn't," Dr. Meloy said. "It gives them courage or stamina."

But the fact that peers know in advance may make it easier to head off potential crimes. And immaturity may also point the way to hope for prevention.

"What we found is they're not as tightly wrapped emotionally when they do mass murder," Dr. Meloy said. "Given their emotional ability, they should be more accessible to interventions and treatment."


April 9, 2000


They Threaten, Seethe and Unhinge, Then Kill in Quantity



They are not drunk or high on drugs. They are not racists or Satanists, or addicted to violent video games, movies or music.

Most are white men, but a surprising number are women, Asians and blacks. Many have college degrees, but most are unemployed. Many are military veterans.

They give lots of warning and even tell people explicitly what they plan to do. They carry semiautomatic weapons they have obtained easily and, in most cases, legally.

They do not try to get away. In the end, half turn their guns on themselves or are shot dead by others. They not only want to kill, they also want to die.

That is the profile of the 102 killers in 100 rampage attacks examined by The New York Times in a computer-assisted study looking back more than 50 years and including the shootings in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and one by a World War II veteran on a residential street in Camden, N.J., in 1949. Four hundred twenty-five people were killed and 510 people were injured in the attacks. The database, which primarily focused on cases in the last decade, is believed to be the largest ever compiled on this phenomenon in the United States.

Though the attacks are rare when compared with other American murders, they have provoked an intense national discussion about crime, education and American culture. The Times found, however, that the debate may have largely overlooked a critical issue: At least half of the killers showed signs of serious mental health problems.

Whether they happen in a school, in a mall, in a crowded train or in a workplace, these crimes have been characterized in a language of incomprehension -- "senseless," "random," "sudden," "crazy."

The debate was most intense last year, which began with echoes of gunfire in a Salt Lake City television station in January and ended with seven Honolulu office workers dead in November. In between there was a berserk rampage by an Atlanta day trader that left 12 dead and 13 injured. A self-styled fascist attacked a Los Angeles day care center. Seven people died as a hymn ended in a Fort Worth church.

Probably the most shocking were the shootings by two students at Columbine High School who burst into suburban classrooms and killed 13 and wounded 23. The teenage killers were much like the adults The Times studied, but with important distinctions that may bring a better understanding to the problem [Page 29]. As the anniversary of that crime, April 20, approaches, the questions about crime and culture will inevitably reverberate again.

The Times set out to examine as many of these killings as possible in an effort to learn what factors they and the people who carried them out shared. For while many possible causes have been cited, including violent video games, a decline in moral values and the easy availability of guns, there has been little serious study of this explosive violence.

The Times included only rampage homicides -- multiple-victim killings that were not primarily domestic or connected to a robbery or gang. Serial killers were not included, nor were those whose primary motives were political.

These are among the findings:

  • While the killings have caused many people to point to the violent aspects of the culture, a closer look shows little evidence that video games, movies or television encouraged many of the attacks. In only 6 of the 100 cases did the killers have a known interest in violent video games. Seven other killers showed an interest in violent movies.
  • In a decade that had a sharp decrease in almost all kinds of homicides, the incidence of these rampage killings appears to have increased, according to a separate computer analysis by The Times of nearly 25 years of homicide data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Still, these killings remain extremely rare, much less than 1 percent of all homicides.
  • Society has turned to law enforcement to resolve the rampage killings that have become almost a staple of the nightly news. There has been an increasing call for greater security in schools and in the workplace. But a closer look shows that these cases may have more to do with society's lack of knowledge of mental health issues, rather than a lack of security. In case after case, family members, teachers and mental health professionals missed or dismissed signs of deterioration.

By contrast, murder in the heat of domestic passion or a tavern argument, in the desperation of armed robbery or in the cold calculation of gang competition, seems to make "sense."

But in reviewing court records and interviewing the police, victims and sometimes the killers themselves, The Times found that these killings, too, have their own logic, and are anything but random or sudden.

The rage that boiled over into homicide was clearly building in many. Of the 100 cases reviewed by The Times, 63 involved people who made threats of violence before the event, including 54 who threatened specific violence to specific people.

Richard Farley, for example, who was fired in 1987 for harassing a female co-worker, told acquaintances he was going to kill the people who had come between him and her before storming into his former workplace, killing seven. James Calvin Brady told psychiatrists he wanted to kill people, just days before he went on a rampage in an Atlanta shopping mall in 1990.

"These are not impulsive acts," said J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist at the University of California at San Diego. "They are not acts of affective violence, where they drink a lot and go kill someone. There's a planning and purpose, and an emotional detachment that's very long-term."

Yet there was often a precipitating event in addition to histories of failure and mental illness -- a spark that set off the tinder, and gave the crime the appearance of being at the same time deliberate and impulsive.

"You can see someone who is morbidly depressed for a long time, and they have a suicide plan in place, but the timing is determined by impulse," said Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and author of "Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide" (Knopf, 1999).

By far the most common precipitator was the loss of a job, which was mentioned as a potential precipitator in 47 cases. A romantic issue -- a divorce or breakup -- was present in 22 cases.

"Some men see the loss of a job, or the loss of a mate, as irrevocable and catastrophic, something they can't get back or attain again," said David Buss, author of "The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex" (Free Press, 2000) and a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. "They set out on a course to inflict the maximum cost on their rivals, even sometimes killing the woman."

An analysis of the database found several recurring elements in rampage killings, including some that surprised the experts.

Perhaps the aspect that most set these crimes apart, aside from their spectacular nature, was this: Regular criminals try to get away with their crimes. More than a third of regular homicides went unsolved in 1997. But among the 102 killers in the Times database, not one got away. Eighty-nine never even left the scene of the crime.

In 1995, for example, after he killed three people at the Ohio trucking company where he had worked, Gerald Lee Clemons walked to the parking lot and leaned against his car calmly until the police arrived.

In 1997, Michael Carneal, a 14-year-old, killed three and wounded five at a school in Louisville, Ky. Then he laid down his gun and said, "I'm sorry."

More tellingly, 33 of the offenders killed themselves after their crimes. Nine tried or wanted to commit suicide, and four killed themselves later. Nine were killed by the police or others, perhaps committing what some refer to as "suicide by cop."

"The number of people knowingly getting killed is striking," Prof. Alfred Blumstein of the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University said after examining the review.

Professor Blumstein is the director of the National Consortium on Violence Research.

Dr. Jamison said: "The link between suicide and homicide is a very real one, and it hasn't been studied nearly enough. It has always struck me about Columbine, people forget they committed suicide. And that's understandable -- it was the least important thing from the public point of view."

Anthony Barbaro, a 17-year-old Regents scholar in upstate Olean, N.Y., offered a glimpse into this suicidal impulse in the note he left before he hanged himself with a knotted bedsheet in the county jail. He was awaiting trial after firing random shots out the window from the third floor of his high school, killing two passers-by and a school custodian, and wounding nine others.

"I guess I just wanted to kill the person I hate most -- myself," he wrote. "I just didn't have the courage. I wanted to die, but I couldn't do it, so I had to get someone to do it for me. It didn't work out."

One of the most remarkable insights to emerge from the survey is how much these killers differ from the typical American murderer.

Half of all murderers in this country are black. Eighty percent went to high school, and no further. Most of them killed someone they knew, or while committing another crime, like a robbery.

The rampage killers, on the other hand, were white, by far, though 18 of the 102 were black, and 7 Asian. The racial profile of the rampage killers is close to that of the entire population.

The rampage killers were overwhelmingly male -- but not entirely. Six were female, and they exhibited many of the same disturbed, aggressive characteristics of the males. Here again, however, was a distinction from regular murderers, who are about twice as likely as rampage killers to be women.

The rampage killers were far more likely to have a military background, and to kill strangers. There are intriguing age differences as well. The rampage killers were older than regular murderers, with more in their 40's and 50's and fewer in their 20's, compared with the typical killer.

Of the rampage killers who were over 25, a third had college degrees. Another third had some college education. Only nine had less than a high school diploma.

And there seemed to be no urban bias for these crimes, as there is for other violent crimes; 31 were in suburban areas, 25 were in small towns or rural areas. Forty two of those surveyed committed their crimes in urban areas.

That profile -- a group that is largely suicidal, and shows few of the demographic patterns of poverty and race associated with regular crime -- suggests that mental illness plays a huge role, psychiatrists say.

"Mental illness does not vary in different races, but socioeconomics do," said Dr. Lothar Adler, director of a psychiatric hospital in Muhlhausen, Germany, and author of "Amok," a book on multiple murder.

The Times found much evidence of mental illness in its subjects. More than half had histories of serious mental health problems -- either a hospitalization, a prescription for psychiatric drugs, a suicide attempt or evidence of psychosis.

Of the 24 who had been prescribed psychiatric drugs, 14 had stopped taking them when they committed their crimes. Mr. Clemons, for instance, ran out of drugs a week before his crime, according to relatives.

Recent studies have shown that the mentally ill are no more violent than other people, except when they are off their medications, or have been abusing drugs or alcohol.

Indications of mental illness were far more common among the 100 cases than was evidence supporting popular explanations that emerged in the days after some of these spectacular events.

Violent video games or television were mentioned in only a handful of cases. Three killers showed an interest in the occult. Racist ideas were apparent in the backgrounds of 16.

But 48 killers had some kind of formal diagnosis, often schizophrenia. Some of the diagnoses came after examinations by psychiatrists in trial preparations -- which did not usually help in their defense, as only eight avoided conviction on grounds of insanity.

Twenty-five killers received diagnoses before their crimes, which illustrates another recurring issue: They do not just suddenly snap. Many have long histories not only of mental illness but of failure and dislocation.

In spite of their education levels, for instance, a striking number -- more than half -- were unemployed.

"The high education level is one thing I hadn't anticipated, and the link to unemployment is another thing I didn't realize," Professor Blumstein said. "One of the things that education does is raise expectations, and raised ones are more readily frustrated."

For people without the emotional resources to accommodate it, frustration "can lead to rage, can lead to suicide," Professor Blumstein said.

These crimes are not new.

Public rampage killings first entered the national consciousness with Charles Whitman, who stood on the University of Texas's tower in 1966, firing his rifle at students, killing 14 people.

Nor are they peculiarly American.

The best scientific thinking, in a field that is admittedly understudied, now holds that multiple, public murder occurs at a fairly constant level across time and cultures. What some people call "running amok," a term first used in Malaysia to describe frenzied, indiscriminate killing, has been observed in many cultures, with weapons as varied as grenades and tanks in addition to high-powered handguns.

"Even though homicide rates and suicide rates are very different from country to country," said Peter M. Marzuk, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, "the rates of murder-suicide are really the same throughout the world."

Yet there is a strong impression that they have become more common. In an effort to confirm the trend, The Times analyzed F.B.I. reports of all homicides since 1976. Each year there were 15,000 to 22,000 homicides, but very few involved three or more victims.

That universe shrank even more, to just a few dozen, when The Times weeded out those involving robbery or gang violence, and those in which the primary victim was a family member.

What is left is the closest thing there is to a census of rampage killings -- about one-tenth of one percent of all killings.

And it shows that in the 1990's, they increased.

Their number remained fairly consistent from 1976 to 1989, averaging about 23 a year, only once going above 30. But between 1990 and 1997, the last year for which data was available, the number averaged over 34, dipping below 30 only once, in 1994.

"In the early 90's, for some reason, it increased, and seems to have a different level since," said Steven Messner, a criminologist at the State University of New York at Albany, who reviewed the numbers at the request of The Times.

There are many possible explanations. But the shift coincides, roughly at least, with a trend of increasing availability of more lethal weapons. In the late 1980's, the production of semiautomatic pistols in the United States overtook the production of revolvers, and with their larger ammunition magazines and faster reloading, semiautomatics have added to the potential for mayhem.

The effect may be apparent in the number of deaths per murderous incident, which suddenly increased in 1993 and has remained high since, according to the analysis of F.B.I. data by The Times.

"You have drastically increased the ability to inflict death and injury," said Tom Diaz, author of "Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America" (New Press, 1999) and a senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center. "That means you can shoot more rounds faster and easier, what they call spray and pray."

In the Times study, wielders of semiautomatics inflicted more injuries.

The ratio of maimed to killed victims was 50 percent higher than for those who used other weapons.

Yet, the increased availability of high-powered weapons may not explain everything. Some kinds of multiple murder have declined or remained static.

Killings of three or more people to cover up another felony, like robbery, have not increased, for example. Neither have multiple killings of relatives.

The number of incidents in which three or more died and the principal victim was a family member has remained fairly steady, around 30 cases a year.

"It used to be the most common type of this violence was in the family," said James Alan Fox, author of "Overkill: Mass Murder and Serial Killing Exposed" (Dell, 1996) and one of the nation's foremost experts on mass murder. "Now it's no longer true. It's in the workplace and in the schools."

Experts believe the crimes may be feeding on each other, particularly in an era of saturation coverage by cable television. Fourteen of the killers expressed knowledge about their predecessors.

For example, Ladislav Antalik, a Czech immigrant who killed two former co-workers and then himself after being fired from his job in Research Triangle Park, N.C., in 1994, had a newspaper article in his car describing a previous massacre.

The Columbine killers talked of doing it bigger and better than it had been done before. William Kreutzer, known as Crazy Kreutzer, as he set out to mow down a company of soldiers at Fort Bragg with an assault rifle and a semiautomatic pistol, told a friend he knew what the record number of multiple killings was.

But beyond the question of whether one event triggered the next, experts say the recent increases in these crimes strongly suggest a social contagion.

"Why do you get a lot of people doing the same thing?" said Joseph Westermeyer, a psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota who has studied epidemics of explosive murder in other cultures. "I think there is this copycat element."

Dr. Adler, in his book, documented two cases of soldiers running amok with a tank in Germany in the 1980's after a widely publicized tank attack there. Army security was increased, and "tank amok never happened in Germany again," Dr. Adler said.

An angry, depressed, unstable, perhaps mentally ill person picks up a gun because it has become a known alternative. "Something that was inconceivable to many people suddenly becomes conceivable," Dr. Messner said.

"The transmission mechanism seems to be nothing more or less than that it's an idea that's in the air," said Philip Cook, a professor of public policy at Duke University, who has studied social contagions. "So you have these kind of catastrophic consequences from what seems a minor change in the environment."

Reporting for this series was by Fox Butterfield, Ford Fessenden, William Glaberson and Laurie Goodstein, with research assistance from Anthony Zirilli and other members of the news research staff of The New York Times.

April 9, 2000


The Well-Marked Roads to Homicidal Rage


Shots explode at a school in Oregon, a brokerage office in Atlanta, or a church in Fort Worth, and the nation is witness to another sudden, seemingly random violent rampage. Before the ambulances leave, the news crews arrive. The killers' neighbors, friends or families submit to interviews, and inevitably, they say something like this: "He just snapped."

But the killers do not just snap. An examination by The New York Times of 100 rampage murders found that most of the killers spiraled down a long slow slide, mentally and emotionally. Most of them left a road map of red flags, spending months plotting their attacks and accumulating weapons, talking openly of their plans for bloodshed. Many showed signs of serious mental health problems.

But in case after case, the Times review found, the warning signs were missed: by a tattered mental health care system; by families unable to face the evidence of serious mental turmoil in their children or siblings; by employers, teachers and principals who failed to take the threats seriously; by the police who, when alerted to the danger by frightened relatives, neighbors or friends, were incapable of intervening before the violence erupted.

James Davis, whose co-workers had nicknamed him Psycho, warned his colleagues at a tool warehouse in Asheville, N.C., "If they ever decide to fire me, I'll take two or three of them with me." His employers did fire him, and feared he would respond with violence, but despite his threats, they failed to protect his co-workers when Mr. Davis returned to take his revenge.

In 34 of the 100 cases, however, families or friends of the killers desperately did try to find help for a person they feared was a ticking time bomb, but were rebuffed by the police, school administrators or mental health workers.

Sylvia Seegrist caromed in and out of mental institutions 12 times in 10 years, while her parents searched for a residential program where she could stay in treatment. They knew she was dangerous. She had stabbed a psychologist and tried to strangle her mother, and had hidden a gun in her apartment. But each time, she was released from the hospital when she seemed to improve.

"We were always fearful that maybe some tragedy would happen," said Ruth S. Seegrist, Sylvia's mother. "She threatened it: 'Someday before I kill myself, I'll bring some people down with me.' " Sylvia opened fire in a suburban Philadelphia shopping mall in 1985, killing three people and wounding seven.

In response to the recent spate of rampage-style mass shootings in schools, workplaces, stores and other public places, The New York Times re-examined 100 such violent incidents that occurred in the United States over the last 50 years. The Times gathered extensive information on all 100, and looked closely at more than 25 of the cases, a surprising number of which attracted little but local attention. The examination included reviews of court cases, news coverage and mental health records, and interviews with families and friends, psychologists and victims, in an effort to glean what the people closest to each tragedy had learned. In some cases, reporters questioned the killers themselves.

Based on this information, The Times found that in 63 of the 100 cases (which involved 102 killers), the killers made general threats of violence to others in advance. Fifty-five of the 100 cases involved killers who regularly expressed explosive anger or frustration, and 35 killers had a history of violent behavior and assaults. They were so noticeably unstable that even in their very separate circles they had been awarded similar nicknames: "Crazy Pat," "Crazy John," "Crazy Joe."

And in 40 cases, family members and others said they noticed a sudden change in behavior in the period before the rampage.

"The more you find out about each of these cases, the more it makes sense," said Prof. Dewey G. Cornell, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project, which studies school safety and violence prevention. "This notion that someone just snaps is based on ignorance and denial," Professor Cornell said. "People don't just snap. Pressures build up."

Many psychologists caution that it is impossible to predict violent behavior, and that most people who threaten violence never follow through. Often, it is only in retrospect that each killer's life appears to be a coherent chilling narrative foretelling obvious danger. Looking back, it is easy to marvel, how could the people who knew the murderer have failed to see it coming? In particular, how could so many psychiatric workers, and even the police, have missed the warning signs?

In many cases, there was no single person in the potential killer's life to put together the lethal clues. Colleagues, friends, family members, mental health professionals, teachers and the police may have independently sensed something disturbing, but they did not communicate with one another. Frightened neighbors or co-workers decided it was safest to keep their distance. Friends laughed off homicidal talk. Parents did not know where to turn, or just hoped the irrational fury was merely a phase.

"It's like looking at the night sky," said Robert Granacher Jr., a psychiatrist in Lexington, Ky., who has examined the records of several rampage murderers. "If you only see one or two stars, you may not see the whole constellation. It's the same with these fragmentary bits of information; no one has the whole picture."

In the end, the review of these cases suggests that if people understood more about mental illness and connected the clues, many of these types of rampage killings could be prevented.

In rural Giles County, Tenn., on Nov. 15, 1995 -- before school shootings regularly made headlines -- a slight 17-year-old strode down the hall of Richland School with his black .22 Remington Viper.

His name was Jamie Rouse, and as always, he was dressed in black. He walked up to two female teachers who were chatting in the hall, and without a word shot each of them in the head. One teacher was gravely wounded, the other died. Then Jamie Rouse smiled and aimed for the school's football coach. But a student named Diane Collins happened to cross his path. A bullet tore through her throat. She was 16 when she died that day.

Jamie Rouse had sent distress signals for years to the adults in his life. More startling, the police say he had told as many as five teenage friends exactly how he planned to bring his rifle to school and begin killing. None of them had called anyone for help. In fact, the night before, word of the planned massacre was passed like macabre gossip along a chain of students, from Jamie, to his close friend Stephen Abbott, to a teenager that Mr. Abbott worked with at the gas station, Billy Rogers.

"He told me something was going to happen at school the next day, that I was going to lose a couple of friends," Mr. Rogers later testified. "Steve told me if there was a God he better make it snow tonight so we ain't got school tomorrow."

The rampage killers in the study, young and old, often talked for months in advance about their murderous plans. And in 54 of the 100 cases, killers like Jamie Rouse provided explicit descriptions of who, where or when they intended to kill.

Charles Whitman, the infamous sniper who shot 45 people, killing 14, from atop the tower on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, had told a college psychiatrist four months before the attack that he had been "thinking about going up on the tower with a deer rifle and start shooting people."

Michael Carneal, a high school freshman in Paducah, Ky., told schoolmates that "it would be cool" to shoot into a student prayer group. He did as he had promised, killing three people and injuring five in 1997.

Andrew Wurst, 14, showed a group of friends a gun hidden in his father's dresser drawer and told them he planned to use nine shells to kill nine people he hated, and then kill himself. In 1998, he started shooting at his eighth-grade prom, killing a popular teacher and injuring three other people.


In case after case, friends, family members and others who heard the threats and did not take action later said they did not act because it seemed unfathomable that a human being would carry through with such threats. Others said they had heard the killer boast of violence so often that, like the villagers hardened to the boy who cried wolf, they just did not take it seriously.

In testimony, Stephen Ray, one of Jamie Rouse's closest friends, said that it had sounded ridiculous when Mr. Rouse "might have" said something about shooting someone the day before the killings, when Mr. Rouse was fuming over a fender-bender with a schoolmate's car.

Mr. Ray, now 21 and a college student in Knoxville, trembled in an interview in his dormitory this winter when he said it was hard to tell at the time that Jamie Rouse's blustery threats were real. Even when Mr. Rouse showed up in the morning with a rifle and a box of bullets, Mr. Ray said, he did not believe Jamie would really do it.

"It wasn't a joke," Mr. Ray said in a tone of amazement. "It wasn't a high school prank. It was something real."

Tennessee prosecutors said they were frustrated that legal rules barred them from charging Mr. Ray with a crime because he did nothing active to foster the plan. They did prosecute the teenager who drove Mr. Rouse to school that morning.

Failing to act in the face of warning signs, the prosecutors said, was not a crime. In retrospect, there were many people guilty of that.

In ninth grade, Jamie had scratched an inverted cross on his forehead, a symbol other students had told him was a sign of Satan worship. Many people, including teachers, had noticed the mark, which lasted a few weeks, and talked about it among themselves.

At home during his junior year, Jamie held his brother Jeremy at gunpoint and threatened to kill him. As punishment, Jamie's parents took away his gun.

As his senior year began, he submitted his entry for the yearbook: "I, Satan, James Rouse, leave my bad memories here to my two brothers." By that time, according to testimony at his trial, Jamie Rouse was working nights, taking Max Alert to stay awake and Sominex to get to sleep, and listening to heavy metal music cranked very loud because it drowned out the voices in his head that he later told psychiatrists he had been hearing at the time.

The spring before the shootings Mr. Rouse got into a violent fight with two other boys at school. But when teachers broke it up, "Jamie just would not calm down," recalled Ronald W. Shirey Jr., the football coach that Jamie had missed shooting, in an interview in his living room a few miles from the school. "He was just totally out of control, and saying, 'I will kill you,' " Mr. Shirey said.

The school called the police after that fight. Mr. Rouse faced juvenile charges and was suspended for three days.

But time passed. His mother later said it had not occurred to her to get counseling for him. And when hunting season started, Jamie's parents gave him his rifle back.

Long after the crime, Mr. Shirey said, when government investigators sought to study ways to prevent school shootings, they asked him to circulate a survey among the teachers at Richland School, which includes students from kindergarten to grade 12, to gather information about Jamie Rouse. No survey came back with more than a paragraph, he said.

"You can't find a teacher up there that was close to Jamie Rouse since elementary school," Mr. Shirey said. "Nobody knew enough about him to say anything."

The adults noticed Jamie Rouse but did not know him, and the teenagers who knew him did not tell.

She was dressed in the green Army fatigues and knit cap she wore all four seasons of the year as she drove into the parking lot of the Springfield Mall in suburban Philadelphia. She leaped out of her car firing a Ruger semiautomatic rifle, and continued spraying bullets as she ran through the mall, killing three people and injuring seven, all strangers. Among the dead was a 2-year-old boy whose family had been shopping for a church charity fashion show.

Sylvia Seegrist was 25 the day of her murder spree in 1985. The crime was the culmination of 10 years of mounting psychosis, crippling delusions and violent assaults on people who tried to help her.

Her mother, in a recent interview in her apartment a few miles from the site of Ms. Seegrist's rampage, remembered the "feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, despair, of incredible sadness" as she and her husband watched their only daughter overtaken by schizophrenia.

They also feared her. "I'll take you out," Mrs. Seegrist recalls her daughter threatening.

The Times' study found that many of the rampage killers, including Sylvia Seegrist, suffered from severe psychosis, were known by people in their circles as being noticeably ill and needing help, and received insufficient or inconsistent treatment from a mental health system that seemed incapable of helping these especially intractable patients.

Only a small percentage of mentally ill people are violent, and many advocates bristle at any link between mental illness and violence out of concern that it will further stigmatize an already mistreated population.

However, the Times investigation of this particular style of violence -- public rampage killings -- turned up an extremely high association between violence and mental illness. Forty-seven of the killers had a history of mental health problems before they killed; 20 had been hospitalized for psychiatric problems; 42 had been seen by mental health professionals.

Psychiatric drugs had been prescribed at some point before the rampages to 24 of the killers, and 14 of those people were not taking their prescribed drugs when they killed. Diagnoses of mental illness are often difficult to pin down, so The Times tabulated behavior: 23 killers showed signs of serious depression before the killings, and 49 expressed paranoid ideas.

Some of the killers who survived their rampages have made it clear they prefer to be thought of as criminal rather than mentally ill. Back in 1966, Robert Benjamin Smith, an 18-year-old high school senior in Mesa, Ariz., said he believed he was God when he herded five women and two children into the back room of a beauty school, forced them to lie down in a circle and methodically shot each person in the head, killing five of them.

In a letter Mr. Smith sent to a Times reporter from prison in January, he brushed off questions about illness and wrote, "Lessons? The sole thing I have learned worth the telling is the ironclad necessity of retaining control over one's essential bodily fluids." He blamed "sexual self-stimulation" for his crime and noted that he had tried to amputate his penis while in prison using the pull-tab from a can of diet soda.

"The more ill they are, the less sensibility there is" in the violent attack itself, said Anthony G. Hempel, chief forensic psychiatrist at the Vernon campus of North Texas State Hospital, who has studied mass murderers. In contrast to the killers who "go postal," gunning for their bosses, Dr. Hempel said, "when someone goes and kills strangers or they kill children, the odds of them being mentally ill are higher."

Sylvia Seegrist was first hospitalized at 16, and schizophrenia was diagnosed. Each of the dozen times she was discharged, psychiatrists deemed that she no longer posed a threat to herself or others.

No one said she was getting better, though. At the local health club Ms. Seegrist was seen taking steam baths in her camouflage clothing. At the library, she spouted a tangle of theories about nuclear weapons, energy shortages and famine. Between her daughter's hospitalizations, Mrs. Seegrist found a gun in Sylvia's apartment, she said. Ms. Seegrist told her mother she planned to use it to kill her parents and then herself.

Mrs. Seegrist said the family could not afford private rehabilitation programs, and their insurance covered only short-term hospitalization.

Sylvia Seegrist, now 39, is serving a life sentence at a prison in Pennsylvania. She declined an interview, instead writing two letters to The Times, a weave of lucid fragments and unintelligible passages about benzene and Styrofoam. On the back of an envelope, she writes that her killings were a form of public service.

She also seems to assert that she had to kill to ensure she would be imprisoned instead of being sent yet again to a state mental hospital.

"Sure had all kinds of theories in my head," she wrote, "expressed them at political meetings, just doll, understand, please 10 yrs. of beat-up, orphan in state hospitals that are 300 percent worse than even Sing-Sing prison. All the throwaways retarded smearing feces on themselves, when I read research materials at Ivy league colleges, and watched nothing but CNN and C-Span at home."

She said she had no choice. "It had to be 'a serious crime' or I'd get the state hospital i.e. Nazi camp."


Roxie M. Wallace knew something was wrong when her grown son Jeffrey visited her, and padlocked his room. He sometimes slept with a knife by his bed. He was growing increasingly paranoid, she realized. He would talk incessantly about evil forces. Most disturbing, she said in interviews and letters, her son sometimes growled "like a small dog or a wolf."

Mr. Wallace offers a glimpse into how difficult it can be to shake someone out of a delusional universe, even when friends and relatives notice and want to do something about it. Mr. Wallace, like other rampage killers, was convinced he was defending himself against an intricate conspiracy. Of the 100 cases in the study, 49 involved killers who had shown extreme, irrational suspicion and mistrust. In their paranoia, they think they must defend themselves against threats that other people do not see.

Even now, incarcerated in an isolated Florida prison, Mr. Wallace, 38, insists that he had no choice but to open fire in 1997 at a Key West bar where he once worked, killing one person and injuring three others.

In a long prison interview, Mr. Wallace was unable to deviate from his convoluted theory that the bar was the center of an organized-crime drug and prostitution ring with ties -- he was sure -- to Satanism, President Clinton and Garrison Keillor, host of the public radio program "Prairie Home Companion."

Mr. Wallace's lawyers argued unsuccessfully that he was insane, but Mr. Wallace insists his actions were perfectly rational.

"The best example I can give," Mr. Wallace said, "is you're in your house and somebody breaks in and you have to defend yourself and you end up killing somebody. It's terrible but what else can you do?"

From her home in Tennessee, Mrs. Wallace said she had tried for years to maneuver her son toward help when he did not want it. "I was afraid he was either going to kill himself or he was going to 'fight back' to save himself like a caged animal," she said.

Many rampage killers are extremely difficult to treat, say psychiatrists who have interviewed them. They may deny their illness and resist medication and treatment, and are often shrewd about masking symptoms to avoid being hospitalized involuntarily.

Even those who do receive psychiatric treatment do not always get the help they need.

Joseph Brooks Jr. was a policeman's son from Detroit and one of the few black students to win entrance to both a prestigious local preparatory school and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Friends in the fraternity house where Mr. Brooks lived recall no hint of anger or illness, only that Mr. Brooks was absurdly meticulous about his chores, and studied so compulsively that they nicknamed him "Books." But in his third year at M.I.T., he tried to commit suicide, was hospitalized for obsessive-compulsive disorder, and later received a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.

Back in Detroit, living alone, Mr. Brooks, 28, sought treatment with Dr. Reuven Bar-Levav, a well-known local psychiatrist who ran group therapy sessions in Southfield attended by a close-knit clientele of upper-middle-class patients coping with depression or anxiety disorders -- nothing as severe as paranoid schizophrenia. Mr. Brooks joined the group sessions, but refused to take the medication he had been prescribed, telling friends that the drugs made him tremble, gain weight and lose concentration.

Ronald Rissman, a fellow patient in the therapy group Mr. Brooks joined, said in an interview, "It was obvious he was not in touch with reality. He would laugh inappropriately. Within a matter of two or three group sessions, it became apparent to most of the senior patients that he did not belong there, that he should have been institutionalized."

Mr. Rissman said he and several other patients and therapists in the group practice repeatedly went to Dr. Bar-Levav with their concerns about Mr. Brooks. And in one group session -- with Mr. Brooks in the room -- a patient named Mary Gregg told the group she was afraid of Mr. Brooks, Mr. Rissman recalled.

After about eight group sessions, Dr. Bar-Levav finally terminated Mr. Brooks's treatment and referred him to other therapists.

Eight months later, on June 11 last year, Mr. Brooks returned to the psychiatrist's office and killed Dr. Bar-Levav. Mr. Brooks then pivoted and fired into the therapy group he had once attended, killing Mrs. Gregg and wounding four others, including Mr. Rissman, who leapt up to close the door. Mr. Brooks then turned the gun on himself.

Dr. Bar-Levav had been given some warning: while in treatment, Mr. Brooks had handed a gun over to another therapist in the practice and confessed he had come close to killing his girlfriend's mother and committing suicide. And just before the killings, Mr. Brooks sent Dr. Bar-Levav a 52-page manuscript critiquing the therapy he had received from him. The critique contained obsessive, paranoid passages about a "German American woman" humiliating him in his therapy group, and hints of menace. The local police emphasized in interviews with The Times that Dr. Bar-Levav should have alerted them.

"We would have taken that weapon away from him," said Joseph Thomas, the chief of police in Southfield, Mich. But even had the police confiscated the gun, the killing would not have been prevented. Mr. Brooks easily obtained a second permit and a second gun -- an expensive limited-edition combat-style handgun, which he used to kill Dr. Bar-Levav.

The psychiatrist's daughter, Dr. Leora Bar-Levav, a therapist herself who worked with her father and is now carrying on his practice, rejected with a pained wince the suggestion of negligence. In a conversation in the practice's new offices in Southfield, she said the problem was instead a permissive society and a narcissistic patient who had rejected treatment.

"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink it," she said. "Denial is very potent."

A man storms a warehouse where he was recently fired, leaving a trail of shell casings, three dead workers and four more wounded. The news story the next day begins, "A disgruntled former employee went on a shooting rampage."

In the turmoil that follows a rampage shooting by a killer like James Davis in Asheville, N.C., there is usually a scramble to pinpoint the cause. And in a world of rapid news cycles, the answers come quickly.

Mr. Davis was the "disgruntled employee." In news coverage last year, Dung Trinh was described as so bereaved at the death of his mother that in September he shot at nurses in a hospital in Anaheim, Calif., where she had once been treated. Sometimes the reason is reported to be a broken marriage, a spurned romance or financial misfortune. Mark O. Barton, a rampage killer in Atlanta, was reported to have singled out day traders because he had suffered huge losses in the market.

These are the kinds of events that often result in the observation, "He just snapped."

But the incident that is often simplistically cited as the cause -- a firing, a divorce, an eviction -- is on closer examination just the final provocation to a troubled, angry person who has already left numerous warning markers, often available for many to see.

When he opened fire in the day-trading office, Mr. Barton already had problems deeper than his recent stock losses. Eight hours earlier, he had killed his second wife and his children, and he was still the prime suspect in the deaths six years earlier of his first wife and her mother.

Colin Ferguson, who opened fire on rush-hour commuters on the Long Island Rail Road, had displayed such menacing behavior that he received an eviction notice, which further fueled his fury.

Most of the workplace shooters had been fired or disciplined precisely because they were already threatening violence, behaving bizarrely or getting in fights. Of the 81 adult murderers The Times looked at, 49 were unemployed.

Mr. Davis was no mild-mannered worker who just mysteriously snapped, according to court records and interviews.

He repeatedly picked fights at the tool warehouse where he worked in Asheville, and had often told colleagues that if he were ever fired, he would return to kill his bosses. He had seen combat in Vietnam and been hospitalized with schizophrenia after the war. He lived alone, and co-workers knew he owned a .44 magnum with a scope and had practiced firing it in his basement.

One Wednesday in May 1995, he got into another fight at work, his last.

That weekend, his family noticed him acting strangely. For example, Mr. Davis, an unemotional recluse, told his sister he loved her. And though James had never given anything to anybody, his brother, William, later said, James had wanted to give his niece a chess set and video game the weekend before. His siblings tried to persuade him to go to a hospital for psychiatric help, but he refused.

That Monday, James Davis was fired. His bosses were so anxious about his reaction that they agreed to break the news in a room where they could use a table to deflect an attack. Some employees planned escape routes when they heard of Mr. Davis's firing.

Just after midnight on Wednesday, William Davis called the police from his house 100 miles away to tell them that James had left home in a nervous frenzy and left all his personal belongings with their mother.

"I don't see why you got to wait till he kills himself or somebody," William Davis told the police, according to a transcript of his telephone call. "If you send a patrol car out to that plant, he's probably sitting there. Or notify them." William Davis told the police, "I don't know for sure, but I know and believe by the warning signs he gave me he's going to die." The Asheville police did drive by James Davis's house, but said that when they saw there was no vehicle in the driveway, there was nothing else they could do.

William Davis testified that he got in his car around 2 a.m. and drove to what he thought was his brother's workplace. But because he had not lived in Asheville for many years, he went to the wrong plant. The gate was shut, so he drove back to his mother's house to sleep.

James Davis never came home. That morning, on Wednesday, May 17, he stormed the Union Butterfield plant. Two of the victims were the bosses who fired him.

"I live for the rest of my life knowing that if someone had listened to me, no one would have died," William Davis said in an interview. "I could have stopped it if someone would have listened."

Last spring, with Mr. Davis already on death row, a jury considered a civil suit claiming that his employers had failed to protect the other employees from a man they knew to be violent. A lawyer for the company argued there was no way anyone could foresee such an attack.

A lawyer for the victims said, "This case is a human tragedy because this could have been prevented."

The jury agreed, awarding the families of two of the victims $7.9 million. An appeal has been filed.

Even the cases that drew wide attention offer fresh insights when re-examined in the context of the Times review.

One spring day, Kipland P. Kinkel, a freckle-faced boy with a history of behavior problems in school, disrupted his ninth-grade literature class by abruptly yelling out loud, "God damn this voice inside my head!"

His teacher took immediate action. He wrote up a disciplinary note. "In the future," it asked, "what could you do differently to prevent this problem?"

Kip dutifully filled out the answer: "Not to say 'Damn.'"

The note was signed by the teacher. Kip took it home to his mother, and she signed it too.

Nobody paid attention to the part about the voice inside Kip's head.

One month later, on May 20, 1998, Kip was suspended from school for buying a stolen gun and stashing it in his locker. That afternoon, back at home in a wooded neighborhood called Shangri La, Kip Kinkel, 15, shot his father and then his mother.

The next morning he drove to his school in Springfield, Ore., and shot 24 people in the cafeteria, killing two students.

Sometimes even concerned parents, like the Kinkels, or other caring adults, find the specter of serious mental or emotional problems in a child so disturbing that they lapse into denial, the study found over and over.

The youngsters themselves often unwittingly assist in the denial by being reluctant to tell someone about hearing voices or having bizarre thoughts, in fear of being labeled mentally ill. Complicating the picture is the fact that in adolescents like Kip, the symptoms are most likely just emerging, psychiatric experts say.

Kip Kinkel's parents, while perhaps unwilling to face the serious implications of his outburst in class, had not been blind to his problems, according to interviews and court records. They were both schoolteachers, and such behavior would have been hard to ignore. Starting at age 6, when Kip hit a boy twice his age with a piece of metal bar, he was susceptible to uncontrollable rages. .

As a teenager, like many of the killers in the study, he showed an inordinate fascination with weapons. He collected knives, secretly built explosives and boasted to friends that he wanted to be the next Unabomber. He detonated explosives at a local quarry and was caught by the police throwing rocks at cars off a highway overpass, a prank that some psychologists say is an early indication of a potential for violent tendencies.

His mother took him to a therapist. Kip showed symptoms, the therapist noted, of "major depressive disorder," and was prescribed Prozac.

But William Kinkel, Kip's father, did not approve of therapy, and never attended the sessions, Mark Sabitt, Kip's defense lawyer, said in an interview. Mr. Sabitt said that Mr. Kinkel was "a very proud individual and aware of his image in the community. He was very skeptical of counseling in general and closed to the notion of someone in his family needing treatment, or even worse, being mentally ill. It just didn't fit with the image he had of his kids and what he hoped they would be."

After nine therapy sessions and three months of summer vacation on Prozac, Kip's behavior improved, so his parents discontinued the therapy and the medication. Kip's father bought him the Glock semiautomatic pistol his son had been pestering him for.

At Kip's sentencing hearing, the defense presented a family tree showing severe mental illness, including schizophrenia, affecting three generations on both maternal and paternal sides.

When Kip's victims addressed the judge, some said he was faking insanity. Others said that even if insane, he should be held responsible for ripping apart their lives.

"I don't care if you're sick, if you're insane, if you're crazy," said Jacob Ryker, one of the students who finally tackled Kip, despite gunshot wounds in his own chest and arm. "I don't care. I think prison, a lifetime in prison is too good for you. If a dog was to go insane and if a dog got rabid and it bit someone, you destroy it. So I stand here and I ask, why haven't you been destroyed? I question myself for not pulling the trigger."

An agitated Sgt. William Kreutzer Jr. telephoned a friend in his squad at Fort Bragg, N.C. He said the shooting would begin the next morning at daybreak, just when 1,300 soldiers were on a field stretching before their morning run.

"He said he was going to 'mow them down,'" said his friend, Specialist Burl F. Mays.

True, Sergeant Kreutzer was an odd loner who talked about killing so often that the men in his company had nicknamed him Crazy Kreutzer and Silence of the Lambs. But when Specialist Mays arrived early the next morning and saw Sergent Kreutzer was not in, he feared that this time it was no idle threat. He told his superiors just before 5 a.m. and was asked to check Sergeant Kreutzer's room.

He found that the bed had not been slept in. On the desk he found a draft of Sergeant Kreutzer's will.

Specialist Mays later testified that when he then tried to alarm superiors, the first sergeant dismissed his concerns, saying something like, "Kreutzer is a pussy, he wouldn't do anything like this."

The case of Sergeant Kreutzer, told in court records and interviews, illustrates an altogether different common case: the depressed and angry misfit provoked by the people around him.

Park Elliott Dietz, a psychiatrist and expert on mass killers, said people who become mass murderers are often "handled in a provocative, ineffective way." Their outrageous fantasies of violence draw public condemnation or ridicule. Humiliation, Dr. Dietz said, often precedes rampage killing.

Sergeant Kreutzer, a gawky perfectionist, had long been the object of ridicule in his squad at Fort Bragg. When his unit was sent to the Sinai, other soldiers tied his shoelaces together while he slept. They filled his boots with sand. Sergeant Kreutzer, 26, had always wanted to be a soldier, but he lagged behind on company runs and sometimes misplaced equipment. He cried when criticized. When he repeatedly threatened to kill other soldiers, they took it as a joke.

Fifteen months before his final ambush, when Sergeant Kreutzer had an outburst in which he threatened to kill soldiers, and it became common knowledge, his superiors sent him to a military social worker.

"He told me that he had specific plans to kill the people in his squad," the counselor, Darren Fong, told military investigators, the court-martial documents show. But when he was returned to full duty, Sergeant Kreutzer was not referred to Army psychiatrists. He was barred from access to weapons for two weeks.

The morning of Oct. 27, 1995, Sergeant Kreutzer hid in the woods and fired onto a field of American soldiers who thought they were at peace. He wounded 18 of them, and killed Maj. Stephen Mark Badger, an intelligence officer and a father and stepfather of eight children.

Sergeant Kreutzer kept firing until he was tackled from behind by two comrades.

Minutes later, he spoke to a military police officer, Bruce W. Hamrick.

"He said he kept warning people that he was going to kill somebody," Mr. Hamrick testified, "but that nobody would listen."

Reporting for this series was by Fox Butterfield, Ford Fessenden, William Glaberson and Laurie Goodstein, with research assistance from Anthony Zirilli and other members of the news research staff of The New York Times.

April 11, 2000


The Mentally Ill Often Skirt a Landmark Federal Gun Control Law


SALT LAKE CITY -- With the voices inside her head ordering her to kill, Lisa Duy walked into Doug's Shoot'n Sports here to buy a Smith & Wesson 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol.

For Doug's, the biggest gun store in Utah, the transaction was routine. The manager, Dave Larsen, called the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification to run a background check on Ms. Duy, and the agency quickly approved the sale, having found no record of felony convictions or mental illness.

In the basement shooting range, Mr. Larsen showed Ms. Duy, 24 and unemployed, how to hold and fire the heavy stainless-steel gun. The only thing unusual, he thought, was that as she left the store, headed for the bus stop outside, she was wearing the shooting-range ear protectors he had lent her.

Less than two hours after leaving Doug's, on Jan. 14, 1999, Ms. Duy, ear protectors still in place, walked into the studios of television station KSL a few blocks from the Mormon Temple and began firing her new weapon. She shot more than four dozen times in all, killing a young mother and wounding the building manager.

What the background check had been unable to detect was that Ms. Duy (pronounced dwee) had a long history of psychiatric problems, had in fact been found to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and, only a year before the check, had been committed to a mental hospital by a judge after threatening to kill an F.B.I. agent, an encounter that sprang from her delusions that the station was broadcasting information about her sex life.

Of the 100 episodes of rampage killings examined for this series by The New York Times, none better illustrates than the case of Lisa Duy just how difficult it can be to enforce a key provision of the nation's fundamental gun control law. That provision prohibits people who have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions from buying a handgun. But laws in most states guard the privacy of the mentally ill, and to protect them from stigma these statutes generally bar law-enforcement agencies from access to mental health records.

As a result, gun background checks of people with psychiatric problems typically fail to turn up their mental health history, a loophole that has contributed to the wave of school and workplace shootings of the last decade. In the 100 cases reviewed by The Times, the vast majority of them from the last 10 years, half the killers were people with a history of serious mental health problems, and at least eight had been involuntarily committed.

Now, fueled by those shootings, there is a growing debate pitting public-safety concerns against the rights of the mentally ill. This March, in the wake of the Duy shooting and another like it in April 1999, Utah became one of the few states that give law-enforcement agencies mental health information for background checks on prospective gun buyers. Connecticut acted similarly last fall, after a state lottery employee with a history of depression and psychiatric hospitalization killed four of his bosses and committed suicide in 1998.

Lisa Duy Lied, and No One Knew

The provision that bars handgun purchases by people who have ever been involuntarily committed is more than 30 years old, dating from adoption of the sweeping federal Gun Control Act of 1968.

These are frequently the most disturbed people, those forced into hospitals because courts have determined that they may harm themselves or others.

But the provision is usually meaningless: over the years, the National Rifle Association, mental health advocates and civil liberties groups have found themselves on the same side of this issue, fighting independently to keep agencies that conduct background checks from gaining access to information about who has been committed.

At the time of her rampage, it was against the law in Utah for the court that had committed Ms. Duy to tell a law-enforcement agency.

Even the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which conducts background checks for the majority of states, has mental health records only on people treated in Veterans Affairs hospitals, plus an assortment of 41 other individuals, among its data on some 40 million people that the bureau now keeps for its system of national instant criminal background checks.

So when Ms. Duy, completing a mandatory federal handgun application, answered no to a question asking whether she had ever been committed, the Utah Bureau of Criminal Identification had no mental health records in its database to catch her lie.

"I don't understand how Lisa could buy a gun," said her mother, Khanh Duy, who immigrated with the family from Vietnam by way of their ancestral China in 1980, when Lisa was a little girl.

"Lisa is a good girl," Mrs. Duy said. "But she heard voices, and she had been in the hospital."

Another case in which a person who had been involuntarily hospitalized was able to buy a gun despite the federal law, and went on to kill with it, was that of Gracie Verduzco, a 35-year-old paranoid schizophrenic who believed she had a transmitter in her left ear that received messages from a satellite.

Ms. Verduzco had been committed to mental hospitals three times, by judges in both Arizona and, after she had threatened President Clinton, the District of Columbia.

Yet she was able to buy a .38-caliber revolver at a pawnshop in Tucson, and she used it to kill one person and wound four others at a post office and on a highway there on May 21, 1998.

And near Atlanta, James Calvin Brady, a black man who believed a machine had been implanted in his stomach that told him to kill white people, walked out of the Georgia Regional Hospital, where he had been involuntarily committed, and the same day bought a .38-caliber revolver at a pawnshop. The next day, April 25, 1990, he killed one person and wounded four at a shopping mall.

Both Ms. Verduzco and Mr. Brady lied on their gun applications in denying involuntary commitment, and there was no information to catch them.

The conflict between the rights of the mentally ill and the screening that would help keep guns out of their reach can be a wrenching one.

Vicki Cottrell, executive director of the Utah branch of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, an organization of families of the disturbed, has a daughter with schizophrenia who, like Ms. Duy, heard voices. One day the voices told her to kill her mother, as a sacrifice to silence them. The daughter's psychiatrist called the police, who arrested her.

"We family members have a real dilemma," Ms. Cottrell said. "I used to lie awake at night worrying my daughter would buy a gun and carry out her delusions. So I think people who have been involuntarily committed should be in the computer for gun checks. But we have to be very careful we don't add to the stigma against mental illness and make people afraid to seek treatment."

According to a Justice Department study, about 150,000 people a year are committed to mental institutions by court order in the United States, where there are now perhaps 2.7 million people who have been involuntarily committed at some point in their lives and are therefore barred by the federal law from buying a handgun.

Few of these people commit murder, of course, and shootings by the mentally ill account for only a tiny fraction of all homicides. Indeed, recent studies have shown that the mentally ill are no more violent than other people -- except in two circumstances: when they are off their medications or have been abusing drugs or alcohol.

In any case, highly publicized workplace and school shootings have now led the authorities in nine states, including Connecticut and New Jersey but not New York, to give their law-enforcement agencies some form of access to mental health records. Officials in those states say they have been surprised at the number of previously committed people who try to buy guns.

In Illinois, for instance, 3,699 people who applied for a gun card -- the first step in buying a handgun there -- were turned down from 1996 to 1998 when records showed they had been either voluntarily or involuntarily committed within the last five years, the legal test under Illinois law, said Tim Da Rosa, deputy director of the state police. An additional 5,585 people who were hospitalized from 1996 to 1998 were found to already possess gun permits, which as a result were revoked.

But at the national level, as in most states, there has been no comparable effort to create access to court commitment records for gun checks. That lack of action is in stark contrast to the long effort by gun control groups and the Clinton administration in winning enactment of the Brady law to create databases screening out convicted felons, who, like the involuntarily committed, were barred by the 1968 law from handgun purchases.

Some gun control advocates say privately that addressing the issue is simply too touchy a matter.

They do not want to have to fight on two flanks at once, confronting liberals who support the rights of the mentally ill while battling conservatives who back the N.R.A.

One such advocate for the mentally ill is Michael Faenza, president of the National Mental Health Association, who said that despite The Times's finding that a number of the killers in the cases it reviewed had been able to buy guns despite having been involuntarily hospitalized, he was opposed to any law that would provide records on involuntary commitments for gun background checks.

"People with mental illnesses," Mr. Faenza said, "should not be discriminated against in any way.

If you did that, you would not reduce the violence, only create more stigma."

Voices of Torment, Hints of Rampage

Lisa Duy is a case study in how even a long record of psychosis, arrest, assault, threats to kill and court-ordered hospitalization may not be enough to stop a person from buying a gun. In Utah, no one, neither Ms. Duy's psychiatrists nor her lawyers, not judges, the police or prosecutors, knew her full story. It is this:

Until high school, young Lisa seemed to flourish.

Then, in the 10th grade, she started to hear voices telling her that other students were spreading humiliating rumors about her sexual proclivities.

Late adolescence is a common age for onset of schizophrenia, and as Lisa got older, the voices grew more tormenting, threatening to hurt her. She began to have trouble focusing during conversation, unable to distinguish between what people were actually telling her and what the voices were saying.

Schizophrenia, a disease that doctors believe has a strong genetic component, had already been diagnosed in two of Lisa's older sisters, and she began to worry that she too might be mentally ill.

In 1994, during her sophomore year at the University of Utah, her mother finally took her to the emergency room of the university hospital. There she reported that the voices made it hard to sleep, caused burning in her head and had once led her to try to stab herself in the heart to silence them, according to a later report by a psychologist, Stephen L. Golding, included in court records in the shooting case.

The doctors sent her to Valley Mental Health, Utah's largest public mental health network, where she was placed on Mellaril, an antipsychotic drug used to treat schizophrenia, and on an antidepressant.

As doctors later acknowledged in reports related to the shooting, Mellaril has strong side effects, and Ms. Duy suffered from increased agitation as well as rapid involuntary movement of her arms and legs. Besides, the medicine did not stop the voices, and so she often quit taking it. (Mellaril did have one virtue, notes Ms. Cottrell, of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill: it is much cheaper than newer, more effective and less troublesome antipsychotic drugs, and so Utah law requires that it be given to indigent patients like Ms. Duy who require such medication.)

On Oct. 7, 1996, the police in West Valley City, a Salt Lake suburb, got a call from a rock radio station, which said a woman holding a stick was standing outside the studio and insisting that a disc jockey nicknamed Steve Wonder was stalking her. Officer Mark VanRoosendaal arrived to find Ms. Duy's face rigid with anger. Steve Wonder, she said, had placed a camera inside her house and could read her mind. Not only that, he followed her everywhere, broadcasting secret information about her, and had tried to run her off the road.

Ms. Duy demanded to see the disc jockey, not realizing he had been standing next to her during the police interview. When Ms. Duy refused to leave and began hitting and kicking Officer VanRoosendaal and his partner, they arrested her. "Just shoot me," she said, according to their report.

She was charged with stalking, disorderly conduct, assault, interfering with a police officer and carrying a concealed weapon, a kitchen knife the police found in her back pocket.

The charges were only misdemeanors, and, given her mental condition, a psychologist raised questions about Ms. Duy's competence to stand trial. The assistant West Valley City attorney handling the case, John Huber, did not see any benefit to trying her, he said in an interview.

So he proposed a form of probation: a "diversion agreement" stipulated that if Ms. Duy sought mental health treatment and avoided further trouble, all the charges would be dismissed in two years.

When the two years were up, in November 1998, a secretary in Mr. Huber's office checked to see if there were any further criminal charges against Ms. Duy. The Bureau of Criminal Identification showed none, and so the charges were dismissed.

It was two months before the shooting at the television station.

What Mr. Huber's office and the judge presiding over her case did not know was that in the intervening period, in December 1997, Ms. Duy had threatened to kill an F.B.I. agent after he declined to help her stop what she maintained were broadcasts by the radio and television stations about her sex life. The bureau investigated her, found that she had psychiatric problems and had her doctors arrange for her to be picked up, an F.B.I. official said.

Ms. Duy was taken to the Neuropsychiatric Institute of the University of Utah, a high-security hospital. After psychiatrists there found that she was a danger to others -- the diagnosis was chronic paranoid schizophrenia -- Mike Evans, a mental health commissioner who acts as a civil court judge, committed her for 90 days.

When the commitment period was up, Valley Mental Health went to court to get it extended, arguing that Ms. Duy was still a danger to others and would stop taking her medication, said Jed Ericksen, the assistant director of adult services.

But Commissioner Evans refused, saying that after treatment, she no longer appeared to pose an immediate danger to others, Mr. Ericksen recalled.

Ms. Duy's case file was sealed in accordance with privacy provisions of Utah law, said Kim Zacherson, a clerk for Commissioner Evans. The commissioner declined to discuss the case.

"If we had known about the threat against the F.B.I. and about her court-ordered hospitalization, we would have taken it seriously," said Mr. Huber, now the chief West Valley City attorney. "She was in violation of the diversion agreement, so we would have reinstated our prosecution. And because of her mental condition, we would probably have ended up seeking a further court commitment, showing her pattern of dangerous behavior."

"This is a common problem we have, even in an era of all this technology," Mr. Huber said. "She was able to walk around free and buy a gun because of a lack of communication between the mental health system and the criminal justice system."

A Timid Woman in a Man's World

The largest gun store in Utah is a squat cinder block structure in a strip mall. There are racks of rifles on the walls, glass cases full of semiautomatic pistols and the constant sound of gunfire from the basement shooting range. Outside, the high, snow-covered Wasatch mountains loom like a white fortress, and there is a sign saying Doug's Shoot'n Sports that shows a man shaped like a bullet and wearing a Stetson hat drawing revolvers from holsters on both hips.

Lisa Duy first came here to look for a gun in November 1998, two months before the shooting, recalls Mr. Larsen, the manager. She was timid, but so are a lot of women when they enter a gun store.

"It's a man's world," Mr. Larsen said, "kind of intimidating, so we tried to be nice to her. She didn't act strange at all."

Ms. Duy did not know how to shoot, and so Mr. Larsen took her down to the basement and offered instruction.

He did not see her again until January,

when she came back and picked out a 9-millimeter semiautomatic. She was wearing a hooded sweatshirt hiding her head from view, says David Sorensen, a customer who was standing next to her.

"She made me feel suspicious right away, with the hood," Mr. Sorensen said in an interview, "and then when I glanced at her, she gave me this real scary look." (Mr. Larsen recalls nothing particularly suspicious, saying it is hardly uncommon to see people wearing hooded sweatshirts in January.)

It was too late that night for Mr. Larsen to call the Bureau of Criminal Identification to run a background check, and so Ms. Duy came back the next day. It took only a couple of minutes for her to be cleared: the bureau checked its criminal-history records, its outstanding-warrants file and the F.B.I.

database, but found no disqualifying information, said Joyce Carter, the supervisor of the state agency's firearms section.

Ms. Duy then paid $285 for the gun and went back to the basement to practice for an hour.

Mr. Larsen noticed on a television monitor that she was mishandling the gun, holding it with only one hand and a limp wrist, so that the firing mechanism, which needs to be held level, was likely to jam.

He went down to give her another lesson.

Ms. Duy was on a mission, she later told doctors who examined her. She needed the gun because the voices had told her that the only way she could stop KSL from reading her mind and informing all of Salt Lake City about her sex life was to kill a woman who worked at the station as a broadcaster.

When she walked into the television station's reception area and began shooting, it was like "going to a beautiful island and I was spreading flowers at them, shooting at them," she later said.

Ultimately, after her gun had jammed and she had been subdued, Sgt. Don Bell of the Salt Lake City police was assigned to interrogate her. He wondered how anyone could have sold her the gun.

"You would not have had to be a rocket scientist to know this woman was not your normal customer," said Sergeant Bell, the city's senior crisis negotiator.

"She was swearing a lot, and all she wanted to know was whether the woman she shot in the head was dead.

When I said no, she was only critically wounded at that point, Lisa said, 'Then this questioning is illegal.' "

The wounded woman did die later.

Her name was Anne Sleater, and she was not even a KSL employee. She was a human resources manager in AT&T Wireless offices in the same building as the station's studios.

A judge ruled that Ms. Duy was mentally incompetent to stand trial and ordered her to the Utah State Hospital for treatment to restore her to competence. She is still there, and doctors' reports suggest that there is little chance she will ever be well enough to be tried.

Enough Is Enough, Some States Decide

ublic concern about mentally ill people's ability to buy guns was further heightened here in Utah three months after the Duy shooting. Last April 15, Sergei Babarin, a 70-year-old Russian immigrant who was off his medications for schizophrenia and depression, killed two people and wounded five others in the Mormon genealogical library. Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a conservative Republican, called for a special session of the Legislature to deal with the issue raised by the two shootings.

Some advocates for the mentally ill, along with some judges, warned that allowing law-enforcement officials access to mental health records would infringe on the civil rights of emotionally troubled people. And the powerful speaker of the Utah House of Representatives, Martin R.

Stephens, who has a long record of support for gun owners, said he was against "legislation that will take away people's individual rights in the name of a little personal safety."

But now, a year later, Utah has enacted a law requiring courts that commit people to mental institutions to forward the information to the Bureau of Criminal Identification. So that the confidentiality of the records is safeguarded, the bureau can use the information only for gun checks, and cannot share it with other government agencies.

Most of the nine states that now provide access to mental health information for gun background checks have even more stringent safeguards.

In Illinois, the state police each day send a list of new gun-permit applicants to the state's Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, which checks the names against its database. This means the state police have no direct look at the files of the mentally ill.

Connecticut has adopted a similar system, acting after an accountant with a history of depression, suicide attempts and hospitalization killed four of his bosses and then himself at offices of the state lottery in 1998.

But since the accountant, Matthew Beck, had been hospitalized voluntarily, brought in on an emergency basis by his father and the police, and not by court order, the law would not have applied to him or barred him from buying a gun.

This raises a further troublesome issue, said Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

"Often there is not much medical difference between someone who is voluntarily or involuntarily hospitalized," Dr. Jamison said. (Indeed, some patients agree to be hospitalized to avoid court-ordered treatment.) At least eight of the cases that The Times studied involved people who bought guns after voluntary hospitalization, in addition to the eight cases of involuntary commitment.

To fill this gap, Connecticut last year passed another law, the first of its kind in the nation, that allows the police to obtain a court warrant to seize any guns from a person who, in their judgment, is a danger to himself or others.

Soon after the law took effect last fall, the police used it to confiscate five guns from a man in North Branford who was depressed after being suspended by his factory for an assault and had told officers he was going to kill his neighbors and co-workers.

"We can't prove how many lives we may have saved," said Mike Dooty, the deputy police chief in North Branford. "But in our eyes, this case had all the telltale signs. As a police department, we usually don't get to see the signs till after a tragedy has happened."

Reporting for this series was by Fox Butterfield, Ford Fessenden, William Glaberson and Laurie Goodstein, with research assistance from Anthony Zirilli and other members of the news research staff of The New York Times.

April 12, 2000


Man and His Son's Slayer Unite to Ask Why


GLOUCESTER, Mass. -- The envelope was hand-addressed. When Gregory Gibson glimpsed it one afternoon in November, mixed in with the junk mail and the bills, he knew right away what it was. The return address was a post office box in Norfolk, Mass., near Boston where, Mr. Gibson knew all too well, there is a state prison.

His son's killer was getting in touch.

So much came back that afternoon when the letter arrived at the Gibsons' clapboard house in Gloucester, a two-hour drive from the prison.

"I read the letter," Mr. Gibson said, "and, of course, all of a sudden, my head is spinning and I am right back in this whole welter of emotions."

It had been seven years since that winter night when his son Galen, an 18-year-old student at Simon's Rock College in western Massachusetts, had been gunned down by a fellow student named Wayne Lo. The consuming grief had abated; Mr. Gibson and his wife of 26 years had survived something most parents say is too painful even to consider.

Mr. Gibson's full beard and long brown ponytail were dulled now by the beginnings of gray. But, at 54, the gray might have come anyway -- even if Galen, the oldest of the three Gibson children, had not been shot to death for no reason in one of those inexplicable rampages by another student with a semiautomatic.

There had been headlines for a few days after the December 1992 shootings at Simon's Rock, a school in Great Barrington designed for high-school-age students who are ready to begin college work. But the attention had long since faded by the afternoon Mr. Gibson carried the letter from a murderer into his book-lined home office and sat down at the desk.

In his mind's eye, Mr. Gibson said in a series of interviews, he had seen Mr. Lo many times over seven years, not only in his prison cell but also back on that awful night: an 18-year-old sophomore with a buzz cut and a scowl, crossing the quiet campus with that big Chinese-made SKS semiautomatic rifle.

He pushes the rifle through the door of a security shack and, from a foot away, fires two shots into the abdomen of a security guard, Teresa Beavers, severely wounding her. A young professor, Ñacuñán L. Sáez, happens to drive into the campus. Wayne Lo kills him in an instant with a bullet through the jaw.

Galen is studying in the library. Some students rush in, saying there has been an accident. Galen rushes out to see if he can help. Wayne Lo puts a bullet through his chest and one through his side and then keeps shooting, hitting some students, missing others.

In the end, two people were dead, four people were injured. And if the rifle had not jammed, Wayne Lo conceded recently in the first interviews he has given, there would have been more bodies.

At home in Gloucester, Mr. Gibson keeps cartons stuffed with documents from his son's short life and from the court proceedings that followed his death. There is, for example, a color photograph, taken by the police, introduced at the trial where Mr. Lo was convicted of murder in 1994. The picture shows exactly what Wayne Lo did. Galen's slender body is laid out, still in his tangled college-boy clothes. His eyes are slightly opened. His blood-drained skin is nearly the same metallic blue-gray as the stainless steel table.

When Mr. Gibson opened the envelope that day in November, he found two pages of Wayne Lo's carefully printed handwriting inside.

"Dear Mr. Gibson," the letter began, "I really don't know how to start or what I should say." What Mr. Gibson went on to read, he would conclude, seemed to be a killer's effort to join him in the same search as people everywhere to understand how the unfathomable tragedy of random killing sometimes comes to innocent places.

Across the country, other families whose loved ones have been killed or wounded by rampage killers also try to find a place in their lives for the shattering events. Some join victims' rights groups. Others form gun control organizations. There are those who want to be alone with their experience, and there are those who say they have turned a corner and no longer want to look back.

Gregory Gibson had once been filled, he says, with vengeful hate. He also had a long period of paralyzing grief, "wondering if I would ever do anything again." But by the time he found himself reading that letter from Mr. Lo, Mr. Gibson had long been on a path not usually taken by people who have endured what he has.

For years, he has methodically forced himself to confront in extraordinary detail the crime that caused his family's heartbreak.

It is a search for meaning that he could not, and still cannot, fully explain.

"It's the story," he said to a visitor one night in the family's kitchen, still casually decorated with pictures of all three Gibson children. "All we've got now is absence and sickness. Somehow, if I follow this story long enough, it will be positive in the world rather than negative."

A Killing Sets Off a Search for Answers

It is impossible to know how people choose their paths through grief. But by the time Galen was killed, Gregory Gibson was already weaving together cerebral and practical approaches to life. He was a Swarthmore College graduate and a Navy veteran who, as a young man, had wanted to be a writer. After he concluded that his first novel was unpublishable, though, he set aside his writerly aspirations and went into the antiquarian-book business. It kept him in the world of ideas, he said, and kept bread on table as he and his wife, Anne Marie Crotty, reared their two boys, Galen and Brooks, who is now 22, and a girl, Celia, now 16.

After the crime, the Gibsons sued Simon's Rock, claiming the college's inattention to warning signs about Mr. Lo the day of the shooting was a factor in the murders. Simon's Rock, which is part of Bard College, denied any negligence but eventually settled the case for an undisclosed sum.

Still, for Mr. Gibson, the shortcomings of Simon's Rock were only part of the story he was working so hard to construct. He set out to learn as much as he could about every aspect of the narrative -- characters, scenes, circumstances -- that ended in Galen's murder. Mr. Gibson's search became absorbing, his son Brooks said; for a while, he worried that his father might be in too deep.

"He was really obsessed with the whole thing," Brooks said. "It would be all he would be talking about."

Mr. Gibson visited other victims of the shooting, sometimes leaving home for a few days to meet with a college student who might have seen something or with a gun owner with an expertise in the weapon Mr. Lo used. He talked to Mr. Lo's friends, and had Mr. Lo's parents to his home. He interviewed Galen's friends, lawyers in Mr. Lo's case, experts on violence, employees of Simon's Rock, authorities on firearms -- even the gun dealer who sold his son's killer the semiautomatic.

Each member of the Gibson family dealt with what had happened differently.

Galen's mother said that after Mr. Lo's trial she already knew more than she wanted to know about the crime. Of her husband, she said, "I think he hopes for some kind of answer, which I'm not sure he'll ever get." She was not interested in reading Mr. Lo's letter.

In an e-mail message forwarded by her father, Celia said she would prefer not to talk to a reporter. She cares about Galen and her father, she said, but "during this time of my life I have been thinking about lots of other things."

Brooks said he was not sure his father's search would ever end. "My dad," he said, "is an intellectual guy who is trying to figure out for the rest of his life why his son is dead."

In many conversations with a reporter beginning in January, Mr. Gibson said that, at first, the energy for his investigation came from fury that he focused largely on the administration of Simon's Rock. Just before Mr. Lo bought the used semiautomatic rifle for $129 at a gun shop in nearby Pittsfield, he had ordered, over the telephone, 200 rounds of ammunition from Classic Arms, a North Carolina arms supplier and brusquely demanded the package be sent to him, via next-day air, at the college. "I have to have it by tomorrow," an agitated Mr. Lo barked at the order clerk, according to police reports.

At the time, Massachusetts law provided that when an out-of-state resident wanted to buy a rifle in the state, the gun laws in the person's home state governed. The law in Montana, where Mr. Lo's parents lived, permitted 18-year-olds to buy rifles with no waiting period so Mr. Lo had.

Mr. Lo had slipped the rifle onto campus in a guitar case. But court testimony later showed that when the ammunition arrived in a long box, some Simon's Rock dormitory advisers had been alarmed when they saw a package in the mail room with its "Classic Arms" return address. But the college's dean, Bernard F. Rodgers Jr., decided after an administrative meeting that Wayne could take the package to his room. "I thought there was an issue here of privacy rights," Dean Rodgers testified in 1994.

After Mr. Lo had taken the package to his room and hidden the ammunition, Dean Rodgers asked Mr. Lo what had been in the package.

Wayne lied, saying it had contained gun parts for his father. His father did not own a gun, but no one from Simon's Rock called to check the story.

Simon's Rock declined to make its administrators available for interviews for this article, but answered some questions in writing. The college regrets the deaths and suffering, according to the statement. But the college added: "If mistakes were made prior to the evening of December 14, 1992, which, in hindsight, might have derailed or at least revealed Wayne Lo's murderous plans, such mistakes must be viewed in the context of the setting and of the times (when school shootings were still relatively unheard of)."

Much of Mr. Gibson's quest to have Simon's Rock admit some responsibility in Galen's death, along with his search for how Mr. Lo could have so easily bought a semiautomatic rifle, can be found in a book he has written, his first to be published: "Gone Boy, A Walkabout: A father's search for truth in his son's murder" (Kodansha International, 1999).

The book is an elegant account of the missteps and deceptions that clear the way for random killing. But Mr. Gibson had not interviewed one central character: Wayne Lo. One of the book's most haunting images is of Mr. Gibson sitting in his car in the visitor's parking lot of the prison, the Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Norfolk, just staring off at the high, impenetrable walls. Someday, he mused in the book's final pages, he would like to confront the person who had caused all the pain.

Time in Prison Leads to a Life Reconsidered

Wayne Lo, who is now 25, has been on a kind of journey, too. After the crime and for the first years of his imprisonment, he said not long ago, he believed that God had chosen him to commit carnage. Now, he calls that his period of denial.

"At the time I thought I did the right thing," he said recently. "But as I look back at it over time, more and more it doesn't make sense to me. And more and more I ask myself, Why? Why did I do it? I mean, Why?"

In more than five hours of interviews and 10 follow-up letters he described an evolution of consciousness that was something akin to a lifting of clouds. It happened gradually and, from what he said, it appeared that much remains obscured. In prison, Mr. Lo said, he has received no psychological counseling or medication. Nor does he feel the need for any.

The story Mr. Lo long told himself came down to this: In December 1992, he received a divine message to go to the gun store, order the ammunition with his mother's credit card, then lie and deceive and kill. He was so convinced that he was justified in his acts that he raged at his lawyers during his trial because they insisted on asserting that he was insane. Instead, he argued, his lawyers should have investigated his victims to uncover why a heavenly power had selected them to be shot.

Sitting back and talking one afternoon in a small, concrete-block room with a glass wall facing the main visiting area at the prison, he said the command to kill was a feeling. "It's not visual. It's not auditory," he said. "It's just, you realize it."

Amiable, with smooth, slightly dimpled cheeks and a sparkling intelligence, Wayne Lo often spoke with disarming frankness. He was also manipulative, controlling and so eager to portray himself in a positive light that it was sometimes impossible to believe he thought he was telling the truth.

Still, his description of his own internal journey remained consistent. And, apart from tending his image with a public that has largely forgotten him, he seemed to have little to gain from describing a growing awareness of the consequences of his actions.

A jury rejected his lawyers' insanity defense, as often happens with abhorrent crimes that are meticulously planned. He was sentenced to life behind bars and, in 1998, Massachusetts' highest court rejected his appeal. "He'll die in prison," his lawyer, Carlo A. Obligato, said.

The new ideas began to occur to Mr. Lo last summer or earlier -- he is not sure. He began to think, maybe it was not God who had told him to kill. And if it was not, could it be that what he had done was wrong?

By October, Mr. Lo said, he was experiencing such intense feelings of remorse that when, say, he caught himself alone in his cell laughing at a television sitcom, he would feel ashamed because Galen Gibson and Ñacuñán Sáez could no longer experience any emotions at all.

"What I really want at this point," Mr. Lo said, "is to go back in time and for this to not happen, not so I don't have to suffer, but those people -- that this didn't have to happen to them.

"If I could go back and you would still put me in jail for the rest of my life but these people can live and these people don't have to get injured, I would do that, I would take that. But what's happened has happened."

In seven years in prison, Wayne Lo has had plenty of time to reconsider his life before the night at Simon's Rock when lives were changed. When he spoke about those early years, however, the limits of his growing clarity seemed clear.

He repeatedly insisted, for example, that he was "a very happy person" before the message to kill came, as he believes it did, out of nowhere. He professed confusion at prosecutors' descriptions of him as an angry youth. He said he did not know why some people at Simon's Rock told the police after the shooting that he would sometimes talk about wanting to kill large numbers of people or, perhaps, himself. Some students told the police that Mr. Lo was prone to anti-black, anti-gay and anti-Jewish tirades.

Mr. Lo did say he sometimes felt like an outsider, at Simon's Rock and, earlier, at home. He is the son of a colonel in the Taiwan air force who retired and moved with his wife and two boys to Billings, Mont., where they opened a Chinese restaurant in 1987. The moves, Mr. Lo said, created stresses. He was Taiwanese in Billings, a Montanan in Massachusetts.

Expectations for him in both places were high. The family had made the difficult move for the sake of Wayne and his brother Ryan, who is now a 20-year-old college student.

"Our whole hope is our two boys," Mr. Lo's father, Jawei Lo, said as his wife, Lin Lin, cried softly during a long interview in their living room and over lunch at their restaurant last month.

For seven years until this fall, the Los said, Wayne seemed vacant during annual visits. He would occasionally rock rhythmically when asked about his crime, his father said. Then in the fall he seemed to awaken, for the first time discussing what he had done.

"If he can feel regret, feel guilt," Mr. Lo said, "we all think that is the right direction."

This fall, Wayne asked his mother to have a copy of Mr. Gibson's book sent to him. In the interview, she said Mr. Gibson had shown them that there were constructive ways both families could struggle together to cope with their losses.

"He is supposed to hate Wayne because Wayne killed his son," she said. "But he wants to do something different than just hate."

In prison, Wayne Lo said that reading Mr. Gibson's book was an emotional experience, especially when he learned about the Gibsons' warm family and how it had been wounded by what he did. "The book really did a lot to open me up," he said.

In a letter to a former Simon's Rock teacher who had visited him, Sharon Flitterman-King, Mr. Lo wondered whether he should write to Mr. Gibson. She wrote Mr. Gibson and asked whether he would be willing to receive such correspondence. He said he would, if Wayne was willing to accept responsibility for what he had done.

Soon, Wayne was composing that first letter in his crisp handwriting. "I just finished reading your book," he wrote. "It was a good book, though I don't think you need to hear that from me, because you didn't need to write it, I mean, if it wasn't for my horrible act. There is so much I want to say, but it is hard to put all of it on paper."

An Unlikely Team Sharing Information

On Dec. 1, two weeks shy of seven years since that murderous night in the Berkshires, Mr. Gibson wrote back: "Dear Wayne, Thank you for your letter. As you can imagine, I have been thinking about it a great deal."

More than a dozen letters have since been exchanged. The two men have yet to talk face to face. But separately over the months of their correspondence each has talked at length with a reporter about the other, the crime and their hopes for their fledgling relationship.

"He's going to help me resolve my feelings about the person who murdered my son, and maybe I can help him, too," Mr. Gibson said one day in February. "It helps him redeem his humanity and it helps me feel I put something into the situation other than hatred and rage. If we do pull it off, it is like some kind of alchemy."

Mr. Lo has concluded that he likes Mr. Gibson. But he does not expect Mr. Gibson to return the warmth.

"How could somebody ever?" he said. "I don't want him to like me. If he likes me, it would almost be that he would be disrespecting the memory of his son."

On some points, there was agreement. Mr. Gibson said he had been surprised to discover that he felt compassion and empathy for Mr. Lo. But, answering a question, he said: "Could I ever like the kid who killed my son? I don't think so."

To preserve some privacy, Mr. Gibson provided only a few excerpts of the letters; Mr. Lo said he would leave that decision to Mr. Gibson.

But the interviews and letters to a reporter seemed to duplicate much of what the two men had been saying to each other.

Mr. Lo carefully described the evolution of his thoughts. As he had come to realize God would not have chosen him to inflict so much pain, he said, he had struggled to understand what made him into a killer.

He remains convinced, he said, that it was something outside of himself that gave him a message to do what he did. Perhaps, he said in answer to a question, it was a supernatural or satanic force.

Mr. Lo said he would still prefer not to consider the possibility that he was mentally ill. "Personally I am, I guess you could say, a proud person," he said. "I would like to think that I have control of myself, that I am not impaired in any way."

It is just human nature to have such hopes, Mr. Gibson said. "He's got dignity," he said of Mr. Lo. "He doesn't want to be regarded as an insane monster."

Mr. Lo was stubborn about several themes. He repeatedly insisted, for example, that people had lied when they portrayed him as a hateful bigot before the crime, fascinated by violence and hard-core music. It was true, he acknowledged, that seven weeks before the shooting he had become notorious on campus for a class paper he wrote proposing the extermination of all H.I.V.-positive citizens.

But he insisted that had merely been an effort to get a good grade with a strong argument, not a proposal he really believed. He was a lover of ballads and the Rush Limbaugh television show, he said, not just heavy metal music. It had merely been a coincidence, he insisted, that the night of the killings he had worn a sweatshirt with the name of a hard-core band. A photograph of him in the shirt after his arrest drew national attention because the band's name seemed to be his explanation: "Sick of It All."

Mr. Gibson said he was sorting out the new information he was learning. But he was forgiving of Mr. Lo's more obvious misstatements, saying that Mr. Lo's recollections of what he felt in the chaos around the crime may simply be mistaken.

At times, when he considered the more awful revelations from Mr. Lo, Mr. Gibson sounded depressed. Once that mood seemed to hit after Mr. Gibson learned that Mr. Lo had said that the ease with which he had bought the gun, ordered the ammunition and fooled Simon's Rock officials had convinced him that his mission was guided by a divine force. "It all worked so seamlessly," Mr. Lo said. "I know it sounds terrible to say that."

At times, when he considered the unlikelihood of his bond with Mr. Gibson, Mr. Lo sounded hopeful. Maybe his other victims and their families, too, might want to hear his explanations and his remorse.

That appears unlikely. When told about Mr. Gibson's correspondence, Mrs. Beavers, the wounded security guard, said she thought this might be some new manipulation by Mr. Lo to make himself feel better. Baruc S. Sáez, Ñacuñán's brother, said he was not interested in anything Mr. Lo might say: "Me and my whole family have tried to forget Wayne Lo and view my brother's death like an accident."

So the story, for now, has narrowed to two people.

One, Mr. Gibson, who is not a churchgoer but says he believes in God, said he and Mr. Lo are contending together with the spiritual consequences of that December night. Someday, he might try to visit his son's killer in prison, he said.

The other, Mr. Lo, said he was willing to do whatever necessary to provide the answers his victims might need, no matter how difficult. "It is uncomfortable," he said, "in the sense that it just reaffirms every day and night: 'It's not a nightmare. I can't wake up from it: This is you, Wayne. You did it.' "

The partnership is difficult for any outsider to understand. Matthew L. David, another student shot that night, said it had been harder to recover psychologically than physically. He wished Mr. Gibson well, but said he had worked for seven years to put the experience behind him.

"Ultimately, 'why?' is not important any more," Mr. David said. "I don't know if I am ever going to know why. What I know is there were consequences to what happened." He had not read Mr. Gibson's book.

In prison, Mr. Lo said Mr. Gibson should get the answers he sought and then "he should just forget me."

At his kitchen table in Gloucester, Mr. Gibson said the work of the killer and the victim's father was not likely to be so simple as a quick exchange of letters and an atonement.

"I figure," Mr. Gibson said, "we've both got the rest of our lives to talk about this."