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One month before deadly rampage, California shooter evaded police suspicion

May 26, 2014 at 6:07 PM EDT
Elliot Rodger killed six people and himself Friday night in Isla Vista, California. According to a “manifesto,” Elliot had been planning the attack for three years, and had posted videos promising violence. Judy Woodruff learns more from Adam Nagourney of The New York Times about his parents’ attempt to get to him before the attack and a previous encounter between Rodger and the police.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The college town of Isla Vista, California, just outside Santa Barbara, remained in mourning on this holiday, after a troubled student went on a killing spree there Friday night. Officials have worked to piece together what happened.

The parents of Elliot Rodger called the police and rushed to Isla Vista desperate to stop their son, but were too late. By the time they arrived on Friday night, Rodger had killed six people, injured 13 more and shot himself. Rodger had e-mailed a 140-page manifesto, as he described it, to his parents shortly before the rampage. In it, he mapped out his troubled life and what he called a day of retribution.

He had been planning the attack for three years, according to what he wrote in the manifesto. He also posted multiple videos to YouTube. The most recent one was uploaded the day before the shooting.

In these videos, he swore to annihilate all the women who he said had rejected him.

ELLIOT RODGER: You forced me to suffer all my life, and now I will make you all suffer. I have waited a long time for this. I will give you exactly what you deserve, all of you, all you girls who rejected me and looked down upon me and treated me like scum.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In late April, deputies from the sheriff’s office visited Rodger at his apartment after worried calls from state mental health officials. On Sunday, county Sheriff Bill Brown said, at the time, they were given no reason to search his apartment.

BILL BROWN, Sheriff, Santa Barbara County: He was able to make a very convincing story that there was no problem, that he wasn’t going to hurt himself or anyone else, and there — that he just didn’t meet the criteria for any further intervention at that point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If authorities had searched the apartment, they would have found three semiautomatic hand guns and 400 rounds of ammunition, all legally purchased. All of those killed and nine of the injured were students at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The school is holding a memorial service on Tuesday afternoon for the victims.

To examine what’s been learned over the weekend about the killer, his history and his motives, we turn to Adam Nagourney, the Los Angeles bureau chief for The New York Times. He’s been covering the story.

Adam, welcome back to the NewsHour.

Do the police now think that they know everything they need to confirm who was behind this? 

ADAM NAGOURNEY, The New York Times: Yes. I don’t think there’s any question about that at all.

They know who he is. They know he acted alone. He left such an extensive record that there’s really not even that much history about why he did it. So I think all that is done. I think the only — last I heard, the only sort of loose end was they’re not sure who the third victim was in terms of a — why he was there in the apartment.

But beyond that, most of this has been wrapped up from a legal point of view, from a law enforcement point of view.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, clearly appeared to be a very troubled man, had been having mental health therapy for a long time. What’s known about that?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: I mean, going back — pretty much his whole life — I read through the whole manifesto, which is actually even more disturbing than the video that you just showed.

He’s had psychological problems, anger problems his whole life. He’s been in and out of therapy. His parents have been very concerned about him. He was I think going to a psychiatrist or psychologist right up until this point, and he’s just — it’s been very troubled.

But I guess he was never — I the real question here is, he was never sort of troubled enough or publicly troubled enough to sort of trigger the kind of system in California where he might have been brought in for confinement or treatment or any kind of examination. And that’s part of the tragedy here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, apparently, he was skillful in concealing what was going on, because, as we reported, the sheriff’s deputies came to his apartment, what, a month ago and he persuaded them that everything was fine.


The deputies came to his apartment because his mother, we believe, saw some earlier videos, not the one that you just saw, but some earlier ones that were also a little disturbing, to see how he was, and he just sort of like came across, as the sheriff said, calm, placid. I think they said even a little bit timid.

Afterward, he said — he talked about how he was able to talk his way out of it by convincing them that he was a little depressed, but certainly very rational. It was a big deal because he was sitting there thinking, according to the document he wrote, that, oh, my God, this whole plan is finished because they are going to search my room, my apartment, and they’re going to find those three guns and they’re going to find the manifesto and they’re going to find all the weaponry.

But he convinced them that he was OK. And, under California law, deputies have some discretion, and it’s understandable why they reached the decision that they did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean because they couldn’t — they didn’t have a threshold, a reason enough to believe that he would commit a crime?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: That’s right.

They met him and he seemed, by their account, rational and calm and not psychologically disturbed enough to invoke the state law, to trigger the state law that would have allowed him — them to take him in. It’s one of those things. The sheriff said I think over the weekend, in retrospect, they might have been things differently, but it’s easy to second-guess these kind of things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the weapons that he had, we know that he did stab his roommate and two other people to death, people he lived with — the person he lived with and some visitors. But the guns that he had, those were all obtained legally?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: All obtained legally, bought them at three separate shots, three separate handguns.

He wrote that he actually made a point of getting three — this shows how much he planned this thing — just in case two of them jammed. He wanted to make sure that one was good at the end so he could kill himself. That’s how much he was thinking about this.

If the police had brought him in on for the kind of, you know, psychiatric examination we were talking about, then he wouldn’t have been able to get a gun. But that was — what is interesting about this is, California has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, arguably the toughest gun laws in the country.


ADAM NAGOURNEY: And it just shows there’s only so much these laws can do. He got the weapon totally legally and appropriately.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Adam, the writing, the so-called manifesto, 140 pages, those videos, those were not available until right before all this happened?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: So here’s the thing.

The video — I think it’s called Elliot — Elliot — Elliot’s — “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution,” I believe is the name. And the manifesto — the video was posted we think that day, on YouTube, that one where he talked about going out and slaughtering people. I think he used that phrase.

And the manifesto, he e-mailed out, as best as we can tell, to parents, psychologists, maybe some friends, at some point Friday evening, right before the attack began. By the time his mother saw it, according to a family friend, and called her ex-husband and called the police, the violence had already begun.

Now, here’s the thing. There were other videos that he posted earlier on. He posted them on YouTube. And he posted them on his Facebook page. And he posted them on — there’s various social media sites for frustrated — sexually frustrated young men that he was on.

And you could find some of them there. After the police visited him in April for the conversation — the visit we were just talking about, after the police visited him in April, he took those video down, because those were the videos that alerted his mother that something was going wrong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, as you said, police are saying they’re not sure they could have done anything differently, if they had asked more questions — they didn’t think they had the right to do anything more.


Under California law, they think they did everything they were supposed to do, and they didn’t deem it necessary to go in and do any more examination of him or any search of the apartment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are going to leave it there, clearly, a very, very disturbing story.

Adam Nagourney with The New York Times…

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Yes, it’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? It’s really heartbreaking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is. Thank you.