TOPICS > Politics

Portraits of Loughner Reveal Descent Into Disruptive Behavior

January 13, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Ray Suarez talks to David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post and Kirk Johnson of the New York Times about what friends and neighbors are saying about alleged Tucson gunman Jared Loughner's mental state and background.
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RAY SUAREZ: Although Jared Loughner has so far refused to disclose much information to investigators, a growing portrait of his problems and his mental state continues to emerge.

 

We get further details now from two reporters working this part of the story.

David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post joins me here in the studio, and Kirk Johnson of The New York Times is in Tucson.

And, Kirk, let’s start with you.

The release of documents from the college would seem to indicate that they knew for a while they had a problem in Jared Loughner.

KIRK JOHNSON, The New York Times: They certainly knew they had disruptive presence.

If you look at these documents that were released, they show a pattern of disruption in class. And that’s the word that is most often repeated in the reports. Their — the reports usually say that these incidents don’t rise to the level of threat or action at that time. And that seems to be a major element in why they — nothing was done for so long during the year, that the threshold of what would trigger action just wasn’t exceeded most of the time for him in these incidents.

RAY SUAREZ: But just to reiterate that point, Kirk…

KIRK JOHNSON: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: … a series of events, disruptive, inappropriate, or just sometimes odd, but nothing that would indicate that this man might have been a danger to anybody?

KIRK JOHNSON: Certainly, there were people around him who felt that.

We have talked to people, students, co-students, who — a girl who always wanted to sit near the door when he was there because she — she feared something in him. And others thought that, one day, he might do something extreme or violent.

But many others that we have talked to didn’t see that. They saw, you know, kind of crazy, but with a thread of shyness and quietness and a kind of goofiness.

RAY SUAREZ: Was the college’s response improvised, or did they have specific policies regarding this kind of thing? And do we know whether they were followed?

KIRK JOHNSON: As far as we can tell, they were followed.

The reports seem to suggest that they adhered to a certain threshold of what they were looking for and what the standards of the university and action required. And when they — and they often required him to be confronted with what his actions were. And those were some of the strangest language, as you quoted in your introduction.

One incident in particular, he was — he said simply that, because it was in his head, the teacher should accept it and give him a good grade. It was totally self-directed.

RAY SUAREZ: David, let’s look further back, to high school, often a rough three or four years for teenagers. What do we know about that time in Jared Loughner’s life?

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD, The Washington Post: Well, we have talked to friends who see that as kind of a breaking point, in which he came into high school out of junior high school as someone who had — appears to have some small problems with bullying. He was picked on.

But it seems like he was not out of the mainstream of his junior high school and not out of the mainstream in early high school. He took music lessons. He played in the jazz band. He was part of the sort of larger group of the high school. And friends say, starting around 10th grade, that starts to decay.

He had a girlfriend sort of cut off other friends. And then he and the girlfriend broke up. He wound up with sort of no social connection. Then you see later on in high school, towards junior year or senior year, an incident in which he’s caught in the school having drunk a large amount of alcohol, a large amount of vodka the night before.

He shows up at school at 9:00 a.m. obviously drunk and has to go to the hospital, he’s so drunk. And he tells the responding police officer that he drank because his father was upset and yelled at him. So, you’re starting to see somebody who goes from sort of a — at the margins of high school society to dropping off that society.

And, in the end, he doesn’t finish high school in the place where he started. He ends up at sort of an alternative school. And you’re seeing the beginning of somebody who is sort of losing the connection and the feeling of obligation to follow the rules of everybody else around him, the roots of somebody who, by the time he gets to community college in the last couple of years, can’t go a single class without disrupting it or yelling something out that doesn’t make any sense.

RAY SUAREZ: But he did have friends in high school who were willing to talk to you about what kind of kid he was at this time.

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: He did. He did.

And they remember things that are very typical, even a couple of years ago, you know, a Monopoly night, or his friends would all go out to IHOP on the weekends or they would go — this is a little further back — go on vacation together, things like that.

So, they — they remember the things that a normal kid and a normal family did. And then they sort of start to feel more isolated in the last few years. And even those high school friends we talked to report that, about a year ago or a little bit more, they got a text message or some other note from him saying, out of the blue, “You’re not my friend anymore.”

RAY SUAREZ: So, there is a timeline.

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: Mm-hmm.

RAY SUAREZ: You got to talk to people who knew him during high school and then saw him or ran into him years later, and, what, noticed a difference?

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: Noticed a difference.

One of the people we talked to had been very close to him in junior high school and early high school, and they wound up actually at the same community college together. And he said that Jared sometimes would be very — try to seek out social interaction, really want to talk to him, really want to hang out with his friends. And there were other times when they would pass in the hallway and Jared would try to ignore him.

So, he saw this kind of unraveling. And, to him — I think, obviously, no one sensed the danger that obviously was lurking in there. To them, they just saw this as a person who was pushing them away, who was becoming harder to talk to. And so those social bonds, the few that Jared came into community college with, the few that he left high school with, those start to dissolve.

RAY SUAREZ: But, again, as in what was just described by Kirk, perhaps some incidents, but nothing that was so far outside the margins that it really rattled people?

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: Right.

Well, you see in these the difficulty of being one of these schools and trying to think about, where do you draw the line? People in some of his classes were terrified of him. I talked to a math professor who said that he was afraid to turn around and write math problems on the board, because he feared that, when he turned back around, he’d see Jared with a gun.

But — so that vibe was being given off, but there was nothing sort of overt. I guess there are code words, there are things you would have to say that indicate sort of a plan of violence or a threat of violence. And Loughner never said those things. He never went over the line, until the very end of last year, when apparently sort of the combined weight of all of these things caused the community college to suspend him.

RAY SUAREZ: Kirk, the school recommended that he get some kind of help. Do we know whether the Loughner family followed up on that recommendation, perhaps with an eye toward him being able to return to school?

KIRK JOHNSON: So far as we know, they didn’t. But there’s been very little communication with the family.

The incident that led to us — that precipitated his suspension at the end of September was pretty much the end of their contact with him. Two officers went to the Loughner house. And it sounds like a very bizarre scene. They were apprehensive enough that they asked for two officers to have backup in the neighborhood close by.

They went in, and Mr. Loughner, Randy Loughner, Jared’s father, brought them into the garage. And, there, they read the letter that was sort of the end for Jared at the community college. And many people we have talked to said that was — that could have been a pretty significant psychological turning point or break for him, because he was very attached to the school, apparently.

RAY SUAREZ: Kirk Johnson is in Tucson, David Fahrenthold in Washington.

Gentlemen, thank you both.

DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: Thank you.

KIRK JOHNSON: Thank you.