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"When you're alone": A Reporter's Reflections on Mass Murder

"When you're alone": A Reporter's Reflections on Mass Murder

Picture of Sam Quinones

When you’re alone; when you’re alone. When you’re alone, when you ain’t nothing but alone… .” Bruce Springsteen

 That song was one of the things that kept running through my mind one night in January 2011 as I stood outside the small house where Jared Loughner lived in Tucson.

Loughner had two days before shot and killed six people, and wounded a dozen others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, at a Safeway in north Tucson.

The other thing that went through my mind out in front of his house was the memory of the tiny room where Patrick Purdy spent his final days.

With an AK-47 assault rifle, Purdy, a thin, blond-haired drifter, had shot up an elementary school in Stockton on January 17, 1989, wounding 30, and killing five kids, then himself.

His was the first mass murder I’d covered.

His last residence was a dark place, its curtains drawn, at the El Rancho Motel on Highway 99 outside of town. I’d been there weeks before his killings, as crime reporter for the Stockton Record, to cover a meth lab that’d exploded in one of the rooms.

Around his motel room, Purdy had placed dozens of those tiny green plastic soldiers that were popular with boys before video games. On a jacket, he’d written the words “The Great Satin,” misspelling the Iranian ayatollah’s description of America.

I don’t suppose we’ll soon, if ever, know how Adam Lanza spent his last days, but I knew what kind of person he was the minute I heard of the shooting early Friday morning. And I figured he spent his life in a little room – his mind, his bedroom at his house where few neighbors knew him.

The Sandy Hook shooting was the seventh mass murder I’ve covered in my 26 years as a reporter – five of them in the last two years. Some – like Newtown, Aurora, Colorado and the Seal Beach salon shooting – I’ve worked from afar, helping colleagues on the ground.

Others, like Stockton, Tucson and the 2005 Glendale Metrolink crash, where Juan Manuel Alvarez parked his SUV on the tracks and 25 people died, I’ve worked in person.

In each case, as with Adam Lanza, I was tasked with finding out as much as I could about the suspect.

With Newtown, I can say, I hit a wall. I just had difficulty continuing on, doing the drill we all know how to do so well by now: calling neighbors or high-school mates of Adam Lanza. Don’t know if it was the cumulative effect of all the carnage, or this one in particular, but I had a hard time continuing.

But in each case, it’s struck me, as it did that night outside the Loughner house, the man lived in a tiny room.

I’d been in Purdy’s and Alvarez’s.

Purdy’s was at that motel room. Juan Manuel Alvarez’s was in a cottage, converted from a garage. His writings were on the floor, as was his mattress. It had cheap, dark wood paneling and an abused brown carpet.

In Tucson tracking down all traces of 22-year-old Jared Loughner, I felt I’d occupied a little bit of his dark room as well.

He played an online game known as Earth Empires, in which he could be someone else and say whatever came to mind. The Internet’s complete connectivity with the world allowed for his almost complete isolation.

Both Purdy and Loughner were white. I remember feeling, when I heard of each shooting, including Sandy Hook, that the murderer would be white. I told a friend: “It’s going to be a young white guy, cut off from the world, with some kind of access to guns, no friends, who probably spends way too much time on the computer.”

No big insight. In America, most mass murderers have been white men.

At the moment, I can’t say I know much about Lanza – I suspect we’ll learn a lot more as months pass. A high-school friend recalls him as almost physically incapable of carrying on a conversation. He walked the corridors next to the wall, always carried a briefcase and no one remembers him past his sophomore year.

It appears that, like James Holmes in Aurora, he may not have been as smart as people assumed he was. Holmes, a bright intellect in high school, seemed to fold academically when he faced real academic challenge. This may have led to his shooting at the Aurora theater.

However, in the cases of Purdy and Loughner and Holmes, each seemed to have trouble with anyone impinging on the universe -- their little rooms -- that they alone occupied.

Each chose spots to kill where no one could talk back, where they were assured of little opposition. What’s more, they faded before the color of authority.

I suspect that’s probably why Adam Lanza decided to kill himself, though he had ammunition to continue shooting for a while. He heard the cops coming.

Purdy, too, had enough ammunition to go on slaughtering kids for several more minutes. I remember Stockton detectives theorizing he’d shot himself when he heard the sirens.

Patricia Maisch, who’d gone to say hello to Giffords at the Tucson Safeway that day, remembers that Loughner, after allegedly shooting all those people, complained that those who tackled him were now hurting him by sitting on his legs. “Owww,” Maisch remembers him exclaiming.

Loughner’s loopy, grinning mug shot, taken just after the shooting, is how people remember him. But the face I first saw was when he entered the federal courtroom in Phoenix for his initial appearance two days after the shooting. He had a far-away stare, dazed, as if he couldn’t see how what he’d done could cause such furor.

After a bizarre encounter outside a community college math class Loughner disrupted weeks before, during which he insisted that the number 6 was really the number 18, a college counselor wrote: “He seems to have difficulty understanding how his actions impact others, yet is very attuned to his own unique ideology that is not always homogenous.”

Sheriff’s detectives say Loughner spent his last night in a room with blue carpet and a king-size bed attached to the floor at a Motel 6 overlooking a Jack in the Box and a Circle K.

But in the end, Loughner’s tiny room was his own fevered mind, which churned out gibberish about grammar and true currencies that he placed on the Internet, where he didn’t have to explain himself.

I suspect that, in some way, was true of Purdy and Holmes, and will found to be true of Lanza.

I learned without surprise that Loughner was a fan of death metal music. That music is a lot like how I imagine the minds of these guys: turbulent, tormented, babbling, allowing for no solace or reflection. Reminds me a lot of the frenzy of anonymous comments on Internet chatrooms, or cable news channels.

Outside Loughner’s house that night, it also occurred to me that mass murderers come from all walks of American life. Patrick Purdy was a refugee from a mother who hated him and a father who was weak. By his teens, he was homeless. He went on to be a prostitute and a security guard. The details of Alvarez’s family are hazy, except that he had a girlfriend who seemed loving and was at the end of her patience with him.

Loughner’s home showed care. It was planted with native plants: cacti and a large mesquite tree. I went to the county park that Loughner’s mother manages, near where the city ends and the Sonoran desert begins east of Tucson. It has picnic benches, a canal and a lake and ducks and is well-tended. Co-workers said she was very conscientious. A woman who tends gardens I imagine would also tend her son.

Still, few neighbors could say, as no one really knew the Loughners, even after two decades on the street.

Wayne Smith, a retired gas hauler who lived across the street, said he didn’t know the family’s last name until the day of the shooting. “They’re like a mountain man: they want to be alone,” Smith said, standing out on the street one night after the shooting.

Smith became my favorite citizen philosopher in the ordeal. Explaining why he’d helped the Loughners get their mail when they were friendless and holed up in their house, Smith said, “A man needs some compassion.”

A man sure does.

What I do know is that compassion is rarely cultivated in Internet chats or gamerooms, where no one has to look another in the eye.

I heard Adam Lanza’s room was immaculate when police arrived. Don’t know what that means.

But it seems to me that in these tiny rooms, they’re not limited by others, and can calm the sting of not finding a job or a girl who’ll go out with them. In their rooms, they can form watertight arguments that 6 is, in fact, 18.

For they are, in their rooms, nothing but alone.

Image by David Mican via Flickr

Sam Quinones is a reporter with the LA Times. He writes the True Tales: A Reporter’s Blog and edits Tell Your True Tale, a page for true storytelling. Contact him at Follow his public posts on Facebook at samquinones7. Follow him on Twitter at @samquinones7.

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