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Report on 2008 NIU killings: There were no warning signs
By Susan Sarkauskas | Daily Herald Staff

A sign in front of an apartment along Normal Street in DeKalb, the day after a deadly Feb. 14, 2008, shooting on the campus of Northern Illinois University.

 

Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Greg Zanis of Sugar Grove places a flower along some of the crosses that he placed across from Cole Hall Feb. 15, 2008, one day after five students were killed by a shooter at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

 

Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Gayle Dubowski

 

Marcelle Bright | Staff Photographer

Daniel Parmenter

 

Ryanne Mace

 

Julianna Gehant

 

Catalina Garcia

 

Thousands of students at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb participated in a vigil on the anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech University. The vigil was just two months after a shooting at NIU took the lives of five students.

 

John Starks | Staff Photographer

Crosses memorialize the five students who died in a shooting at NIU in 2008. The crosses were erected by mourners on a small hill near Cole Hall, the site of the shooting.

 

Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

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Published: 3/18/2010 10:35 AM | Updated: 3/18/20 6:44 PM

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Why did a shooter pick Northern Illinois University for his deadly rampage in 2008?

It could be because he was angry at his surrogate university family, speculates a report released Thursday by NIU.

The reason behind the Feb. 14, 2008 tragedy, in which five students were killed, may never really be known. The shooter, Steven Kazmierczak of Elk Grove Village, left behind no notes, letters, videos or manifestos explaining his actions.

An independent psychologist hired by NIU police says the shooter may have done it because the university replaced his disliked family, and disruptions in that beloved surrogate family launched the mentally unstable man into an angry downward spiral.

That, and several other factors, may have led the shooter, a 2006 graduate, to enter a large lecture hall and shoot people with a shotgun and a 9 mm handgun. Killed were Daniel Parmenter of Elmhurst, Gayle Dubowski of Carol Stream, Catalina Garcia of Cicero, Julianna Gehant of Mendota and Ryanne Mace of Carpentersville. He shot 16 others, before shooting himself to death, in fewer than 6 minutes.

The findings

There wasn't much NIU could have done to prevent the shooting, the report concludes. Under the "Major Findings" portion, it notes "the student had a history of poor mental health" before attending NIU, but that the university is prevented by federal anti-discrimination laws from asking about mental health when considering students for admission.

Teachers and relatives from his past were interviewed for the report. He had behavioral and learning trouble in grade school; his parents asked for an assessment, but were refused. He and his mother would spend afternoons watching gory, age-inappropriate horror movies. When police notified his sister about the shooting, she said she was "surprised he hadn't come to kill her," and that he had once chased her with a knife.

The report says the shooter was diagnosed throughout his teenage years with mental illnesses including schizo-affective disorder and schizoid personality traits. He was anxious and depressed, and heard imaginary voices telling him he was inadequate. He tried to kill himself seven times in a little more than a year, and was kicked out of a group home for fooling staff into thinking he was taking his medications.

After graduating from high school, he worked retail and fast-food jobs, and was fired from four of them. He joined the Army, where he apparently did well, until Army officials discovered he had lied about his mental-health treatments on enlistment documents and discharged him.

He graduated from NIU with honors in 2006. The report mentions he developed an especially close relationship with a professor in the sociology department, and speculates the shooter may have found a kind of surrogate loving and accepting family in this. He was trusted enough to help teach courses as an undergraduate, and began graduate studies there. But changes in the department, including a new chairman, made him unhappy, and he transferred to the University of Illinois.

In 2006 his mother, from whom he had been estranged, died. During a November 2007 visit, his father told him his mother didn't love him because of the disruptions to family life his behavior caused, and handed over all the shooter's psychiatric records.

In the weeks leading up to the shooting, the gunman stopped taking medication prescribed by a psychiatrist, started stockpiling weapons and began covering his body in bizarre tattoos.

The report contends there were no warning signs that he was planning his attack. He had no contact with university or local police, or other judicial agencies, that would have indicated problems. As a teenager, he was detained by police, once for planting a Drano bomb on a neighbor's porch and once for rooting through a business' trash container. He was never charged with wrongdoing.

Since the shooting, NIU has trained staff members in how to identify and assess threats to safety from people with suspected mental-health problems, and adopted a policy that allows it to remove students from school until the matter is settled satisfactorily.

"But even at that, the NIU shooter would not have popped up, because he was a model student," NIU President John Peters said.

"My view is, the country has not made appropriate investments in mental-health care," Peters said. But then, the privacy rights of people with mental illnesses have to be balanced with overall society's need for safety, he said. "I think we need a national debate on that."

No closure

"While (the shooter's) motive may never be fully understood, these experts (FBI and private psychologists) believe that (his) decision to stop taking medicines for mental illness, in some measure, led to his criminal actions. He acted in a deliberate and premeditated fashion with malice of forethought (sic) to inflict maximum death and carnage on innocent victims," the report states.

"We realize this report brings neither comfort nor closure, but by sharing what we learned while dealing with this tragedy, we add information to the body of research on mass shootings that seem to increasingly plague our society," Peters wrote in the report.

The report is available at niu.edu/feb14report/.