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College shooter's deadly rampage baffles friends

Image: Steven Kazmierczak.
An undated image obtained from a MySpace webpage shows Steven Kazmierczak. Officials say he killed five people and himself at Northern Illinois University. AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

If there is such a thing as a profile of a mass murderer, Steven Phillip Kazmierczak didn't fit it: outstanding student, polite and industrious, with what looked like a bright future in the criminal justice field.

And yet on Thursday, Kazmierczak, armed with three handguns and a brand-new pump-action shotgun he had carried onto campus in a guitar case, stepped from behind a screen on the stage of a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University and opened fire on a geology class.

He killed five students and then himself in a lecture hall where he himself had once helped teach a class. Investigators are trying to figure out what led to these killings.

The manager of a motel near the university said Saturday that Kazmierczak checked into a room just three days before the deadly rampage. He paid cash and signed in under only his first name, said hotel manager Jay Patel.

He was last seen at the Travelodge on Tuesday, according to the manager. He had littered his room. Cigarette butts. Empty energy drinks. Cold medicine containers.

Authorities found a duffel bag in the room Friday with three zippers glued shut. A bomb squad safely opened it and the Chicago Tribune reports that investigators found ammunition.

The motel manager says Kazmierczak also left a laptop computer behind. It was seized by investigators.

"It's scary," said Patel, adding that he called police when he found the laptop and clothes.

Troubled mind
The discoveries added to the puzzle surrounding Kazmierczak.

While friends, family, educators and investigators remain baffled and shocked at the gunman's acts, a closer look reveals that Kazmierczak's friendly exterior masked a troubled mind.

University Police Chief Donald Grady said, without giving details, that Kazmierczak, 27, had become erratic in the past two weeks after he had stopped taking his medication.
A former employee at a Chicago psychiatric treatment center said Kazmierczak's parents placed him there after high school. She said he used to cut himself, and had resisted taking his medications.

He had a short-lived stint as a prison guard that ended abruptly when he didn't show up for work. He also was in the Army for about six months in 2001-02, but he told a friend he'd gotten a psychological discharge. He had signed up after Sept. 11.  

Investigators are working hard to find additional information that triggered Kazmierczak's rage. But, exactly what set Kazmierczak off — and why he picked his former university and that particular lecture hall on Valentine's Day — remained unknown. Police said they found no suicide note among those items recently discovered.

Authorities still search for a woman who police believe may have been Kazmierczak's girlfriend. According to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is still under investigation, investigators were looking into whether Kazmierczak and the woman recently broke up.

Investigators learned that a week ago, on Feb. 9, Kazmierczak walked into a Champaign, gun store and picked up two guns — the Remington shotgun and a Glock 9mm handgun. He bought the two other handguns at the same shop — a Hi-Point .380 on Dec. 30 and a Sig Sauer on Aug. 6.

All four guns were bought legally from a federally licensed firearms dealer, said Thomas Ahern, an agency spokesman. At least one criminal background check was performed. Kazmierczak had no criminal record.

Kazmierczak had a State Police-issued firearms owners identification card, which is required in Illinois to own a gun, authorities said. Such cards are rarely issued to those with recent mental health problems. The application asks: "In the past five years have you been a patient in any medical facility or part of any medical facility used primarily for the care or treatment of persons for mental illness?"

Kazmierczak, who went by Steve, graduated from NIU in 2007 and was a graduate student in sociology there before leaving last year and moving on to the graduate school of social work at the University of Illinois in Champaign, 130 miles away.

'Saw nothing to suspect'
Unlike Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho — a sullen misfit who could barely look anyone in the eye, much less carry on a conversation — Kazmierczak appeared to fit in just fine.

His work on prison issues had drawn notice in academic circles, according to published reports. And he had once helped teach a class in Cole Hall, the scene of Thursday’s tragedy, according to old documents on the Northern Illinois University Web site.

At the time of Thursday’s shooting spree, Kazmierczak, a native of Elk Grove Village in suburban Chicago, was a graduate student in the School of Social Work on the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois, authorities said.

In a post that remains on a Northern Web site, apparently a brief autobiography that he wrote in seeking the treasurer’s post of the Northern chapter of the Academic Criminal Justice Association, Kazmierczak said, “I've worked very hard as a student. … I feel that I'm committed to social justice.”

Kazmierczak had been honored two years ago by Northern Illinois University with a dean's award for his work in sociology, the Chicago Tribune reported. According to the newspaper, Kazmierczak “had established himself as an authority on prison systems, having coauthored a manuscript on self-injury in prison and the role of religion in the formation of early prisons in the United States.”

The Tribune said Kazmierczak wrote both papers under the guidance of nationally renowned criminal-justice expert Jim Thomas, a professor emeritus at Northern.

Thomas could not be reached by telephone on Friday. He responded to e-mail with an automated reply: “We are all stunned by Steve's involvement. He is the last person in the world that we would have expected to engage in any violent act.”

According to the Tribune’s report, Kazmierczak attended Northern as recently as last spring before enrolling at the University of Illinois campus. While at Northern, the newspaper said, he served as vice president of NIU’s criminal justice association chapter.

Instructors for Sociology 170/Section 13 Left to right: Steve Kazmierczak, Josh Near, Jim Thomas and Josh Stone.

Web pages maintained by Thomas show a photograph of Kazmierczak, Thomas and two other men identified as instructors for Sociology 170, an introductory course in Room 100 of Cole Hall in the fall of 2005. Thursday’s attack occurred in Room 101 of Cole Hall.

Chris Larrison, an assistant professor of social work, said Kazmierczak did data entry for Larrison's research grant on mental health clinics. Larrison was stunned by the shooting rampage, as was the gunman's faculty adviser, professor Jan Carter-Black.

"He was engaging, motivated, responsible. I saw nothing to suggest that there was anything troubling about his behavior," she said.

Carter-Black said Kazmierczak wanted to focus on mental health issues and enrolled in August in a course she taught about human behavior and the social environment, but withdrew in September because he had gotten a job with the prison system.

He worked briefly as a full-time correction officer at the Rockville Correctional Facility, an adult medium-security prison in Rockville, Ind., about 80 miles from Champaign. His tenure there lasted only from Sept. 24 to Oct. 9, after which Indiana prisons spokesman Doug Garrison said "he just didn't show up one day."

Kazmierczak had left the job and resumed classes full-time at the Urbana-Champaign campus in January, Carter-Black said.

His University of Illinois student ID depicts a smiling, clean-cut Kazmierczak, unlike the scowling, menacing-looking images of Cho that surfaced after his rampage.

NIU President John Peters said Kazmierczak compiled "a very good academic record, no record of trouble" at the 25,000-student campus in DeKalb. He won at least two awards and served as an officer in two student groups dedicated to promoting understanding of the criminal justice system.

Shocking news hits home
Speaking Friday in Lakeland, Fla., Kazmierczak's distraught father did not immediately provide any clues to what led to the bloodshed.

"Please leave me alone. ... This is a very hard time for me," Robert Kazmierczak told reporters, throwing his arms up and weeping after emerging briefly from his house. He declined further comment about his son and went back inside his house, saying he was diabetic. A sign on the front door said: "Illini fans live here."

In Illinois, the gunman's sister, Susan Kazmierczak, posted a statement on the door of her Urbana home that said "We are both shocked and saddened. In addition to the loss of innocent lives, Steven was a member of our family. We are grieving his loss as well as the loss of life resulting from his actions."

Neighbors in the brick apartment building in Champaign where Kazmierczak last lived were shocked to hear he was the gunman.

"It's not possible," said Maurice Darling, 80, who lives in an adjacent second-floor apartment. "He seemed to be much too nice."

He said the tall, thin and bespectacled Kazmierczak shared the apartment with a woman and neither showed any sign of anger or aggression. "They were friendly, agreeable — just like any neighbor would be," she said.

Chelsea Thrash, a 25-year-old waitress who lives with her 3-year-old daughter in the apartment directly beneath Kazmierczak's, said he was always up late and there was frequently a lot of "trampling" noises coming from above the hardwood floors. She went up and knocked on the door once recently. It was 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. to request a little quiet. She recalled Kazmierczak had said through the closed door, "Oh, I'm sorry — I dropped my weight."

"It's kind of creepy," she said. "I never thought someone in this tiny corner of southwest Champaign would ever dream of that, let alone carry it out, and have that above me and my daughter."

Kazmierczak grew up in the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Village, not far from O'Hare Airport. His family lived most recently in a middle-class neighborhood of mostly one-story tract homes before moving away early in this decade. His mother died in Florida in 2006 at age 58.

He was a B student at Elk Grove High School, where school district spokeswoman Venetia Miles said he was active in band and took Japanese before graduating in 1998. He was also in the chess club.

'Everyone hit the floor'
At NIU, six white crosses were placed on a snow-covered hill around the center of campus, which was closed Friday. They included the names of four victims — Daniel Parnmenter, Ryanne Mace, Julianna Gehant, Catalina Garcia. The two other crosses were blank, though officials have identified Kazmierczak's final victim as Gayle Dubowski.

Allyse Jerome, 19, a sophomore from Schaumburg, recalled how the gunman, dressed in black and a stocking cap, burst through a stage door in 200-seat Cole Hall just before class was about to let out. He squeezed off more than 50 shots as screaming students ran and crawled for cover.

"Honestly, at first everyone thought it was a joke," Jerome said. Everyone hit the floor, she said. Then she got up and ran, but tripped. She said she felt like "an open target."

"He could've decided to get me," Jerome said. "I thought for sure he was going to get me."