The man who killed five students and then himself in a Valentine’s Day massacre in a Northern Illinois University lecture hall described himself as an earnest student who worked hard for social justice.
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.
But Steven Kazmierczak, who peered from many U.S. news Web sites and TV screens with an impish grin on Friday morning, was also the “last person in the world” his friends would have expected to go on a deadly shooting spree, one of his professors said Friday in an e-mail.
At the time of Thursday’s shooting spree, Kazmierczak (pronounced kaz-MEER-check), 27, 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.”
Academic honor, a teaching position
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.
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 at the University of Illinois-Urbana, said Kazmierczak did data entry for Larrison's research grant on mental health clinics. Larrison told the Associated Press she 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 recently left the job and resumed classes full-time in January, Carter-Black said.
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."
Neighbor: Gunman had female roommate
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" noise coming through the hardwood floor. She went up and knocked on the door once recently at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. to request quiet and he 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.
One person who could shed more light on Kazmierczak’s life, his father, Robert, declined to talk to reporters who gathered outside his home in Lakeland, Fla. on Friday.