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Motive in Nashville shooting remains unclear weeks after 6 people were killed at a Christian school

Authorities initially believed the shooter might hold resentment toward her former school but they have not provided any details to publicly back up that theory.
Image: Six Killed In Mass Shooting At A Prive School In Nashville.
People visit a makeshift memorial at the entrance of The Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn.Seth Herald / Getty Images

More than two weeks after a mass shooting at a Nashville Christian school, investigators have not yet identified a clear motive in the attacker’s journal writings, and authorities have not provided any details publicly to back up their early suggestion that the shooter may have felt resentment toward the school.

One of Tennessee’s top law enforcement officials said in a recent meeting that the writings of the 28-year-old shooter, Audrey Hale, appear to be ramblings and indicative of a mental health struggle.

A federal law enforcement source verified to NBC News that no direct motive has been established in the investigation and suggested that the driving force of the attack was similar to previous school shootings in which the assailant was drawn to other mass killers.

On the day of the March 27 shooting, Police Chief John Drake told NBC News that Hale may have targeted Covenant because “there’s some belief that there was some resentment for having to go to that school.” He noted that the investigation was still in its early stages.

Hale attended Covenant, a pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade private school, at around 10 years old, a former headmaster said.

What spurred Hale to target The Covenant School about two decades after attending there has led to rampant speculation and placed scrutiny on what police initially said was their focus on the investigation. In the hours after the shooting, Drake said of the shooter that officials “feel that she identifies as trans, but we’re still in the initial investigation into all of that and if it actually played a role into this incident.”

Some conservatives seized on that angle to blame the killings at the Christian school on Hale’s gender identity, with the hashtag #TransTerrorism trending on Twitter. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., called for federal law enforcement agencies to investigate the shooting as a religious hate crime citing law enforcement reports that the shooter “targeted” the Christian school.

Jeff Syracuse, a Nashville councilman who chairs the public health and safety committee, said he has questioned some of the conflicting reports surrounding the investigation.

“At this point, I think the metro police department is backing off with making any judgments or assumptions on the manifesto and leaning on TBI and the FBI,” he said, adding that overall, the police have done a good job of investigating. “There are pieces to this whole story that we don’t know and I don’t know if it will ever give us closure or answers.”

Policing experts said it’s essential that officials are mindful of what they tell the public, especially since an investigation is so fluid.

“You should never speculate about a motive until you have all of the information despite the public wanting the answer right away,” said Tyrone Powers, a former FBI special agent and founder of The Powers Consulting Group, a public safety consulting firm based in Baltimore. “The manifesto may have some answers in it or it may lead to some other people, but until you go through all of that,” authorities shouldn’t comment on a motive, he said.

Joseph Giacalone, a retired sergeant with the New York City Police Department and an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the need for caution becomes even more crucial when the suspect was known to have a mental illness and is no longer living.

“We can’t ask her anymore, and we can’t get in her mind,” Giacalone said. “You can only explain what you know. You can’t explain what you don’t know.”

Police should release Hale’s writings when they can, he added, if only to put a spotlight on others who may be struggling and considering using violence.

“How do we stop the next one? Is the clue in her writings and ramblings how to stop it? Is there a clue that’s a tipoff?” Giacalone asked.

The potential release of the journals has become a point of friction in the case: While local investigators said they are continuing to analyze the writings with assistance from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico, Virginia, some in the community said the writings must be made public without delay to help people understand the carnage and Hale’s state of mind.

Officials have not said when they might release the contents of several journals recovered in Hale’s family home after the attack, in which six people, including three young children, were gunned down. Police killed Hale at the scene. Authorities said Hale identified as a transgender person and was assigned female at birth, according to court records.

Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department released a list of items belonging to the shooter, including two shotguns, cellphones and laptops, as well as a suicide note, three folders and 19 journals.

The shooter had planned the attack for months, according to those journals, which police said were located in the attacker’s car and bedroom.

More on the Nashville shooting

David Rausch, the director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, told attendees at a Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association meeting last week that the handwritten journals were ramblings, and the entries made no mention of specific political, religious or social issues, reported the CBS affiliate WTVF in Nashville.

Dickson County Sheriff Tim Eads, who attended the meeting in which Rausch spoke about the case, said Rausch found "no clear motive" in the writings that have been analyzed.

“It’s been characterized as a manifesto. I think that’s a mischaracterization, personally,” Rausch said in another interview with Pray In Jesus Name News.

He said he viewed one document that was “specifically a plan,” while another contained “journal-type rantings.”

“Ideological expressions — none of that has surfaced in these writings,” Rausch said. “It’s really unfortunate mental health issues that you can see as you read through the journals.”

While “we’re starting to see a picture come together, I’ll tell you it’s not close to anything that people are subjugating out there and exposing their opinions on,” Rausch added. “Folks just need to be patient.”

He added that he has concerns about releasing the writings “out of fear that someone else with a mental illness picks it up and uses it as a plan. That concerns me more than anything.”

Rausch declined several interview requests from NBC News.

Nashville police wouldn’t confirm the contents of the journal writings, and a department spokeswoman said they remain “under review and the motive is yet to be determined.”

But Eads said that, if it were up to him, he would make the writings public.

“I understand how the director might be feeling about when do you release this, and you don’t want to inspire another copycat,” Eads said. “But maybe there’s something for the general public to understand behavioral-wise why they did this.”

Fallout from the Covenant shooting was swift and dovetailed into the political crossfires resulting in the expulsion of two state lawmakers who protested gun violence inside the state Capitol before they were reinstated days later.

And while little is known publicly about the shooter's gender identity and whether it even played a role in the massacre, the disinformation surrounding transgender people has also left members of the LGBTQ community worried about their own safety amid a larger debate over LGBTQ rights.

Creaig Dunton, an associate professor of criminal justice at Western New England University, said releasing the personal writings of a mass shooter is a "double-edged sword" and can be problematic because it gives the person what they craved: attention.

But in this case, Dunton said, if sharing it can allay any fears and help the public come to a greater understanding of what motivated the shooter and potentially prevent another tragedy from happening, then that serves a greater purpose.

“We don’t know if gender identity played a part, but there’s a conversation to be had that speaks to society’s continual rejection and conflict over one’s identity that can lead to this disconnect and frustration,” Dunton said. “Either way, it’s so sad as we’re trying to understand the cause and motive, realizing that whatever information is shared might be weaponized against an already marginalized group.”