The high school student who stabbed 21 classmates and a security guard at a Pennsylvania high school was probably simmering with rage before the rampage and pumped with adrenaline as he moved through halls and classrooms to confront his victims, up close and one by one.
Those are the early conclusions of outside criminologists sifting through what little is known about Alex Hribal, the 16-year-old accused in the attack, and trying to piece together a rough profile and an explanation for the brutal spree.
What set the suspect off remained an open question Thursday. Hribal’s lawyer said that the teenager was not considered “a loner or a weirdo,” did not use drugs and had no history of mental health problems.
“People don’t just snap. There’s a buildup that takes place,” said Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI profiler. “There was some final catalyst, one last psychological straw that got pulled from under this guy.”
One day after the rampage at Franklin Regional High School outside Pittsburgh, little was known about the suspect. His lawyer, Patrick Thomassey, said that he stands 5 feet 3 inches and weighs 110 pounds. He did not keep a cellphone.
Thomassey, who spoke with Hribal on Wednesday and spent hours with his family, described the teenager as a soft-spoken, shy, “nice young man.”
Hribal has no history of trouble with the law or mental health problems, and his parents knew him well enough to know what movies he watched and whom he hung out with, the lawyer said. Thomassey said he planned to seek a psychiatric evaluation.
It was also not clear why the attacker chose to execute the attack with two knives — ordinary kitchen knives, wide enough to open wounds more than an inch across, and long enough to puncture organs.
The criminologists said that the knives could have been chosen deliberately or could have been “weapons of opportunity,” selected simply because the attacker had no access to guns or explosives.
There are significant differences, though, between stabbing sprees and shooting sprees, they said.
“Using a gun is not as personal as using a knife,” said Eric Hickey, who worked on the FBI’s Unabomber task force and advises federal, state and local law enforcement agencies on criminal investigations.
“When they stab someone, that’s a different dynamic,” he said. “It’s much more up close.”
A gun gives a shooter the chance to stand at a cold remove and with a degree of anonymity, and given the preparation required — securing a gun and ammunition, getting the weapon into school — makes it more likely to be premeditated, Van Zandt said.
Stabbers have a much greater “rage quotient,” he said in a briefing memo prepared for NBC News.
“They have to see their victims, be prepared for blood,” he said. “And it takes a lot of physical work to wave knives and attack people.”
Van Zandt said that he once interviewed a teenager who had been stabbed 60 times with an ice pick, and who said that his attacker had to keep switching hands because his hands were getting tired.
Surging adrenaline and the element of surprise — the stabber moved quickly from classroom to classroom and into the halls — would have allowed a 5-foot-3 attacker to get to almost two dozen victims, many considerably larger than him.
Police have said that they are looking into whether Hribal was bullied. His lawyer said Thursday that the parents were unaware of bullying, and he said that Hribal himself made no mention of it when they talked on Wednesday.
You have other kids that are just solid individuals and some that are just shy and don’t know how to handle society.
But in a moment of compassion and reflection at a press conference on Thursday, Amanda Leonard, whose son was stabbed in the back at Franklin Regional, raised the possibility.
“I think in this time in this age that we live in, in all honesty, there’s more bullying than what anybody wants to say,” she said. “You have other kids that are just solid individuals and some that are just shy and don’t know how to handle society.”
“In that way,” she concluded, “we need to look and see how are children coping with social skills these days.”
Sitting by her side, her son, Brett Hurt, said that he had met Hribal a couple of times but “never really talked to him.”
“Maybe if he had more friends or somebody to help him out, to show him a different path, maybe it would have been different,” he said.