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Gunman wanted to punish Illinois university, report says

The 2008 video-game-style shooting at Northern Illinois University signified failures and angst in Steven Kazmierczak's life, a psychological profile finds.

March 22, 2010|By Jodi S. Cohen and Stacy St. Clair
  • Steven Kazmierczak killed five and wounded 21 at Northern Illinois University.
Steven Kazmierczak killed five and wounded 21 at Northern Illinois University.

Reporting from Chicago — Steven Kazmierczak wanted infamy. He wanted video-game-style bloodshed. And he wanted to punish Northern Illinois University, the "surrogate family" that had kept his demons at bay but had, he thought, abandoned him, according to a report on the 2008 shooting.

In the 18 months leading up to Kazmierczak's lecture hall massacre, his mother died, he lost his job as a corrections officer and he became angry because he thought the university had de-emphasized his graduate program, leading him to transfer to another school, according to the 300-page report released by the university last week.

It concludes that those and other events sent him into a tailspin and spurred the violent return of a mental illness that had been in remission while he was an undergraduate. Kazmierczak, who had fantasized about the destruction of himself and others, took his anger to campus on Valentine's Day 2008, killing five students and wounding 21 people.

The report is, in part, the university's attempt to explain why Kazmierczak -- wearing a black T-shirt with the word "terrorist" printed over a picture of an assault rifle -- returned to his alma mater, kicked in the door to a lecture hall stage and shot dozens of rounds into the auditorium.

Less than seven minutes into his ambush, he turned the gun on himself.

For Kazmierczak, it was the ending he wanted. For the university, it was the beginning of a quest to explain the inexplicable.

A newly released psychological profile contained in the report suggests that everything about the attack signified something in Kazmierczak's mind: the location, the date, the victims.

The report offers the most detailed account to date of Kazmierczak's troubled life, including repeated suicide attempts that required hospitalization, unresolved conflicts with his parents stemming from their decision to institutionalize him, and interest in satanic rituals.

The 27-page profile of Kazmierczak, written by a psychologist hired by the university, said the shooter had been diagnosed as a teenager with schizoaffective disorder, a disabling mental illness characterized by a combination of schizophrenia and a mood disorder such as manic depression.

The profile suggests he increased the difficulty of his shooting spree as if it were a video game. When he had emptied the shotgun and walked into the audience with his handguns, he fired only at those who ran or ducked. Those who sat frozen in their seats, the easiest targets, were ignored.

Kazmierczak, 27, didn't leave a suicide note. The hard drive of his computer has never been found. He tossed out his cellphone's memory card.

During the time he was a standout undergraduate student, from 2002 to 2006, Kazmierczak was surrounded by the reassurance and praise he needed -- and was not plagued by mental illness for the first time in years.

Described as the sociology department's "golden boy," he graduated with a 3.88 grade-point average, worked as a rare undergraduate teaching assistant and began pursuing a master's degree.

But Kazmierczak became disenchanted after a change in department leadership. He transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but kept in touch with colleagues until he was rebuked for an "unprofessional" and "inappropriate" attack against a former classmate on a sociology message board.

Kazmierczak stopped visiting the site and lost one of his strongest ties to his so-called surrogate family, the profile said.

The report suggests Kazmierczak selected Cole Hall for his shooting spree because of his familiarity with the auditorium. He took his first sociology class in the building, served as a teaching assistant there and spent hours in the nearby sociology offices.

"By ending his life and the lives of other [students] there, Kazmierczak would have come full circle," the report said. "It was where he had flourished. Now it would be the setting for his grotesque end."

He may have chosen Valentine's Day because it had been tied to some of his failures, the profile speculates. He returned home from the Army on Feb. 14, 2002, after being discharged for not disclosing past psychiatric problems. He took his corrections officer's exam on Feb. 14, 2007 -- then lost his dream job later that year.

jscohen@tribune.com

sstclair@tribune.com

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