Ellie Steve, 6, Lucia Reeves, 6, and Zoe Reeves, 18, gather for a candlelight… (Chris Carlson, Associated…)
Reporting from Tucson — Piece by piece, details of the weekend rampage in Tucson are beginning to emerge: the heartbreaking tales of people slain on a sun-splashed morning, the courage of those who overpowered the gunman, and the state of mind of the suspect himself, a young man who authorities say had plotted for weeks, and perhaps longer, to assassinate a member of Congress.
As the full scope of the tragedy sank in Sunday, it also had rekindled a national conversation, sparked by the outspoken sheriff of Pima County, about the role that an environment of partisan and vitriolic political discourse played — or did not play — in the shootings.
Jared Lee Loughner, 22, was formally charged Sunday with two federal counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of U.S. District Judge John M. Roll and an aide to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and three counts of attempted murder, of Giffords and two other aides who were injured.
Law enforcement officials said Loughner appeared to have prepared his attack on Giffords with some care. The Democratic congresswoman had just begun one of her Congress on Your Corner public events outside a grocery store near his home when the shooting began.
Loughner had purchased a 9-millimeter Glock semiautomatic pistol at a Sportsman's Warehouse in Tucson five weeks ago, and investigators who searched his home over the weekend said they found, hidden in a safe, two key pieces of evidence — a letter from Giffords thanking Loughner for attending one of her Congress on Your Corner events in August 2007 and an envelope that bore the handwritten phrases "I planned ahead" and "My assassination," the name "Giffords" and what appeared to be Loughner's signature.
Roll, the chief federal judge in Arizona, lived nearby and had come to the event to thank Giffords and one of her aides for helping "resolve issues related to the volume of cases in the district of Arizona," according to an FBI affidavit filed with the charges.
Authorities said Loughner fired 31 bullets from the weapon, hitting at least 20 people. When he paused to reload, he was tackled by two men attending the event, authorities said.
The chaos of those early minutes was captured in a wrenching series of 911 calls released Sunday. In one of them, a man at the scene said Giffords had been hit but was still breathing, and there were "multiple people shot." At that point, the 911 operator dropped her professional composure, uttering to herself, "Oh my God."
The first sheriff's deputy arrived on the scene three minutes after the initial 911 call.
Giffords remained in critical condition late Sunday, doctors said, but they saw her ability to respond to simple commands as a hopeful sign for her recovery. She was on a ventilator and in a medically induced coma, but she was being wakened periodically for examinations. They said the timing of the attack was, in one way, fortuitous, because it came during a shift change at the hospital and two trauma teams were available.
Dr. Peter Rhee, one of Giffords' doctors, said she was doing well but it would be some time before doctors could say whether she was likely to make a full recovery. The next major milestone, he said, would be to determine whether she can breathe on her own, and that was a week or two away.
"She's obviously not going to die … unless she gets a catastrophic complication," he added. "I'm very encouraged at this time."
Meanwhile, the investigative focus was on Loughner, who remained in custody but was saying little during questioning. Authorities said Sunday that they now thought he acted alone.
A "person of interest" in the case, an older man who had been seen with Loughner before the shooting, was identified Sunday as a taxi driver who had taken the suspect to the site.
The driver and Loughner were seen together on video surveillance tapes in the Safeway supermarket, but sheriff's officials said they apparently had gone there because Loughner needed to get change to pay the fare. The taxi driver was questioned and is not considered a suspect.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said Sunday that while it was premature to discuss motives for the attack, "it appears the target was the congresswoman." The director called the shootings "an attack on our institutions and an attack on our way of life."
In a series of disjointed YouTube slide shows Loughner posted in recent weeks, he had railed about government mind control and brainwashing through grammar, proposed a new world currency and complained about illiterate people and "federalist" and "treasonous" laws.