YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A troubled mind in Tucson

Classmates and teachers knew something was wrong with Jared Lee Loughner, charged in Saturday's fatal shootings. His behavior had grown increasingly bizarre in recent months.

January 11, 2011|By Sam Quinones, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tucson — On Saturday morning just after 11, the quiet, working-class Tucson neighborhood suddenly filled with sheriff's patrol cars and FBI agents. They quickly cordoned off the North Soledad Avenue home of Amy and Randy Loughner, who were out shopping.

Moments later, the Loughners, unaware, pulled up with groceries in their old white pickup. They parked across the street from their home.

A neighbor, retired gasoline truck driver Wayne Smith, 70, had seen a TV news report about a shooting at a nearby Safeway store. It said the Loughners' son, Jared, was the suspect.

Smith approached the couple.

"I said, 'Guys, I hate to be the one to tell you, but he shot a bunch of people,' " Smith said late Monday afternoon in front of the Loughners' house. Jared's mother, he said, "just come unglued."

As authorities searched the house, said Smith, "We stood right out there and cried for an hour. I'm a softie. A man needs compassion. He's broken up about his son, but also about all those people who died."

As their son appeared in federal court in Phoenix on Monday, the Loughners remained secluded in their home. Jared Lee Loughner has been charged with murder and attempted murder in the rampage that left six dead and 14 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who authorities said was his target.

"They're in there now," Smith said, just after bringing the couple their mail. "They're both in there crying. He's crying and hanging on to me, and she's not even out of bed. He worshipped the boy."

It is not clear what the parents knew of their son's troubles, but it was obvious to his fellow students at Pima Community College in Tucson last spring that something was wrong with Jared Loughner. He often laughed and muttered to himself. When he spoke, he was incoherent or nonsensical. Classmates and professors assumed he was on drugs.

"If you've ever seen someone hallucinate, it was kind of like that," said classmate Lydian Ali, 26. "I never felt threatened by him." But one woman dropped their poetry class partly because Loughner's behavior was so weird, Ali added.

Although many who know him said Loughner did not seem violent, others said he scared them. In recent months, the young man's behavior — both in the classroom and online, where he ranted about the government, U.S. currency and the constitutionality of certain institutions — seemed to be in a downward spiral.

"He had this kind of hysterical laugh. … It was very creepy, very bizarre," said Pima math professor Ben McGahee, who taught Loughner algebra last summer. "He even came out with some kind of random outbursts or remarks: 'How can you deny math instead of accepting it?' " said McGahee, who said he assumed Loughner was high.

After Loughner scrawled "MAYHEM FEST!!!" across a paper, McGahee alerted a counselor.

Loughner still attended class, and his behavior continued to cause alarm. One of his responses to an algebra test question was "eat+sleep+brush teeth=math."

The final straw came when Loughner accused his teacher of violating his 1st Amendment rights. McGahee went to see the dean, who pulled Loughner out of class and later told McGahee, "You don't need to worry about Jared anymore."

That spring, in the poetry class, Loughner seemed more in control. At one point, he surprised the class when he animatedly performed a poem he had written, thumping his chest and even grabbing his crotch for emphasis. The poem, "Meat Head," was about a day in his life — waking up hung over, riding the bus to school, feeling lost at the gym:

"Looking around, the cute women are catching my eye/Probably waiting for their hot boyfriends wandering in the locker room/All the men are in shape with new white tank shirts, basketball shorts, and Nike shoes/Confusing look on my face of no idea what to do … "

Still, many of his interactions with poetry classmates were off-putting. One day, a woman read a poem about having an abortion. "He made a really off-color comment," Ali said. "I remember him saying something about strapping a bomb to the fetus and making a baby bomb out of it."

Another student, Don Coorough, 58, said Loughner had trouble digesting poems that were sad or emotionally complicated.

"I thought he was an emotional cripple," Coorough said. Neither Ali nor Coorough said they found Loughner menacing, just odd.

Between last February and September, according to Pima Community College officials, Loughner caused five disturbances on campus that required police response.

On Sept. 29, there was a breaking point when campus police discovered a YouTube video in which Loughner proclaimed the college "unconstitutional."

Los Angeles Times Articles