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LAST DAY ON EARTH: A PORTRAIT OF THE NIU SCHOOL SHOOTER

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AFTER MY FATHER’S SUICIDE

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pp. 1-3

AFTER MY FATHER’S SUICIDE, I inherited all his guns. I was thirteen. Late at night, I reached behind my mother’s coats in the hall closet for the barrel of my father’s .300 magnum rifle. It was cold and heavy, smelled of gun oil. I carried it down the hallway, through kitchen and pantry into the garage, where I turned on the light and gazed at it, a bear rifle with a scope, bought in Alaska...

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STEVE GREW UP WATCHING HORROR MOVIES

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pp. 4-7

STEVE GREW UP WATCHING HORROR MOVIES with his mother. Fleshy, enormous, laid out beside him on the couch. Middle of the day, and all shades are drawn. Dark. She’s protective, doesn’t want Steve to go outside. Won’t let him play much with other children. She’s not mentally right, according to Steve’s godfather, but what can he do? A family feud. Horror movies...

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MY OWN JUVENILE REPORT IS FROM 1980

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pp. 8-11

MY OWN JUVENILE REPORT IS FROM 1980. Only one contact with the Santa Rosa police, and not with the .300 magnum. It was a BB gun, a hot summer’s day, at the fence in our backyard. A fifteen-foot drop-off to the neighbors’ yard below, since we were on a hill. Pine trees along the fence, shady and hidden. My...

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I HAVE TO GO BACK TO STEVE’S DOG

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pp. 12-14

HAVE TO GO BACK TO STEVE’S DOG, the pug, because even though “nothing human is foreign to me,” Steve does things early on that strain that idea. Adam watches Steve drop the pug numerous times, light it on fire. Its loud breathing just really annoys the shit out of Steve. Then one of Steve’s other friends, Joe Cuzma...

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I COMMITTED MY CRIMES ALONE

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pp. 15-16

I COMMITTED MY CRIMES ALONE partly because, like Steve, I was losing all my friends. Eighth grade was the time of “cut-downs,” competitive insults. After my father’s death, I was weak. Ian VanTuyl, who had been my best friend, began using everything he knew against me. At school, on the blacktop, we’d all stand around in a circle with our hands in our pockets...

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STEVE SPENDS ALMOST NO TIME AT HOME

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pp. 17-19

STEVE SPENDS ALMOST NO TIME AT HOME. He lives at his friends’ houses the fall of eleventh grade. He’s better friends now with Julie Creamer, a big girl who’s on lithium for bipolar, same as Steve. His parents put him on it. It helps a bit. You’d never know Julie was on it; she’s light and fun and chatty...

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BY THE FALL OF HIS JUNIOR YEAR

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pp. 20-21

BY THE FALL OF HIS JUNIOR YEAR, when Steve first attempts suicide, his life is already destroyed. And then it gets worse, steadily, month by month. I can understand some parts of that life, including being an outcast. I finally left all my friends the fall of tenth grade. We were all in band, like Steve and his friend Adam...

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ON APRIL 8, 1997

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pp. 22-24

ON APRIL 8, 1997, Elk Grove High School denies a request by Steve’s parents to have a case study evaluation. They give his parents a handbook on dealing with students with disabilities. By this point, Steve’s parents see him as mentally disabled and are asking for help, but the school refuses to help. April 13, Steve overdoses on forty Ambien...

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HOW MUCH OF STEVE’S STORY IS ABOUT CLASS?

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pp. 25-26

HOW MUCH OF STEVE’S STORY IS ABOUT CLASS? He’ll joke later, “I know I put the ass in classy.” He grew up in a nice enough suburban neighborhood, but class is not only about money. It’s also about education. Steve’s parents were relatively uneducated, as were the parents of his friends...

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THE MARY HILL HOME

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pp. 27-35

THE MARY HILL HOME is a narrow three-story brownstone, like the side tower on a castle with no castle attached. The street is narrow, lined with cars that have been dented up and beaten. A car parked out front has replaced panels of a different color. There’s an urban park across the street, chain-link fence and...

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THE MILITARY HAS TRAINED

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pp. 36-42

THE MILITARY HAS TRAINED most of our mass murderers, including Charles Whitman, the Texas tower shooter who killed fourteen and wounded thirty-one in 1966, the year I was born. He invented the school shooting, really, though he also murdered his mother...

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ON DECEMBER 1, 2001

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pp. 43-47

ON DECEMBER 1, 2001, as he completes basic training, Steve is notified he’ll be stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, in the Sixth Air Defense Artillery Brigade. Fine with him. It doesn’t matter where. And then something happens. It’s unclear exactly what triggers it...

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I MEET JIM THOMAS FOR THE FIRST TIME

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pp. 48-50

I MEET JIM THOMAS FOR THE FIRST TIME on April 9, 2008, at his house in DeKalb. It’s an older section of town, a small two-story. I talk with his wife Barbara, who is an artist. She’s friendly and smart and interesting, but I can tell she’s also worried about my coming here, wants to protect her husband after all he’s been through with the media. Media trucks were on the lawn that first...

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MEETING JIM THOMAS

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pp. 51-52

MEETING JIM THOMAS improves Steve’s life considerably. The fall of 2003 is much better for him than previous semesters. But he still has trouble sleeping, starting in October. By February 18, 2004, he finally goes in to see a doctor. Careful not to say anything about depression or anxiety, but just constantly thinking...

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ON A SUNNY, COLD FRIDAY MORNING

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pp. 53-56

ON A SUNNY, COLD FRIDAY MORNING in April 2008, I drive to Chicago and park in front of a large warehouse that has been converted to lofts. Josh Stone comes downstairs to let me in. He looks like a large farm boy, with a red goatee. He’s the current president of the NIU chapter of the American Correctional Association. I feel awkward, but I shouldn’t. He’s friendly and easy...

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IN THE FALL OF 2004

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pp. 57-62

IN THE FALL OF 2004, the same fall he meets Mark, Steve also has a new girlfriend, “Kim.” An art student he describes as “eccentric,” but he likes her. It’s been a long time since he’s had anyone. So now he’s doing better socially. He’s sick from all the anxiety...

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I MEET JESSICA FOR THE FIRST TIME

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pp. 63-64

I MEET JESSICA FOR THE FIRST TIME on Sunday, April 20, 2008, at the Olive Garden restaurant in Champaign. I wait in the lobby for a while, listening to the music of idealized Italy. I’m wondering whether Jessica is going to show. If I were her, I wouldn’t. You can never trust someone who wants to tell a story. But...

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STEVE’S WINNING OF THE DEANS’ AWARD

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pp. 65-69

STEVE’S WINNING OF THE DEANS’ AWARD is a triumph after all he’s been through. His life is good now. He’s in love with Jessica, graduating and looking forward to grad school, and he also wins a two-year paid internship in public administration with the village of Buffalo Grove, about sixty miles from DeKalb. “It was my first choice and I am ecstatic!” he writes to his friend...

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TWO MONTHS AFTER

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pp. 70-76

TWO MONTHS AFTER the Virginia Tech massacre, in June 2007, Steve and Jessica move to Champaign, rent an apartment together. Separate bedrooms. They’re not a couple anymore. Relationships just don’t work out for him. And renting an apartment with her is probably a bad idea. He feels awkward bringing other women over because Jessica gets jealous...

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A COUPLE DAYS

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pp. 77-81

A COUPLE DAYS after Steve loses his prison job, he fights with his former NIU friends on WebBoard. It’s an online discussion forum he still has access to. They’re talking about sex offenders. There’s a gay grad student at NIU who works with them and advocates for them, and this is a guy Steve respected. I meet with him...

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SAW 4 OPENING NIGHT

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pp. 82-88

SAW 4 OPENING NIGHT, Friday, October 26, 2007. Steve is excited. He’s seeing it with Jessica and Susan. A chance to make up with Susan, perhaps, and Jessica. Just had one of his fights with Jessica. He wrote to Mark, on October 24: “Crap on a stick! Jessica is flipping out tonight after too many drinks prescription...

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STEVE KEEPS HITTING CRAIGSLIST

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pp. 89-94

STEVE KEEPS HITTING CRAIGSLIST, looking for sex. Mark writes to him, “Mysteriously disappearing, also known as Craigslist gone bad,” because Steve is going off the radar. Steve leads, usually, with that line about his saxophone tongue but settles in one case just for long chatty emails about school...

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ON JANUARY 7, 2008

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pp. 95-101

ON JANUARY 7, 2008, Steve pays $395 for a tattoo of a pentagram, upside down star, sign of the devil. Jessica will tell police later that it’s not that, it’s just “antiestablishment.” And what does that really mean? Is wanting to topple a real government less dangerous than wanting to align with a fictive being...

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STEVE SITS ON THE COUCH CRUISING CRAIGSLIST

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pp. 102-107

STEVE SITS ON THE COUCH CRUISING CRAIGSLIST. He keeps the screen facing away from Jessica, closes it if she gets too close. Sometimes she’s talking, and he doesn’t even realize she’s been talking. She says he’s acting strange, won’t get off his case until finally he admits he’s off his meds. Then she wants to know why...

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IN HIS EMAILS WITH KELLY

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pp. 108-115

IN HIS EMAILS WITH KELLY on February 1, Steve begins to worry about privacy. According to Mark, this was always a concern for Steve: “Steve was kind of paranoid about things, I don’t know why, but he would delete all the emails, always. But I never erased any.” “Well, I’ve always wondered if you show these emails to anyone,” Steve writes to Kelly, “because that would...

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JESSICA SAYS THEY HAD A BLAST AT MANSON

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pp. 116-122

JESSICA SAYS THEY HAD A BLAST AT MANSON. She didn’t suspect anything was going on. But as Manson sings “Last Day On Earth,” Steve knows this is coming soon. The next day, February 6, he goes to Tony’s Guns and Ammo. He calls ahead, to make sure Tony will be open, and arrives a little after 5:00 p.m. Steve looks at the display cases. He tells Tony...

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A COUPLE DAYS AFTER MY FATHER SHOT HIMSELF

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pp. 123-124

A COUPLE DAYS AFTER MY FATHER SHOT HIMSELF on the phone talking to my stepmother, saying “I love you but I’m not going to live without you,” she received flowers from him. A romantic gift from the grave, the same as Jessica will receive. And how can anyone ever make sense of this kind of gift...

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THAT TUESDAY AFTERNOON, FEBRUARY 12

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pp. 125-129

THAT TUESDAY AFTERNOON, FEBRUARY 12, after Steve asks Jessica ‘what finger a woman wears her marriage ring on,’ he talks to his father for about fifteen minutes. He gets a call, also, from the Navy recruiter, Nole Scoville, and puts him off, says he’s too busy to come in to the office. This is remarkable timing, a last chance to go another direction. Does he hesitate at all...

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VALENTINE’S DAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2008

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pp. 130-136

VALENTINE’S DAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2008. I imagine Steve sitting on the end of his bed in the broken-down Travelodge. Smoking a Newport. Stale smell of old cigarettes, of all the lives that have passed through this room. I know he’s dressed in black shoes, black pants, his black T-shirt with “Terrorist” in white letters above a red AK-47 assault rifle. Black stocking...

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BRIAN KARPES FINALLY NOTICES

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pp. 137-144

BRIAN KARPES FINALLY NOTICES it’s been quiet for a long time, so he looks up and sees Steve lying near him on the stage. “He was in a half fetal position, his back to me. Instinctively, I pushed my glasses up, but there was blood smeared on them, and they were broken because the bullet that hit me in the...

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“WHEN THE SHOOTING HAPPENED,”

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pp. 145-152

“WHEN THE SHOOTING HAPPENED,” Mark says, “I called Steve around 4:00 that day, or 3:30, and I was like, ‘I’ve been shot!’ I left a message like that, because I thought there was just a school shooting. So I was laughing, ‘I’ve been shot! Give me a call back.’” This is their sense of humor, after all. “He had a shirt—well, you’ve seen the picture of the one shirt, the one with the American flag with the gun. I don’t think it’s a big deal, right? But the media...

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AT QUARTER TO MIDNIGHT ON FEBRUARY 15

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pp. 153-159

AT QUARTER TO MIDNIGHT ON FEBRUARY 15, the night of the vigil, Greg, one of Steve’s undergrad friends from the NIU dorms, walks past the security checkpoint in the Grant North lobby on campus without showing his ID, and the access control worker, Joseph Puckett, challenges him. “Go fuck yourself,” Greg...

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NIU PROFESSOR KRISTEN MYERS

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pp. 160-164

NIU PROFESSOR KRISTEN MYERS talks about the “forward, together forward” campaign here, which is from the school fight song and is posted on the door of nearly every business in DeKalb. She talks also about the “new normal” approach from the administration. It sounds like something out of Orwell’s 1984. “Everyone...

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I DON’T THINK I’LL EVER ENTIRELY UNDERSTAND

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pp. 165-167

I DON’T THINK I’LL EVER ENTIRELY UNDERSTAND the year after my father’s suicide. I told everyone my father died of cancer, and I didn’t see a therapist. I didn’t have a real conversation with anyone. Instead, I shot things, the guns a terrible substitute. A year of the most basic brutality, a year I’m lucky to have escaped without hurting...

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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