Jared Lee Loughner: A young man who lost his way, and left a tragic mark on his country

Troubled background of alleged mass killer Jared Lee Loughner

On Saturday morning, Jared Lee Loughner loaded 30 bullets into the magazine of a Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol. Then he drove to a branch of Safeway in the Catalina Foothills, a prosperous Tucson neighbourhood five miles from the family home he shared with his parents, Amy and Randy.

Shortly after 10am, Loughner walked up to a crowd meeting Democratic congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, and opened fire. Within minutes, six bystanders lay dead or dying, and 14 had been wounded. Giffords, his intended target, was rushed to hospital, barely clinging to life.

If everything had gone to plan, Loughner would no longer be around this morning. His MySpace page, updated hours earlier, included a “goodbye friends” message, which implored readers, “Please don’t be mad at me.” But Loughner never did turn that 9mm handgun on himself. Instead, two bystanders tackled the skinny 22-year-old and held him on the pavement until police arrived. He was last night at the Pima County Sheriff’s Office, refusing to speak with interrogators.

The events which led Loughner to that Safeway car park are still being investigated, and many of its twists and turns remain unmapped. But we know, already, that profile threw up many red flags. An unemployed loner with a drug habit and what police call “a mental issue” that sometimes saw him make death threats he’d entered paranoid postings on a section of social networking sites.

Neighbours on Soledad Avenue, an the unremarkable street populated by blue-collar workers where he grew up, describe the Loughner family as the local “hippies”, who would spend evenings on folded chairs on the porch. Their untidy habits had led to fallings-out, and at least one neighbour moved away in protest.

“There’d often be three or four people sitting out there smoking. It’s not the kind of thing you’d like to see in your neighbourhood,” Roger Whithed told The Independent, adding that Randy would spend evenings repairing old Chevrolet Camaro sports cars on the lawn.

“Since getting out of high school, you could tell that Jared had become disillusioned with life and having to take on responsibility,” added Whithed, 52, who has lived on the street for six years. “He never looked like the sort of person who could hold down a job. You’d see him walking around and think, ‘That’s not someone I really want to know.’ He was a little rough around the edges.”

Younger neighbours knew Jared from local schools. He attended nearby Thornydale Elementary and Mountain View High, and was occasionally bullied. “My sister Jessica was in his chemistry class, and says he was a creep,” Jake Richardson, 18, told The Independent. “He’d stare at people, and occasionally say weird, quite opinionated stuff. You’d also see him walking dogs around the neighbourhood, muttering to himself.”

In recent years, he became a heavy smoker of marijuana and was rumoured to have sampled LSD. “His parents were very laid-back, like hippies,” said Jesse Martinez, 17. “They were live-and-let-live people, but not exactly in a good way, and so he grew up doing more or less what he liked.”

After leaving school, Loughner attempted to join the military, but was turned down. In October, he was kicked out of Pima Community College after a series of clashes with fellow students, and told he could only return after a psychiatric evaluation. And in 2007, he was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia. Two years later, he faced an unspecified “local charge”. Both times, charges were eventually dropped after he completed diversion programmes.

The crucial question is now whether Loughner’s killing spree was a random act by a paranoid madman, or whether he was in any way motivated by the hostile tone of contemporary politics.

The videos he uploaded to YouTube on 15 December, two weeks after purchasing his Glock from the local gun shop, tell a mixed story. He cited both Mein Kampf and The Communist manifesto as favourite books, and the attack may have had an anti-Semitic motive, since Giffords is a prominent figure in the Jewish community.

At times, his ramblings feature the anti-government rhetoric of the Tea Party movement, not least his concerns about the US constitution, and hostility to federal control of education. Yet Loughner may ultimately be impossible to pigeon hole. He was also hostile to organised religion, and in one YouTube video burned a US flag (which would hardly sit well among the Tea Party faithful).

When investigators searched his house last night, they found a handwritten note in a safe, stating “I planned ahead.” The apparent ease with which this psychologically disturbed young man was able to purchase his deadly weapon, and execute that plan, may ultimately leave many wondering if his killing spree was an accident waiting to happen.