Loss of infant child and guilt from past sex crimes hint at motive for Amish killings

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The Independent US

Two more girls have died of the injuries they suffered in the school shootings in south-eastern Pennsylvania on Monday, bringing to five the number of children killed by Charles Carl Roberts when, apparently in a demented mix of grief and dark sexual guilt, he went on the rampage at a single-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines.

But even as the death toll rose from one of America's worst school shootings in recent years, one question was paramount: What drove Roberts, a 32-year-old dairy truck driver and by all the evidence a model father to his own three children, to embark on a carefully planned slaughter, before taking his own life?

Jeffrey Miller, Pennsylvania's state Police Commissioner, suggested two possible causes for "this heinous crime": Roberts's enduring grief over the loss of a premature daughter nine years ago, and his claim ­ a mystery to his wife and family ­ that 20 years ago he molested two young relatives, aged three and four.

"He was angry with God. This was a very deeply disturbed individual, but not something that people could pick up on," the commissioner said, suggesting that he might have been about to molest the girls he had bound inside the schoolhouse, had police not arrived on the scene.

Yesterday, a numbed shock still hung over the tiny Bart township in Lancaster County in the heart of the Amish country. Groups of Amish ­ the men in their traditional overalls and broad-brimmed straw hats, the women in their long skirts and hair pulled under their bonnets ­ stood talking quietly in the bright sunshine of a perfect autumn day, struggling still to comprehend their loss.

Respectful of the tight-knit and intensely private Amish community, the authorities have given few details of the five girls who died in the execution-style killings, beyond their names and their ages ­ between six and 13. Five other victims, also aged between six and 13, are currently receiving treatment at hospitals in the region. At least one was in a critical condition.

But at the heart of the tragedy lies the mystery of why Roberts acted as he did. "He planned this in advance, certainly for two or three days, and had laid in equipment for a siege," said Mr Miller. In Roberts's truck, police discovered a "to-buy" list of the items found with him after he killed himself, including pistols, a stun gun, tapes, knives, lubricant and ammunition, even a change of clothes.

As a dairy truck driver, he worked with many Amish farmers, but was not an Amish himself, and had no connection with the school. The authorities are convinced he chose the school not out of any hostility to the Amish community, but because it was an easy target, and "because it had the female victims he was looking for", Commissioner Miller said. Why he wanted to murder young girls has yet to be explained. Police mostly discount speculation of a "copycat" crime, inspired by last week's school shooting in Colorado, where the killer chose to molest and then murder a female victim.

But Roberts's behaviour does seem to be linked to the loss of his infant daughter, Elise, in 1997. It also appears connected to claims he made shortly before his death that he had molested two young relatives 20 years ago, when he would have been 12.

Mr Miller gave details of the rambling suicide note left by Roberts for his children and of his final phone call to his wife, Marie, made from the schoolhouse at about 10.50am. In it he spoke of how Elise's death had " changed his life for ever". He also mentioned the decades-old alleged assaults, saying that over the past two months he had had dreams that such molestations would recur, and that he wanted to "avenge" them. But he had no history of mental illness and no criminal record.

In the hours after the crimes, Roberts's wife and other relatives told police they had not the slightest idea of any such episodes. "The man that did this thing is not the Charles I was married to for nearly 10 years," Marie Roberts said. She later told the local paper, the Intelligencer Journal, that he was "loving, supportive, thoughtful ­ all the things you'd want and more".

The only possible clue to what would happen, neighbours said, was that Roberts had been withdrawn of late ­ but even then, his mood had improved in recent days. "He was relaxed with his family over the weekend," Commissioner Miller said.

On Monday, he returned from his early shift at 3am. Four-and-a-half-hours later he and his wife rose and got their two elder children ready for school. His wife then left for a prayer group meeting, and at 8.45am, as usual, he walked his two elder children to the school bus stop. He then returned home to complete preparations for his killing spree.

As for the Amish, any illusion that their ancient traditions and peaceful, almost innocent, way of life exempted them from the violence of contemporary American life has been shattered. But the mood seemed fatalistic and forgiving, rather than revengeful.

"It's just not the way we think. There is no sense in getting angry," said Henry Fisher, 62, a retired Amish farmer with five grown children and 33 grandchildren, who has spent his entire life in Bart township. Others described the attack as a freak accident, or an act of God.

President George Bush declared himself saddened and "deeply troubled" by the atrocity. The White House is convening a meeting of education and police officials from around the country next week to discuss how the government can help prevent such violence.

Message to wife

Text of the first page of a three-page suicide note written by Charles Carl Roberts IV to his wife, Marie:

"I don't know how you put up with me all those years. I am not worthy of you, you are the perfect wife you deserve so much better.

We had so many good memories together as well as the tragedy with Elise. It changed my life forever I haven't been the same since it affected me in a way I never felt possible. I am filled with so much hate, hate toward myself, hate towards God and unimaginable emptiness.

It seems like every time we do something fun I think about how Elise wasn't here to share it with us and I go right back to anger."