Unsuspecting parents wished gunman 'good luck' before school killings

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The teenager who killed 16 staff and pupils at a respected grammar school in Germany was living a lie and kept his unsuspecting parents in the dark for two months after being expelled, police said yesterday.

As Robert Steinhäuser left home on Friday armed with a pump-action shotgun and a pistol with the intention of massacring his former teachers, his mother thought he was going to sit a maths exam. "She said 'goodbye and good luck'," said Rainer Grube, the police chief in Erfurt. "The parents thought he was going to school every day and was on course to pass his exams."

Police believe the 19-year-oldhad been tearing up letters sent to his home by the school.

Parents of pupils at the Gutenberg-Gymnasium school claimed yesterday that rigid exams put too much pressure on teenagers and may have contributed to the alienation of Steinhäuser, who systematically picked off his former teachers during the rampage.

Inflexible rules unique to the federal state of Thuringia mean that pupils who fail the prestigious Abitur examination, equivalent to A-levels, are not compensated with a lesser qualification, which they would receive in other states. Instead they are left empty-handed and with limited job prospects after 12 years' education.

Steinhäuser fell behind at school last year and resorted to forging doctor's notes to avoid sitting examinations before he was caught and expelled in February. His movements in the months before the shooting remain a mystery.

Andreas Stute, the father of a pupil at the school, said: "Those who have failed to graduate find themselves with nothing to fall back on. They fall into a deep hole."

A series of closed meetings attended by pupils and parents were held yesterday in Erfurt's town hall. At a press conference, Thuringia's state education minister came under pressure to reform the system. Graf Polier, a counsellor and father of a 17-year-old girl at the school said: "This man [Steinhäuser] was psychologically ill. He rebelled because he had been rejected by the system and had nothing to look forward to."

The majority of school staff remain in deep shock and were notable by their absence from the meetings. Instead parents and pupils paid tribute to their "heroic" reaction, in particular the role played by Rainer Heise, the history teacher who managed to lock the gunman into a storeroom where he killed himself.

Speaking on behalf of other, visibly traumatised classmates, Michaela Seidel, a sixth-former, dismissed proposals to resume the examinations that were taking place on Friday when the rampage began.

Ms Seidel, who had finished her maths paper and left 10 minutes before Steinhäuser burst in, said: "It is unbelievable that we would have to do this exam again. I will never be able to sit another exam in my life."

Classes will resume this morning in the town hall, a gathering point for mourners, but pupils will not be required to bring their exercise books. Instead a psychologist has been assigned to each class. Harald Düring, the father of boys aged 14 and 16, said: "My youngest has has morbid thoughts. He saw his teacher killed and spent two hours barricaded in his classroom. Then someone came through the door and he didn't know whether it would be the killer or the police. Thank God it was the police."

Police confirmed that Steinhäuser, who was almost certainly acting alone, specifically targeted teachers during his rampage. The two pupils who died ­ a 14 and 15-year-old ­ were probably hit by stray bullets as the gunman shot through a locked or barricaded classroom door, police said.

Police who searched Steinhäuser's home removed a collection of violence-laden comics and computer games that featured "intensive weapons usage". Steinhäuser's mother told police she had not noticed any unusual behaviour in her son, who was described by officials and acquaintances as a gun club member who had few if any close friends.

A 60-year-old art and history teacher was hailed across Germany as the "hero of Erfurt" yesterday for ending the killing spree by a former student who rampaged through the local grammar school.

In interviews with German media, Rainer Heise described how he was supervising a painting class on Friday morning when the shooting started. He went into the corridor and caught a glimpse of the gunman and then dashed into the adjacent office, where he found the headmistress trembling with shock and her deputy shot dead and slumped over her desk. He called for help from the window and then locked himself in the art cupboard.

But he heard Steinhäuser return, after shooting 16 people dead. Mr Heiseconfronted the black-clad gunman, removing his mask and recognising him as one of his former pupils. In an account to ZDF television, Mr Heise explained: "I said, 'Pull the trigger. If you shoot me now, then look in my eyes.' So he looks at me, lowers the pistol and says: 'That was enough for one day, Mr Heise'."

The teacher locked Steinhäuser into a room where he was found by police in a pool of blood and with ammunition for a further 500 shots by his side.

Mr Heise said he did not know why he survived. "Perhaps he just liked me. Perhaps he didn't think I was bad." He also recalled an exchange between Steinhäuser and a teacher who was to become one of his victims. When Hans Lippe caught Steinhäuser smoking a cigar on a field trip in 2000, the student became confrontational. "He had his hands in his pockets like this," Mr Heise said, putting three fingers in each front pocket of his trousers and using his thumbs to form pretend pistols.

"The student was drunk. He walked toward Mr Lippe and, with the cigar hanging from his mouth, he pointed the fingers at him and said, 'Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat, you're dead."'