Adam Lanza was memorably smart and heartbreakingly shy during his years at Newtown High School in Connecticut.
He’d correct people’s Latin in ninth and 10th grades, students who knew him recall. He made the honor roll with highest honors. By his sophomore year he got into honors English, tackling “Of Mice and Men” and “Catcher in the Rye.” While other youths sported T-shirts and backpacks, Lanza showed up every day in button-down shirts, carrying a briefcase.
“It was almost painful to have a conversation with him, because he felt so uncomfortable,” recalls Olivia DeVivo, who sat behind him in English. “I spent so much time in my English class wondering what he was thinking.”
On Friday, much of the country was engaging in the same exercise — trying to understand how Lanza, 20, could have walked into an elementary school near his home in Sandy Hook and fired a hail of bullets at terrified children and teachers, leaving 26 people dead, all but six of them children.
Police sources say the gunman shot and killed his mother at home before driving her Honda to the school, where he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“We’re looking at all the history. We’re going backwards as far as we can go ... and hopefully we’ll stumble on some answers,” said Lt. Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police.
In interviews with neighbors and people who grew up with him, no one claimed to know the tall, gangly young man well. Family members told others he had Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism whose sufferers are often brilliant but socially inept.
He joined the tech club at Newtown High School, and was seen at shows and assemblies working on the sound and light equipment. But there is no record of his having finished high school.
“He was actually really smart. But I think he might have had some social disorder or something,” said Hannah Basch-Gold, who went to elementary school with Lanza. “He kind of kept to himself, kind of a loner.”
Fellow students said nobody made fun of Lanza; they just had a hard time connecting.
“He didn’t have any friends, but he was a nice kid if you got to know him,” said Kyle Kromberg, now a junior in business administration at Endicott College in Massachusetts who studied Latin with Lanza.
“He didn’t fit in with the other kids,” Kromberg said. “He was very, very shy. He wouldn’t look you in the eyes when he talked. He didn’t really want to lock eyes with you for very long.”
The Lanzas lived for many years in Sandy Hook, where neighbors said they were a quiet family that didn’t attract much notice. The mother, Nancy Lanza, “was very nice. I can’t say anything very bad about them,” said Beth Israel, whose daughter was friends with Adam Lanza in elementary school. As for Adam, she said, “There was definitely some issues with him.”
Nancy Lanza and her husband, Peter, divorced in 2008. Peter Lanza, a vice president at GE Energy Financial Services, recently remarried, and appeared to be caught off guard when reporters approached him near his home in Stamford, Conn.
“Is there something I can do for you?” he asked a reporter waiting at his house as he arrived home Friday, according to The Stamford Advocate. Told that his name had been linked to the school shooting in Newtown, his face darkened suddenly and he rolled up the window and drove into his garage.
Law enforcement sources initially identified Lanza’s brother, Ryan, 24, as the shooter. Adam apparently had with him his brother’s identification. Ryan Lanza’s photograph was distributed widely on the Internet until a post appeared on what seemed to be his Facebook page: “Everyone shut ... up, it wasn’t me.”
Brett Wilshe, who lives near Ryan Lanza in New Jersey, said he sent his friend an instant message.
“I asked him if he was all right, and what was going on,” Wilshe said. “His message back to me was it was his brother, and that was it.”
Police still were trying to answer questions about how Adam Lanza got into the locked school. According to some reports, his mother was a former employee there.
A federal law enforcement source said it appeared Lanza shot himself as police arrived. The officers, he said, never had to fire their weapons. “It was over when they got there.”