DeKALB – The man who opened fire in a Northern Illinois University lecture hall in February 2008 might have chosen that location for his rampage because he felt betrayed by the school and was striking out at what he perceived to be his surrogate family, according to a report on the incident released by NIU on Thursday.
The 322-page report – which includes memorial pages for the five deceased victims, 11 appendixes, a message from NIU President John Peters and a major findings and responses section – is an in-depth look at the shootings.
The report details what happened in Room 101 of Cole Hall on Feb. 14, 2008, when former NIU graduate student Steven Kazmierczak kicked in a door to the lecture hall and opened fire.
Kazmierczak injured 21 people and killed Gayle Dubowski, Catalina Garcia, Julianna Gehant, Ryanne Mace and Daniel Parmenter before turning the gun on himself.
While the first part of the report consists of the police response – including a nine-page transcript of radio traffic that day, as well as a written critical incident response – it also includes how other campus departments reacted that day. There also are several pages of information about Kazmierczak’s background – including information about his family, his struggles with mental health issues, his tattoos and weapon purchases – as well as an
18-page psychological analysis done by an independent psychologist who is not named in the report.
Peters said that the report does not answer every question, and might raise additional ones.
“That is a catalog of what we did and how we did it,” Peters said.
“In my national higher education community, it will be analyzed and read and gleaned for useful approaches for how you prepare and deal with tragedies,” Peters added.
Inside Cole Hall
The attack started at 3:05 p.m. when Kazmierczak entered Room 101 of Cole Hall at the southwest corner of the room from behind the stage. He carried a black acoustic guitar case that contained a 12-gauge shotgun with a sawed-off barrel, according to the report. He wore dark brown boots with laces, jeans, a black T-shirt with the word “terrorist” written across the chest imposed over a picture of an assault rifle, a black knit hat and a black utility belt with two magazine holsters, a holster for a handgun, three handguns, eight loaded magazines and a knife.
Kazmierczak kicked the door in, entering the auditorium where 120 students out of the 165 registered for the Geology 104: Introduction to Ocean Sciences class were seated. He walked across the stage and fired the shotgun into the audience, then shot at the instructor. Students ran toward the exits at the rear of the auditorium or attempted to hide.
After firing three rounds, Kazmierczak stopped to reload. Once he had fired available rounds from the shotgun, he discarded it and began firing with a 9mm Glock semi-automatic pistol, walking up and down the west aisle and directly in front of or on the stage. He fired six rounds from the shotgun, and 50 rounds from the Glock.
Beyond the five who were killed, 17 people also were shot or grazed, according to the report. Another three were injured while escaping, and there was one unknown minor injury.
The first call to the NIU Department of Public Safety was at 3:06 p.m. “Northern Units Northern, I have a 911 call at Cole Hall saying there has been a shooting. I am trying to get further ...” the first entry on a time-stamped transcript of the first hour of radio traffic reads.
The transcript shows officers responded initially to Cole Hall, then to the nearby buildings where shooting victims had fled to. It also shows that authorities might have initially thought that Kazmierczak left Cole Hall. An entry at 3:08 p.m. reads: “I have additional information. Shooter is a white male with multiple tattoos and wearing short-sleeve T-shirt. Multiple shots were fired. He left Cole Hall in an unknown direction.”
Police appeared to have quickly realized that Kazmierczak hadn’t left Cole Hall. An entry at 3:11 p.m. reads: “Shooter’s down. Shotgun’s secure. We need an ambulance and the coroner at Cole Hall.”
The investigation into the shooting will continue until the NIU Police Department “determines all leads have been exhausted to their complete satisfaction,” according to the report. “Cases of this nature and complexity often have new evidence or information revealed long after primary investigative efforts.”
NIU Police Chief Donald Grady did not return messages left Thursday seeking comment about the report.
Examining the shooter
While Peters noted that the findings are speculative, a psychological analysis of Kazmierczak found that he had come to think of the the Sociology Department as a supportive family, where students and professors accepted him and valued his contributions. It differed from the family relationships he had grown up with, including “an intense sibling rivalry which evolved into a lifelong enmity,” according to the report. His sister told authorities that her brother was verbally abusive toward her and their mother, and that he was the cause of “significant disruption within the family.”
The report also notes that Kazmierczak had attempted suicide multiple times, had been hospitalized for mental health issues, questioned his sexuality and had been released from the U.S. Army after it was discovered that he failed to put information about his past mental illnesses on his application. He left the Army on Feb. 13, 2002, and returned home the next day.
Kazmierczak started at NIU in August 2002. Some of his peers found him “strange” or “weird,” according to the report, noting his self-imposed isolation and preoccupation with serial killers. They dubbed him “Strange Steve” or “Psycho.”
But the clear expectations and regular routines provided Kazmierczak structure, and his confidence grew the longer he was there – especially as he found mentors in the Sociology Department and began studies there, according to the report. He became well respected as a student, teaching assistant and colleague, according to the report. One instructor, identified as Professor-1 in the report, became what the analysis described as “the patriarch of a new family grouping in which Kazmierczak almost immediately assumed the role of a favored son.”
Kazmierczak graduated in May 2006 with 3.88 grade-point average, earning a a bachelor’s degree in sociology, with an emphasis in criminology, and had a second major of political science/public administration. NIU found no evidence he ever sought help for mental illness while at NIU, and no records of adverse contact with local or university police.
Kazmierczak stayed on at NIU to continue graduate studies in Sociology, starting in the summer of 2006. But the death of his mother later that year was the start of several personal losses, which appeared to have triggered the return of his earlier psychiatric symptoms.
Among the biggest losses was when Kazmierczak perceived that the Sociology Department refocused its curriculum, which led to a reduced emphasis on criminology, according to the report. The university notes that the Master of Arts program currently lists criminology as a specialization and that the school has expanded courses within the specialization.
Kazmierczak eventually enrolled in the graduate program in sociology at the University of Illinois and had to start over, losing his “second family” in the NIU sociology department. He also was rebuked by Professor-1 after Kazmierczak vented in “an unprofessional and inappropriate manner” on the Sociology Department’s Web board discussion site.
Kazmierczak’s attack on Cole Hall might have been an attack on that “family,” according to the report. Cole Hall had been a “birthplace of a new beginning” for him, the report reads, and his first classes in sociology were held there. He was familiar with the layout of the building, according to the report, and he would know that the classes held there would hold many students.
While investigators did not find that he knew or was aware of the identity of his victims, the report speculates that if the attack was on his family, then the students in Cole Hall 101 could be viewed as his siblings.
“By ending his life and the lives of other siblings (students) there, Kazmierczak would have come full circle,” the report said. “It was where he had flourished. Now it would be the setting for his grotesque end.”
Peters said the report does its best to explore the “why” of the incident. He said he focused on that in 2008 after initially concentrating on the victims, families and the community.
“For me, I don’t think there is an answer to the why question,” Peters said. “It might even raise more questions. But I think I understand a little bit more the shooter’s history and some of the factors that we can use to try to come to an understanding.”
Scott Peska, director of the Center for Support and Advocacy, said students he works with were in the office throughout the day Thursday to read the report. The office works with students most affected by the shooting, as well as the families of the deceased. Both groups were given advance notice of the report’s release, he said.
Students were in the office throughout the day Thursday. Some are finding it helpful to read, Peska said, while others are avoiding it.
“I’ve seen a range of emotions,” Peska said.
Peters said he found the psychological analysis of the report compelling, and that it illustrates the need for discussion on mental health issues in the United States. He said he hopes the report is used at higher education institutions throughout the country and that others can learn from NIU’s experience.
Peters again thanked the larger DeKalb-Sycamore community for their support, as well as the emergency responders who assisted at the scene that day. Peters said the report is, for him, the close of the public chapter of the shooting.
“We go on privately, healing as a community, learning from it, being stronger, but this answers as many questions as we can possibly answer in one report,” he said.