01.11.11

Loughner's Parents: Did They Know About His Mental Illness?

Alleged Arizona shooter Jared Loughner is the only child of Randy and Amy Loughner, described by neighbors as an unfriendly, isolated couple. Claire Martin and Masada Siegel report on their odd behavior—and why they’re hiding from the media. Plus, full coverage of the Arizona shooting.

On the morning of the Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting, suspect Jared Loughner’s father stopped to ask his son why he was removing a black bag from the trunk of his car. Loughner mumbled something and ran into the desert; his father gave chase for awhile in his truck, but eventually gave up. It turns out too that the police had been called to the Loughners’ home before the shooting on more than one occasion, although the exact nature of those calls has not yet been revealed. Police have also found more disturbing notes from Loughner, including one that said “Die, bitch”—a reference, they believe, to Giffords. On Tuesday, the parents broke their silence, saying they “wish they could change the heinous events of Saturday.”

Claire Martin and Masada Siegel talk to the Loughners' neighbors. Plus, full coverage of the Arizona shooting.

Randy and Amy Loughner have always been something of a mystery to their neighbors. Odd, reclusive, and, in Randy’s case, occasionally antagonistic, they live in a single-story, white-brick house that’s almost entirely obscured by overgrown plants and the gnarled branches of a mesquite tree. It’s a place with a forbidding air. And now that their son Jared stands accused of mass murder, the Loughners have once again retreated there, more walled off from the world than ever.

As President Obama prepares to travel to Tucson and the victims’ families make funeral arrangements, much about Jared Loughner’s motivations remains unclear. Reporters, pundits, and armchair analysts have been busily trotting out theories, drawing on the details about Loughner that have emerged so far: his bizarre behavior, his parroting of paranoid, extremist ideologies. But one key aspect of what shaped him—his home life—remains an enigma. How much did his parents know about his mental condition? How involved were they in his life? And did they try to get him help? Only they can shed light on such matters. But for now, at least, they remain as inscrutable as their son.

What Jared’s parents knew about his mental state and what, if anything, they did about it remains unclear.

With a throng of reporters gathered outside the Loughner home, tension has flared. On Monday morning, after reports circulated that the family had an occult shrine in their backyard, a photographer wielding a long-lensed camera jumped the back fence to snap pictures of what appeared to be a faux skull and some candles. Randy responded with a call to authorities, who dispatched a few squad cars to look into the incident. "[Mr. Loughner] told that person to leave, and we're investigating the trespassing," said David Theel of the Pima County Sheriff's Department. Randy briefly exited the house with law enforcement to identify a possible suspect, but then returned and stayed put—not even emerging to attend his son’s arraignment in a Phoenix federal court that afternoon.

Residents of the middle-class neighborhood, located five miles west of where Jared allegedly killed six people and injured 14 others, described the family as antisocial. Jared, who was apparently the couple’s only son, lived with them, and the three took turns walking the family dog, a medium-sized brindled Labrador Retriever mix. That, however, was the extent of their activities beyond their property. "I've lived here 40 years, and I didn't even know their last name," a woman who lives across the street told The Daily Beast.

Randy, who’s believed to be unemployed, spent a lot of time at home. A fit 58 year old with thick, graying hair and a mustache, he moved to the neighborhood at least 30 years ago, before marrying Amy. He can often be seen working on one of three show cars, says next-door neighbor George Gayan. Though Gayan’s great grandson once played with Jared when the two were young, Gayan says Randy eventually made clear he preferred his privacy and erected a wall around the property.

Some neighbors described hostile exchanges with Randy. "He's an angry man," Stephen Woods, another next-door neighbor, said. Loughner repeatedly pestered Woods and his son, Anthony, about their trash cans, complaining when they didn’t get picked up. “I've had confrontations with him three times, and my father's had a couple more than that,” Anthony said.

Across the street, Jason Johnson described a recent incident that took place when his father greeted Loughner, who was outside gardening. "My father said hello to him, and he didn't say anything back,” Johnson told The Daily Beast. “So my dad said, 'How's your day going?' really loudly, and he just dropped the tools and went inside." In Johnson’s view, “People are scared of [Randy]. I don't think the son's the only crazy one."

One neighbor told a Fox News reporter she wouldn't discuss the Loughners at all for fear of retribution from them. Several others mentioned a dispute between the Loughners and the residents of the house directly across the street, a tan two-story that's currently on the market. "They'd had a couple of run-ins with [Randy] revving his car in the morning," said Ron Johnson, another neighbor. The noise from Loughner’s dark-green Chevy Nova was disrupting the couple’s sleep, and three months ago, they moved out of town. "That was one of the big complaints. They didn't like it here. They didn't like him," Johnson said.

Amy, 53, was the friendlier of the two—to a point. "If you waved at her, she'd wave back at you," Woods said. Still, she didn't have friends in the neighborhood. The Pima County parks department confirmed that she’s currently employed as a parks manager, and prior to that, she worked in parks maintenance and as a horticulturalist.

Yet so far, little more than that can be gleaned about the Loughner household. What Jared’s parents knew about his mental state and what, if anything, they did about it remains unclear. There would seem to be no shortage of warning signs. Jared was suspended last September by Pima Community College, where he’d been taking classes since 2005, due to a string of unsettling outbursts. Between February and September 2010, he "had five contacts with PCC police for classroom and library disruptions," the school said in a release. A month after the suspension, he and his parents met with administrators and Jared withdrew voluntarily, according to the school. He was told he could return only if, among other things, a mental health professional agreed he did not present a danger.

In a family that seemed to prize privacy so much, it’s conceivable that Randy and Amy knew little or nothing about Jared’s disturbing YouTube videos and impenetrable rants on his MySpace page. And given what neighbors call Randy’s “anger management problem,” perhaps the son’s diatribes didn’t seem entirely out of place. “It's impossible to say for certain, but these kinds of shooters are usually alienated from their families,” says Jonathan Fast, associate professor at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work and author of the book Ceremonial Violence, based on his study of school shooters. “You learn to express yourself with your weapons instead of your words.”

The public may soon hear from the family. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Randy told a neighbor that he has prepared a statement for possible release. Until that happens, though, the home life that helped shape Jared remains shrouded in mystery.

A former editor of Men's Journal, Claire Martin has written for Outside, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times magazine.

Masada Siegel was a field producer for CNN and Fox News Channel.  She is a contributor for The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and CBSnews.com, among other outlets.