Spotlight

12.17.12

Newtown, Conn., Struggles With Its Newfound Notoriety

The Connecticut town hadn’t seen a murder since 2005. Last month, a fatal skateboarding incident shocked everyone. Christine Pelisek on how residents are coping with their new infamy.

Less than weeks before Adam Lanza went on a rampage and killed 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the bucolic town of Newtown, Conn., was mourning the loss of an 18-year-old skateboarder. Christopher Mulligan was struck by a box truck as he attempted to cross a busy street on Nov. 28. His friends held an impromptu memorial at the local skate park to memorialize his young life, which was covered by local and state media.

Mulligan’s death was a rarity in this town of approximately 26,000, which is mostly known for its Friday night varsity football games and its yearly Halloween haunts on Main Street.

“It has been a really tough month for us,” 16-year-old Danielle Shine told The Daily Beast. “We have always considered our town very boring. The morning of the shooting we went into lockdown and the worst we thought was there was an animal in the building.”

Until now, murder was mostly unheard of here. The last reported homicide cases was in April 2010, when the skeletal remains of 32-year-old Elizabeth Heath, who had vanished without a trace in April 1984, were discovered hidden beneath the floor of a Newtown barn. Her husband, now 68, was arrested for her murder. According to the Newtown Bee, the couple was in divorce proceedings when Heath went missing. The trial is scheduled for sometime next year in a Danbury courthouse. Before that, the last murders occurred in 2005 and 1999. Both were solved.

“It is scary,” said Ellen Atkinson, 16. “Now it is known as a murder town.”

Indeed, Newtown is a town on edge. Helicopters fly over million-dollar homes and quaint churches. Police officers are posted at the town square, directing traffic away from the elementary school—and also stationed at the victims’ homes, so that the press will leave their families alone. When kids go back to school on Wednesday, most likely in a neighboring town, police officers will be there, too. Television crews and reporters make up the bulk of the pedestrians walking along the quaint downtown streets.

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Connecticut Gov. Malloy mourned Newtown victims Sunday night.

“You never expect to see the FBI in the town,” said 18-year-old resident Brian Kruger. “Our town has never seen anything like this.”

Everywhere you look is a reminder of the carnage that unfolded here. As you drive into the town center, white angels with white balloons attached, each representing a victim of the shooting, swing mildly in the rainy breeze. A gigantic Christmas tree looms over a makeshift memorial that includes dozens of teddy bears, balloons, candles, flowers, and cards. Covering the front door of a home is a banner that reads: “God Bless Sandy Hook.” A sign on a store reads: “Hug a teacher today.”

On Sunday, a bomb threat at St. Rose of Lima Church, where eight of the children who were killed in the shooting attended, forced an evacuation during morning services. A SWAT team converged on the rectory, which is less than a mile from the town square.

“This brings us back to a 9/11 feeling,” said Newtown resident Lyn Chatham.

Police believe Lanza, a tall and scrawny former Newtown High School student, killed his 52-year-old mother, Nancy, and then drove her car about two miles to Sandy Hook Elementary. There, using a Bushmaster .223 semi-automatic rifle with an extra magazine attached, he committed one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.

Eight boys and 12 girls between the ages of 6 and 7 and six adult school employees, including the principal, were killed. Most of them were shot multiple times, some of them at close range as they sat in their classrooms.

Police said when they found Lanza dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head in one of the two classrooms he targeted, he still had many more live rounds with him, and the carnage could have been even worse.

“This brings us back to a 9/11 feeling.”

At a press conference on Sunday, Connecticut State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance said four weapons, including two handguns and a rifle, were recovered at the school, and each weapon had multiple magazines with “hundreds of bullets.” At the home he shared with his mother, investigators found more guns. They also found a videotape of Lanza shooting guns with his friends.

Vance said police still don’t have a motive for the shooting. It’s “going to take many, many man hours to attempt to draw this picture, to put this puzzle together,” Vance said.

“For us to be able to give you the summary of the motive, we have to complete the investigation,” he said. “We have to have the whole picture to say how and why this occurred. There are weeks worth of work left for us to complete this.”

Vance said his office has executed a number of search warrants and is currently analyzing a “great deal of evidence.” Along with the known survivors that were injured but survived, Vance said they will most likely have to interview some of the children.

Police and locals are still trying to figure out why. Vance said the guns, which were reportedly owned by Nancy Lanza, who divorced Lanza’s father in 2008, are an important focus of their attention. Part of the investigation will focus on where the guns were purchased and if Lanza was a regular at the local shooting ranges or attempted to purchase any weapons prior to the shooting. Another main focal point of the investigation is Lanza’s relationship with his mother, a gun enthusiast who allegedly took her two sons to shooting ranges.

But one of the biggest questions that remains is how Lanza chose his target. Could the school have been in his sights because it was close to his home and had no security presence—like the high school, which has an onsite resource officer?

“In 2010, when he was a senior at high school, he would have known there was a security force on duty at the school,” said John Voket, associate editor of the Newtown Bee. “That could have been a deterrent.”

Friends and schoolmates of Lanza, who may have had Asperger’s syndrome or another developmental disorder, remember him as a quiet, shy kid who had a hard time connecting with others. “I knew him as the kid who walked around with a briefcase,” said Brandon Logel, who went to Newtown High School with Lanza. “He had a hard time socializing with people. He really couldn’t connect with other kids.”

Now he will be forever known as a mass murderer.

“We don’t know why this happened,” said a local, R.J. Shine. “The only person who has an answer put a bullet in his head.”