01.07.13

The Trials of Nancy Lanza

Newtown’s first victim was overwhelmed raising a disabled son on her own—and may have begun teaching him to become independent. Diane Dimond reports new details from friends and police.

Nancy Lanza would have loved it. A twilight drive-by of her yellow colonial-style home in Sandy Hook, Conn., shortly after the New Year revealed a brightly lit Christmas garland over the front entrance and second-floor spotlights shining down on a snow-covered front yard. For a woman who adored decorating for the holidays, the sight would surely have made her smile.

But Lanza had been dead for nearly three weeks. The adornments she left behind continue to eerily appear each evening, apparently with the help of a timing device inside the sprawling four-bedroom, four-bath property.

Nancy Champion Lanza, 52, was victim No. 1 in a murderous rampage carried out by her troubled son, Adam, who reportedly suffered from severe behavioral disorders. Yet many news reports didn’t even bother to count Nancy in the death toll.

“Twenty children and six adults lost their lives as a gunman opened fire,” you heard over and over. In Newtown, church bells tolled 26 times in mourning; at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, where funerals were held for many of the victims, a Christmas tree with 26 tiny figurines still stands to the left of the altar. Yet the actual death toll in Connecticut that awful day was 28 if you count both Nancy and her youngest son.

So who was Nancy Lanza besides being the mother of a mass murderer? What was her life like as a single parent of two sons, one who needed round-the-clock attention? What did Nancy think during trips to the barber with Adam when stylists said he refused to speak to anyone and wouldn’t move until she gave specific commands? Could Adam’s condition have played a part in his parents’ separation in 2005 and their divorce in 2009?

The most disturbing questions have to do with the guns—perhaps as many as seven of them—stored in the Lanza basement in what has variously been described as a “lockbox” and as a simple “gun cabinet.”  Why would a mother, an intelligent former stockbroker, bring guns and large-capacity magazines into a home with a clearly disturbed 20-year-old son? Couldn’t she feel the potential danger as she replaced the guns in her basement storage spot after a session at the gun range with Adam? Nancy took Adam to the shooting range, friends have said, to teach him respect for guns. It seems to have been the sole activity where she and her son had a chance to bond—but in retrospect it was the worst decision of Nancy’s life.

When asked if Connecticut state police believe Mrs. Lanza handled her guns responsibly, spokesman Lt. Paul Vance paused for a moment behind his cluttered desk at state police headquarters and cryptically told The Daily Beast, “I think you’ll be surprised” to learn the truth about that once the final police report is released.

Many outstanding questions surrounding the Sandy Hook shooting may never be answered, but a clearer picture about Nancy Lanza’s life is beginning to emerge.

“She made it 50 million times harder on herself by taking him out of high school,” said a woman who knew Lanza and also has a son who suffers from an autistic disability. Nancy pulled Adam out of Newtown High School during his freshman year after an undisclosed dispute with the faculty and home-schooled him.

As part of the Lanzas’ divorce, Peter, a vice president at GE Capital, had paid off the mortgage and sent monthly support payments of about $12,500. Nancy certainly had the economic ability to bring in help for her son, but calls to six nearby facilities that offer special-needs programs to adolescents did not reveal any record that she ever did so. Adam had few, if any, activities outside his home and no friends.

At just 16, Adam began classes at Western Connecticut State University. “I know he went to college,” the mother of the disabled child told The Daily Beast, “But there was no interaction with kids his age there. That’s what he desperately needed … because he wasn’t intellectually disabled. His was a purely social disability.”

Like so many others The Daily Beast spoke with, this woman did not want her name revealed. In the twin communities of Sandy Hook and Newtown, which blend together where I-84 intersects with Rte. 34, there is a sad weariness and reluctance to openly talk about the Lanzas anymore. Few want their names attached to such a horrible story. But that doesn’t stop private conversations.

It is possible, according to people who knew Nancy, that she had convinced herself that everything would be all right because of Adam’s apparently high IQ. She surely took great pride in the fact that her 16-year-old son earned high marks at the university. His 3.26 grade-point average in classrooms full of 20-year-olds studying subjects like computer science, website production, and American history was impressive. As his aunt Marsha Lanza told reporters after the shooting, “He was a very, very bright boy.”

Book-smart, yes, but what parent could ignore the fact that their nearly six-foot-tall adult son weighed only 110 pounds? Who could overlook the fact, as Nancy recently told friends at My Place, her favorite watering hole in Newtown, that her son had begun to burn himself with cigarette lighters? According to one friend, Nancy worried that she had “lost control” of her child. Pal Rich Collins says Nancy doted on Adam but was terribly sad that her son never “hugged her back.” Like many mothers of disabled children who reach adulthood, she might have grown to fear her son on some level.

Nancy appears to have been the sole caretaker for Adam. There’s no indication he had any recent association with his father or new stepmother (Peter Lanza remarried in 2010). His older brother, Ryan, moved away a couple years ago to pursue a career with Ernst & Young in New York City. Besides suffering from what Nancy told a few friends was an autism condition called Asperger’s syndrome, Adam also was reported to have a rare disorder called congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA) that left him unable to feel pain, heat, or cold.

Dr. Felicia Axelrod, an NYU-based specialist in CIPA who was not involved in Adam Lanza’s care, says that diagnosis is highly unlikely. There are only about 500 CIPA patients in the world and Adam did not appear to display the symptoms: no self-mutilation scars on his lips, no apparent history of multiple bone fractures, no excessively dry skin. Anhidrosis is the body’s inability to sweat, and there have been no reports that Adam wore the mandatory thermal cooling jacket in summertime.

“I think it’s likely he had indifference to pain syndrome,” Dr. Axelrod said. “There is an important distinction. [CIPA] is an underdeveloped nervous system. The other is a brain problem, like Asperger’s is a brain problem.” Nancy may have chosen the shorthand label of CIPA for Adam as a way to say to school officials, “Please watch my son closely.”

Richard Novia, the former head of security at Newtown’s school district, says they did just that. Adam’s chart carried a “feels no pain” notation, and he was assigned a permanent school psychologist. But still, Adam would sometimes go into complete emotional shutdown. “He would have an episode, and [Nancy] would have to return to the high school and deal with it,” Novia said. Clearly, Nancy was on call 24/7.

Ryan Kraft, an older boy whose family still lives two doors away from the Lanzas, babysat Adam when he was 9 and 10. “His mom, Nancy, had always instructed me to keep an eye on him at all times and never turn my back or even go to the bathroom or anything like that,” Kraft told KABC-TV. “I found [it] odd … Looking back at it now, I guess maybe there was something else going on.”

“She is the tragic figure in all this,” says Dr. Joel Young, who practices adolescent psychiatry north of Detroit. He has closely followed news accounts of the case because so many parents of his Asperger’s patients have called to ask if their children are at risk of acting like Adam.

“I get the impression she was a very dedicated mom,” Young said during a telephone interview. “She didn’t work outside the home, she went to great lengths to home school her son … She kept a dignity about her son’s condition, only discussing his problems with a few people. Her life had to be very quiet and very painful,” Young said. “But she made one mistake; she brought guns into the home.”

Young is a 20-year-veteran of treating the psychiatric needs of children, adolescents, and adults. He suggests it’s very likely the Lanza’s marriage ended over how best to handle Adam. “There is definitely a higher divorce rate with those who have a chronically mentally ill person to take care of,” he said. Young cautions outsiders from making judgments. “It’s not necessarily poor parenting. She wasn’t a bad mother—the other son is normal—and he is not necessarily an evil dad either. It’s likely they were just unable to cope and to contain the problem.”

There are indications Nancy never gave up and continued to try to find ways to cope until the day she died by her son’s hand. It cannot be confirmed, but she had told friends she was planning an imminent move to either North Carolina or Washington state to enroll Adam in a university program for special-needs students. Her friend Ellen Adriani told The Daily Beast that Nancy had been teaching Adam how to cook the vegan food he liked. Adriani agreed it seemed Nancy was trying to teach her son to be more independent. Perhaps Nancy hoped for an independent life for herself too.

According to CNN, from Dec. 11 to 13 Nancy treated herself to a rare getaway. She traveled north on I-93 toward her home state and checked into the posh Omni Mount Washington Resort & Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, where “R&R Spa Packages” go for $249 a night. Hotel marketing manager Craig Clemmer says it is hotel policy not to discuss any guest’s past, present, or future stays.

If accurate, this trip and timetable introduces a potentially important element into the storyline. Were Nancy’s plans to move, coupled with her mini-vacation, the catalyst that made Adam snap? The dates are intriguing because Nancy’s return trip from New Hampshire would put her back in her own bed in Sandy Hook on the evening of Dec. 13. She was shot to death in that bed early the next morning.

“The humiliation of not fitting in your entire life can cause enormous built-up rage,” Young says. He believes that when you combine factors—Adam’s suspected Asperger’s, his obvious social anxiety and phobias, his inability to feel what others did—and “add in a ton of sexual frustrations he likely felt, which is age appropriate for a 20-year-old,” a profile begins to emerge. Young says, “From a psychiatric perspective … it could all add up to explain how he could have performed such a horrid act.”

There are unconfirmed reports that state police detectives are already poring over Adam’s psychiatric files; his mother’s medical records will be sought and studied too, according to Lt. Vance. Vance reveals that special investigative teams have been established to look into the provenance of the weapons, the Lanza’s damaged computers, the background of the shooter, and Nancy’s full history. “No stone will be left unturned,” Lance said.

Vance would not confirm reports from law-enforcement officials that Adam smashed his hard drive before the elementary-school massacre to cover up visits to pornography websites. Nor would he confirm that Nancy had gone away for two nights just prior to the shooting. He cautioned against taking too much of what has been reported as fact.

“I think we said [Nancy] was shot ‘multiple times,’” he said. Not four times? “I’d be careful on that,” he replied.

Question: Did Adam spend his time sequestered in two rooms in the basement? “No, No,” Vance said, shaking his head. “That’s just not right.”

Question: Did he play violent video games, as has also been reported? Vance “can’t say anything yet.” The forensic computer team continues to try to reconstruct Adam’s Internet footprint for clues to his thinking.

Question: Was Nancy a survivalist bent on stockpiling food and guns in preparation for economic collapse, as some media have alleged? To that, Vance scrunched up his face dismissively, shook his head, and in an exasperated tone  said, “I don’t even know where that came from.”

(The idea that Nancy might be a “doomsday prepper” was first mentioned by Marsha Lanza, who lives in Crystal Lake, Ill., and admits she hadn’t seen Nancy or Adam for years.)

Townspeople, mental-health officials, and others are anxious for answers and wonder when the police will finish their investigation. “I don’t want to seem insensitive,” Lt. Vance said. “But what’s the hurry? The most important thing we can do now is a thorough job. We want to give everyone a completed and thorough picture of everything. We don’t want to prolong the agony, but we have to do it right.”

Meantime, the home where Nancy saw her marriage collapse and then soldiered on raising two boys sits empty behind a gently sloping hill. A child’s fort is visible in the left side yard of the two-acre property, and tall trees stand as protective sentries in the background. Nancy Lanza is the listed owner of the home, and now it will, presumably, go to her surviving son, Ryan. His job as a tax senior for Ernst & Young requires him to travel extensively, so there’s no telling when Ryan, 24, might return to his childhood home. If he comes at night, his mother’s Christmas decorations may still be there to light the way.